Can you imagine disowning your parents because you think you can do better?
What about disowning your kids because you “just weren’t compatible with each other”? After all, our relationships with our family are such an essential component of our lives. Doesn’t it make sense to carefully pick and choose exactly the right parents, children and siblings who fit what we are looking for? Why should we simply sit back and accept things the way nature’s lottery handed it out?
If this idea strikes you as insane, repulsive and idiotic, you’re not alone. I agree with you wholeheartedly. We may be able to pick and choose our friends, but they rarely ever become as close to us as our family does. People consistently rate their family members as the most treasured people in their lives, much more so than their friends. In study after study, family ties are consistently shown to be deeper, stronger and more valuable than friendships.
But you don’t need studies to tell you that. We all know it in our hearts. We all know the feeling of intimacy and love that we feel for our family. Exasperating and maddening but love nonetheless. We know that when the time comes, we are perfectly willing to take a bullet for our families. How many of us can honestly say the same about our friends. We’ve all heard of politicians & business executives who stepped down so they can spend more time with their families. Where are all the politicians who resigned so they can hang out with their friends?
This all feels perfectly natural, but why is it so? How is it that parents and children, complete strangers whom nature threw together, can develop such a close bond that even our closest friends in the world cannot achieve?
We don’t love our family because they are charming, beautiful, intelligent or witty. We don’t love them because they are fun to be around, or because they make us happy. All those things are bonuses, but never the cause.
We love them because of the shared experiences that we’ve gone through together. We love and accept them simply for who they are.
We never ask whether we can do better. We never ask whether we should look for someone else with better “compatibility”. We never entertain the thought of leaving them if they don’t make us happy or live up to our disney fairytale of what a family should be like. We don’t stop talking to each other simply because we have nothing in common to talk about, nor do we stop seeing each other just because we moved somewhere else. We simply accept each other for who we are, love each other regardless, and find a way to maintain that bond.
If all this sounds obvious, let me get to the point: Why don’t we practice this same unconditional love and acceptance with the most important person in our family: our spouse?
Over the past century, our society has grown & improved in almost every regard but one. Marital success. We spend more and more time putting off marriage until everything is perfect. We date more and more, in the hopes of finally meeting that one special person. We extend our courtship period to multiple years, so that we can know each other inside and out before finally making that commitment.
And yet, despite all this, our divorce rates are higher than they have ever been. One in two marriages conducted in America today eventually end in divorce; twice the rate that it used to be in the 1950s. Marital studies show that even among the fewer couples who actually stay together, the average married couple today is less satisfied than the average married couple from decades past. If we’re more careful than ever before when it comes to marriage, why is the institution of marriage still crumbling all around us?
The answer that I’m going to put forth: Unconditional acceptance. Or rather, the lack of it.
In the old days, it used to be that spouses viewed each other the same way we view our parents or children. Life partners whom we love and accept, for better or worse, till death do us part. But at some point in the past few decades, that changed. We no longer simply accepted our spouses for who they were. We expected great things from them. We expected them to be our soulmates. We expected them to set our hearts on fire. We expected them to make us feel like teenagers swooning over our first crush. We expected them to give us a fairy tale marriage, complete with tiaras and glass slippers.
And when that doesn’t happen… when things get mundane or problematic… when life becomes life… we decide to go our separate ways and find that one magical person who can make everything sparkle once again.
To put it in a nutshell, we stopped treating our spouses as family and started treating them as friends. And the results speak for themselves. Soaring divorce rates. Falling marital satisfaction. The new normal of single parent households. Whatever it is we’ve started doing, it is simply not working. And yet, we keep coming back for more.
I can certainly sympathize that some marriages are indeed toxic, and it’s good that our society offers those people a way out. Infidelity and abuse are unacceptable, and no one should have to live with that.
And yet, there has to be so much more that can be done. There are children who are taken away from their abusive parents for their own safety, and there are certainly adults who cut off contact with their parents due to deep childhood scars. However, these exceptions remain simply that: exceptions that arise only in extreme cases. Exceptions that prove the rule.
For the most part, we accept our parents, children and siblings without question. We spend the first two decades of our lives living with strangers whose home we happened to be born into. And the next two decades of our lives living with other strangers who happened to be born into our home. And these strangers end up forming the bedrock of our lives. Our most treasured relationships. The people we would fight and die for, however flawed and imperfect they may be.
Perhaps it’s time we extended this same love to our significant others. For better or for worse. Till death do us part.
NYTimes: Why you will marry the wrong person