Tag Archives: Sociology

The Marriage Paradox

dead rose by wolfman570

(Image/wolfman570 – Flickr)

They had a chance encounter on 5th Avenue in New York City.

The boy and the girl in the movie I was watching.

They were two old friends who crushed on one another growing up together in Texas. He was an aspiring novelist attending the University of Texas. She was going to Yale, after abandoning her childhood dreams of being a creative artist.

They reconnected over dinner and drinks, catching up from the years apart.

He was a dreamer. And his hope and optimism was contagious and inspiring. His belief in her and encouragement to chase her dreams moved her. It made her feel good. She was in love.

In a later scene, we see the young woman having dinner with her mother, where she reveals her plans to leave Yale, return to Texas to attend the University of Texas, and marry this boy from back home.

Her mother was mildly amused, but mostly incredulous and discouraging.

“Keep seeing him if you have to. Live with him. I don’t care, but don’t marry him,” the mother said. “I understand what you see in him. I get it. I do. He’s the opposite of your father. He’s a romantic. But he’s also very fragile. I saw that when his father died.”

She paused for a moment, accepting her daughter’s angry glare.

“Don’t do this. You’ll regret it and you’ll only hurt him in the end. What you love about him now, you’ll hate about him in a few years. You may not realize it but you and I are a lot more alike than you think.”

“You’re wrong,” the daughter said. “You and I are nothing alike.”

“Really? Just wait,” the mother said. “We all eventually turn into our mothers.”

Why Do We Marry?

The first time, I mean.

Is it because we love someone so much that we can’t stand the idea of living without them?

Is it because we love how they make us feel? Or how we feel being seen together?

Is it because we love what they do for us? What they provide?

Is it because we want to have children, and we identify who we think will make the best mother or father to our future kids?

Here’s what I feel sure about: Pretty much NO ONE gets married, spends a lot on the wedding, pools their financial resources and material possessions, and has children together with the intent or expectation that it’s going to end in horrible pain, and potentially cost a lot of money, and in the BEST of cases, costs half of your children’s lives, and in the WORST, costs much more time than that OR involves unsupported parenting to children whose other parent is almost never around.

The most generous divorce stats say that marriages end about 40 percent of the time, but I still like to say marriages fail “half the time,” because it feels truer and because I don’t think marriages are successful simply because two miserable people who hate or cheat on one another haven’t technically divorced.

Therapist Lesli Doares said it best during my first interview with her on her podcast radio show, discussing HuffPost content. I’m paraphrasing, but she said something like: “They have a section for Weddings and a section for Divorce, but there isn’t any information about actual marriage.”

Even the most beautiful, inspiring and successful marriages feature two people who will be sure to tell you how hard it is: “It wasn’t always easy! We didn’t always like each other, but we always loved each other!”

WHY DO WE MARRY?

We mostly suck at it. It’s mostly hard. So, why?

What other Important Life Thing do we collectively fail at more than marriage?

Another Tragic Ending

More time passes for the young couple in the movie I’m watching.

After a few years together, the lustful, feel-good stuff had disappeared, and her husband hadn’t written the next Great American Novel and she started to lose faith in him. She started pushing him to go back to school to study something more financially sustainable.

After growing up in a wealthy family and unquestioned financial security, she was dissatisfied with the couple’s humble apartment. She wanted more. And she was afraid she’d never have it if she stayed married.

Her: “You have to realize this isn’t working. We’re not right for each other. I wish we were, but we’re just not.”

Him: “What do you mean, we’re not right for each other? We’re perfect for each other.”

Her: “No. We’re not. We would be if we didn’t live in the real world. I need a life that is more structured and I need a future that is more structured. I want to be the person that you want me to be but I just can’t.”

Him: “But you are. You are. Just stop.”

Her: “I really wanted to be this person that you thought I was. I really did, but I’m just not that person. I just don’t have your kind of faith in things. I’m cynical. I’m pragmatic. I’m a realist.”

Him: “No, you’re just afraid. We’ve been through this so many times.”

Her: “No, I’m not scared. I’m unhappy. I’m just really, really unhappy.”

Later, she meets a guy in one of her grad school classes and develops a close enough relationship with him to ask him to drive her to an abortion clinic where she terminated an early pregnancy she hadn’t yet told her husband about.

We see the crying, confused, scared young woman, wet from the rain, clinging to this other guy while sitting inside his parked car outside of the clinic.

And then through the windshield, we see the husband, headlights shining on him, standing in the rain, taking in the moment, and his wife sees him, and cries even more.

End of scene.

End of marriage.

The Paradox: Because We’re Human

Some people believe the easy answer is to simply not get married and discourage others from doing so. Great. Have fun with that.

I admit to being as cynical about marriage as I’ve ever been, but I still believe the world needs marriage.

And even if you disagree, I hope I can appeal to your inner-pragmatist, because regardless of how good of an idea you consider it to be, 95 percent of adults are either married, formerly married, or plan on marrying in the future. The simple math is that almost everyone gets married anyway.

But why?

Everyone will have their own individual reasons for doing so, but I think the simplest explanation is that everyone thinks they’re supposed to.

I think the majority of people in the world do almost everything they do because that’s what they believe they’re supposed to be doing.

From our earliest memories, we saw married people, families, or young people dating and exploring the possibility of marriage. We see those same stories play out in novels, on TV, and in music.

And marriage crosses religious and cultural boundaries, so we see it everywhere. All over the world, you’ll find countless examples of two people who felt attraction for one another (or part of an arranged marriage) and now live in a committed partnership that both people expect will last the rest of their lives.

People get married because, for them, getting married is a personal goal.

People get married because they want to have a family and believe that’s best accomplished with marriage as a foundation.

People get married because they feel social pressure to do so.

People get married because they’re afraid of being alone.

People get married because they believe sex outside of marriage is a sin and they REALLY want to have sex and not feel shitty about it.

People get married because they want a financial partner.

People get married because they want to be with someone who makes them feel safe, or special, or a bunch of other good things.

And, of course, people get married because they love someone more than they love themselves and crave the opportunity to love that person every day for the rest of their lives.

Why do people get divorced?

Because their expectations weren’t met.

Someone broke a promise, or someone FELT like a promise was broken.

Two people failed to communicate in ways the other person could understand well enough to adjust whatever behaviors or mindsets needed changed in order to save it.

Because their feelings changed. About their spouse, or maybe about someone else they should have never gotten so close to, or maybe just about themselves.

People get divorced because they were dishonest with themselves before and during marriage.

People get divorced because human emotion is very powerful, and we pursue what feels good and avoid what feels bad, which means our marriages are screwed once bad feelings seep in.

People get divorced because of hedonic adaptation. That’s the psychological phenomenon we experience when awesome things stop feeling awesome once we get used to them. Hedonic adaptation is why we get sick of eating the same foods even if they’re delicious, or hearing the same songs even if they’re amazing, or why we feel dissatisfied with our homes, cars, clothes, paychecks, and everything else as we get used to them.

The people who made us feel the best we’ve ever felt stop making us feel that way. Because they change AND we change.

The people who made our bodies tense, our hearts race, our privates scream to touch theirs… they become the people that bore us sexually.

Maybe because of emotional reactions to their behaviors. Or maybe just because we’ve known them long enough. You know the phrase: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”? I’m pretty sure that was coined by someone who never got tired of having sex with the same person because of how rarely he or she got to see them.

People get bored and angry and disappointed and resentful and ashamed and feel shitty. About their partners. But maybe mostly about themselves.

It’s so hard when you realize you’re not the person you wanted to be and your life hasn’t turned out the way you’d expected.

It’s so hard when you wake up in a shit-festival of a marriage, and your life doesn’t feel like your own, and Jack and Nora are sharing their amazing-looking photos from another fucking vacation where everything about the photos represent everything your life is not.

It’s so hard when you see people in love on TV, while your spouse ignores you but lights up for other people. It’s so hard when you hear about good things happening in your friends’ marriage when your spouse is ignoring you sexually in favor of late-night internet porn or romance novels and detachable showerheads.

It’s so hard being an adult.

Because you thought you’d wake up one day and FEEL like how you imagined all the adults to feel when we were kids. When we’d finally have our hormones under control, and mature into the kind of person who always did the right thing and made a lot of money and could buy and do anything we wanted.

It’s so hard being an adult because it’s so damn disappointing when you realize you made all that shit up in your little-kid head and none of the adults actually knew what they were doing either. They just faked it the best they could for our sake just like we’re doing now for our kids.

We tried the best we could to be who we thought we were supposed to be.

So we got married. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

But there was so much we didn’t know.

Like how this thing that was supposed to make us feel good could make us feel so bad.

We didn’t know what we wanted back then isn’t what we’d want later. We didn’t know people would start acting differently. We didn’t know the holidays wouldn’t feel like they did when we were kids. We didn’t know how to imagine life without the people who die, or move away, or just stop calling.

We didn’t know so much would change.

We didn’t know so much could change.

People don’t know what to expect.

We say “I do” with the best of intentions only to realize everything we signed up for is some bullshit we don’t actually recognize. Because our partners have let us down. Or because WE let us down.

People don’t know HOW to be married when they decide to get married.

But maybe we can change that.

With so much at stake, I think we have to try.

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Do People’s Feelings Matter? That Depends.

Plutchik-wheel-591x270

I once wrote that feelings are bullshit.

Except I wrote it more dramatically: “Feelings. Are. Bullshit.”

That probably seems rich coming from a guy who frequently writes emotion-based stories and whose only success as a blogger has come from a series of posts validating emotionally damaged wives’ feelings and warning husbands to ignore them at their peril.

Because of a technical glitch, an 18-month-old post titled Love is a Choice was re-posted to my Twitter feed over the weekend after making a small edit to that post and hitting the Update button.

A reader saw the tweet, read the post which included my “Feelings are bullshit” claim, and asked a challenging, but fair question: “Matt. I just read your post on ‘Love is a Choice.’ Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

Human emotion is a fascinating and complex thing.

I don’t think I need to rattle off the litany of wars, romances, terror attacks, artistic creations, revolutions, epic social or cultural changes, marriages, divorces, friendships, or nearly every single notable thing that’s ever happened, instigated by human emotion.

By day, I am a marketing professional.

As everyone in this profession or who has watched Mad Men knows, connecting with consumers emotionally is the ultimate key to getting them to take desired actions.

In most respects, emotion drives our choices and dictates how we feel at any given time.

Emotional bonds change everything.

They’re the difference between some stray animal, and a beloved pet that becomes part of the family.

They’re the difference between a random adult and child, and an adoring father and son.

They’re the difference between two strangers walking by one another on a crowded street, and those same two people sharing beds and homes and lifetimes after meeting and connecting.

“Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

What I Meant

Despite my affinity for the written word, some conversations are best had in person, because in a rapid exchange of information, clarity and understanding can win the day.

In this case, I can understand how my “Feelings. Are. Bullshit.” declaration could cause some bristling and heartburn.

I’ll try to be clearer.

Because how people feel dictates their entire human experience—literally determines whether them being alive is a positive or negative experience—considering the feelings of those around us when we say and do things is what separates the dicks from the conscientious. People who suck from people who are cool.

“But wait a minute, Matt. Are we REALLY responsible for how OTHER PEOPLE FEEL? Is it REALLY our problem or responsibility?”

I’ll be on both sides of this argument for the rest of my life, depending on the situation.

While I’m a MAJOR free speech and anti-censorship advocate, I applaud the State of South Carolina for pulling the Confederate flag from government property.

I don’t know whether this is fair or not (and fairness REALLY matters to me), but I simply give a MUCH LARGER shit about the feelings of black Americans who view that flag as a symbol of racism and oppression than I do about the feelings of southern whites who see it as an important symbol of their heritage.

To demonstrate the depths of my hypocrisy, I’m a Cleveland Indians fan, and much like Washington Redskins fans, and fans of other sports teams which use Native American names and symbols as mascots, I make the same argument as the rebel flag supporters about keeping the teams’ names and mascots as is. I find it unreasonable to suggest that because I root for my favorite baseball team, I am somehow mocking or belittling the heritage of a particular group of people, or that I’m insensitive to the atrocities they suffered centuries ago.

I imagine some people flying the Confederate flag feel exactly like that.

I don’t know.

But I do know that how people feel is at the very heart of both debates. And that there doesn’t always appear to be a clear-cut right or wrong thing to do.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that I am RESPONSIBLE for another person’s emotions. I can write a sentence or a blog post, for example, that will yield dramatically different responses.

I recently wrote a post joking about a drunk guy inappropriately touching women at a party one night several years ago.

Some people thought it was hilarious.

Others thought it was serious subject matter, and that my tone and treatment of the story was in poor taste.

Am I responsible for those emotions? I don’t know.

This is Why Husbands Have So Much Trouble with Emotion

Emotion and human behavior is not one-size-fits-all. Everyone is different.

But I believe that men share many traits with the vast majority of men, and women share many traits with the vast majority of women. And I believe that allows us to make generally true statements about how the two genders behave.

To that end, how women feel will often be the ultimate factor in whether a marriage lasts, whether a couple is sexually active, and whether children grow up with divorced parents.

And on paper, I might agree with a guy who says that’s too much power for his wife to wield, and inherently unfair, as she accepted him as a young man, and then rejected him later when her wants and needs changed after years of marriage and raising children.

But life isn’t on paper. Not the nitty-gritty human relationships, anyway. Those are on the front lines of the human experience.

And if a husband listens to his wife’s cries for attention and pleas for help and begging for changes that will allow her to feel emotionally safe and secure, and ignores them, or tells her “Sorry! I’m not changing!” then he gets what he deserves when she inevitably leaves, and increases the odds of infidelity about 14 trillion percent.

The reason men are so cavalier about their wives’ emotions is that they literally don’t know. Most men NEVER feel as their wives do, but more importantly, the story of why their wives feel that way doesn’t register with them because it seems totally insane to a man that X caused Y. X didn’t even faze him, so it doesn’t make sense that THAT is the reason she’s hurt and crying right now.

Most men don’t realize that their wives and girlfriends are fundamentally different than them. But men DO understand emotional pain. It’s just triggered by different things. If you find a man who has experienced intense emotional pain, and you can clearly convey that this other thing made the women in their lives feel the exact same type of intense pain, THEN it will finally click in his brain.

At least, that’s what worked for me.

So, Wait. When Are Feelings Bullshit?

Glad you asked.

Feelings are bullshit when you exchange wedding vows and promise forever, and then use negative feelings about the relationship later as a reason for ending the marriage, only to go out, start a new relationship and repeat the cycle all over again. Because (with the exception of abuse, addiction, cheating, and other dysfunctional horribleness) the cycle WILL repeat all over again.

There are no such things as perfect relationships.

They say marriage is hard work BECAUSE of all the times that are hard.

Sometimes drivers next to us make us want to run them off the road.

Sometimes people who disagree with us on emotional matters make us want to punch and scream.

Sometimes we wake up in the morning and don’t feel like working out, or going to our jobs, or paying bills.

Sometimes people are MADLY in love with someone, and then hate them a week later.

Sometimes our kids make us so angry that we wish they weren’t with us. Usually, within five minutes, or just one really nice hug, we’re back to being totally smitten.

Feelings are VERY fickle things. Constantly changing. Thus, dangerous things to put in charge of everything that happens.

People do drugs and drink excessively because it feels good.

Married people fuck people they’re not supposed to because it feels good.

Parents neglect their children because they don’t feel like taking care of them.

Human emotion? Particularly in our close, personal relationships? They are one of the most important things for us to monitor and manage. Absolutely.

But sometimes?

When we have responsibilities? When we feel tempted or lazy? When we’ve made promises?

Doing what we, in our dumbest, weakest human moments, feel like doing is just about the worst idea imaginable.

“Do you still feel this way about feelings?”

I didn’t explain myself very well the first time. And maybe I didn’t this time.

But, the answer is: yes.

I do.

Sometimes what we choose to do is infinitely more important than what we feel like doing.

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Thermometers vs. Thermostats: You Don’t Have to be a Bystander

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

(Image courtesy of iowa.gov.)

The black smoke was unmissable against the stark gray backdrop of winter.

Something on the back of an RV had caught fire while parked at an interstate travel plaza and rest stop just outside Elkhart, Ind., which is—ironically—where most RVs are manufactured.

I stopped the car and pulled out my phone, called 911, then hit record to capture video of the burning RV. I figured the explosion would be awesome if the fire reached the gas tank. A handful of cars pulled over too and the other travelers joined my gawking. Why do we like to watch things burn?

“God, I wonder if the owner knows their vehicle is on fire?” I asked.

Everyone around me shrugged.

And then it dawned on me that someone might be inside. Seemed unlikely. But possible.

“No one’s in there, right? Could someone be sleeping or showering?”

More shrugs.

I took a step toward the burning RV. Then hesitated. Then stopped.

Naw. They’re totally inside the building grabbing food or a cup of coffee…

I kept filming.

Minutes later, the fire trucks arrived, sirens screaming. And that’s when I saw it. Movement in the RV’s windows.

An elderly couple stepped off their RV—the combination of smoke filling up their RV and the sound of emergency workers pulling up next to them had woke them from an afternoon nap in the RV’s bedroom.

I took a deep breath and made eye contact with the guy next to me. I could see the same look in his eyes I must have had in mind.

“Oh my God. There were people in there.”

They lived.

What was presumably their home away from home burned to the ground in front of them. A total loss.

But one thought haunts me: What if they hadn’t woke up?

And I just stood there.

Doing nothing.

We Are Often Thermometers

It’s called the “bystander effect.” It’s a sociological phenomenon researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley observed and studied in the late 1960s and wrote about in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?.

Sociologists say the presence of other people creates a “diffusion of responsibility.” It means people feel less pressure to take action since the responsibility to do so is now shared among everyone present.

But we also feel a need to behave in “correct and socially acceptable ways.” When others around us are doing something or not doing something, our brains take it as a signal that a similar response is most appropriate.

In other words, we often act like thermometers. We simply reflect the current temperature of our surroundings. As thermometers, we have no other function.

We Should Be Thermostats

I was listening to the guys at Inspiring Awesome talk about this. Thermometers versus thermostats. I liked the metaphor.

A thermostat ALSO can tell you the current temperature. But more importantly? It can serve as a change agent. If something is wrong? If something needs fixed or adjusted? The thermostat can begin the process of making things what people want or need them to be.

I just stood there. Being one of those assholes with a video camera even when a little voice inside me was telling me there was a chance lives were at stake.

But I didn’t step up.

What if they had died in there?

Another time, there was an 80-foot tree in our back yard with a failing root system. My neighbor told me they had spent years trying to convince the previous owner of my house to have the tree removed. I didn’t want to spend $2,000 to have it removed, so much like the former homeowner, I did nothing.

One night, a large storm system that days earlier had been a Gulf of Mexico hurricane blew into our neighborhood.

Tropical storm-force winds blew down the massive tree. A couple neighbors saw the giant fall. I felt the impact sitting on my living room sofa. When I ran to the back window, I saw it laying across our back yard, a totally destroyed garage beneath it.

But that’s not the important part.

The important part is that we had our three-month-old son sleeping in our upstairs bedroom. And I lose my breath every time I think about the wind blowing in his direction that night.

Because of a couple thousand dollars.

Because of apathy.

Because of carelessness.

We are so careless. With our health. Our safety. Our hearts. Our human relationships.

We are often thermometers. Just people getting caught up worrying about what other people think.

But we should be thermostats. Change agents. People who do something because something needs done. Because something can be done. And we can do it.

That family stranded on the side of the road with their vehicle hood open needs help.

That person sitting alone might want someone to say hi.

I don’t want to make any more stories about that time I could have done something.

Things DO NOT have to be this way.

Don’t wait for the person next to you to start running toward the fire. Just start running.

Maybe they’ll come too.

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