5 Pieces of Bad Marriage Advice

Most of us grow up hearing little maxims and platitudes about relationships and marriage. You know what I’m talking about, things like “Love makes the world go around.” Or “All you need is love.” Etc. Some of the things we hear about marriage are even more specific and repeated so often that it’s rare to hear them challenged at all. These are what I want to address in this article. The following are some of the culturally accepted truisms that need at best— a little unpacking, and at worst— a total debunking.

  1. Never go to bed angry with each other. Well, if it can be helped, of course not. But this is one of those tips that gets thrown out at a wedding reception by some wizened guest who thinks they’re being helpful. The poor newlyweds might go on to figure they ought to stay up, bleary-eyed and blue-in-the-face at 2 am trying to hash out a particular struggle… haunted by their wedding day advice! Not only do people process information at different paces, but receptiveness to a resolution is not something that can be tied to circadian rhythms. Sorry folks; we are much more complicated. And just like we see the funny memes about “Sorry for the things I said when I was Hangry”, people tend to deteriorate in their reasoning and emotional capacity when they’re exhausted. Don’t feel like you need to force a resolution, or even a conversation just because bedtime is coming up and you miss your Netflix buddy. While this advice is predicated on some good ideals, there is not some kind of moral failure if you are unable to make it happen. If the situation is volatile and you don’t see peace happening before the end of the night, make an agreement with each other to sleep on it and importantly, to resume the discussion at a particular time. Leaving the disagreement hanging open, ragged and angry, won’t do anyone any good. And don’t just sweep it under the rug either, just because it’s easier to not deal with it. (Spoiler alert: That rug dust will grow big and menacing!) But promising a specific time to try to reconnect, even if it has to be the next day or so, will help to shore up the feelings of abandonment or instability that can come from unresolved issues. Note that giving the silent treatment is a form of control and can be very manipulative. But silence, especially when agreed upon with parameters, can not only be acceptable in a relationship, but healing as well. Some things need time and space and to be sifted through internally before bringing it to the relationship table.
  1. Never fight in front of the children. This deserves some caveats. Yelling, name calling, undermining, and the like should not be happening, to be sure (in front of the children or not). But being open about things upon which you disagree is not only okay, but can actually be really helpful for children. Children who grow up seeing healthy disagreements come into their own adult relationships feeling like conflict isn’t something to be afraid of and that advocating for their own thoughts and needs is important. They will be better equipped to tolerate the discomfort that comes with disagreements without feeling threatened. Obviously, sensitive matters should be kept to the side; use discretion in what your children can handle. But disagreeing on things like house projects, social activities, or political situations can be material ripe with learning opportunities. The main prerequisite that must be stated here is that both adults need to be able to “fight fair” and respectfully. If that can be managed, discuss away!
  1. Your spouse should complete you. Um, False— with a capital letter. One of the biggest messages that needs to die a fast death in this culture is the idea that your “better half” completes you. There’s actually a term for this (you’ll learn it once you end up in couples’ counseling after practicing it) called enmeshment. A healthy marriage is made up of two healthy individuals. Not two people who are looking to one another for their identity and sense of self. Unfortunately, this is the message that Hollywood has given us (Think of Tom Cruise making all the girls swoon while watching Jerry Maguire when he emphasizes: “You complete me!”) and this is a common understanding that young people grow up with, much to their detriment once life gets hard and they’re forced to reckon with the awful position enmeshment puts them in. An excellent spouse will enhance you, but not complete you. 
  1. Marriage should be 50/50. I know this sounds reasonable. And I know the pious, superior response is sometimes quipped back: “Actually, marriage should be 100/100” meaning that both partners will be giving 100% to the relationship, 100% of the time. And expecting this to be true is to set yourself up for failure. There will be times when it’s really, really hard. And one of you is “trying” much more than the other. This can be due to a number of reasons like work stress, physical or mental illness, extended family issues and more. In a healthy marriage, each person tries to give the 100% when it’s possible. And if there are situations that are detracting from this (e.g. untreated depression or poor boundaries with in-laws), than those issues ought to be handled for the good of self and for the good of the other. Keeping tabs on how much one partner is investing in the relationship can breed bitterness and resentment. But it certainly won’t be 100/100 all the time. And not even 50/50 all the time. There will be seasons and shifts in what each can offer. Commitment is the key to weathering those shifts. Continuing to at least aim for a positive trajectory of consistent effort and attention will be what matters most.
  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While this might be true of some objects or machines, I have also cringed in hearing it as an excuse to not go to therapy. Couples counseling isn’t just for those in crisis, even if that’s a large percentage of what we see. Just like machines, preventative maintenance with the guidance of a therapist can be an extremely valuable investment in your relationship before it breaks down. A vehicle might not be “broke” with low tire pressure and an oil leak, but how much more satisfaction can be had with excellent gas mileage and an engine that purrs from the care of an owner who maintains it. With divorce ending the majority of marriages now, it takes a certain kind of arrogance to believe that you’ll just “happen” to be fine. Good marriages take effort, commitment, and work. Even if you don’t end up in the therapy office, making time for the relationship with dates and quality time, and checking in with each other regularly to communicate about various domains of your shared life is extremely important. 

Very few of us came into adulthood having attended classes on “Healthy Relationships 101” and the models of marriage around us may not have provided us a good template for long-term happiness and contentment. Being careful consumers of what adages or phrases get tossed around is just one way to make informed steps towards having a successful marriage. 

—Ellie Rose, MA LMHCA NCC