How do you and your spouse handle difficulties in your marriage?
I can still remember one of the most visually-effective points I've ever seen made by a professor. In my business school course on financial institutions, the professor was talking about a recent Wall Street scandal. He surveyed the usual horseshoe-shaped amphitheater, walked over to a student in the far left seats, and called on him to answer a question about the rogue trader who had taken some big gambles with his institution’s money–and lost a lot. The professor worked his way around the room as he called on students to discuss how the trader tried to make the lost millions back by gambling even more.
He wrapped up the discussion by asking how this talented, successful guy could have ever come to the point where he single-handedly lost hundreds of millions of dollars and almost bankrupted a famous financial institution.
Now standing by the students on the far right side of the room, he listened as several students vehemently argued that this guy was simply just a dishonest, bad person. It was clear that they simply couldn't comprehend how someone could have taken such a major leap.
The professor quietly asked, “Really? Was it a major leap? Or was it something else?” He looked for a moment at our confused faces. “Where was I standing when we started this discussion thirty minutes ago?”
The light began to come on as the professor emphasized, “I didn’t take any big steps, only little ones. So small that each step on its own seemed minor. But they got me to the same place – all the way across the room. It is that way in everything. If I don’t start out deciding that I will never leave that first spot, it is all too easy to find myself in a place I never thought I would be.”
I thought of his words often when I went to work on Wall Street myself. And now that I’m a social researcher, I see the same application everywhere when it comes to marriage and relationships.
Most recently, as I have investigated what people think about marriage, I have seen that our starting-point perceptions are absolutely vital to where we end up.
See, when we have difficulties in marriage, it is all too easy to get discouraged. And the longer the pain or conflict lasts, the easier it is to let some really worrisome feelings sneak in. Suddenly, without realizing it, we might subconsciously (or even consciously) wonder things like, Are we going to make it?
Once that question is asked, suddenly, the option exists: we may not make it. Somewhere, somehow, a door has been opened. We are working hard, but now we don’t know what the outcome will be. The national divorce rate (what we think it is, anyway), starts to loom large in our mind. If the pain doesn’t get better, it is only a short step to the question, If the ship is going to sink anyway, why bother working so hard to bail it out?
And from there it is an even shorter step to considering what would have been unthinkable when you got married. When you just want the pain to end, you may begin to reason that, After all, half of all other couples couldn’t make it either.
It is so seductively easy at that point to just give up.
In other words, you are now all the way across the room from where you started.
And it wasn’t just because of the painful problems in the marriage—it was because, without even realizing it, you internalized that divorce might happen to you. And all the other thoughts—and steps—followed.
One of the main reasons we even open the door to that possibility is that we believe the dangerous myth that half of all marriages end in divorce. So it dramatically changes our perspective when we realize that the vast majority of marriages are strong and happy for a lifetime. I've been investigating this for eight years for my book The Good News About Marriage, but the bottom line is that the actual divorce rate is probably less than half of what people think it is.
In other words, knowing that most people never move from the place they started makes it a lot easier for us to do it, too.
So don’t believe the lie that half of all other marriages couldn't make it either. And when you are in a difficult season in your marriage, think to yourself, “Yes, this is painful, but most people get through this and out the other side—and we can too.”
Even better, decide that no matter what comes, that you’ll plant yourself firmly on one side of the room—and stay there.