What Happens When Married People Discover That They Still Prefer Their Single Lives?
How might a person, married to someone they love and with whom they are happy, be unhappy being married? And how can they successfully address it?
Dawn, age 37, married Chris six years earlier after dating for a relatively short time. Her long-standing “desire” to be married was finally realized, and now she was a mother as well as a wife. However, in therapy, Dawn shared that while she loved Chris, she felt dissatisfaction with her marriage describing herself as feeling “hemmed in,” and “too accountable” to Chris.
Jack, a long-time bachelor in his early forties, married Melissa, a childhood sweetheart who had recently gotten divorced. His love for Melissa was strong, yet the marriage felt like it was “on the rocks” due to Melissa’s wanting to do “so many things together” making it hard for him to hang out with his buddies, golf on the weekends, and generally do his own thing.
As a way to understand their situations, we discussed the original motivation for each of them wanting to get married. This revealed some interesting information that shed light on their current difficulties. The term “married bachelor” and “married bachelorette” seemed to apply to each of them.
Dawn was raised by parents who believed that women needed to find security and stability that could only be realized by having a husband. Although her parents didn’t encourage her to pursue higher education and a career, Dawn became a successful college administrator with considerable autonomy and authority. Yet, her belief still remained that getting married was a necessary part of adult life and that remaining single, even if by choice, was socially unacceptable and would have her appear to be someone who was “unsuccessful,” and “undesirable.” Her later realization that she might have been happier as a single woman, while an important discovery, did little to help her now that she was a married woman with children.
Jack married his wife because he “loved her enough” and because “it was time to settle down” like so many of his friends. He, too, did not like being accountable for his whereabouts and having to compromise on matters ranging from where to live to where to have dinner.
Dawn and Jack were interested in continuing their relationships and having a family life and did not want a divorce. However, they still wished for a life more like the one enjoyed during their single years rather than the married ones.
Neither Jack or Dawn entered therapy because of this troubling dilemma, but both of them came to the realization that this was a major reason for their general unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lives. In the case of Jack, he believed that this was a major contributing factor to his struggles with depression throughout his marital life.
The challenge for both of them was to come to better terms with the reality of their situation and to make the necessary sacrifices, i.e. relinquishing some of the autonomy and freedoms they so cherished during the unmarried phase of their lives. Additionally, they both needed to determine how they could enhance their relationships to incorporate autonomy into the marital and family need for togetherness.
Like any attempts at meaningful change, coming to terms with this challenge was not easy for either of them. Fortunately, they were sufficiently motivated to work on the issues once they were able to see how much they were divesting—rather than investing—in their marital partnerships by constantly longing for the “good old days” of their single lives. They were able to become more devoted partners by working with their spouses to create occasional opportunities to spend time on their own. This enhanced the welfare of their relationship by incorporating the need for healthy autonomy for each partner. In addition, Dawn and Jack responded positively to the idea of “marital dating,’ wherein they undertook a revival of their marriages by courting their spouses which refreshed their relationships by adding an element of fun. They also benefitted by treating their marital relationships as something they did, i.e. an active experience, rather than something they had, which suggests passivity. They recognized that working on their relationships actually gave them a sense of increased autonomy and positive impact on their lives.
What might be the most important and influential idea here is that marital dissatisfaction – whether it is traceable to the relinquished freedom and autonomy of single life or to other factors – is a problem that can be successfully addressed and solved, rather than a condition that has to be unhappily and unendingly endured. Romantic partnerships, ideally, should be something that strengthens and deepens over time as long as reasonable effort and energy are devoted to ensuring it.