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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 12:12 am

You deserve a breakup today

PHOTO COURTESY AMY ALKON
Amy Alkon
I really appreciated your recent column about people who go through with getting married when they know deep down that they’re making a mistake. I’m reminded of the common societal admonishment against being a “quitter.” There’s this notion that you’re some kind of loser if you quit anything – even when logic tells you that you should bow out. This sort of absurd anti-logic is used (with the “marriage takes work” notion) to intimidate people into remaining in marriages that are total failures, which prolongs everyone’s suffering. – Been There

I’m not suggesting that couples should scurry off to divorce court at the first sight of a cloud on the marital horizon. But there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done. Couples need to consider whether it’s actually possible to work to make their marriage succeed or whether that would take them being two totally different and actually compatible people.

As for what “succeeding” in marriage means, let’s be honest: In modern society, we have a luxury we never did before – marrying for love and happiness. We then expect that these will continue to some reasonable (or sometimes unreasonable) degree. In previous centuries, sometimes you lucked out and got love in the marital package. But as marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out, for “thousands of years” – until the late 18th century – “marriage was more about property and politics than personal satisfaction.” Two people would get “betrothed” to each other as a way of brokering peace between nations or getting the money to keep land in the family (“marriage is between a man and a potato farm”).

Even so, human psychology doesn’t make it easy to extricate ourselves. Research by psychologist Elliot Aronson finds that we are prone to “self-justification” – believing whatever puts us in the best light. In other words, we are natural-born spin doctors, driven to protect both our ego and our public persona – to the point where our knee-jerk response when we fail at something is pretending we haven’t, to ourselves and everybody else.

There is a psychological tool you can use to combat this. It’s “self-compassion” – basically, when you’re going through a hard time, treating yourself as kindly as you’d treat someone else who’s struggling. Psychologist Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion, finds that an essential element of this is seeing your “common humanity” – meaning viewing yourself as part of a whole population of flawed, fallible humans.

This might help you look charitably on the concept of the “starter marriage.” This is a first marriage for a very young couple without kids or many assets that ends in divorce in five years or less. (These are people who went into marriage not knowing themselves or their partner all that well and not really understanding what marriage requires.) Still, older people, upon hearing about this newfangled “get out of jail free” card, will often grumble the marital version of “When I was your age, I crawled 20 miles to school over broken glass!”

But consider that this “starter marriage” concept is actually very helpful – right in line with the notion from self-compassion that you’re not alone in making mistakes. Understanding this can help you view your failures less as shameful embarrassments and more as learning experiences that you can use to make better choices in the future. Seeing failures in this more compassionate, positive light could also help you be a bit faster to admit when you’ve screwed up so you can move on. This is certainly preferable to just sitting there glumly mired in your bad choices like a little kid who peed his pants – and has to stay in those wet pants for the next 50 years, at which point somebody will throw him a big anniversary party to celebrate.

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