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No Marriage Is An Island

July 30, 2013

Many couples today try to do the impossible. They come into my office wanting me to fix their issues – money arguments; infidelity; fights that become about the fight. But often they have a fatal flaw, and then I feel like they’ve come to ask me to help them rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

This is because they’re trying to conduct a successful relationship in a vacuum. But no happy marriage is an island – nor is any romantic relationship for that matter. A healthy coupling takes love, but love is never enough. It takes that, and work, and a village as well.

I learned this lesson the hard way myself.

I was in my twenties, and Debby and I became a thing. Because of what was happening in my life at the time, I lost one friend after another. Soon, Debby became not only my girlfriend, but my best friend (and one of my only friends), also my chief confidant, and my major source of social support. Finally she did what many women have come to do with such men – she dumped me. I had simply become too dependent on her.

But the whole story is that she also had become pretty dependent on me as well. This often left me feeling claustrophobic at times, but without the wherewithal to periodically take some space, for if she would ever get mad at me for doing so, I’d suddenly feel utterly alone in the world.

I came to refer to what we had as an “A-Frame relationship” – when each side completely leans on the other and cannot stand on its own.

When Debby finally found the strength to leave our stagnant structure, I fell to pieces.

After this I realized that having my own support system, be it family, friends, therapist, or a peer support group, was fundamental to what I brought to the table. Otherwise, I was not so much asking a woman to enter a relationship with me, but an enmeshment, a symbiosis.

Which is exactly what so often passes for a relationship these days.

It shocks me that with all the books, websites, blogs and talk shows out there offering couples advice, few if any ever mention this crucial point. For thousands of years it was always the community at large – the tribe or extended family, the neighbors (indeed the whole neighborhood) along with friends at the marketplace or the workplace, as well as the local spiritual leader and the congregation at large, that provided the social safety net to catch a couple when they were in danger of falling apart. But these days this fact gets discarded along with yesterday’s landlines.

Men especially are subject to ignoring this fundamental need for a support system, perhaps because we are more socialized to go it alone, and not value our male friends as much as women tend to value theirs. This is one reason that increasingly these days we see the woman ending things: All too often she has leap-frogged her mate in terms of growth, aided partially by the very support network he lacks.

And yeah—how many times have I said this? – we need our same sex friends the most, at least when it comes to sustaining a romantic relationship. It is they, generally speaking, that most reliably understand our needs and have our backs.

In America, and in her narcissistic brainchild New York, we live in a Cult of Individualism, and believe all I need is me…and money…and ways to improve myself. And oh yes – you. And ways to improve you.

We live to work, and love, and both takes up all our time.

Usually what happens when all one’s social needs get conflated into one person is such relationships go one of two routes: They either devolve into constant bickering and fighting – you-and-me-against-the-world usually becomes you-and- me-against-each-other — until one of them can’t stand it anymore, or the two people live unhappily ever after, stagnating together for decades, protecting each other from change. These are the stories you hear about when one partner dies, and the other follows within a matter of weeks or months. (Sometimes days).

Lately, Shelley has found a knitting circle, a feisty bunch of creative women who affirm her strong female essence. And I have my men’s team, my therapist, and my (mostly male) friends.

It can be a challenge in this world to find such support, but all I can say is, for us, and for the couples I work with, it works.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2013 11:25 pm

    I’m not convinced that couples necessarily need a village to survive or thrive. Historically, the independent nuclear family was the norm throughout most of European history. Only during the Victorian era did large extended families become more common among the working classes, due to greater prosperity. As for participation in their “congregations,” prior to the reforms of the 1960s, a good Catholic attended a mass spoken in Latin, a language he or she couldn’t even understand, and did not turn to kiss or shake the hand of his or her neighbor. The parishioner’s relationship was to God via the institutional hierarchy of the Church, not to his or her fellow parishioners, although charity was always a Christian virtue and donations welcome. Nonetheless, I agree completely that we would all be happier if we had richer, fuller social lives, and that particularly among the deracinated professional middle class, there is a ruthless isolation and lack of community, particularly in New York City, which is remarkable considering the large numbers of people who live so close to one another here. But as you point out, everyone is just too busy working and commuting. Although this is a remarkably narcissistic culture, I don’t know if narcissism explains our isolation, since the the narcissist can’t survive without the attention of others.

  2. August 21, 2013 5:42 am

    Hey Ed,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I like the phrase “ruthless isolation”.

    But I’d personally be more interested in your own personal experience with this topic.

    • August 21, 2013 7:48 pm

      I’ve never experienced anything like a “village” but my relationships have always been more like friendships–distinguished from other friendships by a high level physical intimacy and intensity, but still friendships–among other friendships. I would never sacrifice my friends for the sake of a relationship and my friends have always been important to me, though I find that as I get older it is more difficult to build new friendships, probably because everyone already has an established social circle, and some of the old friendships fade with time. But a small network of friends is not the same as a “village” or “community” and I’m not even sure I’d want to be part of a “village” or “community”–sounds oppressive to me.

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