Wherever I go, people ask me about the mental health implications of the dizzying array of ways that marriage and family is defined today. The diffusion in definitions of what constitutes a couple or family serves to make many questions more qualified and complicated.
Against this background, it is not surprising that, at the 2008 Limmud Conference last February, I was asked by a thoughtful young man what criteria I use to judge marital readiness.
Here's what I told him, and also what I didn't tell him:
It is very important to have a self and to know that self reasonably well. A great deal of marital conflicts arise when one person in the couple wants deeply to merge with the other, while the other does not view the deal in a way consonant with such profound dependency.That said, marriage is one of our culture's most significant vehicles for developing people psychologically and emotionally.
People enter into matrimony with unarticulated but salient personal goals as far as self-development goes. Having a self does not mean having a fully evolved or otherwise perfect self. Knowing that self means understanding one's strengths and flaws and being able to acknowledge them, see them in action and take responsibility for them. Honest dialogue is only possible if one knows oneself and can make that knowledge useful.
The new book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" (Harcourt, 2007) reviews a half-century of research in psychology and amply demonstrates that all humans overrate their memories and trust excessively their rectitude and judgment.
Heshbon ha nefesh, the Jewish idea of the self-accounting we do during the Rosh Hashanah season, if meaningful, depends on serious self-knowledge and self-confrontation. Given the dynamism between hard truth on the one hand and the defenses we form against it, self-knowledge is nothing one can take for granted. Often it is hard won. It has inestimable value when it comes to marital readiness.
So does the capacity for self-sacrifice, another cardinal criterion for marital readiness. It's the other bookend. Children need to be taught self-sacrifice, as a rule. While, like most traits, it varies from one individual to another, it ought to be evident once adulthood is reached. In marriage and family life, self-sacrifice is indispensable. Recently, much has been made in the press of a middle-aged man who, in a commencement address he gave in anticipation of his premature death, wished for the graduates that which he had found in life: A beloved whose interest he cared about more even than his own. His success at marriage is convincing because of the quality of his capacity for self-sacrifice.
Another important issue is self-regulation. How emotionally reactive are we, how inclined to "lose our minds"? People who have these difficulties have a tough time in long-term intimate attachments like marriage. It stands to reason that being able to regulate one's feelings so as to avoid extremes is enormously helpful when one faces daily life and its stresses while living with another person. Some people become volcanically angry or jealous in no time at all and act those emotions out impulsively, recklessly or otherwise foolishly. They scorch the earth of their relationships.
Others' difficulties with self-regulation become manifest in dependency on substances like alcohol, cocaine or food, or processes more insubstantial like gambling.
Good self-regulation shows itself in the moderation of emotional expression and the sense of being able to advance the interests of the self without undue inhibition.
Marital readiness also depends on having an escape rhythm from conflict in your customary dynamics with your partner:
- What is your style of bringing conflicts to a close?
- Are you able to return more quickly than your partner to soothing responses that can make him or her feel seen and heard?
- Are you the one who can apologize first -- and sincerely -- for misbehavior? Or perhaps you are the one who can come to observe a situation with some critical distance -- through commentary that captures the emotional essence of what is at stake for each of you with enough neutrality or fairness to win your partner's agreement.
Some people just need to work to acquire or hone these capacities; others already possess these gifts.
Doreen Seidler-Feller PhD, a clinical psychologist, has been in the practice of individual and couples therapy since 1975; she also teaches in the Department of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.