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Solo or Together? The Long Term Benefits

by Sharon Hargrave

Would you rather go to the movies with someone or by yourself? What about dinner out? Invite someone or not? Let's take it up a notch: your fifteen-year-old has a drug problem. Would you rather face this with someone who loves her too, or go it alone? How about the process of dying? Something you would like to do solo?

AND YET...we have a hard time staying married.

Statistics show that around 50% of all marriages end in divorce. And in case we believe people learn from their mistakes, the stats for remarriage are not on our side; sixty-seven percent of second marriages and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. Cue the definition for insanity.

Our Own Solutions

Many Americans are choosing to solve the marriage problem by not marrying at all or remaining single after divorce. As cited by the 2013 census data, 27% of Americans live alone. Problems related to marriage solved? Except that the World Health Organization reports that people who are single or divorced have a 2 to 4 times greater rate of depression. Doesn't make me want to sign up for being alone.

So let's try living together. With cohabitation, you don't have to live alone and you don't have to get married. Best of both worlds? This is a choice that has increased by more than 1500% in the last 50 years. But research tells us that people who cohabitate before marriage without commitment to the long-term relationship, are less happy in their marriages and more likely to part. And we also know that unmarried people who live together are now more likely to break up. You're back to being alone, but through the painful and stress-inducing process of disconnecting your life from your ex-partner. Problem, not so solved.

In his book, Going Solo, Eric Klineberg suggests that an increase of people living alone is actually better for society since these people tend to go out and interact with society more frequently. This, he attests, creates an environment of higher levels of interaction. My first objection is his suggestion that social interaction only happens if you go out. My second is his dismissal of social interaction in everyday life when you live with another. Today, for instance, my husband is at the grocery store after he finished doing some yard work while I write this article. We talked about the ideas that I had for the article at breakfast and he will probably read it when I am finished. The discussion over the article is a measureable social interaction. However, I would offer that the going to the grocery store and yard work is just as deep and rewarding of an interpersonal experience because of the care it shows for me. I am not sure these errands would be measureable in Klineberg's research, but they sure impacted me.

Marriage Revisted

When my husband and I married 35 years ago, he promised to love me and stay with me, in good times and bad. He told me that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me and we began to plan for our future together. There was something very comforting and very exciting about that promise. As a child, I had suffered several traumatic experiences; so the thought of having someone to go through the hard times with made my heart glad. It still makes my heart glad. Because of the permanence of the relationship, I know what it means to be loved deeply and I also know what it looks like to be able to trust.

So how do we restore this kind of love and trust in marriage? We first have to know what's getting in our way. I think we took a wrong turn when we began to believe that the only purpose of marriage is to make us happy. In other words, my spouses' job in life is to fulfill my every want and desire, to not get in my way, and to do everything according to the way I think it should be done. Then I will be happy!

Instead, I suggest a shift to believing the purpose of marriage is to make us better people not happy people, with the wonderful byproduct of understanding ourselves in a way otherwise impossible outside the commitment of marriage. The truth is, the things that hurt or bother our spouses about us in relationship are the exact same issues that push others away. In marriage, we have the opportunity to learn how we need to be in relationship to love others and draw them close. There is no better research lab.

In the marriage relationship, we have the person who has said I will stay with you for the rest of your life. That person has committed to us even though they know we aren't perfect and we have issues we are still working out. What could be a better place to learn about who we are and how we need to grow?

As a Marriage and Family Therapist for over 25 years, I can tell you that many people come to marriage therapy to learn about how they can help their spouse change. They are often surprised when I suggest that maybe both people in the relationship could make some changes. Usually when I suggest this, they tell me more stories about their spouse, as if one more story will get me on their side. Marriage is always about two people who need to learn to grow and change together.

A Spiritual Component

Growth in marriage is a deeply spiritual experience. Many verses in scripture tell us what we look like as we live in the newness of Christ. For instance, Colossians 3 tells us that we should be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. The passage goes on to tell us that we should be loving and forgiving. But if we are only compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient outside the people we live with 24 hours a day, we aren't abiding in Christ. We are only pretending.

Marriage can teach us how to step into the presence of Christ in a way that is radically transformative. With the patience and love of our partners we uncover our deepest pains and hurts, and we learn about what causes us to be destructive in the way we deal with conflict and life. When it doesn't go our way, and as we learn to accept the missteps of our partner in life, we begin to know what it truly means to put on the newness of Christ and to live as Colossians 3 tells us we can.

Strong and growing marriages are what builds love and trust. And this is not only for the couple, but also for their children, and their children to follow. Love and trust provide stable environments. Stable environments mean we live in healthy, supportive relationships.

I believe the key to turning the marriage statistics around is for us to begin to think about how we can grow. As we grow and become more like Christ, then everyone likes us better—our spouses, our kids, our friends and those we serve on a daily basis. Best of all, we even like ourselves more.