The Family Cycle: Euphoric and Dysphoric Phases in Marriage

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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The ancient institution of monogamous marriage is ill-suited to the exigencies of modern Western civilization. People of both genders live and work longer (which renders monogamy impracticable); travel far and away frequently; and are exposed to tempting romantic alternatives via social networking and in various workplace and social settings. As leisure time increases and physical survival is all but effortlessly guaranteed, recreation takes precedence over procreation.

 

Contradictory expectations from one’s intimate partner are unrealistic. No single person can be a passionate, exciting lover; an empathic, patient friend; a stalwart companion; a good father/mother, cook, and handyperson; an intellectual equal; an adventurer; a stable breadwinner; and myriad other functions besides. Hence the need to outsource and the recurrence of emotional and sexual affairs, the disruptive outcomes of overwhelming, all-pervasive ennui.

 

Thus, even as social monogamy and pair commitment and bonding are still largely intact and more condoned than ever and eve as infidelity is fervently condemned, sexual exclusivity (mislabelled “sexual monogamy”) is declining, especially among the young and the old. Monogamy is becoming one alternative of many lifestyles and marriage only one relationship among a few (sometimes, not even a privileged or unique relationship, as it competes for time and resources with work, same-sex friends, friends with benefits, and opposite-sex friends.)

 

The contractual aspects of marriage are more pronounced than ever with everything on the table: from extramarital sex (allowed or not) to pre-nuptial agreements. The commodification and preponderance of sex – premarital and extramarital - robbed it of its function as a conduit of specialness and intimacy and since childrearing is largely avoided (natality rates are precipitously plummeting everywhere) or outsourced, the family has lost both its raison d’etre and its nature as the venue for exclusive sexual and emotional interactions between adults.

 

Professed values and prevailing social mores and institutions have yet to catch up to this emerging multifarious reality. The consequences of these discrepancies are disastrous: about 40-50% of all first-time marriages end in divorce and the percentage is much higher for second and third attempts at connubial bliss. Open communication about one’s sexual needs is tantamount to self-ruination as one’s partner is likely to reflexively initiate a divorce. Dishonesty and cheating are definitely the rational choices in such an unforgiving and punitive environment.

 

Indeed, most surviving marriages have to do with perpetuating the partners’ convenience, their access to commonly-owned assets and future streams of income, and the welfare of third parties, most notably their kids. Erstwhile sexual exclusivity often degenerates into celibacy or abstinence on the one hand – or parallel lives with multiple sexual and emotional partners on the other hand.

 

One night stands for both genders are usually opportunistic. Extra-pair affairs are self-limiting, as emotional involvement and sexual attraction wane over time. Infidelity is, therefore, much less of a threat to the longevity of a dedicated couple than it is made out to be. Most of the damage is caused by culturally-conditioned, albeit deeply and traumatically felt, reactions to conduct that is almost universally decried as deceitful, dishonest, and in breach of vows and promises.

 

But the roots of the crumbling alliance between men and women go deeper and further in time. Long before divorce became a social norm, men and women grew into two disparate, incompatible, and warring subspecies. Traditionalist, conservative, and religious societies put in place behavioural safeguards against the inevitable wrenching torsion that monogamy entailed: no premarital sex (virginity); no multiple intimate partners; no cohabitation prior to tying the knot; no mobility, or equal rights for women; no mixing of the genders. We now know that each of these habits does, indeed, increase the chances for an ultimate divorce. As Jonathan Franzen elucidates in his literary masterpieces, it boils down to a choice between personal freedoms and the stability of the family: the former decisively preclude the latter.

 

During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, discreet affairs were an institution of marriage: sexual gratification and emotional intimacy were outsourced while all other domestic functions were shared in partnership. The Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Age, the backlash of the sexual revolution, belligerent feminism, and the advent of socially-atomizing and gender-equalizing transportation, information processing, and telecommunication technologies led inexorably to the hollowing out of family and hearth.

 

In a civilization centred on brainpower, Men have lost the relative edge that brawn used to provide. Monogamy is increasingly considered as past its expiry date: a historical aberration that reflects the economic and political realities of bygone eras. Moreover: the incidence of lifelong singlehood has skyrocketed as people hope for their potential or actual relationship-partners to provide for all their sexual, emotional, social, and economic needs – and then get sorely disappointed when they fail to meet these highly unrealistic expectations.

 

In an age of economic self-sufficiency, electronic entertainment, and self-gratification, the art of compromise in relationships is gone. Single motherhood (sometimes via IVF, with no identifiable partner involved) has become the norm in many countries. Even within marriages or committed relationships, solitary pursuits, such as separate vacations, or “girls’/boy’ nights out” have become the norm.

 

The 20th century was a monument to male fatuity: wars and ideologies almost decimated the species. Forced to acquire masculine skills and fill men’s shoes in factories and fields, women discovered militant self-autonomy, the superfluousness of men, and the untenability of the male claims to superiority over them.

 

In an age of malignant individualism, bordering on narcissism, men and women alike put themselves, their fantasies, and their needs first, all else – family included – be damned. And with 5 decades of uninterrupted prosperity, birth control, and feminism/ women’s lib most of the female denizens of the West have acquired the financial wherewithal to realize their dreams at the expense and to the detriment of collectives they ostensibly belong to (such as the nuclear family.) Feminism is a movement focused on negatives (obliterating women’s age-old bondage) but it offers few constructive ideas regarding women’s new roles. By casting men as the enemy, it also failed to educate them and convert them into useful allies.

 

Owing to the dramatic doubling of life expectancy, modern marriages seem to go through three phases: infatuation (honeymoon); procreation-accumulation (of assets, children, and shared experiences); and exhaustion-outsourcing (bonding with new emotional and sexual partners for rejuvenation or the fulfilment of long-repressed fantasies, needs, and wishes.) Divorces and breakups occur mostly at the seams, the periods of transition between these phases and especially between the stages of accumulation-procreation and exhaustion-outsourcing. This is where family units break down.

 

With marriage on the decline and infidelity on the rise, the reasonable solution would be swinging (swapping sexual partners) or polyamory (households with multiple partners of both genders all of whom are committed to one another for the long haul, romantically-involved, sexually-shared, and economically united.) Alas, while a perfectly rational development of the traditional marriage and one that is best-suited to modernity, it is an emotionally unstable arrangement, what with romantic jealousy ineluctably rearing its ugly head. Very few people are emotionally capable of sharing their life-partner with others.

 

Human psychology dictates that in any modern, adaptable variant of marriage monogamy must be preserved while allowing for emotional, sexual, and romantic diversity. How to square the circle? What virtual chastity belt can we conjure up to replace the spiked medieval original?

 

Enter “time-limited marriages” (TLM). These are marriage contracts with expiration dates: one to three years for childless couples and a minimum of seven years for those blessed with children (to allow the parents to provide a stable environment during the child’s formative years.) These contracts can be allowed to expire and then the parties are free to look elsewhere for the fulfilment of their sexual and romantic dreams and wishes; or they can be renewed and renegotiated.

 

The question is not why there are so many divorces, but why so few. Surely, serial monogamy (in effect, a tawdry variant of TLM) is far better, fairer, and more humane than adultery? Couples stay together and tolerate straying owing to inertia; financial or emotional dependence; insecurity (lack of self-confidence or low self-esteem); fear of the unknown and the tedium of dating. Some couples persevere owing to religious conviction of for the sake of appearances. Yet others make a smooth transition to an alternative lifestyle (polyamory, swinging, or consensual adultery).

Indeed, what has changed is not the incidence of adultery, even among women. There are good grounds to assume that it has remained the same throughout human history. The phenomenon - quantitatively and qualitatively - has always been the same, merely underreported. What have changed are the social acceptability of extramarital sex both before and during marriage and the ease of obtaining divorce. People discuss adultery openly where before it was a taboo topic.

 

Another new development may be the rise of “selfish affairs” among women younger than 35 who are used to multiple sexual partners. “Selfish affairs” are acts of recreational adultery whose sole purpose is to satisfy sexual curiosity and the need for romantic diversity. The emotional component in these usually short-term affairs (one-night stands and the like) is muted. Among women older than 60, adultery has become the accepted way of seeking emotional connection and intimacy outside the marital bond. These are “outsourcing affairs.”

 

Within the TLM, partners would have little incentive to cheat: they could simply wait for the contract to lapse. The looming expiry would also keep the intimate partners on their toes and on their best behavior by generating a sempiternal environment of courtship and positive sexual tension. The periodically renegotiated marriage contracts would reflect changing economic realities, shifts in romantic sentiment, and other pertinent new data. Of course, TLM would eliminate the need for divorces (except in extreme, emergency cases.)

 

Until recently, couples formed around promises of emotional exclusivity and sexual fidelity, uniqueness in each other’s mind and life, and (more common until the 1940s) virginity. Marriage was also a partnership: economic, or related to childrearing, or companionship. It was based on the partners’ past and background and geared towards a shared future.

 

Nowadays, couples coalesce around the twin undertakings of continuity (“I will ALWAYS be there for you”) and availability (“I will always BE there for you.”) Issues of exclusivity, uniqueness, and virginity have been relegated to the back-burner. It is no longer practical to demand of one’s spouse to have nothing to do with the opposite sex, not to spend the bulk of his or her time outside the marriage, not to take separate vacations, and, more generally, to be joined at the hip. Affairs, for instance – both emotional and sexual – are sad certainties in the life of every couple.

 

Members of the couple are supposed to make themselves continuously available to each other and to provide emotional sustenance and support in an atmosphere of sharing, companionship, and friendship. All the traditional functions of the family can now be – and often are – outsourced, including even sex and emotional intimacy. But, contrary to marriage, outsourcing is frequently haphazard and unpredictable, dependent as it is on outsiders who are committed elsewhere as well. Hence the relative durability of marriage, in its conservative and less-conventional forms alike: it is a convenient and highly practicable arrangement.

 

Divorce or other forms of marital breakup are not new phenomena. But their precipitants have undergone a revolutionary shift. In the past, families fell apart owing to a breach of exclusivity, mainly in the forms of emotional or sexual infidelity; a deficiency of uniqueness and primacy: divorced women, for instance, were considered “damaged goods” because they used to “belong” to another man and, therefore, could offer neither primacy nor uniqueness; or an egregious violation of the terms of partnership (for example: sloth, dysfunctional childrearing, infertility).

 

Nowadays, intimate partners bail out when the continuous availability of their significant others is disrupted: sexually, emotionally, or as friends and companions. Marriages are about the present and are being put to the test on a daily basis. Partners who are dissatisfied opt out and team up with other, more promising providers. Children are serially reared by multiple parents and in multiple households.

Still, despite all the fashionable theories of marriage, the narratives and the feminists, the reasons to get married largely remain the same. True, there have been role reversals and new stereotypes have cropped up. But biological, physiological and biochemical facts are less amenable to modern criticisms of culture. Men are still men and women are still women.

Men and women marry to form:

The Sexual Dyad – Intended to gratify the partners' sexual attraction and secure a stable, consistent and available source of sexual gratification.

The Economic Dyad – The couple is a functioning economic unit within which the economic activities of the members of the dyad and of additional entrants are carried out. The economic unit generates more wealth than it consumes and the synergy between its members is likely to lead to gains in production and in productivity relative to individual efforts and investments.

The Social Dyad – The members of the couple bond as a result of implicit or explicit, direct, or indirect social pressures. Such pressure can manifest itself in numerous forms. In Judaism, a person cannot hold some religious posts unless he is married. This is a form of economic pressure.

In most human societies, avowed bachelors are considered to be socially deviant and abnormal. They are condemned by society, ridiculed, shunned and isolated, effectively ex-communicated. Partly to avoid these sanctions and partly to enjoy the emotional glow that comes with conformity and acceptance, couples get married.

Today, myriad lifestyles are on offer. The old fashioned, nuclear family is one of many variants. Children are reared by single parents. Homosexual couples bind and abound. But a pattern is discernible all the same: almost 95% of the adult population get married ultimately. They settle into a two-member arrangement, whether formalized and sanctioned religiously or legally – or not.

The Companionship Dyad – Formed by adults in search of sources of long-term and stable support, emotional warmth, empathy, care, good advice and intimacy. The members of these couples tend to define themselves as each other's best friends.

Folk wisdom tells us that the first three dyads are unstable.

Sexual attraction wanes and is replaced by sexual attrition in most cases. This could lead to the adoption of non-conventional sexual behavior patterns (sexual abstinence, group sex, couple swapping, etc.) – or to recurrent marital infidelity.

Pecuniary concerns are insufficient grounds for a lasting relationship, either. In today's world, both partners are potentially financially independent. This new found autonomy gnaws at the roots of traditional patriarchal-domineering-disciplinarian relationships. Marriage is becoming a more balanced, business like, arrangement with children and the couple's welfare and life standard as its products.

Thus, marriages motivated solely by economic considerations are as likely to unravel as any other joint venture. Admittedly, social pressures help maintain family cohesiveness and stability. But – being thus enforced from the outside – such marriages resemble detention rather than a voluntary, joyful collaboration.

Moreover, social norms, peer pressure, and social conformity cannot be relied upon to fulfil the roles of stabilizer and shock absorber indefinitely. Norms change and peer pressure can backfire ("If all my friends are divorced and apparently content, why shouldn't I try it, too ?").

Only the companionship dyad seems to be durable. Friendships deepen with time. While sex loses its initial, biochemically-induced, lustre, economic motives are reversed or voided, and social norms are fickle – companionship, like wine, improves with time.

Even when planted on the most desolate land, under the most difficult and insidious circumstances, the obdurate seed of companionship sprouts and blossoms.

"Matchmaking is made in heaven" goes the old Jewish adage but Jewish matchmakers in centuries past were not averse to lending the divine a hand. After closely scrutinizing the background of both candidates – male and female – a marriage was pronounced. In other cultures, marriages are still being arranged by prospective or actual fathers without asking for the embryos or the toddlers' consent.

The surprising fact is that arranged marriages last much longer than those which are the happy outcomes of romantic love. Moreover: the longer a couple cohabitates prior to their marriage, the higher the likelihood of divorce. Counterintuitively, romantic love and cohabitation ("getting to know each other better") are negative precursors and predictors of marital longevity.

Companionship grows out of friction and interaction within an irreversible formal arrangement (no "escape clauses"). In many marriages where divorce is not an option (legally, or due to prohibitive economic or social costs), companionship grudgingly develops and with it contentment, if not happiness.

Companionship is the offspring of pity and empathy. It is based on and shared events and fears and common suffering. It reflects the wish to protect and to shield each other from the hardships of life. It is habit forming. If lustful sex is fire – companionship is old slippers: comfortable, static, useful, warm, and secure.

Experiments and experience show that people in constant touch get attached to one another very quickly and very thoroughly. This is a reflex that has to do with survival. As infants, we get attached to other mothers and our mothers get attached to us. In the absence of social interactions, we die younger. We need to bond and to make others depend on us in order to survive.

The mating (and, later, marital) cycle is full of euphorias and dysphorias. These "mood swings" generate the dynamics of seeking mates, copulating, coupling (marrying) and reproducing.

The source of these changing dispositions can be found in the meaning that we attach to marriage which is perceived as the real, irrevocable, irreversible and serious entry into adult society. Previous rites of passage (like the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, the Christian Communion and more exotic rites elsewhere) prepare us only partially to the shocking realization that we are about to emulate our parents.

During the first years of our lives, we tend to view our parents as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent demigods. Our perception of them, of ourselves and of the world is magical. All entities - we and our caregivers included - are entangled, constantly interacting, and identity interchanging ("shape shifting").

At first, therefore, our parents are idealized. Then, as we get disillusioned, they are internalized to become the first and most important among the inner voices that guide our lives. As we grow up (adolescence) we rebel against our parents (in the final phases of identity formation) and then learn to accept them and to resort to them in times of need.

But the primordial gods of our infancy never die, nor do they lie dormant. They lurk in our superego, engaged in incessant dialogue with the other structures of our personality. They constantly criticize and analyze, make suggestions and reproach. The hiss of these voices is the background radiation of our personal big bang.

Thus, to decide to get married (to imitate our parents), is to challenge and tempt the gods, to commit sacrilege, to negate the very existence of our progenitors, to defile the inner sanctum of our formative years. This is a rebellion so momentous, so all encompassing, that it touches upon the very foundation of our personality.

Inevitably, we (unconsciously) shudder in anticipation of the imminent and, no doubt, horrible punishment that awaits us for this iconoclastic presumptuousness. This is the first dysphoria, which accompanies our mental preparations prior to getting wed. Getting ready to get hitched carries a price tag: the activation of a host of primitive and hitherto dormant defence mechanisms - denial, regression, repression, projection.

This self-induced panic is the result of an inner conflict. On the one hand, we know that it is unhealthy to live as recluses (both biologically and psychologically). With the passage of time, we are urgently propelled to find a mate. On the other hand, there is the above-described feeling of impending doom.

Having overcome the initial anxiety, having triumphed over our inner tyrants (or guides, depending on the character of the primary objects, their parents), we go through a short euphoric phase, celebrating their rediscovered individuation and separation. Reinvigorated, we feel ready to court and woo prospective mates.

But our conflicts are never really put to rest. They merely lie dormant.

Married life is a terrifying rite of passage. Many react to it by limiting themselves to familiar, knee-jerk behavior patterns and reactions and by ignoring or dimming their true emotions. Gradually, these marriages are hollowed out and wither.

Some seek solace in resorting to other frames of reference - the terra cognita of one's neighbourhood, country, language, race, culture, language, background, profession, social stratum, or education. Belonging to these groups imbues them with feelings of security and firmness.

Many combine both solutions. More than 80% of marriages take place among members of the same social class, profession, race, creed and breed. This is not a chance statistic. It reflects choices, conscious and (more often) unconscious.

The next anti-climatic dysphoric phase transpires when our attempts to secure (the consent of) a mate are met with success. Daydreaming is easier and more gratifying than the dreariness of realized goals. Mundane routine is the enemy of love and of optimism. Where dreams end, harsh reality intrudes with its uncompromising demands.

Securing the consent of one's future spouse forces one to tread an irreversible and increasingly challenging path. One's imminent marriage requires not only emotional investment - but also economic and social ones. Many people fear commitment and feel trapped, shackled, or even threatened. Marriage suddenly seems like a dead end. Even those eager to get married entertain occasional and nagging doubts.

The strength of these negative emotions depends, to a very large extent, on the parental role models and on the kind of family life experienced. The more dysfunctional the family of origin - the earlier (and usually only) available example – the more overpowering the sense of entrapment and the resulting paranoia and backlash.

But most people overcome this stage fright and proceed to formalize their relationship by getting married. This decision, this leap of faith is the corridor which leads to the palatial hall of post-nuptial euphoria.

This time the euphoria is mostly a social reaction. The newly conferred status (of "just married") bears a cornucopia of social rewards and incentives, some of them enshrined in legislation. Economic benefits, social approval, familial support, the envious reactions of others, the expectations and joys of marriage (freely available sex, having children, lack of parental or societal control, and newly experienced freedoms) foster another magical bout of feeling omnipotent.

It feels good and empowering to control one's newfound "lebensraum", one's spouse, and one's life. It fosters self-confidence, self esteem and helps regulate one's sense of self-worth. It is a manic phase. Everything seems possible, now that one is left to one's own devices and is supported by one's mate.

With luck and the right partner, this frame of mind can be prolonged. However, as life's disappointments accumulate, obstacles mount, the possible sorted out from the improbable and time passes inexorably, this euphoria abates. The reserves of energy and determination dwindle. Gradually, one slides into an all-pervasive dysphoric (even anhedonic or depressed) mood.

The routines of life, its mundane attributes, the contrast between fantasy and reality, erode the first burst of exuberance. Life looks more like a life sentence. This anxiety sours the relationship. One tends to blame one's spouse for one's atrophy. People with alloplastic defences (external locus of control) blame others for their defeats and failures.

Thoughts of breaking free, of going back to the parental nest, of revoking the marriage become more frequent. It is, at the same time, a frightening and exhilarating prospect. Again, panic sets it. Conflict rears its ugly head. Cognitive dissonance abounds. Inner turmoil leads to irresponsible, self-defeating and self-destructive behaviours. A lot of marriages end here in what is known as the "seven year itch".

Next awaits parenthood. Many marriages survive only because of the presence of common offspring.

One cannot become a parent unless and until one eradicates the internal traces of one's own parents. This necessary patricide and unavoidable matricide are painful and cause great trepidation. But the completion of this crucial phase is rewarding all the same and it leads to feelings of renewed vigour, new-found optimism, a sensation of omnipotence and the reawakening of other traces of magical thinking.

In the quest for an outlet, a way to relieve anxiety and boredom, both members of the couple (providing they still possess the wish to "save" the marriage) hit upon the same idea but from different directions.

The woman (partly because of social and cultural conditioning during the socialization process) finds bringing children to the world an attractive and efficient way of securing the bond, cementing the relationship and transforming it into a long-term commitment. Pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood are perceived as the ultimate manifestations of her femininity.

The male reaction to childrearing is more compounded. At first, he perceives the child (at least unconsciously) as another restraint, likely to only "drag him deeper" into the quagmire. His dysphoria deepens and matures into full-fledged panic. It then subsides and gives way to a sense of awe and wonder. A psychedelic feeling of being part parent (to the child) and part child (to his own parents) ensues. The birth of the child and his first stages of development only serve to entrench this "time warp" impression.

Raising children is a difficult task. It is time and energy consuming. It is emotionally taxing. It denies the parent his or her privacy, intimacy, and needs. The newborn represents a full-blown traumatic crisis with potentially devastating consequences. The strain on the relationship is enormous. It either completely breaks down – or is revived by the novel challenges and hardships.

An euphoric period of collaboration and reciprocity, of mutual support and increasing love follows. Everything else pales beside the little miracle. The child becomes the centre of narcissistic projections, hopes and fears. So much is vested and invested in the infant and, initially, the child gives so much in return that it blots away the daily problems, tedious routines, failures, disappointments and aggravations of every normal relationship.

But the child's role is temporary. The more autonomous s/he becomes, the more knowledgeable, the less innocent – the less rewarding and the more frustrating s/he is. As toddlers become adolescents, many couples fall apart, their members having grown apart, developed separately and are estranged.

The stage is set for the next major dysphoria: the midlife crisis.

This, essentially, is a crisis of reckoning, of inventory taking, disillusionment, the realization of one's mortality. We look back to find how little we had accomplished, how short the time we have left, how unrealistic our expectations have been, how alienated we have become, how ill-equipped we are to cope, and how irrelevant and unhelpful our marriages are.

To the disenchanted midlifer, his life is a fake, a Potemkin village, a facade behind which rot and corruption have consumed his vitality. This seems to be the last chance to recover lost ground, to strike one more time. Invigorated by other people's youth (a young lover, one's students or colleagues, one's own children), one tries to recreate one's life in a vain attempt to make amends, and to avoid the same mistakes.

This crisis is exacerbated by the "empty nest" syndrome (as children grow up and leave the parents' home). A major topic of consensus and a catalyst of interaction thus disappear. The vacuity of the relationship engendered by the termites of a thousand marital discords is revealed.

This hollowness can be filled with empathy and mutual support. It rarely is, however. Most couples discover that they lost faith in their powers of rejuvenation and that their togetherness is buried under a mountain of grudges, regrets and sorrows.

They both want out. And out they go. The majority of those who do remain married revert to cohabitation rather than to love, to co-existence rather to experimentation, to arrangements of convenience rather to an emotional revival. It is a sad sight. As biological decay sets in, the couple heads into the ultimate dysphoria: ageing and death.


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The Pathology of Love

The Narcissist's Family

The Good Enough Family

Born Aliens

The Aborted Contract

The Virtual Home

Parenting - The Irrational Vocation

The Redistributive Mechanism of Divorce

The Impeachment of the President


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