By Terry Real
The 20th century marriage, like marriage before it for centuries, was primarily a companionable marriage. A man and woman stood shoulder-to-shoulder, raised kids, faced war, illness, economic changes. Long heart-to-heart talks, exquisite sharing, great sex -- that was for kids, for early stage relationships, and affairs for some.
A generation or two ago, if a woman complained to her mother that her steady, providing husband just seemed "too distant" or non-sexual or even ill-tempered and mean, she would have been told in no uncertain terms to grow up and go home. But in today's world it is exactly such quality of relationship issues that lead to unhappiness and divorce.
When historians look back at the 20th century one key feature they will note is the changed role of women. For the first time in history, women -- empowered economically, socially, politically, and psychologically -- are no longer dependent on marriage to survive. To stay in their marriages contemporary women need more from their men than paychecks.
The new 21st century marriage is the truly intimate marriage -- intimate in all of the five domains of human experience: intellectual, emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual. The 21st century intimate marriage takes all of the characteristics of the centuries old companionship marriage and grafts onto it the qualities of a lover relationship -- sustained erotic passion, great amounts of attention and interest in one another, deep emotional sharing, long walks on the beach holding hands. We want marriage to be a lifelong romance.
LIBERATION VS. THERMONUCLEAR ANNIHILATION OF A RELATIONSHIP
One problem facing us is that while I've said that we want our marriages to be intimate, a more accurate description would be that some of us want more intimacy, by which I mean, of course, women. We can understand the enormous tension between the sexes by grasping a simple historical fact: In the 20th century, women's roles radically changed and men's, by and large, did not.
This is not a criticism of men. It's a simple statement of fact. Because men haven't changed all that much, the status quo of 20th century marriage generally works just fine for them. It is women who want more. It is women who fuel the self-help industry, and it is women who drag men into couple's therapy.
Today's women want more intimacy from men than most men have been raised to deliver -- and men are coming up short. Women must deal with the dilemma of, as one of my clients put it, "being a 21st century woman married to a 20th century guy." Unfortunately, as the miserable state of marriage shows us, most women don't deal with their predicament all that well. In their attempt to drag their relationships into the 21st century most women resort to 20th century skills. And you can't create a new marriage using old skills.
One skill set women turn to comes from the first half of the last century. It is our mother and grandmother's skill of acquiescence or "compromise". "Harry's a good man, after all," a woman might say to herself, "so what if he..." The problem with this strategy is that unlike our mothers and grandmothers, contemporary women don't compromise all that happily. The relational bar has been raised and when today's women put up with Harry's distance or control, immaturity or anger, they resent it. And that resentment eats away at the woman and at the relationship like a cancer, diminishing openness, generosity and passion.
The second skill-set women turn to comes from the last few decades of the 20th century, the time of personal empowerment. Whether it's psychotherapy, 12-step codependency groups, women's groups or many spiritual encounters -- the growth in the "personal growth movement" is personal, not relational. And a lot of women "grow" themselves right out of potentially workable relationships.
If the traditional 1950's woman was repressed and resentful, the new "liberated" woman was armed and dangerous. I summarize the credo of personal empowerment as: "I was weak. Now I'm strong. Go screw yourself!" When women finally do blow up at men there's rarely a shortage of "supporters" willing to climb up on chairs to shout, "You go girl!" But while an attitude of, "I'm mad as hell and I ain't gonna take it any more!" may be a step up from dis-empowerment, it is not a step forward into a healthy relationship.
THE ROAD MAP TO A PEACEABLE (AND INTIMATE) ACCORD
In order to realize the new vision of truly intimate relationships both sexes need a new road map and a new set of skills sophisticated enough to deliver on the promise of our new ambitions. In The New Rules of Marriage, I call this road map: relational empowerment, and the new skill-set: relationship practice.
In the next several issues of REAL ADVICE, I will describe this radically different approach to modern relationships as well as some of the essential skills that comprise it. I call this series: Learning to Live Relationally. You will also read Blogs from some of my colleagues to get insights into how they deal with couples experiencing many of the same issues you deal with everyday.