Why do you think marriages fail? We're told that the top three reasons for couples splitting up are money, religion, and sex. Others point to personality conflicts, parenting differences, or problems with in-laws. Many states let you divorce due to "irreconcilable differences," but isn't that just code for "fights too much?" If we believe what we see in movies and on television, couples magically fall in and out of love almost as if they have no free will.
There is an underlying cause for all this splitting up — lack of effort. It doesn't matter the surface reason, couples divorce because at least one of the partners gives up on the relationship. That's not to say that practical demands of everyday life don't come into play, but it means that someone in the relationship thought it wasn't worth the effort to work things out. Apathy, not bank accounts, work schedules, or parenting, is the number one thing that will ruin your marriage.
The happiness myth
No one enters marriage expecting to give up, but many of us hold beliefs that undermine our desire to stick it out. The world tells us that loves is an emotion, not a choice, and that we deserve happiness all the time and at all costs. Living with another person inevitably leads to conflict, which undermines our temporary happiness. However, does that mean we're justified in bailing on a relationship because it isn't making us happy in that moment? Maybe, maybe not.
To make an informed decision, we need a realistic picture of what will really make us happy in the long run. While we might think that splitting up will make us happy, statistics paint a very different picture. Married people remain happier over the course of their lives compared to their single counterparts. They are also wealthier and live longer than those who divorce. Meanwhile, divorced couples are more likely to live in poverty, and their children experience more academic and social difficulties. In fact, divorced people rate themselves as less happy and more lonely than during their seemingly unhappy marriages. It's clear that divorce is not the quick fix that many people assume.
If divorce leads to greater unhappiness, how do so many people end up thinking it's the only way out of a bad situation? The process toward divorce does not culminate in constant fighting, but rather evolves as a result of ceasing to care. We need to worry more when we stop caring about our marriages instead of when we're still willing to fight for them.
To see if apathy has infiltrated your marriage, ask yourself these questions: Do I think it's worth my time to disagree with my spouse? Do I look forward to the future I envision with my spouse? Do I care about my spouse's happiness the same way I care about my own? Do I withhold affection, attention, or physical intimacy to protect myself? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to think about reinvesting in your relationship.
Fighting back with reinvestment
It doesn't take much to weed out the apathy in your marriage. Start by really listening to your spouse when he talks. Greet him at the door and engage in some act of physical intimacy each day, even if it's just hand holding or hugging. At least once a day, think about your spouse's needs before you think about your own. Above all else, spend time thinking about why you're grateful for your spouse, and physically list on paper the reasons you still love her.
Unfortunately, we can only choose our actions, not the actions of our spouse. If after all your work you still feel your spouse is emotionally checked out, remain patient. Consider suggesting couples counseling, if you feel it's appropriate, and resist the urge to nag, fault-find and criticize.
Marriage is worth fighting for. There are definite times when it's best to walk away, but for most of us, our marriages are a gift that deserve our dedicated attention.