A good marriage is one of the most fulfilling experiences life can offer, but it doesn't come easily. Unrealistic expectations are one of the toughest obstacles to a good marriage. One study showed that 71% of married couples have unrealistic ideas about marriage7.
As a parent, it's your responsibility to help your children prepare so they have the best possible chance of creating a strong marriage. An important element of this preparation is helping them understand the marital myths that can harm their chances for a strong marriage. Several family scientists have identified four of the most common marital myths 2, 4, 6:
- My marriage will be easy
- My marriage will change things
- My mate will be perfect
- Marriage will make my problems go away
Below are ideas to help you teach your children to resist these four myths.
Debunking Myth 1 - My Marriage Will Be Easy
Many newlyweds, and even some older couples, believe that if everything in their relationship doesn't run smoothly something is seriously wrong with their marriage. When small disagreements come up, like how to load the dishwasher, which position the toilet seat should be in, and what a "normal" time is for dinner, some begin to doubt they married the right person. But as anyone married for any length of time knows, marriage is never bump-free.
The following ideas will help you teach your children the reality that marriages are not easy and require work.
- Teach your children the general principle that it takes work to achieve something that matters. Help them set goals about something important to them that is not easy. Guide them through the process of hard work to reach their goal, then help them recognize the rewarding feeling of accomplishment.
- Teach your children about responsibility. Put them in charge of a weekly chore. Talk to them about the work that it takes to finish the chore, and then explain how their work contributes to the well-being of the family.
- Teach your children about commitment. Show them that being committed to an end goal, even when it takes work, is worth the effort. Enroll them in an activity such as a sports team or an art project that requires commitment. After they've followed through on their commitment, such as after a recital or sports event, talk to them about how good it feels to see their hard work pay off.
- As your children experience the work it takes to achieve a goal, fulfill responsibility, and develop commitment, show them how these principles apply to marriage in general and to your marriage in particular.
Family Activity Idea: As a family, plan an elaborate meal together. Have the children participate in cooking and cleaning up afterwards. After the meal, discuss how the food preparation took effort but was worth it. Discuss with them how marriage and family relationships take hard work too, but that by combining efforts the work can be fun and the outcome satisfying. Make activities like this one regular.
Debunking Myth 2 - My Marriage Will Change Things
Many couples believe that the words "I now pronounce you man and wife" have magical powers over their spouses' annoying traits. They think relationship flaws will suddenly resolve themselves after "I do." The Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls" spoofs this myth in the character Adelaide. After a frustrating 14-year engagement, Adelaide decides to rely on the magical power of marriage to change her fiancé, a lifelong gambler, into the respectable businessman and father she wants him to be. "Marry the man today and change his ways tomorrow," she sings.
But all parents know a thirty-minute marriage ceremony cannot erase years of habits. Change takes time, if it happens at all. Who you marry is who you get. If a person enters marriage expecting his or her spouse to change, serious disappointment awaits. Though change does occur in marriage, it is a lifelong process.
The following ideas will help you teach your children the reality that marriage does not instantly change the two people involved.
- Teach your children that significant change in human beings takes time. Show them concrete examples in people they know, such as you, your spouse, and relatives.
- Teach your children that they can't change others but they can change themselves. Have your children pick one bad habit they'd like to change. Encourage them to replace their bad habit with a good one. When they find they can't change overnight, help them see the implications for marriage.
- Teach your children the "80-20 rule"1, which says couples can train themselves to focus on their spouse's positive traits: "Overlook the few small things (20 percent) that you don't like about your spouse and continually remind yourself of the 80 percent that you like" (p. 4). Help your children apply this rule to all relationships - family members, peers, and people they date.
Family Activity Idea: As a family, plant a garden together and watch it grow. Discuss with your children how the seeds change into vegetables or fruits. Emphasize the time and effort it takes to produce good fruit.
Debunking Myth #3 - My Mate Will Be Perfect And Will Satisfy All My Needs
Many people envision a husband or wife who is perfect. They imagine their spouse will intuitively know what they want and need to be happy and will fulfill all these expectations. They think their dreams, goals, feelings, and understanding of work and roles will be the same as their spouse's.
The reality, says Dr. Brent Barlow of Brigham Young University, is that any individual is lucky to find a mate who can meet even 80% of their needs2. That means that at least 20% -- and probably much more -- of a person's needs will be unmet in marriage. The key to coping with this reality is discovering the needs most important to you and helping your spouse understand them. No one can read minds.
The following ideas will help you teach your children the reality that they cannot expect a spouse to be perfect or to satisfy all their needs.
- Teach your children to focus on the important values they want in a spouse. Have them make a list of things they would like in a mate, then rate which items are most important and which are less important.
- Teach your children to focus on the positive. Explain that nobody is perfect, but by choosing to focus on a person's good qualities, they can have a more satisfying relationship with that person1. Have your child list things they like about their siblings.
Family Activity Idea: Bake a cake together. Discuss how each ingredient is not very tasty by itself. But when mixed together, the ingredients produce a wonderful creation. Discuss how in a family each member contributes his or her unique traits to make the family complete. Explain how this principle applies in marriage. Each spouse contributes different strengths to the relationship, and although neither is perfect, together they are better than either alone.
Debunking Myth #4 - Marriage Will Make My Problems Go Away
Some people believe that marriage is a cure-all for personal problems. They think marriage will satisfy all their needs, leaving them feeling complete, whole, and happy3. But marriage does not result in automatic happiness. The Cinderella story that poverty will turn to wealth, chores will disappear, and family life will become perfect is a fairy-tale, not reality.
The stresses that accompany work, finances, school, and other outside pressures exist whether one is married or single. Personal problems like low self-esteem, poor communication skills, and inability to handle conflict do not suddenly resolve with marriage. No one, including a spouse, can make someone else happy. People have to learn to be happy and choose to be happy themselves.
The following ideas will help you teach your children not to expect marriage will make all their problems go away.
- Teach your children that they are in charge of their own happiness. Life will always include problems, disappointments, and defeats. The key is learning to handle these challenges well. Tell them a personal story about a time when things didn't work out the way you wanted. Emphasize that it was your choice to be unhappy or happy despite your disappointment.
- As your children form friendships and begin dating, help them recognize when they're blaming their unhappiness on others. Show them they have the power to change their attitude. Take these opportunities to discuss the principle that even in marriage, their spouse will not have the power to make them happy.
Family Activity Idea: Share the story of Viktor Frankl's hopeful outlook despite being a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Explain that we each can determine how we will react to difficult circumstances. Point out that in a marriage relationship, no one is automatically happy. Spouses still struggle, but if they are happy to begin with, the relationship is more likely to be successful.
Written by Anna-Mae Ridley and Cari Bacon, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Abbott, D. A. (2003). Change yourself and change your marriage. Marriage and Families, 1, 2-8.
- Barlow, B. (1992). Just for newlyweds. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
- Barlow, B. (1993). Dealing with differences in marriage. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
- Larson, J. H. (1998). The marriage quiz: College student's beliefs in selected myths about marriage. Family Relations, 37, 3-11.
- Larson, J. H. (2003). The great marriage tune-up book. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Larson, J. H. & Holman, T. B. (1994). Premarital predictors of marital quality and stability. Family Relations, 43, 228-237.
- Stahmann, R. F. & Adams, T. R. (1997). LDS counselor ratings of problems occurring among LDS premarital and remarital couples. Unpublished Manuscript.
- Warner, C. T. (2001). Bonds that make us free: Healing our relationships, coming to ourselves.
Salt Lake City , UT: Shadow Mountain.