Apparently January is the month when more couples file for divorce than any other. The reason given for this? After what is often a stressful festive period, couples spending extra time together suddenly realise that they don’t have nearly as much in common as they once did. Whilst this may well be true, I wonder if there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Being in a relationship is hard. There are no ifs and buts about it. There is no such thing as the fairytale relationship. There are plenty of reasons for this but some of the most credible come from anthropological and neuroscience studies which support each other in suggesting that the things that bring us together and then keep us together are different. And those differences are largely down to the different chemicals our brains emit during those processes – dopamine vs oxytocin.
Add to the mix the paradigm shifts in the place relationships take in modern life vs that of our distant and much more recent ancestors and we can get a real sense of why life-long pair-bonding (or even long-term monogamy) is a challenge. Consider for instance that marriage has only relatively recently – the last couple of hundred years – become an institution based on romance. As odd as this may seem, this was never the case and marriage has a much longer history of being associated with financial gain, land rights, lineage, convenience and convention. It was generally assumed that the role of marriage was not one of romance or passion.
From an anthropological perspective us humans are also living significantly longer than we did only a couple of hundred years ago. How does this apply to relationships? Well with a lifespan of perhaps forty of fifty years, we would live just about long enough to raise kids. Now we can potentially be with the same person for 40, 50 or 60 years.
Lastly there have been significant changes to how we live in terms of community. Few of us now belong to tribes or live communally with our families. For many of us, we are geographically distanced from many in our families and no longer part of strong local communities. This puts further pressure on our primary relationships to meet all our needs.
Relationship, couple or marriage counselling can be an extremely beneficial environment in which to explore how we can find our own way to balance our need for excitement and novelty with our need for safety and security, within the context of a single romantic relationship. Contrary to what many people think, couple counselling does not mark the end of a relationship, but can in fact be a conduit to a new beginning.
Perhaps the best definition of a perfect marriage or relationship is one that I came across as a virtual bumper sticker which read ‘a perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other’.