I’m on a summer reading kick, having just gotten a library card and the time to do it. I ran across a line from a novel by Ayelet Waldman where a character remarked, “half the relationships I know are really support groups in disguise.” It made me pause, and I jotted it down (once an English major…). I often question how certain people get into relationships with each other, and what keeps them together. I think Waldman’s observation may contain an important truth, that people use relationships to support and comfort themselves, and I’m not sure that’s the best use of a partner relationship.
I wonder at the miserable, stable divorce rate in this country, why people continue to marry, why so many divorce. While it’s true that most relationships (of any type) eventually end, I question why people continue to vow forever, or ‘til death during the marriage ceremony, when half eventually result in divorce.
Existentialism was the theoretical base that resonated most when I studied counseling psychology, and I find comfort and guidance in it today. I think we have a strong (if unrealized) fear of death, and dying alone, which leads us to partner up, marry and have children. It’s one big avoidance tactic, if you take a certain view. Is it right to seek partnerships to avoid loneliness? I’d like to think that reduced isolation is a side benefit of being in a relationship, but that we’ve partnered because we are wildly attracted to and interested in the other person. Ideally, they feel the same way about us. If this were true, perhaps we’d see more marriages staying together. Or maybe we’d see fewer marriages, the commitment taken for granted because of the strength of positive forces.
Instead, I believe that many people don’t prioritize interest and attraction enough in their relationships, and even choose to marry when little of either are present. Other considerations take over, such as he accepts my family’s problems, or she’ll be a wonderful mother, or we move in the same social strata so it makes “sense”. It’s almost like when choosing a life partner, people overlook critical factors like good sex and good conversation and healthy finances because society tells us those are shallow considerations. Yet those are the very considerations that eventually end marriages. Unfulfilling sex. Lack of connection. Money issues. The desires for comfort and routine take over and trump all else.
Comfort isn’t always a pleasant sensation. Oftentimes it simply means familiar and unchanging. People get locked into comfort zones in their relationships, because it feels predictable, which creates a false sense of safety. I see (and have been in) relationships that clearly aren’t working, where neither person is having their needs met, but because it’s the status quo, it continues. It’s a support group in disguise. By support I mean upholding the illusion that the relationship is sustainable, or that the public image is crisp, or that the other person is the right person. The risk involved in examining the truth might cause the structure to topple, and so both people continue to engage in the support group. At times, this may be the only force keeping things together. The relationship is no longer about physical chemistry, or growing together, or actual positive regard for each other. It is because it is. Both people are invested in supporting their own comfort, and this could be the only thing shared in common.
Propping up a broken system only works for a finite amount of time. The longer the system stays together, the more expensive financially, emotionally and even socially the inevitable crash will be. You may have a chance to find out for yourself, unless you start today, by being honest with yourself and risking discomfort. There could be a whole other life out there for you, one that suits you better, and works. Why don’t you step outside the support group and see what happens?