A married couple harmoniously navigates decisions, raises a family, and resolves its occasional arguments. Is this amicable relationship a happy marriage? Whether or not their connection is a content one might depend on their personal, mutual, and sociocultural views of marriage. For some, matrimony might be synonymous with teamwork and synergy toward common needs, tasks, and goals. For others, it also demands something else – a deep, emotional friendship and connection. How strongly the individuals value the former, the latter, or a combination of them will usually determine how satisfied they are with their relationship.
Marital relationships have undergone tremendous transformations over the centuries. These can result partly from changes in broader societal, communal, and religious norms. In many contemporary environments, there is an expectation that married spouses relate to each other as intimately close friends. As integral as this aspiration is in current Western society, marriage was not always viewed with that perspective. For example, in Victorian England, where women could not vote and were largely unexposed to education, it would have been untenable for most couples to assume that they could become closest friends. One does not even need to stretch so far back in time. Astonishingly, the first study to investigate and discover empirically that many British women felt emotionally lacking in their marriages came out in 1993. Many British women expressed that their husbands seemed to have an inability to do the emotional work that was deemed necessary to have a happier marriage. The findings themselves might not be so surprising. But it is astounding that research was just beginning to explore the emotional needs that British couples have from each other in marriage only twenty five years ago.
In many contemporary societies, women and men have similar sociocultural and educational opportunities. In this unique setting there is both a possibility – and often a demand – for a couple to have an emotionally mutual relationship. Consequently, a large part of what can make a present-day marriage satisfying and successful is that both members interact with each other as intimate friends. Mutual connection, sharing, and discussion of each other’s vulnerabilities can create a powerful connection that helps two partners feel emotionally satisfied and close.
A deep, satisfying marital relationship is possible now more than perhaps ever in history. Correspondingly, if this profound friendship is perceived as lacking or insufficiently developed, it can severely hurt a couple’s marital satisfaction. A sense of harmony and “getting along” can feel grossly inadequate for many modern day couples. Since they see themselves as having the potential to create an emotionally deep relationship, they also view their marriage as under stress when that connection is lacking.
Despite the general cultural shift toward marriage as an intimate friendship, dating or married individuals still might have very different expectations for their marriage. Cultures, subcultures, personality, and other factors can shape an individual’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of the marital connection. Couples experience marital strife when there is a large gap between what they thought their marriage would be like and what it ends up being. If both members of a couple feel content with a relationship that fulfills their individual and familial goals but does not need to penetrate emotional depths, they might consider a marriage without intimate friendship very fulfilling. It can satisfy their personal and collective needs. Similarly, if both members of a couple desire a deep, emotional feeling relationship, and they provide that for each other, their marriage might be thriving. Discontent and disconnect often takes place when one’s expectations and one’s reality differ.
The implications for dating or married couples can be widespread. If an individual or couple feels lacking in marriage, it might be important for them to be in touch with their expectations for marriage. Conversations about marriage can be most productive when each spouse is open to explore – individually and as a couple – how they see their ideals and goals for marriage. In order to create an ideal relationship it can be important to conceptualize – and often discuss – what that would look like. Differences and similarities might be discussed by individuals themselves or in therapy.
The first step on the journey to a stronger marriage might be becoming more in touch with one’s own conceptions of marriage and relationships. When one becomes more aware of how he would like his marriage to be, he can focus his effort toward creating that reality. It might take effort, energy, and work on the part of both him and his spouse to proceed along that path. But the more one knows where he is going, the more likely he is to get there.