Your Marriage in your Thirties Matters

You are in your thirties.

By now, chances are, you are finally in a more developed and fulfilling career than in your twenties, school for the most part is over, and for some of you, you have found a significant other. Your home or apartment has taken on an “adult” look, and as you breathe in your newly found maturity, your thoughts turn to embarking into parenthood.

While we personally greet this milestone with excitement, research has a much more dismal picture to paint. Babies bring new stressors to the relationship, some so intense that they can be the doorway to divorce. While some marriages glide through this relational turbulence with just a few dings and bruises, others will experience the rockiest point in their marriage yet.

The million-dollar question is can your marriage survive parenthood?

The 21st century relationship is the most complicated history has ever seen. The process of selecting a mate to marry of yesteryear is far simpler than that of today.

The primary purpose of matrimony of the past was to procreate – men and women would move from relationship to relationship (on average, every 3 years) producing as many offspring as possible. Then, arranged marriages soon came into vogue in which mates with the highest access to resources were in demand. Finally, marriage moved away from this long held orthodox – marriage companions were mostly selected on the basis of their economic and societal status and there by chose the partner that would give our children the best life possible. In all of these marital models, the men worked (or hunted), and the women stayed home and raised the children. This pattern still endures today for many and is considered “traditional.”

The 21st Century Marriage

For many, the American marriage of the 21st century looks remarkably different. We now marry for love and passion. Both partners often work, full-time. We seek partners to fulfill an extensional completion to our life’s journey. We are looking for a companion, a lover, an intellectual partner and a collaborator; a travel partner, and a mother or father; an ally to support us at our worst, and someone to push our boundaries so we can live life to the fullest. We want passionate sex, and a best friend. We desire and seek a mate that checks every box on the “partnership list.”

To complicate matters, today’s modern relationships demand more from our marital partnerships than ever. During the child rearing years, your relationship will require you to work as a team – a unit that gives and takes. A unit that is not afraid to take on traditionally female-only responsibilities. In order for the 21st century relationship to survive, it must tackle the archaic marital model that has been imprinted onto our DNA. The woman can no longer be solely in charge of the domestic responsibilities and child rearing. It is now shared, now, more than ever.

Couples often get into trouble when a spouse is too late to accept this new marital and parenthood contract. They are trapped in the old architecture, while their spouse is firmly planted in 2016. While these centuries collide, minor relational infractions occur. The traditional female responsibilities, if not shared, will go undetected for a period of time. However, your wife will tire. And over the course of 10+ years, you will end up with a burned out wife, full of resentment, ready to hand you divorce papers. The modern woman enjoys an unprecedented economic freedom that removes the economic binds of marriage to survive, and provides her with options beyond the burdens of a traditional arrangement.

But, how does the modern couple negotiate this new marriage contract? Thank goodness the solution isn’t complicated and divorce is not inevitable. And it goes it without saying, this is not a one-size fits all solution.

Tool #1 – Division of Labor

To mediate potential resentments over the division of household labor, develop a written list of your domestic and child rearing responsibilities. Assign a time value to each task from 1 (takes significant time) to 3 (takes just a few moments.) This simple tool, while not sexy nor uniquely creative, does three very important things: 1) opens the lines of communication with your partner around shared goals 2) fosters team work through shared goals, and 3) ends “mindreading” by creating transparency into what it takes to run your household.

A well-known cognitive behavioral therapy behavior model is called “mind reading.” This model posits that it is natural for social beings in relationships to attempt to read other people’s mind by assuming that we know what the other person is thinking or feeling (and not fact checking it). In addition, we often expect others to mind read us. We ask our spouses to know what we are thinking, needing and wanting, without ever muttering a word. By engaging in this important discussion, we allow our spouse into our mind, clarifying our needs.

Tool #2 – Let go of 50/50

While this tool may seem to oppose the Division of Labor tool above, read on.

Let go of the idea of a perfect 50/50 split of the division of labor. Some days it will be 40/60 and other days it will be 90/10. You will have days that you are so exhausted you can’t see straight, and you will ask your spouse to pick up more responsibility that day. There will be days your spouse will ask the same of you. The key is flexibility, give and take. But don’t let it slide to 80/20 for too long. The average needs to be near the 50/50 mark.

This idea of a relationship “scoreboard” is an important concept in cognitive behavioral therapy as we size up pour “position” in a relationship.  As social beings, we tend to tally things up our “social score” in our mind, and when we perceive the scales tipped against us, we can become angry or resentful as we feel taken advantaged of or less than another. However, our internal scoreboard is often wrong, simply a figment of our imaginations with very little basis in fact. To remedy this distortion, the healthiest thing you can do is to share your experience with your spouse. For each marital partner to feel good about the division of labor, you may need to re-design your household list or re-assign tasks. Or maybe, you’re just burned out and need a day or two away. The most important element of this strategy to ensure a positive partnership, is this: talk. Don’t live inside your head where no one can hear you. And finally, be open to the idea that your spouse may be doing more than you think.

Don’t let your thirties determine your divorce in your forties. Be a team. Reduce resentments. And above all, wake up to the new marital arrangement of the 21st century.

-- Erika Boissiere, MFT is a the founder of TRISF, and a relationship and individual therapist in San Francisco, CA.