Are you at risk of Per­fect Mar­riage Syn­drome?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE -

five years, while those who de­scribe their re­la­tion­ship as “per­fect” has gone down from 9.2 to just 5.9 per cent.

The il­lu­sion of the per­fect cou­ple is just that — an il­lu­sion — and no­body feels the pres­sure of main­tain­ing this façade of mar­i­tal nir­vana more than the cou­ple them­selves, as Rachel, a PR direc­tor in her late-for­ties can tes­tify.

Mar­ried for the best part of ten years to a good-look­ing, kind and hard-work­ing man, she had it all — two chil­dren, a four-bed­room house with a huge gar­den, mul­ti­ple hol­i­days and a great group of friends — and con­stantly posted pic­tures of their per­fect fam­ily life on Face­book, to prove it.

“And yet, I knew I loved my hus­band like a brother,” she says. “He wasn’t my match. I al­ways wanted to tell some­one I knew it wasn’t right, but how can you do that when all your friends are his friends, too, and all your fam­ily adore him? I felt like I had made my bed and I had to put up with it.

“Mak­ing my life look fan­tas­tic con­vinced me — and ev­ery­one around me — it was all fine, but it was such a pres­sure to main­tain and I was in­cred­i­bly lonely. We lay like strangers next to each other at night, pre­tend­ing to read books.

“I only faced up to the re­al­ity when he be­came se­ri­ously ill, be­cause I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life car­ing for him. When I told peo­ple we were split­ting up, it took a long time for them to ac­cept it as they had no idea.”

Psy­chother­a­pist Caron Bar­ruw, who has been coun­selling cou­ples in cri­sis for the last 20 years, is of­ten con­fronted with cou­ples who ap­pear to have an idyl­lic mar­riage on the out­side and yet are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing deep, some­times ir­repara­ble, prob­lems within.

“It’s usu­ally one party who is busy mak­ing sure that ev­ery­thing looks per­fect, send­ing the kids to the right schools, go­ing on the right hol­i­days, ob­sessed with do­ing the things they should be do­ing in­stead of feel­ing things they should be feel­ing,” she ex­plains.

“This per­son is of­ten a per­fec­tion­ist who sets the cul­ture of the cou­ple and lives life as if it’s a pre­sen­ta­tion, un­able to be truly in­ti­mate or cope if things go wrong. And if they’re un­happy, they not only don’t ad­mit it to friends but they don’t ad­mit it to them­selves, be­cause do­ing so would cause the façade to crum­ble.

“So they put up with hus­bands al­ways be­ing on the phone on holi- day, for ex­am­ple, by con­vinc­ing them­selves the kids had a great time, they were stay­ing in a beau­ti­ful place and brush­ing the prob­lems away. Con­se­quently, they live un­der enor­mous pres­sure.”

Cara, 55, knows this too well. Mar­ried for 21 years to an in­vest­ment banker and self-made mil­lion­aire, she had a life many could only dream of; three beau­ti­ful chil­dren, lux­ury cars, di­a­monds, four hol­i­days a year and a vi­brant so­cial life.

“Peo­ple al­ways saw us as a happy, strong cou­ple,” she says. “Ev­ery Satur­day night, we’d go out with friends, and we’d laugh and chat and no­body would have a clue what was go­ing on be­hind closed doors. And the sec­ond we got into the car, this feel­ing of ut­ter sad­ness came over me; a de­spair and dread to be back there, alone, with him.

“At that time, no­body was di­vorced, we all had young chil­dren and ev­ery­one else seemed happy in their mar­riages, so I con­vinced my­self I was. Even to­wards the end, I car­ried on as if we were go­ing to be to­gether for­ever, looked at buy­ing a house abroad, got ar­chi­tects in to ex­tend the house again. But in­side I just kept think­ing, ‘how can I do this, how can I keep pre­tend­ing?’.”

It took the chil­dren leav­ing home, and meet­ing an­other man, for Cara to fi­nally call an end to her sham of a mar­riage.

“Our crowd of friends couldn’t un­der­stand it,” she says, be­cause for them, it had come out of the blue. “They thought I was mad. Even my fam­ily kept ques­tion­ing my de­ci­sion for a few years af­ter. I shouldn’t have kept my un­hap­pi­ness a se­cret for so long.”

But ad­mit­ting to mar­i­tal woes is of­ten not an op­tion. In their book Holy Mat­ri­mony: An Ex­plo­ration of Mar­riage and Min­istry, authors Mary Kirk and Tom Leary ex­plored the ex­pec­ta­tion by con­gre­ga­tions that clergy cou­ples role-model the ideal do­mes­tic re­la­tion­ship, not­ing a high in­ci­dence of de­pres­sion in wives as a re­sult.

“Clergy wives and hus­bands have a tough time of it, as do politi­cians — they have to be role mod­els for the com­mu­nity and feel they are let­ting the side down if their mar­riage is fail­ing, which puts enor­mous stress on them,” agrees di­vorce strate­gist, Suzy Miller.

“The dan­ger is that it’s harder for them to openly take steps to im­prove the sit­u­a­tion. We still live in a cul­ture where in­stead of ap­plaud­ing a cou­ple who go to coun­selling, we think, ‘oh dear, their mar­riage is in trou­ble. It’s prob­a­bly only a mat­ter of time’.”

The key, ac­cord­ing to Nicky and Sila Lee, a mar­ried cou­ple who de­vel­oped The Mar­riage Cour­ses to help cou­ples pre­pare for — and sus­tain — their mar­riages, is a greater aware­ness that there is no such thing as a per­fect mar­riage. And so there’s no need for the rest of us to feel bad about not be­ing in one.

“We are of­ten pre­sented with ide­al­ized im­ages of what mar­riage and fam­ily should look like, but we are all flawed hu­man be­ings and learn­ing how to ar­gue well and re­solve con­flict is nec­es­sary to build the health of a mar­riage — the sub­stance of it, not just the im­age of it,’ says Nicky.

“Peo­ple need to be real about the stress and pres­sures within their mar­riage and be trans­par­ent about them. Mar­ried cou­ples now are of­ten more iso­lated than those in the past, thanks to liv­ing away from fam­i­lies and tra­di­tional tight-knit com­mu­ni­ties, so they need to find trust­wor­thy sup­port else­where, per­haps with an el­derly per­son or a friend not within their im­me­di­ate so­cial cir­cle, so they don’t feel so ex­posed.

“Just talk­ing to some­one and nor­mal­iz­ing prob­lems in­stead of brush­ing them off can punc­ture the façade and re­lease the pres­sure.’

Pope Fran­cis him­self put it beau­ti­fully, and bluntly, when he re­cently ad­mit­ted, “a per­fect fam­ily does not ex­ist”.

So stop pre­tend­ing, ev­ery­one. Please.

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