Are you at risk of Perfect Marriage Syndrome?
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.