I am a fan of old movies. The other day TCM featured films of Greta Garbo. I watched as in "Conquest" (1937) she treated Napoleon like a peer and a common suitor, a forerunner of the modern independent co-equal partner in a relationship.
But it was watching, "Susan Lenox (Her Rise and Fall)" (1931) that set me to writing. As I watched her and a very young Clark Gable (sans moustache) in love and in battle, but never in sync, I realized I'd seen this theme played out in movies dozens of times; so often, it felt trite. And then I realized, DUH, as a divorce attorney, I see this play out all the time.
In the movie, as in real life, the couple find themselves being challenged to interpret what is going on before them. Do they respond to each other with trust? Do they inquire, or assume? Do they believe, or doubt? Over and over, in the movie his ego insecurity, and acceptance of societal stereotypes, lead him to misjudge her loyalty and virtue. While at the same time, his lack of trust and rush to assume the worst, lead her to judge him unworthy of the effort to explain. You want to shout, "Just explain to him! Listen to her!" But they don't. Then, because it is a movie, as soon as they are apart, their love reasserts itself and pulls them back into a collision orbit.
In real life couples often follow the same script -- without the movie's exotic settings or happy ending. Insecurity, doubt, and guilt, conspire to draw us to assume the worst rather than the best, to conclude before we inquire, and if we hear at all, to doubt rather than trust the explanation. If it happens twice, subsequent claims of trust and belief are sure to be met with doubt.
Despite our best intentions and the underlying love we feel, such a pattern feeds on itself. Distrust is a highly effective way of undermining commitment. In the movies, love persists and the conflicts resolve before the credits run across the screen. Real life is not like the movies. Wounds we are dealt from those we trust and love, are ultimately, wounds to our trust and love. Without intense effort and the aid of skilled guidance, those wounds heal slowly, if ever. So, prevention is to be preferred over efforts at cure. The simple, but challenging, method of prevention is effective communication.
Why is couple's communication difficult? I think, because once the bond is forged and the commitment made, we relax. Courtship requires effort. It isn't our natural state. We seek the bond of marriage so we can relax. Courting becomes an occasional activity. Familiarity permits casualness to replace attentiveness. It excuses a lack of focus, and fosters not being consistently, "in the moment." All those qualities, which are in the forefront when we are courting, tend to go missing when the courtship phase is over. Our efforts at maintaining harmony slacken. Our drive to make-up slows. For some reason we expect our partner's conclusions about meaning will always match our intent.
The unfortunate truth is, we aren't socialized to act as partners, to work collaboratively. In real life there are challenges to be met, decisions to be made, choices that seem to be about right and wrong. Under this pressure, our instinct is to pursue our own interest, to be competitive. Our competitive self -- carefully hidden during courtship -- wants to return, ready to make up for lost time. The "Us" of courtship typically quickly reverts to "me" versus "you," a contest creating winners and losers. This is typical of the shift from "Romance" to "Reality." It is a dangerous time. Struggles for dominance and control want to come to the fore. They form patterns of action and response that come to characterize the relationship. This is not the path to a successful marriage partnership. Partnership and collaboration require skill sets we have to learn, and to continually practice.
Until now couples were left to work these things out for themselves. "Your parents did it, and so can you," is the implied, and sometimes explicit message. "You have your love," we're told, but unless the wellspring of love is regularly refreshed, the reservoir of acceptance, warmth, and forgiveness can dry up, and in today's world with it's ever quickening pace, the common expectation of instant gratification, and the constant high-level of stimulation, that drying up can begin amazingly quickly. As a result, patience, and the willingness to struggle for a long-term benefit, are in short supply. Add to this the availability of no-fault divorce in every state, and it is little wonder that the divorce rate hovers just under fifty percent.
But at last there are beginning to be resources for couples willing to recognize the need for help with the transition from "Romance" to "Reality," with the development of practical partnership skills. Around the U.S., in Canada, and elsewhere, collaboratively trained professionals are becoming available to lead couples through a process called Collaborative Marriage Planning (CMP). Hopefully, with a growing recognition that the partnership and collaboration skills necessary for successful marriage can be learned and developed, we will get to a time when movies won't be able to use couple's miscommunication as a standard plot device. Instead when we watch those old movies we'll be able to think, what a shame they didn't have access to the head start advantage we have.