All in the (TV) Family

As a child I watched a good amount of TV. It was the 1980s and sitcoms and dramas were bountiful. My weekly roster of shows included The Cosby Show, Magnum P.I., Growing PainsFamily Ties, and Full House to name a few.  In my innocence, I believed that many of these shows reflected family life with accuracy and authority.  And I was convinced that they portrayed some kind of ideal. When I watched the married couples handle an assortment of challenges from unruly children to tough decisions regarding the stay-at-home parent, I was surely satisfied with the conclusions. But let’s face it, nearly every problem was nicely wrapped up with a lovely bow on top at the end of each episode—that’s television.  The exception was with the show All in the Family and then the spin-off show Archie Bunker’s Place.

It must have been Archie Bunker’s Place that I watched, occasionally.  I know it wasn’t with any regularity because that show plain scared me.  There was a mean man of the house who yelled most of the time and with the yelling came condescending, racist, and seemingly misogynistic insults. I didn’t understand why anyone in the family wanted to live with Archie. And I especially didn’t understand how his wife Edith could handle such meanness. The show’s intentional bigotry for the purpose of defeating bigotry was lost on me. However, when I look back now on the dynamic between Archie and Edith I realize that while there was inequality in their marriage, they actually appeared to be a compatible couple. Edith wasn’t a complete pushover and Archie did yield to her guidance on more than one occasion. It was a different time then and the expectations of marriage seemed to be different.

The TV family no longer influences my ideals nor does it contribute to any potential fears that I may have toward marriage, partly because I don’t watch much TV now, but mostly because I’m not as impressionable. I’ve witnessed enough in my life to understand that marriage is complex. There are countless ways that couples must work at being loving and compassionate and at compromising.  So where do people gather skills for marriage? If not from TV, we all learn how marriage functions from somewhere.

For most of us we learned about marriage through what we witnessed in our environments. If our parents were married when we are children, we observed how they related to each other, how they dealt with issues and stress. If they weren’t married or weren’t present, then we still may have gained some knowledge of our parents’ relationships, or by watching other couples. When I think about it, our society makes many assumptions about marriage preparation.  How are we to learn about marriage by only witnessing?  Shouldn’t there be required classes on the subject? Like with math and science, isn’t it a necessary course?

The answers seem obvious to me. Yes, we need marriage preparation because it is a necessity. I don’t imagine that I have inherent knowledge and wisdom about how to contribute to a successful marriage. I’ve heard about parenting classes and I’ve heard about marriage preparation courses.  I even know of people who went to counseling before they decided to get married. This all makes sense to me, but I wonder if this type of preparation is common.  I imagine it may be viewed by some as a sign of deficiency. However, even if two people have previous relationship experience, that doesn’t mean that they’ve acquired the tools and skills for marriage. My vote is that we make marriage preparation courses somehow mandatory, or at least encourage others to investigate.

Personally, I’ve peeked at some marriage preparation material, but I haven’t taken the time to really study it.  I think it’s now time to study.

18 Years, but Who’s Counting?

I’m intrigued with Edward Burns’ film “Newlyweds”. I’ve viewed it several times now and each time I make a new connection.  The main storyline is a comment on marriage and the dynamics around new marriages.  For most people who watch it, they won’t necessarily find magnificent revelations; however, there are some witty observations.  In the beginning of the film one of the main characters—one half of the newly wedded couple—makes a comment to his sister-in-law about her failing marriage: “You’ve been married for eighteen years . . . if it ended today you could probably call it a success, right?”

In American society it’s an undeniable fact that a great number of marriages end in divorce.  While I am interested in exploring divorce at some point, in this moment I’m most curious about the idea of success in marriages and what defines this success for different people.  I’m not placing judgement on any specific attitude or standard, but I would like to know if most couples take stock throughout their marriages in order to maintain healthy, loving, unions.  Or, does this tend to happen only when the relationship is coming to an end?  And if a marriage is terminated, is the measure of its success based on how long it lasted? I imagine for many, this is a guiding principle. Like with a marathon, there is a finish line for every couple and those lines will be at different points along the race. Maybe this perspective is truly what this society needs right now in order to weather the “failure”.

The experience of failure can lead to shame and even trauma, and I don’t mean to make the focus simply a psychological dilemma. However, the idea of divorce leads me to wonder if people are choosing to not get married because they can’t imagine being in a marriage that will make it to the “finish line”, whatever that means for them.  Recently, a friend and I were talking about a trend we’ve been observing among the non-married people we know.  My friend shared that many of her single associates and friends want to remain single because they believe there is potentially more to lose—financial, emotional, and personal power—by getting married than if they fly solo.  They see marriage as too high of a risk and they’d rather just live their lives and do the best they can to be happy.

While there are marriages that travel through horrific trials and arduous tribulations, not all marriages are as exasperating, right?  Through the ups and downs, there are many points of achievement and joy.  However, it seems like many people are walking on shaky ground in their marriage. I’ve heard people say, “We’ve been married  for ____ years. I hope that we can ‘make it’, but you never know.” Does this apprehension come from real challenges that a couple may be facing or for some people, do they enter into their marriages expecting the worst?

In the end, regardless of the successes, it seems that the failure of marriages is taking the lead. I can appreciate that this reality is daunting.  I want to have a healthy marriage someday, and I genuinely want people to be happy and to thrive in their lives and relationships. But, there is a real loss of hope and a lack of confidence in the prospect of success in marriage. And this may be what is keeping many people out of the race.

Marriage – An Eternal Tradition or A Thing of the Past?

I realize that marriage is not dead. There are plenty of people who get married every day, every week, around the world. But, why does it feel like fewer and fewer people are interested? Why do I continue to hear people in their twenties and thirties swear off marriage? Maybe this only applies to those living in the U.S. Maybe if I were to ask someone in Papua New Guinea or Sweden, the sentiment would be far different.

3 years ago I recognized my desire to make a documentary film about marriage. I’m not yet married, but I plan to be someday. As I’ve reflected on what I value about it for my personal life, my inclination has also been to speak with others about their beliefs, fears, losses, joys, and hopes related to the topic.

I’m compiling material and research on the subject from essays, self-improvement books, film and television, academic research, and yes, personal contacts. Don’t worry, I’m not going to reveal any private information here in a way that identifies people. That will only be in the case of the film with a subject’s permission. At any rate, there is a lot to say about marriage and I have only begun to wrap my mind around this immense topic. My goal here is to start and carry on a conversation, an exploration. We’ll see where it takes us.

Going back to my question: Why does it feel like fewer and fewer people are interested? This seems to be an accurate perception, but I’m open to being wrong. Maybe the articles I read, the comments I overhear, and the conversations I have (sometimes brief) are not truly reflecting the state of our society. It could be that I’m narrow-minded and intolerant. Whatever the reality, my curiosity has been piqued. I’ve decided that I’ll start exploring answers for my film by traveling closer to home in the U.S. Then I’ll see about traveling abroad. And in the meantime, I’m investigating right here while siting in the comforts of my home. I look forward to learning from all who join this unfolding conversation.