While over two thirds of couples experience profound marital disillusionment after the arrival of their first baby (Gottman & Gottman, 2007), it seems that marital distress is too taboo to talk about in most social circles. Two thirds of couples struggle in their marriages and next to no one talks about it. How did we get into this mess? A recent episode of the televised drama Desperate Housewives began with a dinner party scene that was at once intimate and disquieting. Two couples appeared to be relishing in the comfort of candlelight, quiet music, exquisite cuisine, and good conversation. The lovely evening went south the very moment the conversation settled on the personal topic of the flawed marriages of both the hosts and the guests. The ubiquitous narrator admonished, “if you want to throw a successful dinner party there are certain rules that must be followed… the number one rule for a successful dinner party: keep discussion of your marriage to an absolute minimum!”
While this ‘rule’ may serve to keep soiree conversation superficially pleasant, it contributes to the needless shame that many couples experience when marital bliss turns to marital disillusionment following the transition to parenthood. Societal norms dictate that we portray our marriages as the epitome of contented happiness regardless of the fact that marriage-after-baby-carriage always involves exhaustion and often involves arguments about fair division of labour at the expense of romance, connection, and intimacy. When not permitted to speak a word of their marital woes, couples are left with the unappealing option of sacrificing honesty and authenticity so as to create the façade of a thriving marriage. Consequently, many couples struggle through the early parenting years thinking that all other couples are infinitely happier in their marriages.
What can we do to help each other? Perhaps the next time you are in the company of close friends and you pick up on even the slightest hint of marriage distress, resist the urge to change the topic at breakneck speed, and ask, “how could we be helpful?” Or, honestly share something from your own personal experience of being married with kids “we’ve struggled with that too…” And, should you find yourself, experiencing marital strain, resist the tendency to keep all of the suffering to yourself. Know that others have been there too and reach out with questions about lessons learned, “If you had just one piece of advice for us, what would it be?” As a community of moms, we have a huge capacity to be helpful to each other. We are at times, quite ingenious at easing the strain in other areas of our lives—car pools, community meal preparation, play-dates, and cookie exchanges. How can we put our heads together to tackle this unspoken challenge of keeping conversation about marriages real? Perhaps the true measure of a dinner party’s success lies not in the extent to which rules are followed but in the extent to which guests are able to be authentic in their commiserating and collaborating. When perpetuating a façade for the sake of saving others a moment of awkwardness, couples deprive themselves of opportunities to lean on others for support; to benefit from learning that they are not alone in their struggles; and to collaborate about solutions for strengthening marital relationships. The façade in a word is, futile.