How Can Married People Want What They Have?

I once spent a weekend in another city with a couple who had been married for about 5 years. On my last night in town, I proposed taking them out to a posh restaurant to thank them for their hospitality.

As we prepared to leave the house, Lila looked over at her husband across the room and whispered to me “I’d forgotten how handsome he is”. And Randall did look handsome. Instead of his usual ratty jeans and T-Shirt, he was wearing a smart pair of slacks, a turtleneck sweater and a stylish blazer. He was cleanly shaved and well-coiffed to boot.

At dinner, Lila got up at one point and Randall watched her walk across the room. He was clearly mesmerized by his wife, which was understandable, as she had gone to the trouble to put on an elegant dress, attractive jewelry, and a tasteful amount of make up. She looked stunning, just as I remembered her from their wedding day.

I decided to do the gentlemanly thing and take a long smoke break, even though I don’t smoke. When I returned to the table they were cuddling like newlyweds. It was sweet to see.

A small moment in a long-term relationship, of a sort that I suspect will be familiar to anyone who is married or has married friends. Lila and Randall clearly loved each other, but had passed the point in their marriage where they would put the extra effort into getting dolled up for each other and going out on a date. That took the random impetus of a house guest, even though it was good for the marriage they treasured once they had been spurred into action.

When I was in marriage counseling game, I pondered this problem a lot. One doesn’t want married people to come home each night terrified that their spouse has abandoned them, i.e., at some level “taking your spouse for granted” is a good thing. But how to stop that level of security from sliding into laziness, lack of appreciation, and eventually, resentment and estrangement?

I encountered the other end of this phenomenon when counseling divorcing people. A large proportion of the divorced people I saw were working on some self-improvement project. Some were trying to quit smoking, others were taking courses in how to be a better listener, others were sprucing up their wardrobe and still others were trying to lose 10 or 20 pounds.

When I would ask my recently divorced patients why they were attempting to better themselves, the modal answer was “to attract a new spouse”. Knowing the marriages of the people concerned, I appreciated that in some cases they were exiting unsalvageable relationships. But in other cases I felt fairly sure that if the person had put as much effort into being a good mate to their spouse as they were now putting into being attractive to a complete stranger, the story of their marriage would have evolved very differently.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “How Can Married People Want What They Have?”

  1. It’s interesting that you should mention that. When I got married, one of the things my husband and I agreed on was that we wouldn’t stop dating (if only so that our marriage wouldn’t become routine). And we’ve now been doing it for about seven years, every 1-2 weeks (minus a couple of childbirth-induced breaks). That usually does mean going out (babysitting arrangements permitting, otherwise we’ll just have a candlelight dinner [1], movie, etc. at home, but with all the trappings of a date). And while, obviously, it more than that to make a marriage work, it has been one thing that has kept it not just working, but fun for us. In a manner of speaking, even after getting married and having children, my husband has never stopped being my boyfriend also, just as he still treats me as a girlfriend.

    While I’d like taking the credit for being so smart, in practice this was just one of the many pieces of advice I got from my mother and put to good use. 🙂

    It does take some conscious effort, though. During or after a busy workweek, it requires extra energy for something like this to set up (whether it’s something simple like booking a table at a restaurant, or making sure that I have a nice outfit ready, or putting on some light makeup, let alone finding a babysitter for the girls). I figure that finding that extra energy is a non-negligible problem for some people (it sometimes is for me, too, but then I force myself to do it anyway, because I know from experience that what I’m getting out of it is well worth getting over that hump).

    What has really been interesting though, is that my older daughter has taken a keen (and approving) interest in my preparations for such dates recently. I can only guess at what motivates her, but I remember that when I was her age, I had a very positive reaction to my parents, say, holding hands or going out, too. That was because quite a few of my friends had divorced parents, and while I had only the vaguest ideas at that age what a marriage actually entailed, it was pretty clear to me that my parents enjoying each other’s company was a good thing for both them and me.

    [1] In which case the kids get a special dinner, too, so they don’t feel neglected, but on their own.

    1. Katja: What has really been interesting though, is that my older daughter has taken a keen (and approving) interest in my preparations for such dates recently. I can only guess at what motivates her

      That is very nice to hear. From what I see, it seems to depend in part on the child’s age. Younger children may be the most positive. Some adolescents are put off by signs of their parents’ continued lovey-doveyness (perhaps most particularly at the thought their parents still have sex!).

  2. I’m going to locate the issue somewhere else: we generally know how to attract a stranger or an acquaintance. But (without continual, extensive communication) we may not know how to be a good mate to the spouse we have. Case in point: both of the descriptions of “date nights” above set my teeth on edge — but of course my spouse knows that, and I know similar things about her. Hence on recent nights away from the offspring we have: gone to a good movie, gone to a bad movie, gone to the gym, gone to the library to read quietly.

    1. Betsy: I thought that film was okay, but given the incredible comic gifts of Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, I think it should have been a lot funnier than it was.

    2. The movie that I immediately thought of was “Friends With Kids,” probably because I saw it recently but also because it depicts three different couples with kids. Apart from the main couple, whose complicated relationhips is what the film is about, one of the other couples has a highly erotically charged relationship — in an early restaurant scene with the three couples, they duck out to the restroom for a quickie. Couple #2 looks like the people Keith describes in their non-posh, everyday habit — kind of schlumpy. No spoilers, but it’s not hard to guess which relationship is more brittle.

  3. Marriage, to me, is a martial art, as it is to my wife. We’ve had the same sparring partner for 20 years, and don’t anticipate changing. It’s too much fun!

    1. Reminds me of a great exchange on the old Kung Fu TV show.
      Caine says to an old man “I practice the martial arts”.
      The old man responds “Me too, been married for 50 years”.
      Caine says “No, MARTIAL arts, it’s different”.
      Old Man laughs and says “I can see you’ve never been married”.

  4. +1 for setting aside dates within marriage.

    The trick in my (happily married) experience is only partly to continue interesting your partner, but also to go out of your way to notice the things your partner is doing to interest you. It’s a two way street.

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