Castles In The Air

This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 28 October 2000.

“Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, mocking the distortion in the lover’s gaze that marks the onset of passion. The beloved is on a pedestal, viewed through a soft and gentle lens. So how then, does love survive when the romantic haze lifts and the daylight begins to expose the inevitable faults?

In these troubled times, when so few marriages achieve lasting contentment, there are still some couples for whom the romance does not fade. How they manage to maintain the joy in the face of human frailty is attracting the attention of scientists keen to dissect the essence of marital happiness.

The answer, some say, lies in the very illusions that first blind the love-struck to each other’s faults. The glue that binds two people together in a satisfying marriage depends not on cool realism, on knowing and embracing a partner’s flaws, but on maintaining illusions that portray the other in the most generous, flattering light. This process of weaving the good story, of embellishing a partner’s virtues and minimising his or her faults, enables people to maintain confidence in their decision to commit to a less-than-perfect partner, even as flaws start to emerge.

Sandra Murray, a psychologist from the University of Buffalo, believes people in successful marriages construct stories about their partners, exaggerating their good qualities, to diminish their own feelings of doubt and to reaffirm their positive convictions. “Well, he may not spend much time with the family, but that’s because he is such a hard worker,” a wife might say. Shortcomings are recast as positives and favourable behaviour is viewed as characteristic of the loved one, while negative behaviour is attributed to external, unstable causes.

Haven’t we all at some time marvelled at couples who clearly revel in each other’s company? “What on Earth do they see in each other?” we wonder, shuddering at his bad teeth and crass jokes. Yet she clearly finds much that is appealing, just as he dotes on her despite her vacuous talk and inane giggle.

Contented couples collude to see the best in each other and their confidence in each other’s motives fosters the trust and security needed to act selflessly in the face of conflict. Murray and her colleagues, John Holmes from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and Dale Griffin from the University of Sussex, found that couples who maintain positive illusions are better able to overlook transgressions and prevent minor issues becoming serious conflict. It’s hardly surprising then to discover new developments in clinical work with troubled couples which is all about teaching them to create “the good story” about their relationships.

A Melbourne University historian, Anne Waldron Neumann, writing about The Simpsons, suggests that what adults dislike and children value about this TV program is the harsh light it shines on our social imperfections. But there is a deeper story, which Waldron Neumann illustrates by discussing the mystery of why Marge continues to stay with Homer, her nearly irredeemable slob of a husband. Marge clearly recognises the imperfections in Homer, but his faults pale under the steady gaze of her loyalty and affection. The lesson is that slight perfections can be found, as they can in Homer, even in those we believe most imperfect.

Yet isn’t it inevitable that reality will break through, destroying the artifice of illusion? As Stendhal wrote in his essay On Love: “What happens is that the imagination, violently wrenched out of delicious reveries in which every step brings happiness, is dragged back to stern reality.”

That’s certainly the popular view. Self-delusion is treated with contempt, a couple’s efforts to skate and gloss over each other’s frailties are seen as foolish and unenlightened. To maintain a front of happiness through selective perception is to invite inevitable disillusionment, says the modern commentary on marriage. Witness Heather Jelly of SeaChange, a fine practitioner of the art of illusion. She’s determined to play the good wife to her husband, Bob, finding in him heroic qualities well hidden from public view. But her generous spirit is severely dented when they end up with a marriage counsellor who confronts her with the depths of her husband’s self-centred insensitivity.

Asked by the counsellor to fill in a questionnaire about her preferences, Bob is exposed. He knows nothing about her, incorrectly guessing at her favourite book, her favourite singer, colour. “Purple! Robert, are you mad? Have you ever seen one item of purple in my wardrobe?” As Heather absorbs her husband’s choice of the colour purple and all that says about his lack of attentiveness, the scales fall from her eyes. The facade of the happy marriage crumbles to reveal the hollow shell of their intimacy.

What’s striking about such scenes in popular culture and often in real life is that it is usually the woman who experiences the revelation. A man sails on, believing all is well, while the woman’s world is turned upside down by disappointment with her marriage.

Could this be due to the fact that most men still live unexamined lives? Like a cat with a rubber mouse, women tease and claw and worry at their relationships while men accept their lot and get on with the job, never suspecting it is all about to fall apart at the seams. Research by Peter Jordan, a Brisbane Family Court counsellor, found most men were caught totally unawares by the break-ups of their marriages. “It was like being hit in the head by a piece of four-by-two,” was one man’s comments when he found his illusions crashing at his feet.

Or is it that women are the ones missing out? That is the view of feminist scholars such as the British sociologists Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden, who have made it their mission to expose the “we’re ever so happy, really” deceit they believe protects many marriages. They are convinced that the inequities and disadvantages suffered by women in their relationships are such that women’s illusions must inevitably break down. There’s no question that these researchers are right in seeing female disillusionment as the greatest threat to modern marriage. And they correctly define the issues at the heart of this discontent: women’s quest for more equal partnerships and their lust for intimacy, for greater emotional reciprocity in their marriages.

“In the end, we are left with an extraordinarily heightened set of expectations about the possibilities in human relationship that lives side by side with disillusion that, for many, borders on despair,” writes the American sociologist Lillian Rubin who, in the early 1980s, was one of the first to document women’s dissatisfaction with the lack of emotional connection in their marriages. They yearned for their men to supply the intimacy based on shared feelings and confidences that traditionally enrich women’s relationships with each other.

“It is undeniable that women, on the whole, are less satisfied with marriage than men are,” says Ken Dempsey, a sociologist at La Trobe University, whose work on emotional satisfaction has evolved from research on housework. His latest research finds many men and most women see marriage as offering a better deal to men with housework and child care the central issues and women far more vocal in listing causes of dissatisfaction.

Yet is it true, as Duncombe and Marsden would claim, that disappointment is inevitable? Given the strength of the current cultural push for women to find fault with their marriages, a remarkable number of women still seem determined to count themselves as happily married, despite situations that for others would be cause for despair.

It’s fascinating to speculate on the role of illusions in maintaining this situation. Take housework, the example researchers like Murray often choose to illustrate the positive power of illusion. Most Australian women, says Dempsey, still see the division of domestic work as fair, despite the burden falling mainly on their shoulders. He believes the explanation may lie in positive illusions, with women in contented relationships using all sorts of ingenious ways to play down or spin-doctor the inequities. They talk only about how good their husbands are with the children (ignoring the fact that Dad’s time is always play time, while they do the hard slog of child care). They choose to see themselves as lucky by comparing their partners with other, less helpful men. They focus on their husbands’ long hours in paid work, downplaying the equally onerous burden of their own dual shifts.

“It’s both fascinating and surprising,” says Dempsey. “You can have a situation where a wife does all the work and most of the child care, but she’ll be quite happy, seeing her situation as perfectly fair because she benefits in other important ways. For instance, her husband is good with the kids, he spends time in her company, listens when she talks. But then you’ll have a woman whose husband comes home early and takes care of the kids, cleans floors, you name it. But she’ll be angry and bitter and say it’s unfair because in very significant ways their relationship is not delivering what she wants.”

The difference between these two women lies in the quality of their relationships and the use of positive illusions to help the happier woman make the best of her situation. The contented woman is receiving the emotional satisfaction she wants, so downplays sources of discontent. The unhappy woman sees domestic work as a battle front.

But there are those who hold a pessimistic view of illusion, most powerfully expressed by Arlie Hochschild in her book The Second Shift (1989). She is disparaging of “mental tricks” used by women to convince themselves they are content. She writes about “deep acting”, the “emotion work” required for women to ignore the inequities in their situation. Her suggestion is that the “false consciousness” sustained by deep acting invariably breaks down when women are forced to recognise their real feelings.

Dempsey, however, sees the opposite in his work: mainly women in stable marriages of an average 11 years who show little difficulty sustaining their positive illusions. If anything, he feels the process becomes easier as the marriage continues, as couples move beyond the young children phase, usually the time of greatest inequity and marital strain. The evidence is that tensions over housework tend to ease as couples move into later stages of their marriages. It may be that battles over this issue have passed their peak, if younger generations of men prove more willing to share the work and couples have fewer children to add to the strain.

And even when conflict emerges, Murray believes positive illusions can reduce the strain. “My work doesn’t mean that people won’t come up against difficulties and things that are unfair. But they are more motivated to work through difficulties if they can link a partner’s weakness in one area to other strengths. To be constructive about tackling problems, you need reason to believe your partner is not behaving this way because he or she is a horrible and selfish individual. That means reframing your partner’s behaviour in a more positive light.”

And what of women’s quest for intimacy? With Dempsey’s work so clearly spelling out the role of emotional satisfaction in reframing inequities in domestic work, it becomes all the more critical for men to provide the intimacy that underpins this satisfaction.

This could well prove the tougher ask, suggested a British sociologist, Vic Seidler, in his groundbreaking 1985 essay: “Sometimes it is easier to participate more actively in domestic work and child care than it is to change the tone and character of our emotional and sexual relationships. Often we simply don’t understand what is being asked of us. We dismiss the demand as emotional and silently hope that it will go away.”

Francesca Cancian, an American sociologist, in her book Love in America questions whether it is reasonable to judge men by women’s standards of intimacy. “Part of the reason that men seem so much less loving than women is that men’s behaviour is measured with a female ruler.”

Many social scientists, she suggests, use “a feminised definition of love”. So women appear to be better than men at intimacy because intimacy is defined as what women do: talk, express feelings and disclose personal concerns. Intimacy is rarely defined as sharing activities, being helpful, doing useful work, enjoying companionable silence. Because of this bias, men rarely get credit for loving actions more typical of them.

In one study of marital satisfaction by the University of Oregon, seven couples recorded their activities and their marital satisfaction for several days. Every day they noted how often the spouse did a helpful chore like cooking a good meal or repairing a tap, how often the spouse expressed affection and how satisfied they were feeling with the marriage. The wives thought their marital relationships were best on days when their husbands had verbally expressed affection to them, regardless of what the husbands did. But the husbands’ degree of satisfaction depended on their wives’ deeds, not their affectionate words.

But now the words are what matter. When the marriage ends up in trouble, men often find themselves, like Bob Jelly, in the hands of a marriage counsellor who validates his wife’s standards of intimacy. The man, unpractised in his wife’s type of talk, retreats into silence. “Talking about the relationship as she wants to do will feel to him like taking a test she has made up and he will fail,” says Cancian.

There’s much debate in the sociology literature about whether men’s silence is an expression of their helplessness in the face of unrealistic demands or rather, as Duncombe and Marsden suggest, that men’s rejection of intimacy “may be an act of almost deliberate aggression”. These sociologists believe men’s withholding from women of the emotional validation that they seek through intimacy becomes a source of male power, reinforced by men’s economic and structural superiority.

Economic power clearly allows men to dominate the public arena, but this is less true in private. In marital interactions there’s much to suggest the ground is shifting as more equal partnerships take the place of patriarchal authority. Women have gained the power to work and that has changed everything. Their move into the workforce has been found to be clearly linked to increased expectations in their relationships and, unlike previous generations, today’s married women have a choice about staying in their marriages. They expect more and are able to act on their convictions.

John Gottman, an American psychologist, recently published a study that tracked 130 newlyweds, observing how the couples interacted and then following them up for six years. The outcome was a surprise: “Men should forget all that psycho-babble about active listening and validation. If you want your marriage to last for a long time … just do what your wife says. Go ahead, give in to her … The marriages that did work all had one thing in common the husband was willing to give in to the wife. We found that only those newlywed men who are accepting of influence from their wives are ending up in happy, stable marriages.” The researchers suggest this is a recent development in marriage dynamics, coinciding with “the loss of power [in marriage] that men have experienced in the last 40 years”.

In Kate Grenville’s novel The Idea of Perfection Hugh Porcelline surprises his wife, Felicity, posing naked for an amateur photographer and local butcher, Alfred Chang. Hugh brings his wife home and puts her to bed with a plate of soup. “When things got awkward, it was always useful to need a rest,” says Felicity. Hugh is determined to carry on as if nothing has happened. His only comment concerns their son’s awareness of his mother’s adventures “Just not in front of William, darling”. They don’t talk about what happened.

The modern twist in Grenville’s novel is that it is the man rather than the woman who depends on illusion to maintain the happy marriage, with Hugh turning a blind eye to his wife’s unacceptable behaviour. What is striking about Grenville’s portrayal of Felicity is she is well aware of her power to exploit her husband’s dependence. “Just for that moment the space of a breath she knew how unbearable it was for him, how smiling and ticking things off on his fingers was the only way he could manage. She saw how it was her the choices she herself was making that was inflicting it on him. Just for one puncturing moment she saw herself: a cruel smiling child.”

For positive illusions to play a healthy role in marriage they require some mutuality, a shared complicity based on goodwill. Without that, there are endless possibilities for exploitation. The knowledge that all faults are forgiven tempts men and women into behaving badly. Felicity gets away with sexually betraying her husband because Hugh is determined to maintain illusions about his marriage. Bob Jelly still exploits Heather’s willingness to see the best in him.

Given the powerful cultural script discouraging women from allowing the good story to blind themselves to the faults in their men and their relationships, few Jelly marriages will survive. But the jury is still out on how long women will remain willing to weave illusions that confirm their belief in a man’s good heart and kind intentions, thereby narrowing the gap between their expectations of marriage and the reality.