The joys and challenges of marriage

U of M assistant professor talks building a happy marital relationship

The Thriving Center of Psychology found in a 2023 survey that 83 per cent of Generation Z and millennials would like to get married at some point in their lives. Yet with nearly half of people in relationships no longer believing in the institution of marriage, marriage rates have plunged in recent decades in Canada. One reason for this may be the fact that around 40 per cent of marriages nationwide end in divorce.

Michelle Jonathan, assistant professor in the U of M’s faculty of social work, explores relationship dynamics in marriage in her research.

“You always hear jokes saying getting married is like jumping into a well,” Jonathan said. “Whoever is outside the well wants to jump inside, and whoever is inside the well wants to come outside.”

“The truth is there is joy in marriage,” she said.

In a 2021 article, Jonathan explored marriage enrichment programs, which reduce the likelihood of couples separating or divorcing up to five years after completing the program.

Though they began as “faith-and community-based programs,” marriage enrichment programs are now commonly offered as public and private counselling. The programs focus on helping couples build the skills necessary to support their partner’s needs by negotiating clear and equitable expectations and roles.

The article states that “healthy marital relationships create happy adults, happy couples have happy children, happy adults and children build a healthy society.”

Jonathan explained how people may perceive struggles in their marriage or flaws in their partner that do not actually exist.

“It’s kind of like an onion,” Jonathan said. “We peel, and peel and peel and at last we see there is nothing.”

These false perceptions may begin as seeds planted by the people around us.

If, for example, a wife calls her husband multiple times while he’s out, his friends may remark that she’s annoying. The husband may then internalize these ideas, truly believing his wife is annoying.

Jonathan explained that many issues can be resolved by simply talking to each other. In between work and children, it becomes difficult for some couples to carve out quality time together.

“When we ask, they don’t even feel that there is a need to spend some time together at least once in a day, maybe 20 or 30 minutes,” she said.

Jonathan also underscored the importance of phrasing criticism in a thoughtful way.

“When we speak in a generalized way, we are attacking their personality, rather than their action on that particular occasion,” she explained.

When someone feels that their personality is being insulted, they are less likely to reflect upon and modify their behaviour. Generalized criticism, Jonathan noted, is simply not productive.

“[When we] understand unnecessary patterns of communication, it makes our relationships more beautiful and more meaningful,” she said.

A 2018 study Jonathan co-authored in 2018 looked at the impact of technology in marital relationships among a participant group of married heterosexual couples under the age of 50.

The study found that using a laptop separately while in the presence of a partner negatively affected relationships. In contrast, watching television together is correlated with a positive perception of the relationship. The authors explained that technology can be beneficial or detrimental “depending on the couple’s ability to manage, monitor, and reflect on its use.”

Jonathan noted that many marriages, though stable, are not sufficiently harmonious or intimate.

In the past, many couples did not feel the lack of intimacy that strains many marriages today. Jonathan noted that this is due to past generations having different needs for intimacy. Today, perceptions around intimacy have changed, leading to more people feeling that their intimacy needs are not met.

“Our thoughts have changed, our ideologies have changed, but our actions and behaviours have not changed,” she said. “The need for intimacy is different, but the behaviours [providing] intimacy are not matching it.”

Husbands often behave as they saw their fathers behave when they were growing up, while wives similarly behave like their mothers. Yet the level of intimacy demonstrated by parents is often not enough. Jonathan expressed that it is important for people to understand they may need to change their ways of connecting with their partner.

“Your marriage is like a garden,” Jonathan said. “There will be weeds coming in.”