This past Saturday I went to see Mark Gungor speaking on how to laugh your way to a better marriage. Or, more accurately, I saw a video of him speaking to people about this. While I am good at many things, I freely admit that I am (or was) bad at marriage. After I was divorced, my ex-wife said that I was a good man and a good friend, but a lousy husband. In retrospect, I can see that she was quite right.
Like almost everyone who has been divorced, I have often thought about why my first marriage did not work out. While there are all sorts of specific reasons, one general problem that almost everyone faces is that people really have no idea what they are doing. Marriage, as the experts will tell you, is very different from dating. It is even different from living together. I do not just mean the legal difference (although that is a major factor). After all, the whole dynamic changes, leading to a clear distinction between BM (before marriage ) and AM (after marriage). Because of this, dating and even shacking up tend to be fairly poor preparation for marriage. As such, it is hardly a shock that experienced (and often young) people often fail at marriage-even when they are sincerely trying.
Not surprisingly, there are all sorts of experts pushing books, seminars and DVDs who purport to be able to give marriage advice. I’m generally skeptical of such products. First,I know that the entire field of psychology lacks a solid foundation and there is considerably disagreement even among those who claim to be experts. Hence, I have no real idea who to regard as credible (if anyone). Second, these products tend to grossly oversimplify complicated matters, usually by presenting a gimmick method that defines the author’s product. Third, I am always suspicious of people who are trying to sell an idea. Of course, this does not mean that such products are useless. Rather, they should be approached properly: with skepticism and low-expectations. Just as a book on running a marathon won’t make you a top athlete, a book on marriage will not make you an awesome spouse. However, just as a book on running can provide some useful advice, so too can products on marriage.
Gungor’s approach, at least in the first hour, was a fairly stock approach. He noted that men and women generally have different behavior patterns that can lead to misunderstandings. For example, men are single-task creatures and women multi-task. As another example, men compartmentalize heavily and are weak on details while women connect everything and store details. That men and women are generally different is obviously true. Obviously enough, not-failing at marriage requires being aware of these differences and being able to work with them. Maybe.
Gungor’s main focus was on sex. As he noted, a big chunk of marriage (at least in the West) is sex. He presented the standard view of men and women. Men, he noted, are generally more interested in sex than woman are. This seems to be true, although it is important to take into account cultural influences. Despite Sex & the City, there are still cultural elements that push the idea that men like sex more than women do. His specific take on the matter is that men and women are the reverse of each other when it comes to sex. As he sees it, a man has to go through the woman’s heart to get to her vagina. In the case of a man, a woman has to go through his penis in order to get to his heart. This, of course, is the old stereotype that women are interested in love and use sex to attract and keep men. The stereotype for men is, of course, that we are interested in sex and will sometimes be nice to women in order to get it. This all seems true-at least in many cases and in very general terms.
Gungor’s main advice here is that this is the way people are and making marriage work requires dealing with it. Women need to accept that men want sex and that this is essential to getting men to be concerned about women’s hearts. Men need to accept that women are concerned about their hearts and that the way to get sex is to “be nice to the girl.” This way everyone wins: the man gets sex and the woman has her emotional needs met.
Being a minister, Gungor approaches this from a religious viewpoint. Not surprisingly, he asserts that women who have sex before marriage are being idiots, since they are giving up sex without getting what they really need (the heart). However, Gungor does not actually argue for his view, he merely asserts this.
It is worth noting that he does have a reasonable point here. While humans do like sex, we also have emotional needs (even us men). If a woman is simply having sex and not getting any emotional satisfaction because she “gives it up” without expecting any emotional effort from the men, then she is probably making bad choices. After all, healthy and rewarding human relationships require more than mere fornication. Even for us men. Really.
However, as Gungor presents it, a woman is an idiot if she is having sex outside of marriage. On the one hand, this does have some merit. After all, sex outside of marriage does put the woman at greater risk for STDs and pregnancy will generally be more of a problem. Also, from a purely practical standpoint, an unmarried man can simply leave with all his stuff, rather than having to leave behind half.
On the other hand, most of these safety features of marriage can also be had via monogamy and having a good partner. After all, the lowered risk of STDs does not arise because of marriage magic, but because of monogamy. That, of course, does not require marriage (and marriage is no guarantee of monogamy). Also, while marriage does lock a couple into a legally binding economic contract, it does not automatically make either person better or more responsible. What is missing is, of course, the legally binding economic contract. Even though the divorce rate is 50%, this no doubt encourages some people to stick with a relationship because ending it would be more costly. As such, it can be a useful means of providing an extra safety “hook” as well as providing some greater degree of financial security. After all, as noted above, an unmarried man (or woman) can leave at anytime and legally keep all his (or her) stuff. However, a married person has to consider that if he (or she) packs it in, he (she) has to leave behind at least half of his (or her) stuff.
As a final point, it might be thought that Gungor is advocating a form of prostitution. After all, he advises women to marry and get the heart stuff from the man rather than just giving it away without getting that ring. Of course, he is not telling women to hold out for cash for sex. Rather, he is giving women sound economic advice: do not give away a good or service without getting something of equal or greater value in return.
Looked at less cynically, his advice is basically good: in order for a relationship to work, those involved need to believe that their needs are being fairly met. Of course, this does not seem to entail that marriage is a necessity-unless, of course, that legal economic contract is a necessity for a specific woman.
So, here is my simple marriage advice: know what you need, know what the other person needs. Put effort into meeting those needs, provided that you regard them as legitimate and fair. Repeat until you get divorced or die.