The D-word

I have been working with couples for some time now, and I am often asked what my experience as a couple’s therapist has taught me about the key to a happy marriage. Marriage has been a hot topic since immemorial, a mystery many have failed to solve. What makes a marriage work? How to choose the right person to live the rest of your life with? Why do love marriages fail? Why do the best relationships only last until the honeymoon? Recently, divorce has become more common, and we are more frequently hearing about marriages falling apart. Be it a newlywed couple or a marriage of two decades, the D-word is being spoken more than ever. Many people, especially the older lot, blame it on the Western culture that has seeped into our sub-continental Eastern culture, which we believe is deeply entrenched in the family system and proudly flaunts our ‘until death does us part’ belief. Many believe women are far less tolerant and bit by the feminist bug, which is why marriages don’t work. Our patriarchal society, in my opinion, isn’t fostered by a misogynist attitude by men only but by toxic femininity too, who firmly stand by the fact that women are more educated and progressive now, financially independent, and so they are less tolerant and blamed for failed relationships. Another popular opinion is that social media is responsible, because of which there is more infidelity in relationships, and that’s why there is a lack of trust and loyalty in a marriage.
Every relationship and marriage must undergo a phase of rupture and repair. A man and a woman have their unique family history. They come from a different set of circumstances. Each has learned how to relate to others from the blueprint of their relationship with their parents. So now, in an adult intimate relationship, in the honeymoon period, the couple will have their defenses up. They will put their best foot forward, which is more of a presenting self they believe is loved and accepted by their partner. In that phase, combined with sexual intimacy, they will start to feel safe, and that’s when the defense guards come down and start acting out their primary relationship patterns. They start expecting their spouses to compensate for how their parents had failed them, which we commonly call mommy or daddy issues. The fights begin when a spouse cannot fulfill that expectation or understand the projection. For example, a wife who had grown up with a critical mother will be sensitive to benign feedback and perceive it as criticism and react to it because that’s the lens through which she sees others. And in that case, a husband will turn around and ask why he is being blamed. And the woman, despite understanding her illogical reaction, is confused about the intense feeling of self-worthlessness she experiences at that benign feedback. The couple unconsciously perceives the spouse as like the parent, and the past comes into the present.
So, any couple who will learn how to move past this projection and have an authentic relationship based on openness and the ability to navigate these complicated feelings will have a successful relationship.
Another reason marriages don’t work is that couples compromise on fundamentals before they tie the knot. In the name of love, which are hormones and romantic movies that feed the part of us that like fantasy, they ignore what matters to them and believe that the other person will change after the marriage, for example, religious differences, wanting to have kids or not, moral compass are issues that one should not compromise on or expect the other to change. For example, a couple will come where the man drinks and the woman doesn’t, and before marriage, knows about it but believes she can change her husband ten years into the marriage; alcohol is a third partner in the marriage, and it’s a toxic relationship.
So firstly, divorce is more common now as there is more self-awareness, and yes, it’s more normalized than before, and Eastern culture is merging with the West, and most people don’t want to stay unhappy in relationships.
So, if you choose a partner, know what you want in life, don’t compromise on the fundamentals, and have open conversations about having similar value systems and goals. From there onwards, every relationship will go through its growth cycle, so accept that with openness, grace, and respect, and you will have a happy marriage.

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at or her official website.

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