We recently published the analysis of the situation of Polish couples in 2010, signed by Barbara SMOLINSKA, psychotherapist, during the 30th anniversary of CANA. We also wanted to know how the situation of couples has changed over the last ten years and asked her for her current impressions. Barbara chose to enter into dialogue with Joanna, a psychotherapist of a younger generation. As the conversation is rich, we have chosen to publish it in several parts and we will continue later.
Marriage 40 years ago, marriage today
How do today’s culture and civilization influence relations? What are the ingredients/significant elements of love? And what do you really need to know about it? Barbara SMOLINSKA, psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor, answers these and other questions in an interview with psychotherapist Joanna PIEKARSKA.
Joanna PIEKARSKA: We want to talk about marriage as the CANA Mission celebrates its 40th anniversary. I thought the decision to get married four decades ago meant something a little different from what it is now. Some things were probably clearer and simpler… What do you think, Basia?
Barbara SMOLINSKA: Of course, 40 years is a very long period during which many changes in civilization and culture have taken place. I want to talk about advances in medicine, but also changes in traditional roles: female and male, shifting emphasis from shared and relational life to individual development, the predominant place of education and professional success above all … I got married forty years ago, and I really think it was easier at the time. In my community, it was a pretty obvious way of life to start a family. And at a younger rather than advanced age. I was 22 when we got married and that was normal at the time. I had just finished my studies and it seemed natural to get married after I graduated. In small towns, where many people only graduated from high school or vocational school, people married even younger – at 19 or 20 years of age …
That sounds a little strange today. It may have been a little different in Western Europe, but I am talking about Poland. It was the normal course of things for us to think about marriage or religious life. In fact, in Catholic circles, there were two lifestyle options. And that’s really changed in 40 years. It seems to me that the changes have gone a long way. Marriage today is not the only model of couple life, and I say this from the perspective of a therapy practice. As a marital therapist, I had to learn not to make assumptions. Thirty years ago, when a couple entered the office, it was obvious that they were a married couple. Then I gradually learned that it was not easy. Similarly, concepts, such as engagement, have changed somewhat. 40 years ago, people would meet, then get engaged and get married. Today, however, you sometimes hear in the therapist’s office that a couple who already have two children and has been living together for 6 years has just become engaged.
J.P.: And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re planning a wedding…
B.S.: I have to say that as a therapist, it was sometimes difficult to find myself in there. I find myself better there now, but it has been a difficult transition. I grew up in a different culture where getting engaged meant being closer to each other and thinking about a strong relationship. It meant a greater commitment than just two young people dating. The engagement period was the preparation of the wedding. Of course, it was still possible to withdraw, but the direction was clear. And now it turns out you can get engaged and live together – start building a family/community. Then there will be a wedding or not. Even when sometimes different people introduce someone with the words “my fiancée,” “my fiancé,” you don’t know what it really means. Not to mention the number of completely informal relationships. Many couples live without formalizing the relationship, either sacramentally or legally, so that even the word “concubinage” has lost its meaning.
J.P.: Nowadays, we often call “partner,” which, 10 or 15 years ago, was associated – at least in Polish – with the game of tennis or business. You had to find a word to describe your life partners, because it’s hard to call a man who’s 40 years old “my boyfriend.”
B.S.: We live in a time when there are a lot of proposals on how to live. You can be in a relationship, you can be single. You can travel, you can train almost to infinity. Relationships are also affected by the fact that distances have shrunk. Thanks to the Internet, we can meet people from all over the world, not just from our neighbourhood. You can meet someone from a faraway country, fall in love and be in a relationship with him/her. So many remote relationships arise. Much has changed with the gradual emancipation of women. Especially men have a hard time finding their place in this new relational world. There are also couples who choose to live separately. These are weekend relationships. Autonomy and independence are so appreciated that some people choose not to live together on a daily basis. So, as you say, a lot has changed. These are cultural changes. This, of course, influences the form of marriage itself, what we think of it and how we imagine it.
J.P.: You talk about valuing independence and I wanted to talk to you about it a little bit too. Independence is a mark of the culture of individualism in which we live. The individual’s own development is a priority and that is why we decide for marriage later, lest it interfere with this development … I, like you, got married when I was 22. But that was 10 years ago and it was a different experience for me. I had the feeling that I was going against current trends. I was faced with pressure from those around me, including my family, and a lot of questions if it wasn’t too soon. We heard, “If only you finish your studies, after all, your studies are the most important.” Even a few brothers in the community later confessed to me that they thought the same way, biting their tongues only tactfully … And that’s the case now: parents often expect young people to finish their education first, get a good job, be promoted, and then think about marriage. And in the age of ever more temporary contracts and the constant search for a perfect job, this moment of professional stabilization sometimes comes well into the thirties. So this pressure exists, there are many concerns about the future, work, material existence …
I was talking about my personal experience, but I will also refer to my work with patients. I often work with young adults, people between the ages of 20 and 30, who are looking for an eligible spouse. And they say more often than not that they want to find someone perfect. When I ask them how they know someone is perfect for them, it turns out they have a long list of requirements. And sometimes I think it’s perhaps not surprising that this research lasts for years. A relationship is often expected more to meet all wishes rather than the willingness to make efforts and build something with someone imperfect. And here I also see the influence of the culture of individualism. Even in Christian circles, nowadays, a spouse is often chosen as in “a casting”. Only to the list of requirements, it is added: “and he must be a believer”.” It has to influence the relationship that comes with it.
B.S.: You know, it’s very important because we really live in an age of individualism. As you said, it has become such an important value: individual development, self-realization. There’s a lot of focus on yourself here. Indeed, in a culture where we do not repair things, but throws and buys new things, we can approach relationships in the same way. Often already in the education of children appears such a project: “child project”. That he would go to the best nursery and kindergarten, to lead him on the path of intellectual development from the beginning. Since this is how life begins, it is clear that we are looking for a life partner later, in the same way. We build relationships later, because first our own development takes many years. The goal is to get the best education and then the best job. There is no place to learn to be in a relationship. And then it’s a bit like casting. People are not aware that such an ideal person cannot be found because him/her does not exist. And, in fact, that’s not the point. What does it mean if someone is perfect? There’s a big mistake at the very beginning. A mistake with a bad prognosis. It makes the relationship an object. And then we separate as soon as it turns out that this person is not perfect, after all. And if someone is firmly convinced that they must find the perfect candidate, they are doomed to eternal failure.
J.P.: Even if for a moment he thinks he has found it, disappointment comes quickly.
B.S.: Yes. Each person, after being better known, shows his/her flaws and imperfections, even small ones. His/her does not correspond to all our desires and needs: it is only a living human being. Then we look again for someone perfect and this ends with a series of disappointments.
J.P.: And if these people have already married, with this attitude, we know it will be difficult. Naturally, various crises occur during this relationship. And when the first crisis occurs, you may think, “My God, my husband has many flaws.”
B.S.: Or: “I was wrong.”
J.P.: You can easily think that engaging in this relationship was a mistake. But it is simply a crisis, that is, something difficult, which at the same time gives a chance for development.
B.S.: Exactly. A few years ago, I was running a section of readers’ letters in a psychological journal and I had to answer them. And to this day, I remember the letter from a woman who wrote that she had met a wonderful man. She listed all his virtues, how wonderful he was: at the same time, he was beautiful and he had many qualities. She had married him at the time and, about a year after the marriage, she wrote: “I don’t know what happened to this man, because he is completely different now.” And she noticed all these qualities mentioned at the beginning as her qualities. I remember answering this letter provocatively by saying in the first sentence that a witch had changed this man. But then I tried to explain it a bit … Even today, I remember how extreme it was. But, if we have this attitude, it will be difficult later to resolve crises and work on the relationship. Indeed, the functioning of human relations, their nature, are not transmitted anywhere: neither at school nor in marriage preparation classes. Understanding the relationship between the two spouses is a process, often overlooked. This is why many are convinced that what is most difficult is the search for the soul mate. Then, once the right candidate has been found and the two are married, it will be “cake”. This is the time when the work begins and few are aware of it, or so it seems to me. B.S.: Exactly. A few years ago, I was running a section of readers’ letters in a psychological journal and I had to answer them. And to this day, I remember the letter from a woman who wrote that she had met a wonderful man. She listed all his virtues, how wonderful he was: at the same time, he was beautiful and he had many qualities. She had married him at the time and, about a year after the marriage, she wrote: “I don’t know what happened to this man, because he is completely different now.” And she noticed all these qualities mentioned at the beginning as her qualities. I remember answering this letter provocatively by saying in the first sentence that a witch had changed this man. But then I tried to explain it a bit … Even today, I remember how extreme it was. But, if we have this attitude, it will be difficult later to resolve crises and work on the relationship. Indeed, the functioning of human relations, their nature, are not transmitted anywhere: neither at school nor in marriage preparation classes. Understanding the relationship between the two spouses is a process, often overlooked. This is why many are convinced that what is most difficult is the search for the soul mate. Then, once the right candidate has been found and the two are married, it will be “cake”. This is the time when the work begins and few are aware of it, or so it seems to me.
J.P.: There’s a reason that romantic comedies end in marriage, and it’s the long-awaited “happy ending.”
B.S.: Of course, there is a lot of joy and a lot of happiness at first. The beginning can be very beautiful and at the same time difficult. Moreover, the older the bonding people, the more difficult it is to find a modus vivendi, to find this common option in their lives. Because if a woman in her thirties or forties has lived alone and managed her finances herself, and the man too, it is not easy to start living together later. Indeed, it is necessary to agree on many things. I like to say that it builds a “we” from this “I” and “I”…. I also noticed, because I have been working as a marital therapist for over 30 years, that 30 years ago there were more “merger” couples, in psychological language, we would say “symbiotics”. I call these couples “just us.” There are the Kowalskis, but there is not Ms. Ewa and Mr. Adam. There is no separation. You can even hear it in language. During the consultation, such a couple declared: “We think so, we know it, we want it that way”. And it was not easy to “separate” such people, that is to say to know what Mr. and what Madame thinks. But now there are many more couples on the opposite side. These are the couples to whom I say at the end of the first meeting: “You have not built a “we” at all. It is the cultural influence that makes it difficult to build the “we.” I meet couples who separate everything: their beds, their bank accounts, their friends, their hobbies. Then, it is difficult to find a common space. A couple who recently visited me is going through a serious crisis. I asked them about their daily lives. And I discovered that they never ate together. For my part, I consider a common table and bed to be important. So I was curious to know why this couple doesn’t eat together. It turned out that they had different diets. This did not convince me because you can always sit together, even with different meals. But for them, it was obvious that if they ate differently, they preferred to eat at different times…. They very easily abandoned this habit, which strongly links the conjugal relationship.
J.P.: I think building the “we” is more of a challenge now, when there are so many things to choose from. When getting married is not easy, when women devote as much time to their work as men, when it is easier to achieve financial independence. We’re together by choice rather than necessity. And that’s probably good, because we have more freedom in it, and at the same time it involves challenges. Besides, being in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean being parents. I guess that 40 years ago, having kids was pretty obvious. My grandmother Maria, born in the 1930s, recently told me that when she got married, no one expected how many children there would be, because it was out of their control. Now, not only do we have that influence, but it is also more complicated. The problem of infertility affects 20-25% of couples and this is one of the dark sides of the progress of civilization. But it also became the subject of a decision: having children or not? It also changes something. Moreover, as you mentioned at the beginning, Basia, these male and female roles are no longer clearly defined. There are many things the couple has to say for themselves.
B.S.: It’s a huge change. Yes, we can complain that it was stereotyped … These roles, of course, were like that, but on the other hand, these roles existed and put the world in order. Getting married clearly defined what life would look like. 30 to 40 years ago, when many women were already working professionally, the model was such that a woman, outside of work, took care of all the household matters. These were predefined roles. You didn’t have to think about it, you just embraced the model. Now these roles have been called into question. The way of life of women and men has become very similar. As you say, everything is negotiable. And these are both important questions, like: what if we get married? if we live together and when? … as well as other less important issues. There is also a dilemma that used to be non-existent: are we going to have sex now or wait… And here, the situations are very diverse. Many couples start with sex and then try to build something. So it’s not trivial. In addition, two people who have been raised in the belief that their personal development is the most important often try to live together. Parents say, “The most important thing is that you study, that you study, my child.” The emphasis is solely on studies, in order to have a good professional situation. The rest, as with regard to daily life, goes to the background, or even is not taken into account. It turns out that the couple must be built by a common effort. And a lot of things happen. Depending on the personality of the spouses or partners, it will be a matter of either confronting the other and trying to submit him/her, or moving away from each other. Because if we don’t know how to live together, we just continue to live as singles, even if we say we’re in a relationship or we’re married. So it’s really hard to build a relationship right now. More difficult today than in the past. And, at the same time, without going into this process, it is impossible to live together satisfactorily. A way that will also bring us joy, not just frustration. But knowing the stages of couple life and the three components of love can help us build a life together.
J.P.: I’d like to go back to those steps, but for now I’ve been intrigued by these ingredients. So what is the “recipe for love”?
B.S.: There are 3 components of love that are the most important. Passion, intimacy and commitment. They appear in different proportions at different stages. More often than not, a relationship starts with a passion, especially if it starts with sex, which is where the passion is first and foremost. You should know that passion appears on its own. We do not have much influence on that. We also, unfortunately, have no influence on its demise over time. This is a fundamental knowledge that couples often do not have, unfortunately. Passion and falling in love are different things, but we make the same mistake. People often don’t realize that the stage of falling in love will end naturally…
J.P.: Our brothers Wojciech Sulimierski and Piotr Klimski have written a lot about this in their book on the myths of love. Their “thesis” is aimed at young people and aims to fill gaps in young people’s knowledge of love …
B.S.: As they say, falling in love is a step that will pass. It’s just going to be like that. It won’t stay at the same level of intensity throughout life, and many couples experience fear as it disappears. They think it’s not that, it was a mistake. Often, the words “falling in love” and “loving” are confused. A lot of people think, “I don’t like him (her).”
J.P.: Or: “I don’t love him anymore.”
B.S.: Yes, I don’t like him anymore, or maybe I didn’t like him at all. Has love passed? It’s a huge misconception, this myth of love that will be just as hot throughout life. And if it’s not like that, some say it means there is no love. However, psychiatrists say that falling in love is close to what happens in the brain during a mental illness. In the sense that it would not be good if we stayed at that level. In this state of mind, we cannot see clearly. We say in Polish that we look at someone through pink glasses. So we don’t see it clearly, we see our projections, our idealized image.
J.P.: And it helps us to engage …
B.S.: That’s okay. It helps because if we don’t, especially if we inherit difficult role models from our family, maybe we wouldn’t engage with anyone at all. Maybe there’s too much fear. So falling in love promotes the bond, but it passes. And there comes the second ingredient of love that is already to be built: intimacy. Intimacy is closeness, friendship, support, mutual empathy…. It’s building something for life. Finally, the third ingredient of love is commitment or will. I engage with this man for better or for worse. Those who marry in church express it in their consent to marriage. There are the words: “until death do us part.” And it requires a decision, a bottom-up attitude, which is very different from falling in love. I choose to love you: that doesn’t mean my heart beats with joy every time I see you. That’s not it. Working in a therapy practice shows that even mature people often don’t know it. Having extensive professional knowledge in their trades, they are deeply lost in the world of relationships. In Poland, psychology is not taught in high school and it is a great lack. Very often, young people do not know that it is necessary to look after a relationship, to work on it, to deepen it. We must not be discouraged from the first crisis because there will inevitably be one. They will also be different depending on the stages of life. This is part of the normal process.
J.P.: If sometimes young people find a savvy catechist, there is hope that he will talk to them about it, but not all of them take religious classes either…
In a seconde part, we will tell you what is the secret of happy couples and how you can really be together until the end, and enjoy it …
Who are the authors?
Barbara SMOLINSKA: psychotherapist and psychotherapy supervisor, head of the Pracownia Dialogu therapeutic centre in Warsaw. Together with her husband, Taddeusz, they are engaged for life in the Chemin Neuf Community and have been responsible for CANA in Poland for several years.
Joanna PIEKARSKA: journalist and psychotherapist. She collaborates with Pracownia Dialogu in Warsaw and runs a mental health blog called Therapeutic Notes. Together with her husband, Rafao, she is engaged in the Communion of Chemin Neuf.