Transcript: Wed., Jan. 19 at noon ET

On Love: Did you marry the wrong person?

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Ellen McCarthy and Christine Meinecke, Ph.D.
Washington Post Staff Writer and author
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 12:00 PM

Christine Meinecke, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of "Everybody Marries the Wrong Person." She joins The Post's Ellen McCarthy to answer your relationship questions and discuss her book.

McCarthy writes about weddings and relationships in Sunday's Arts & Style OnLove section.

Meinecke is a licensed psychologist and has worked with adults, couples and adolescents. Her book explores the myths of old thinking about romantic relationships and explains why self-responsibility brings fulfillment to relationships. To learn more about Meinecke, visit her website here.

For more marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our On Love section.

The transcript follows.

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Ellen McCarthy: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us today. I'm especially excited to have Christine Meinecke with us. She's a psychologist and author of "Everybody Marries the Wrong Person." She'll take questions about expectations in relationships and how some marriages are able to survive and thrive over the years. Let's get started.

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Columbus, Ohio: 1) How can one marry the "right" person when people often do not show their true selves or identity during the dating process?

2)Don't the lies and intentional omissions from one's past prohibit people from both entering and sustaining viable marriages?

Christine Meinecke: No one marries the right person. This is one of the most deeply entrenched conventional wisdoms, and believers in this myth end of feeling very let down. We all put our best foot forward when dating. We are also infatuated in the beginning. When disenchantment sets in, we feel we may not have married the right person afterall.

Those lies and omissions that you mention can be minor "enhancements" of self or can be signs of a "great mistake." See Chapter 3.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why would anyone torture themselves over whether they married the wrong person? This implies that there's a single right person. Compatibility and happiness are a continuum. We could all probably find someone who is more right or makes us more happy. At the end of the day, this type of inquiry will lead to doubt which will lead to more unhappiness.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for chiming in on this.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you say a few words about what you mean by "managing your own negative emotions"?

Christine Meinecke: Managing your own negative emotions is a key to behaving self-responsibly in any relationship. Ths means NOT acting on your first response which will be a negative one, if you feel the least bit threatened. It means learning to go with a rational second reaction.

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Sacramento, Calif.: While I agree that we each must take responsibility for our own happiness in life, I also believe we should ask whether we bring out the best in our spouse. It took me several failed courtships in my teens and twenties to realize that, in a potential mate, I was only looking for that which would make me happy. I finally realized that I should not want a marriage with the woman if I did not bring out the best in her, if she did not find happiness with me.

Later this month, my wife and I celebrate our 29th anniversary. While there have been ups and downs, I know that I bring out the best in her, and she in me. She completes me. I cannot imagine being any happier with any other woman, yet at the same time, I find her happiness to be more important to me than my own. There is no doubt in my mind that I did indeed marry the right person.

Ellen McCarthy: Wow, great perspective. Thanks for sharing.

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Bowie, Md.: How do you go about balancing the line between sharing with your partner those incompatibilities that weigh on your mind and effect your life vs. keeping them to yourself? Sharing them seems to foster insecurities. (I'm at peace with the partner I chose and love, but our differences make for a more challenging situation than most, I'd wager.)

Christine Meinecke: This is a great question! The key is to understand, as you seem to, that partners are not renovation projects. Think always in terms of looking at your own expectations, negative emotional responses, dark moods and insecurities and deal with them first.

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Northern Va.: I have been married for 15 years and am very satisfied in my choice of spouse. There have been many times I've felt that my spouse wasn't ideal but I've never thought I married the wrong person. In America today there seems to be this expectation of perpetual complete satisfaction. That if at any given moment you aren't totally satisfied, that alone is sufficient basis to end a marriage. I am a person of faith and believe it is my moral obligation to be and remain married with my mate. If you don't believe that it is an obligation, I don't really see what marriage really means?

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks.

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Washington, d.c.: I feel like my husband and I get too stuck in our routine. The occasional date isn't enough with a 2 year old and one on the way. How do we get a hold of what once made us so attracted to the other?

Christine Meinecke: Another great question. We are only infatuated once! There is so much out there about recapturing the magic but, in my opinion, it really can't be done. We must get past disenchantment to mature love. This involves focusing on the strengths of your partner that attracted you in the first place. The entire last half of the book describes how to go about this.

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Baltimore, Md.: In your research, did you find people who believed in this "old conventional wisdom", believed they had found the "right" person, and had a very satisfying long lasting marriage?

Christine Meinecke: Of course, some people always feel that they married "the right person." What I believe they are really saying, though, is that they learned how to love in a mature way.

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That's the wrong question:Thanks for taking my early question! I think it's emblematic of the state of marriage in our society today that someone would even contemplate this question. The institution of marriage has devolved in to something that more resembles 7th grade crushes and high school sweethearts that what it was to previous generations. Marriage is permanent. Period. All the soul-searching and examination of self and the potential spouse should come BEFORE. No one forces anyone to get married. No one needs to get married. You can always say no.If you don't believe in the permanency of marriage then don't get married. Have another kind of relationship that won't be as painful and legally difficult to end... say like a 7th grade crush. All that said, perhaps society has changed to the point where government should no longer endorse or enable marriage the way it does now. But in any event, people should understand that once they get married it shouldn't matter if they married the "wrong person." I reject the concept of the "wrong person" in that we can learn to accommodate any human idiosyncrasy. Thus we should invest our efforts in growing the relationship to overcome differences rather than in ways to end it so that we can once again chase the nonexistent "right person."

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for this comment.

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Sterling, Va.: I've been married for 21 years now. My wife and I have never been more distant. We have not been intimate in over five years. I've tried to seek counseling, but she doesn't want to go. Should I give up on the marriage or is there something I can do to change our relationship?

Christine Meinecke: Yes! There is something you can do. Do not expect your wife's behavior to change. You can change your own behavior, though. Focus on your expectations and negative reactions to behaviors that you're displeased with. You can improve your relationship by changing yourself.

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Washington, D.C.: I disagree with your assertion that "no one marries the right person." I think I married the right person! I think it more accurate to say that no one marries the ONE right person, as I believe there are lots of potential partners one could make a good match with. I don't believe in destiny, but I do believe in success.

Christine Meinecke: Yes, ONE right person is actually how this is addressed in the book.

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Chicago: I had reservations about marrying my husband, but I did it anyway, 26 years ago. I just couldn't decide if my cold feet were just that. When I imagined being with him way off in the future I felt safe and peaceful and that felt like enough reason to go forward. I did find great love with him and we are very connected. The things that made me doubt our relationship before still exist and sometimes they feel huge (He is an introvert, I'm not. He loves silence, I love chatter and if I had known how important conversation and socializing was to me, and how deep the lonely, quiet times would be, I sometimes wonder if I should have walked away). I see more and more of my long married friends feeling restless and it makes one wonder if marriage was really meant to last this long! As men age they seem to want life to get smaller and simpler and women, we just want it to open up. Not all of us have changed and grown in the same directions, in spite of trying, and it has brought home to me how huge a leap of faith getting married when you are in your 20s really is.

Christine Meinecke: Oh, you are so right. It is a huge leap of faith at 20-something. If you chose an essentially good person with the best interest of the relationship at heart, you are fortunate. The differences become the focus during the disenchantment period. The key is to embrace the self-responsible approach and practice mature love. THe last half of the book explains how to do so.

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McLean, Va.: Thank you for trying to shift views towards marriage back to a more reasonable view. Perfection does not exist and even if it did, we are not entitled to it. Marry someone because they make you happy and you feel that at that moment you would like to spend the rest of your life with them. At some point EVERYONE dislikes their spouse. Marriage is about companionship and partnership FAR more than it is about sex and attraction. Sex and attraction are the tools evolution uses to get young people in to marriage.

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks.

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Love but not "in love": I love my husband but am not "in love." We have tender moments, parent well, and laugh together but we are incompatible in many ways. I have a close friend who is more my match and is a kindred spirit (he is the part that is missing in my husband). I feel bad that I look at this other man this way (we have never been physical), but how else do I get the other aspects of a relationship that are missing in my marriage? I could throw caution to the wind and pursue this as more than a friendship (and it has occurred to me), but I don't think I can do that to my family. Am I doomed to a life of guilty longing?

Christine Meinecke: You seem focused on recapturing the emotional and physical sensations of infatuation. Infatuation, in any relationship, lasts from 4 mos to 4 yrs, and cannot be recaptured. Before you throw caution to the wind, look at becoming self-responsible. This means taking responsibility for your own feelings of disenchantment with your husband.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Why do so many people believe there is one true love for them in this world? Why would anyone want to believe that anyway? It's not romantic, it's cynical.

If this were true, the odds of anyone finding their one person among the 6 billion people here would be astronomical. What are the chances that one would even live within a thousand miles of their true love on this planet?

I believe there are plenty of people out there for all of us whom we could live with happily ever after. There's just too much self flagellation out there over this concept of the "right" or "wrong" person.

Christine Meinecke: People believe this, in my opinion, because we all tend to follow conventional wisdom - just because everyone else is. We must stop and ask ourselves, Where exactly is this leading? I believe you are correct that there are many possible partners out there with whom we can be happy. The key to happiness is taking responsiblity for it yourself rather than expecting your partner to provide it.

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Passing on the memo: I was raised by great parents who taught me to expect marriage to require adjustment to another person. I had great friends who modeled love to their spouses in the ways in which they were "right" and in which they were "wrong" to each other. Know the basic concept that things weren't always going to be easy helped prepare me for marriage in so many ways. How do I demonstrate to others and pass on to my kids that everyone marries the wrong person?

Christine Meinecke: Great! Be a model of the self-responsible approach!

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The one: I agree very much with what you said earlier, that believing in the myth of marrying the right person inevitably leads to let-down. (My father is one such person to believe in the myth, though to his credit, he and my mother have been happily married 40 years.)

I used to believe in the myth, too, until an old friend said something to me--that she didn't believe that there was ONLY one person out there for us, that there are many candidates for "the one." I've come to see how true that is, because three years ago, I believed I'd found the one, though it didn't come to pass. Since then, I've found someone else who makes me just as happy (if not more), and I plan to propose to her soon.

So I have to concur with my friend's theory that there are many people who could be "the one."

Ellen McCarthy: Thanks for this perspective.

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Washington, D.C.: Though I agree that there is no one right person, there are certainly wrong people. No one should stay in an unhealthy, non-supportive, unfulfilled relationship. Sure we can settle for not being happy and learn to live with it, but why should we?

Christine Meinecke: Oh, thank you. There are definitely wrong people. There is a chapter in the book about "six red flags and great mistakes." The six red flags are substance abuse and dependence, mental cruelty, battery, inappropriate venting of anger, controlling behavior/jealously/paranoia, and under-functioning/under-responsiblility.

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Ellen McCarthy: What would you say to people who are disillusioned that marriage didn't live up to their expectations?

What do you see as the upside of marriage -- even to the "wrong" person?

Christine Meinecke: Hi Ellen, Good question. Everyone experiences disillusionment. The way out of that is to stop focusing on your partner's behavior or wondering if the real right person is still out there somewhere. Then shift focus to your own expectations and to how well you take command of your own negative reactions.

The upside of marriage is companionship and the opportunity to learn the practice of mature love.

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Baltimore, Md.: I agree with your premise that there is no "one" right person for everyone. However, I sometimes worry when I see people express views that marriage isn't simply a huge commitment, but is in fact 100 percent permanent, and once in a marriage you should do your best to live with and adapt to their personality. The fact is that occasionally, spouses may become emotionally or physically abusive. Do you think there's a point at which accepting the fact that there's no one right person could lead someone to remain in a situation that isn't good for them, and even actively causing them harm?

Christine Meinecke: No one, in my opinion, is doing the right thing to stay in an abusive relationship. The self-responsible approach is to rescue oneself, if you're being abused.

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Ellen McCarthy: Christine,

Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for this book? Was it written in response to something you were seeing among clients?

Christine Meinecke: This book was written in response to what I see in clients' relationships, in friends and family, and in my own marriage. The pattern of infatuation followed by disenchantment is well-established but I didn't see anything new in what most relationship experts offered. The self-responsible approach is new.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think that views toward marriage are becoming healthier or more unrealistic? I actually sense that the younger generation goes in to marriage with a healthier attitude, but with someone they are less committed to maintaining it with. Your thoughts on this?

Christine Meinecke: I have had many contacts through my website from 20-somethings who see unsatisfactory relationships around them and want to follow a new path. They seem to be responding well to the idea of self-responsible partnering.

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Hudson Valley, N.Y.: Sterling, Va., states that he has not been intimate with his spouse for over five years, and you suggest that he change himself in order to be more satisfied. How on earth is changing himself going to help save a marriage with no intimacy, where the spouse refuses therapy?

Christine Meinecke: The lack of sexual intimacy is a problem for you but maybe not for your wife.

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It's all in the timing.: It seems more to me that people fall in love and get married because they both believe that the time is right and, conveniently enough, they found one another.

Christine Meinecke: Yes, then the hard work must begin. Practicing mature love increases the chances of success.

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Self-responsibility: I love the concept of self-responsibility; it will not only be super helpful in relationships but in all areas of our lives. I don't see self-responsibility as a ground-breaking idea when it comes to relationships or life; I think it is essential to be able to function well and soundly. I think it is an element that is sometimes missing in today's interactions with each other but isn't self-responsibility really part of being a confident and respectful person? It should be a standard quality as we grow and learn to function and adapt in the world where we learn that self-responsibility is not about only the self, but others, too?

Christine Meinecke: You are happily ahead of the curve. Self-responsibility is not the way most people approach relationships or life.

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Sacramento, Calif.: I see so many posters here who seem to be searching for that one single mate who will somehow "fix me." Only when one has come to terms with his/her own self and reached self-actualization can there be a rich bond with another. If you feel "broken," it is a myth that finding "the right one" will somehow fix you.

I mentioned earlier feeling that I am married to the right woman. After starting on the wrong path with other infatuations, I entered this relationship hoping that the both of us as mature people would each enrich the other, not somehow be saved by the other.

We live in a narcissistic culture that teaches us to be self-absorbed. An obsession with looking for that "right one who will give me everything I need" will not lead to happiness. Successful relationships are composed of two people who have found happiness within their own selves and now wish to give that happiness to the other. Contentment comes more in giving love than in desperately attempting to pry it from others.

Christine Meinecke: Agree completely.

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