Up until the mid-20th century, marriages were, essentially, business arrangements, and in many cultures they still are. Families merged to increase power and land-holdings. If you ended up with an affinity for your spouse, that was a bonus, but it certainly wasn’t the impetus, and women had almost no choice in the matter whatsoever. Families had children, not because of a biological yearning, but because more hands were needed to support the family business, and indeed the family itself.
Single-family homes, while seen as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, really began to boom with the advent and proliferation of the automobile. With cars came greater freedom to commute, and housing spread into more rural areas, which led to greater and greater space between us. We left our family homes, found our partners, and moved into these new single-family dwellings, white picket fences and all.
And all that we once got from multiple sources—spiritually, psychologically, physically, emotionally—suddenly all landed squarely on one person: our spouse.
From the birth of our species, we lived in villages, in communities in which people shared responsibilities, jobs, roles. There was a tribe of elders, who passed wisdom and knowledge on to younger generations. Men went out to hunt together for weeks, stalking their prey, communicating with grunts and gestures, and bonding in that silent way they still do, while women stayed behind, guarding the village from predators, tanning hides, and raising children—together.
From what we know, women’s relationships with men were mostly for procreation. They got their emotional needs met by other women. They raised children in community with one another, and engaged in powerful rituals such as The Red Tent, in which women would come together around their menstrual cycles to celebrate, share, and nurture one another.
For all our advances, the one thing that we’ve lost, and that women still instinctively crave, is our coming together in ritual, sharing the burden of motherhood and indeed, womanhood itself. (This is why we start book clubs and never read the books. It was never about the books to begin with; it was always about the gathering.)
Studies have shown that women and men release different hormones under stress: Women release more oxytocin (the bonding hormone), while men release more testosterone. Women’s instinct to bond during times of stress biologically conflicts with men’s more aggressive (and often problem-solving) approach. This highlights why women are so compelled to turn to other women in times of trouble, and often see their husbands as little or no comfort. It also highlights women’s feeling that men don’t understand them, or aren’t there for them when they need them, and why men sometimes look at us like we’re aliens with three heads when we tell them we don’t want them to solve our problems, we just need them to listen to us. Biologically speaking, we’re wired radically differently.
Add to all of this that we’ve been conditioned to expect a particular kind of romantic love that lasts for all time by the fairy tales we grew up on and the romantic movies we watch today (I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks).
Despite our feminism and badassery, we’re still suckers for a good rom-com.
By isolating ourselves in nuclear families, by destroying our tribal communities, and by buying into a notion of a romantic love that simply doesn’t last for all eternity, we’ve set our relationships up to fail. We’ve put all of our emotional eggs into one human-basket, and expected it to be all things to us. This is destroying our ability to be happy—and to stay married.
So, how do we shift these expectations?
I asked people who’ve been married a long-ass time about this, and the overwhelming consensus is that the healthiest marriages balance the need for togetherness, common interests, and true enjoyment of each other with the understanding that each partner will need to get certain (appropriate) needs met from outside the marriage.
Before deciding if you should stay or go, it’s worth examining all aspects of your marriage from the perspective of reasonable vs. unreasonable expectations. Are some of the issues based on primal need vs. societal evolution? Do some of them fall under the umbrella of the patriarchal structures we’re all embedded in and working so hard to smash? If you leave your spouse, will you undoubtedly repeat the patterns you’re in now whether because our culture (not the man) is to blame—or because it’s actually you?
Answer these bigger questions, and you might get your answer as to whether you should stay or go.
And if you're still unsure, take my Should I Stay or Should I Go Marital Assessment.