When 'It's Not You, It's Me' Is True

Sometimes we just marry someone who isn't the best match for us. But why?
03/14/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

Whenever we hear of a divorce, it's natural to wonder what went wrong. Affair? Abuse? Addiction? We can understand how those can lead to a marital split.

But when the three As aren't the reason, many -- and certainly a substantial percentage of HuffPost commenters -- want to blame the high divorce rate on commitment, more specifically a lack of an understanding of what commitment means. How many times have you read that people nowadays don't know how to commit? How many times have you read that women divorce because they're unhappy or aren't being fulfilled? And because women initiate two-thirds of the divorces in the States, we're an easy scapegoat even though those divorce requests are often in response to a husband's "misbehavior," according to the National Marriage Project.

I don't doubt that some people lack a good grasp of commitment. And I don't doubt that some women file for divorce because they're "unhappy" or because someone's having an affair. But I don't believe those are the real reasons behind many splits, the ones that fall under the "irreconcilable differences" category. Sometimes we just marry someone who isn't the best match for us. But why?

Maybe we can blame it on the Pill. A 2008 U.K. study found that contraceptives can make a woman desire the "wrong" man, a man whose genetic makeup is similar to hers when a better partner is one whose genetic makeup is different. Once she gets off the Pill, perhaps because they want to start a family or she just wants to change her contraception, it can cause troubles -- like a sexless or sex-starved marriage. According to Rachel Herz, author of "The Scent of Desire" and a faculty member at Brown University, marriage counselors note that many wives who are no longer interested in having sex with their husbands just don't like the way he smells and "if you can't stand how someone smells, you cannot become intimate."

Or maybe we end up with a wrong fit because, despite our doubts about him or her, we forge ahead with marriage anyway. At least that's what "How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy" co-author Jennifer Gauvain found, and her article on the Huffington Post about her discovery that 30 percent of divorced women knew they were marrying the wrong guy on their wedding day got a lot of people upset (and many men pointed out that they, too, knew they were marrying the wrong woman).

But perhaps the bigger reason we end up with someone who isn't right for us is not because of him or her but because of us. Each of us brings some bad stuff to the marital table, thanks to the patterns and behaviors we learned from our family of origin -- meaning our parents. And unless we're in an arranged marriage -- and most of us are not -- we choose our partners. Shouldn't we hold ourselves accountable for that?

Although many people who grow up with trauma -- rape, abuse, battery -- can and do adjust psychologically and socially, they often "develop strong emotional ties with people who intermittently harass, beat and threaten them. The persistence of these attachment bonds leads to confusion of pain and love," according to one study. That rarely is a positive in a relationship. It may be why singer Rihanna is again collaborating with her abusive ex-boyfriend Chris Brown; both have family histories of abuse.

Thankfully, most of us do not grow up with that sort of trauma, but many of us grow up in families in which there's anxiety; 1 in 10 Americans are on antidepressants after all. Children who grow up in those sorts of families often continue that anxiety, and that can lead to "poorer communication in ... romantic relationships. The self-doubts, worries and insecurities of anxious individuals are associated with tendencies to engage in aversive interactions such as arguing, badgering or sulking." Again -- not attractive marital traits.

Even if we didn't grow up with anxiety, we're all influenced by our family-of-origin experiences, and we bring what we learned into our relationships whether or not we want to. Often it's subconscious. We even tend to marry people who look a lot like our mom or dad.

As Howard Markman, psychology professor and head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, says, "Marriage has a unique ability to tap into emotional issues from the families of origin."

Our ideas about what adults behave like and what adult relationships look like were shaped by our parents -- our first teachers. It isn't really so much that women want to marry someone like dear old dad or men desire a woman like their mom -- or, if they had a bad relationship with mom or dad, someone who's the complete opposite. It's more that we internalize messages, patterns and behaviors from our parents and if we don't understand what those are -- and keep what we like and discard what what we don't -- then we are pretty much doomed to repeat them in our relationships.

This is not to say that we should point our fingers at our parents for screwing up our relationships. Hardly. After all, our parents were once children, too, wanting from their parents what we wanted from them -- unconditional love and acceptance. If anything, understanding family patterns and behaviors allows us to have compassion and forgiveness for them -- which is what I'm sure we parents want from our own children.

If we truly want to avoid a partner who isn't right for us, we need to understand ourselves better. And that means delving into what we learned from our parents. As cliche as it can sound, one saying -- slightly tweaked -- is pretty much spot-on when it comes to divorce: "It's not just you, it's also me."

A version of of this story appeared previously on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles