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Strategies in maintaining a marriage

A survey shows how women lead in day-to-day matrimony

“Until death do us apart.” The symbolic effect of this phrase, attested to by millions of couples in a large part of the world during the religious ceremony of marriage, normally echoes over the man or the woman when the marriage is in ruins or when what remains of the matrimonial illusion is maintained with difficulty. It is understandable. One may presume that the intention of the majority to take on commitment such as this implies the likelihood of being happy for many of years. Though the time has long past when couples maintained a marriage even when there remained nothing between them if not only habits, children to bring up, grandchildren to enjoy or bills to be paid, it is also true that a large number of couples prefer to continue as they are.

Men and women continue using various resources to maintain the house in order: there are direct and indirect strategies, a particular manner of avoiding talking, opting for silence, waiting for a better opportunity to bring up this question, and in this way, achieving the objective without trauma. To understand the strategies adopted by women who have remained married for 15 years or more, the researchers Maria Lúcia Teixeria Garcia and Eda Terezinha de Oliveira Tassara decided to invest in a project of interest to all who are married. For three years, they worked on the project: From the Utopia of Romantic Love to the day-to-day Routine of Marriage. Lucia is a social assistant and professor at the Department of Social Services of the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES) and Eda, co-author and scientific coordinator of the project, is a doctor of psychology and teacher in the Department of Social and Work Psychology of the University of São Paulo (USP). One of the consequences of the work of the pair is Lúcia’s doctorate thesis, Marriage Problems:  the Utopic Presence of Romantic Love, which will be presented in February at USP.

The research of Eda and Lúcia Garcia began in 1997 and finished in July of this year. FAPESP financed a computer, a printer, and the copying of material as well as computer programs. The work was developed through interviews with women of middle and upper class backgrounds from the region of Grande Vitória, Espírito Santo. “The stories told had a beginning, a middle and a projection for the future – evaluated as potentially good or bad – as a result of the approximation or distancing of the plan of the couple’s married life”, says  Eda, who has been married for 40 years. “Such evaluations regard the expectations and aspirations of the interviewees and they may disagree or not with the analysis done by their partners. For some, the discrepancy in the evaluation of the married life of the couple was an amazing fact for them, which meant that something considered inadequate by one of the partners was not necessarily considered inadequate by the other.”

As a general evaluation, it can be said that for the women who were happy and satisfied with their marriage, there was no reason to break with a bond evaluated as adequate to their expectations. Among the happy women, but unsatisfied with the marriage relationship, separation was seen as a threat, even though, at the same time, they projected alternatives to overcome the difficulties. Among the unhappy women, separation is seen as an alternative, but avoided by them when evaluating the possible impacts upon their identity.

Pathways and strategies
It wasn’t for the first time that marriage aroused the interest of Maria Lúcia. Married for 14 years, she had developed a dissertation for her asters in the area of chemical dependence in the Program of Attending to Alcoholics of the University Hospital Cassiano Antônio Moraes, in Vitória. At that time, in 1995, she had been researching the significance of the marriages among women who live a conflicting relationship because of alcohol abuse by their partners.

She spoke with women from low-income families who pointed to two main problems:  the material question, of survival and of health, lived by their partner and whose search for a solution could count upon the help of their partner. The researcher confirmed that, though the number of cases of divorce was significant in this group, the use of alcohol didn’t mean, de rigueur, that these people stayed alone. Nevertheless, the question of the separation existed before the relationship and the question was not replied to: what really constitutes a problem in marriage for women?

It was natural that Lúcia return to the theme and ook for a pathway to discover the strategies adopted by women to maintain and deal with a marriage. “By defining as the theme of investigation the marriage, one of the possible ramifications was the question with which I had been working up until then, I had a mixture of happiness and surprise with the interest which my choice caused among people”, says the researcher. In all of the social segments through which she has talked, there was always someone with information about an “interesting story” about a friendly couple. “It became evident through this that the reflection on the theme, in the manner in which it was spoken, thought about, lived through, or planned to maintain an affectionate-sexual relationship, is part of the biography of a good part of the population.”

Living in the city of Vitória, she preferred to base herself on examples taken from the region for two motives: the fast population growth from the 70s on, due the installation of steel-making companies, and the composition of the population of Metropolitan Vitória integrated with people from Minas Gerais, São Paulo and from Rio de Janeiro. The project From the Utopia of romantic Love to the Day-to-day Routine of Marriage was born from a multi-faceted universe. Twenty women were chosen, with an average age of 48 years (minimum of 35 and maximum of 56), an average marriage time of 24 years (minimum 15 years and maximum 34 years). Right away they were inserted into the categories of “happy marriage” or “unhappy marriage”, after an analysis based on the self-evaluation of each of them. The choice of the female universe obeyed the following criteria: the marriage time of a minimum of 15 years guaranteed that the couple had overcome the first ten years of married life, a period characterized by the outlining of the identity of the couple and which involves the establishment of rules which steer married life. Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) for Vitória indicate that there is a higher probability of separation in the period comprising between the fourth and ninth year of a marriage. The women, whose identities were kept secret, went through an average of three to four semi-structured recorded interviews, dealing with the history of their marriage – from their dating to their union, up to the present and their projection for the future. Afterwards, they received copies of their interviews and, at the beginning of the next interview, the researcher checked if the texts had been well-read and what impact it had caused on the author.

The data obtained was important for the research and its detailing, but to check on it meant overcoming basic barriers, such as keeping the pre-established meetings with members of the group and to guarantee the number of women initially proposed for the study. “Of the 30 women, we managed to interview 20. As it involved between three and four interviews, many of them claimed they had no time to participate or even the lack of a desire to talk about their marriages”, says Lúcia Garcia. The methodology involved a sequence of meetings broken up by the reading that the women did of the text produced on them of the previous meeting. The stories were obtained gradually. “The several meetings permitted a growing approximation between the interviewer and the interviewer,” says the researcher. As well there was a reflective process in which the contradictions were made explicit by those interviewed which became the target for new reflections.” Another thing: it was concluded that the interviewees chose judiciously the facts to be narrated, in a manner that the keeping of the marriage would be ustified.

As soon as the material provided by the group was studied, a few important indicators were arrived at. For example, for eight of those interviewed there prevailed a direct strategy as to the way of treating important or delicate questions within the marriage; four women used an indirect strategy; eight made use of a combination of direct and indirect strategies. As for the husbands, 13 of them used direct strategies and two the double direct/indirect and also, in five cases they revealed the use of indirect strategy – mainly the use of silence or the putting off the search for a solution for something which was upsetting the couple’s relationship.

Whining and problems
Since nothing is simple when one speaks of relations of love/partnership/marriage, in the correlation of the data gathered, they arrived at various manners of proceeding. For example, women who evaluated negatively their marriage showed that was a break in that desired, initial romantic project and they used indirect strategies to bring it up, many times avoiding or fleeing from talking. Also, as one so often says “there’s no point in talking, he’s not going to change” or “he’s not going to behave the way I want him to”. One of those interviewed showed that there was between the couple communication based on whining, at the same time in which one did not inform the other adequately of the existing problems. Another woman apparently lived well, but expressed his dissatisfaction in the following manner: “We are always together, but we don’t share anything, but the house, to the point when I said: ‘We don’t speak to each other, we don’t go out with each other.” And she replied: ‘Perhaps it’s for this reason that we’ve been together for so long.’

The women who said that they were happy could also be divided into two groups. There were those who did not identify problems in the relationship and who associated the problems as only a small day-to-day question (“the remote control”, “snoring”, “the air conditioner”, “his temperament”). In the other group is the woman who sees the problems, lives through a number of them and even then says ( or believes) that all of them are manageable. “I believe that when one knows the people with whom you are having a relationship, that you want that which is being built to do well and so we end up coming to terms with things,” said another woman.

There are various types of relationships and ways of getting involved or not getting involved. There are those who say they are happily married, though they are unsatisfied with the relationship. In this case, the habit (or the strategy) could be to deal with the questions without allowing the partner to understand one’s dissatisfaction. A consequence is that when the woman manages to hit the target (change the behavior of her partner) she attributes the credit to the partner and not to herself. Listen to the words of another woman: “I like things served on quick clean plates, but it’s not always the case that I can lay my cards on the table and say …In the good times, when we were conversing, I always gave a little puzzle while getting to the question, but without giving away much.”

Also it is curious to know how they refer to the behavior of the man. Some outlined their expectations as to the sexual role of their partner. Others indicated that there existed a similarity in behavior between the two: “After it happens, when we have already got back to normal, we speak on the question. But we don’t talk when we are in the middle of a conflict. Because I believe that when you speak in anger you can say things that afterwards you regret and he also has this same behavior.”

Expansion of roles
The home was described as the space for the expression of all the positive affections which exist between a couple. It is the ideal location for the realization of the desire to be happy, a condition manifested by all those interviewed. As to having problems or not, this was associated to the type of life and of the situations through which the couple were passing through: the closer they were to the blueprint of the idealized marriage, the lesser the possibility of having problems. As, in a general manner (and because of their socio-economic level) material survival did not appear as a problem, the question of work could emerge in the course of the moment of the life cycle of each. For example, when with children it was natural that they would stay at home. However, with the growing up of the children, to not work outside became a problem.

The trinomial woman-wife-mother is not only well received but desired by many women. Many times this trinomial was increased with the item job – exercised out of the home and whose income was incorporated into family life. In this way the woman became, as well, a breadwinner along with her husband. Nothing wrong in that, but not when her pay overtakes that of her husband – in the end, between contributor and financial provider they prefer the former situation. As well, they would like the men to participate more in domestic organization, an attitude that could be associated to the “provider of affection and attention”.

Skirting or confronting questions of various types, the women signaled, through their stories, the idea of maintaining the marriage as the central question. Could the reality of the woman from Metropolitan Vitória be equal or similar to those who live in São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and other locations? “Since we are speaking of a common theme and the target of so many reflections in the media, what became obvious is that the questions put forwards by those interviewed illustrated all the process of change which has been happening to couples”, says Eda. “To generalize the data, we would need to expand the study and include other age groups and localities, a project which we intend to take on in the future.”

The Utopia of Romantic Love in the Day-to-day Routine of Marriage: A study about strategies for maintaining a marriage
Assistance to research project
Dr. Eda Terezinha de Oliveira Tassara – Department of Social and Work Psychology of the University of São Paulo (USP)
R$ 18,000.00