Why Do We Couple?

Certainly, we couple for the purpose of procreation; out of romantic love; for protection; to feel a sense of family; for financial and emotional security; for companionship; and out of sexual attraction.

But it may be that we also couple to learn something from one another, This possibility is posited in the monograph article “The Marriage Contract,” by Clifford Sager MD; Helen Singer Kaplan, MD, PhD, et al. * And I agree.

Reflecting on their monograph and my experience doing couples counseling, I believe we want a little bit of our partners’ strengths to either be taught to us or rub off on us– but not a lot, and, most likely, not all of their strengths—  we don’t want to become the other person.  We often couple because we want to become stronger in an area we perceive as a weakness in ourselves and as a strength in our potential partner. We couple to grow through the exchange of knowledge, skills or relative perspectives.

For example, an introverted person may couple with an extroverted person to become more socially gregarious and an extrovert may couple with an introvert  to achieve more of a sense of inner directedness and calm. Or a more organized, detailed-oriented person may couple with a more creative, expansive person, each hoping to learn a little from the other.

In an example from the monograph by Sager, Kaplan et al., a college professor coupled with a woman who had never been to college. No one in her family had gone to college and she wanted to get a college education. He encouraged her to do so. He had been more of an academic, somewhat reclusive person.  She loved to dance and she encouraged him to cut loose on the dance floor.

She got her bachelor’s and master’s but their relationship ran into problems when she went for her PhD.  They began to criticize each other instead of learn from each other. One of the reasons may have been because he thought she might leave him if she learned what she had come to the relationship to learn.  Couples counseling helped them share unstated fears and realize there is always more to learn from each other, more to appreciate about each other.

The learning exchange (my term) part of the marriage contract gets renewed throughout the course of a marriage.  For example, specialization of labor, based on relative strengths, often takes place early in a marriage, out of convenience. However, these labor-based roles can change and even reverse in later years, as in the case of a spouse, unfamiliar with managing money in the early part of the relationship, “taking over the finances,” in a later stage of the relationship.

How can we apply the “learning exchange” part of the marriage contract in real life?  I think when we marry/couple we might write down what we hope to learn from our prospective spouse in the marriage, tuck it into an envelope, and put the envelope in the glove compartment of our car.  If, one day, we find ourselves driving to divorce court, we should open up the envelope in the glove compartment and see if the reason we married isn’t the same reason we’re divorcing. i.e., that something went awry in the learning exchange part of the marriage contract.

So, why does the learning exchange part of the marriage contract go awry? In my experience doing couples counseling, it is when we feel criticized for not learning what we came to learn from the other person— not learning all of it/ not learning it fast enough/ not learning it well enough (or, as in the case of the prospective college student who married the professor, learning it so well her husband felt threatened until he realized it and expressed his fears in couples therapy).

In my opinion, in cases where the learning exchange part of the marriage contract goes awry, the learner feels criticized and the teacher feels frustrated. Both can feel they “failed” and unconsciously project blame for their respective “failures” onto the other.  As the crisis grows, one partner can feel chronically abandoned, while the other can feel chronically overwhelmed.  The pre-marital expectation that each would be cherished and respected** by the other atrophies from lack of nourishment.  This positive expectation can be replaced by internal doubts, such as “What did I see in this person in the first place? They don’t get me,” or “What’s wrong with me that I can’t learn this?”  These doubts can get externalized, even hurled at each other, in verbal arguments. The alliance becomes a misalliance, with each person, ironically, feeling betrayed by the other.

However, if we identify what we hope to learn from each other early and throughout the course of our marriages/unions, we can keep what we want to learn consciously in mind.  Then, rather than having the unstated or misunderstood contracts be the undoing of our unions, the stated, understood, and agreed upon contracts can enrich our unions. 

I think the “learning exchange” can be part of a variety of social contracts—not only marriage contracts. For instance, with writing partners, one writer might be good at “story” and the other writer might be good at dialog or jokes, and, with business partners, one partner might be good at the brass tacks and the other partner might be good at networking, managing staff, or presenting ideas.


*References: “The Marriage Contract” is a monograph paper by Clifford J. Sager, MD; Helen Singer Kaplan, MD, PhD; Ralph M. Gundlach, PhD; Malvina Kremer, PhD; Rosa Lenz, MD; and Jack R. Royce, MD; from the Research Committee of the Society of Medical Psychoanalysis. It was reprinted from Family Process, Vol. 10, No. 3, September 1971, pp. 311-326/ from PROGRESS IN GROUP AND FAMILY THERAPY, ED. Sager & Kaplan Brunner/Mazel, Inc., New York, 1972.  

The marriage contract between two people is about much more than learning from each other. In the example of the college professor and the prospective college student, I extracted one aspect of their relationship and their relationship difficulties for this blog—the aspect of a mutual desire to learn from one another. This  blog is based on my experience doing counseling for thirty years, as well as the aforementioned monolog

**Constructs:  “cherished” and “respected” constructs come from a few of my female clients who have taken Alison Armstrong’s workshop “Understanding Men.”

Disclaimer: This blog focuses on why people “couple;” however, people also “truple” or form larger than three-person configurations in polyamorous relationships.   It may be that one of the reasons people bond in groups of three or more is to learn things from each other, just as couples bond for this reason. However, I’m not familiar enough with the research on polyamorous unions nor do I have enough experience counseling polyamorous clients to say that with surety.

Recommendations: Pre-marital counseling can help define what two people consciously and unconsciously expect from their prospective union.  Couples counseling during the course of a marriage/union can help couples clarify existing stated contracts, unstated contracts, and changing contracts.

The highest standards of confidentiality will be maintained in the writing and the posting of these blogs. These blogs are general statements, not observations about any individual person and not directed toward any individual person. The blogs about coping during the era of Covid-19 are posted on my website to help my clients cope during this traumatic time.

A blog is not a substitute for direct treatment of mental and physical health issues.  It is merely an opinion which may prompt you to attend to symptoms with licensed mental health and physical health professionals.  It is based on my current experience doing telehealth video/phone counseling and my past years of experience doing counseling in my Los Angeles offices.

For more information on the author of this blog, Mike Fatula, MS, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (#15257), whose Los Angeles office is 12402 Ventura Blvd., 2nd. Floor, Studio City, California, 91604, please visit his website at mikefatulatherapy.com.