Thursday, February 11, 2010

Secrets for a Long, Happy Marriage

Anyone can have a short, happy marriage. The trick is having a happy marriage that lasts beyond Valentine's Day.

Even if you are not yet married, it's never too early to prepare. The good habits that you develop before your marriage will feel more natural once you do get married. Do not imagine that you are going to undergo a character transformation once you put on the ring. Life is not like that.

This week Elizabeth Bernstein set out to find out what made marriages endure. Link to her article here.

She did not seek out the opinions of experts in the field, but chose to interview couples whose marriages have lasted for an ungodly long time. Some of the people are household names... from Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter to Ozzy and Sharon Osborne... and they seem to have had rather different marriages. Others are more everyday citizens.

They all contain the kind of wisdom that surpasses expertise.

Bernstein has compiled a how-to list, a social skills list, that will improve the odds of your marriage lasting beyond the first flush of true love.

The list ought to be somewhat familiar. It contains many of the virtues that will help ensure that your friendships and other kinds of relationships remain harmonious over time. Good character is basic; it is essential. You might fail at it, but it will not fail you.

Perhaps more important is what the article leaves out. None of the couples suggest that a grand passion, a love that is truer than true, is the glue that holds the marriage together. I believe that they are correct not to put too much of a burden on Cupid or St. Valentine.

If I had to choose between true love and a belief in the sanctity of the marital union, I would venture that far more marriages have been sustained by a mutual commitment to the institution than by true love.

First among the salient character traits is the ability to find the middle ground. Aristotle called this the golden mean, the mean between two extremes, the position that is somewhere between what she must have and what he must have.

Finding the middle ground involves compromise, but not just any compromise. The middle ground should feel right to both parties; otherwise there will be an imbalance that might lead to drama.

This rule applies to all human relationships; it involves the practice of negotiation. You cannot negotiate effectively if you do not believe that harmony is desirable. And you cannot negotiate effectively if you believe that you can achieve harmony by provoking conflicts by hardening your positions until they are irreconcilable.

I would also add that you cannot find the middle ground if you cannot accommodate someone who is not just like you. Men and women are not exactly different species, but that are certainly not the same thing.

If a man is all man and a woman is all woman, each might be so thoroughly wedded to his or her gender identity that neither can meet the other half way. If each partner insists of having things his way, there will be no way to arrive at domestic harmony.

Two people of two genders will have different roles, different tastes, different sensibilities, different views of what does and does not matter. If you, as a member of one gender, decide that your partner must do things the way that feels comfortable to you, marriage will soon suffer.

The opposite also applies, even if it is less common. Perhaps a husband decides that everything in life should be as his wife wishes. She may think that this is too good to be true, but the experience will eventually be cloying. First, because she will not feel that she is married to a human being. Second, because she is becoming so indebted to her husband that she dreads the day when he will ask her to reciprocate.

Second, Bernstein recommends a good sense of humor. This may seem daunting if you are not a natural-born wit, so let's unpack the idea.

Having a sense of humor means that you do not take things, and especially yourself, too seriously. If you are looking for the humor in a situation then you are not looking for the offense or the insult. And you will not be looking for the story line.

Besides, if you can laugh at yourself you will find it easier to make other people laugh. And humor is always better than drama.

The third recommendation will surely help you to avoid drama: keep some secrets. I have long railed against making a fetish of open and honest communication-- largely because people use it as a cudgel to beat on their partner' sensibilities-- so I am happy to see Bernstein suggesting that people get over their tendencies to overshare.

Marriage is not a confessional. However good it feels to get it off your chest, before you divulge all of your premarital dalliances, think for a moment about whether your partner wants to hear about them or wants to imagine you involved in them.

You cannot live with a person for very long before you discover that your idealized vision was somewhat off the mark. And yet, we all still want to see our mates and our partners and our friends at their best. So if you think that there is a virtue in showing yourself at your worst, please give it some more thought.

Also, consider that all effective human communication involves reciprocity. When you offer a gift you are putting the recipient in a position where he or she has to return the favor. Evidently, if you offer an extravagant gift you are making an imperious demand on the other person.

So if you reveal all of your deepest and darkest secrets you will also be making your partner feel obliged to reveal his or hers. And he or she might not want to do so. Thus, you will have created disharmony. Better to stop before you say too much. As many an unhappy couple has discovered: it is very, very difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Lastly, Bernstein lists perseverance. She echoes Winston Churchill's famous remarks during the London blitz: never give in; never, never, never, never give in. If you can persevere through the trials and tribulations that are always part of a marriage, then you are more likely to resolve them effectively.

Perseverance involves courage and sticktuitiveness. If you are a natural-born quitter; if you fold your hand at the first sign of trouble; if you have no confidence in your ability to turn a bad situation to your advantage... then you will have difficulty sustaining a long, happy marriage.

If you find that you lack this quality, then now is not too late to begin building it, and not just in your marriage.

Perseverance also means that keeping your word, no matter what, is of consummate importance to you. If your word is your bond, taking vows in public should be ample reason to stick with a difficult situation and working through it.

When people ask me what makes for a long, happy marriage, I usually add one recommendation of my own. That is: routines.

A relationship is not just an amorphous state of feeling that needs to be activated or renewed from time to time. A relationship grows and solidifies because two people have breakfast together or go for a swim together every day, day after day.

Keeping to routines shows a commitment to the relationship and an ability to be responsible and reliable. You can talk all you want about commitment, but if you do not walk the walk, on a daily basis, your marriage will begin to feel like two strangers going bump in the night.


RileyD, nwJ said...

Thank you. Wonderful article/essay.

I would like to add my $0.02 as a husband approaching 39 years of marriage while linking some of them to ideas in "Secrets for a Long, Happy Marriage".

Nephews and nieces have asked a number of times how our marriage has been able to last. In response a list of "Cs" was generated.

The Cs of a Successful Marriage

1 - Christ. Every marriage needs standard, a set of values, to attempt to live up to. In our marriage our values come from a shared commitment to Christ.

2 - Commitment. You have to be committed to each other, to the marriage, and divorce has to be a "4 letter word" if your marriage is to last.

3 - Character. Without character, commitment is nothing more than a house of cards. With character you can make it through the tough times – even the tough years. Without it nothing lasts.

4 - Communication. You must be able to talk with each other. And you must be able to listen to each other. Understand, listening is a skill and work on it, hone it for it is your marriage's life saver in difficult times.

5 - Compromise & Counting. Compromise does not get in the way of commitment and character. It actually makes them stronger if applied with common sense. But how to that? By counting. When you have disagreements (and you will have plenty) ask yourself very seriously - how important is this doing to be - counting out in time - in one hour, one day, one week, one month, one year? If it is not going to be important to you for a long period of time, it is time to compromise. However, if it is going to be important to you for a long time you must communicate that and why it is so.

6 - Choosing. So much of life is about choices you must learn some basic ones. Choose to avoid drama whenever possible, choose to spend time together regularly (shows commitment), choose life affirming actions - positive movies, books, walks etc.

Following the Cs above has not made our marriage perfect. But they have helped it to not only survive, but made it both sweeter and stronger. For that I am very grateful to my God and my bride.

RileyD, nwJ - Husband, Father, Grandfather

Stuart Schneiderman said...

My thanks to you, for a wonderful testimony to the power of faith and character.