A funny thing happened to us on the way to writing our recently-published book featuring couples with long-term exemplary marriages: we got to be wrong about some of the beliefs that we had regarding the factors that we thought couples needed to experience in order to create great relationships. In other words, we discovered that we had unwittingly taken on some of the cultural myths that many people, including psychotherapists and marriage counselors have bought into regarding relationships. In speaking with over 50 couples, which admittedly doesn’t constitute a huge sample, but nonetheless is a pretty significant number, we found a number of consistent themes running through their marriages.
That didn’t surprise us, since we expected to see most of these couples doing the “right thing” in their relationships, such as settling differences with skill and respect, being good listeners, speaking to each other without blame and judgment, and frequently expressing gratitude and appreciation towards each other. While we expected to see these qualities and practices liberally embodied in their marriages, there were others that showed up that revealed and challenged some of our own expectations of what great marriages require.
For example . . . Like many people we have both believed for many years that in order to create an optimal marriage, it is necessary to make the relationship the highest priority in your life and that both partners need to share this commitment. We believed that if other priorities superceded this one that the marriage could easily get pushed aside and neglected. To our surprise, we found that nearly every person in our book did NOT hold their marriage as their highest priority, but rather viewed it as an essential aspect of their well being that made it possible for them to more fully honor an intention that was central to their life purpose. Consequently their relationship served as BOTH an end in itself as well a means towards the fulfillment of that goal.
That is, they were together not simply in order to more effectively accomplish something that was a core aspect of their individual or shared life purpose, but because they genuinely enjoyed and took great pleasure in each other’s company and felt personally enriched by their connection. The purpose that their marriage supported often included some form of service or contribution to society. Some also included some form of creative or artistic expression, and sometimes they took the form of fulfilling a promise that they had made to a person, tradition, or belief. Some of the couples experienced a shared purpose, while others supported each other in the fulfillment of their individual intentions.
Another one of the surprises that we encountered challenged our belief that people who had experienced growing up in extreme adversity or family dysfunction were severely handicapped when it came to creating a healthy marriage and family for themselves. Quite a few of the people with whom we spoke revealed details about their pasts that were heart-wrenchingly painful to hear; circumstances that involved extreme abuse, neglect, or horrific and catastrophic war trauma.
We found that it was not the degree of suffering that each of them experienced in the original situation that determined their future, but rather how they responded to it and whether or not they committed themselves to healing their old wounds that were the biggest factors in their future. While there is no doubt that someone who has grown up in a secure, loving and supportive family gets off to a better start than someone who doesn’t, it’s also clear to us that our early experiences may be less influential in determining our future life trajectory than what we do with the remainder of our lives.
A third and most delightful myth that we got to confront and explode was our belief that all relationships require hard work. As a way of neutralizing the “happily ever after” myth that so many people seem to be so fond of, over the years we have emphasized, perhaps excessively, the hard work required to create and maintain a great relationship. We were delighted to find that some of the couples with whom we spoke did not have the experience of having to do a lot of hard work on their relationship, and one had such a high level of compatibility that they decided to stage a “fight” in front of their two daughters in order to give them a more “realistic” picture of what married couples occasionally have to go through. (Their kids saw through the charade and attributed the act to parental “weirdness”.)
Lest you jump to conclusions or get your hopes up unrealistically high, this example is, even in our very selective study, the exception, rather than the rule. We have modified our position on hard work and marriages, but not radically. Like any other organism or system, a marriage is constantly undergoing both internal as well as external stresses and change. Consequently a certain degree of stress management and ongoing maintenance is necessary in order to keep it humming and growing. What we have discovered in our studies as well as in our own marriage of 38 years is that that “work” over time becomes increasingly effortless and even playful. The couples who do not experience themselves as having to work hard to take care of their marriage are taking very good care of it, but it doesn’t feel like, and in a few rare cases, never has felt like, work. It is, in the truest sense of the phrase, a labor of love.
The bottom line here is that it might be a good idea when you notice yourself feeling certain about something, to check it out closely enough to see whether it is factually true or merely an opinion that “feels” right. Great relationships are generally co-created by people who are willing to be wrong, or at the very least recognize the difference between their opinion and what is factually true. And by the way, that’s not necessarily the truth, it’s my opinion, and I’m sticking with it!