For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading our book, Secrets of Great Marriages, this is a kind of Cliff Notes version. My husband Charlie and I interviewed 50 happy couples and chatted informally with many more. Our goal was to come up with practical advice that might aid others in maintaining long-term, loving unions. While this is by no means a substitute for the real deal, but will give you the condensed version of the book’s key themes.
So sit back, relax and find out about a few of the many secrets of great marriages that are illuminated in our book. Who knows? You just might find the one that will open the door to your heart’s deepest desire. And that would be a good thing.
The couples we interviewed were together an average of 30 years, and represented a range of races, religions, and ethnicities. They were both gay and straight. Most were formally married. It turns out happy doesn’t necessarily mean tranquil. Many of the “happy” couples were quite opinionated and could be volatile at times.
- Learn to appreciate the differences. There’s a reason that opposites attract. It’s because they each have something to offer that the other is lacking. Yet the differences can evolve into conflict when we try to coerce others to agree with us. Although it was true that overall there wasn’t much conflict, there were profound differences. What distinguishes these couples was that they were able to relate to their differences with appreciation and gratitude rather than merely tolerating them or judging and being in resistance. They believed their differences added something rich to their relationship.
- Find out what your partner wants, then help him or her get it. If you have any doubts about what it is they might like as an ongoing gift through the next year, just ask: ‘How may I best love you?’ If you’re the one being asked, be honest.
- Pay attention! More marriages die of neglect than of irreconcilable differences. Relationships require on-going maintenance in order to thrive. Many of us take better care of our cars than we do our marriages. And although we wouldn’t think of driving 50,000 miles without changing the oil, we go months without saying “I love you,” going on a romantic getaway, or simply taking a few hours to be alone together.
- Address problems when they come up; don’t wait until later. Problems generally don’t get easier to deal with over time; they get harder and more entrenched. While upsets and disappointments are inevitable in all relationships, they are best dealt with sooner, rather than later. Pain denied is pain prolonged.
- Take care of yourself. The best gift that you can give your partner is your own well-being. The more healthy, happy and fulfilled you are, the more you have to offer others. Taking care of yourself involves more than what you eat and how much you exercise, it includes knowing what nourishes your soul and spirit and seeing to it that you bring those experiences into your life.
- Take time to make love. One of the first expectations of a distressed marriage can be a diminishment in the frequency of sexual activity. Great sex is more than just an experience of sensual pleasure. It’s a means through which we delight in each other’s bodies, give expression to our desires, show our love and share the joy of losing ourselves in bliss. If the flame of sexuality is neglected too long, the spark may go out. Don’t wait until the embers are cold; talk about what you want and what’s missing and keep playing.
- Don’t take your relationship for granted. There’s no such thing as a divorce-proof marriage. If you think your marriage is so perfect that divorce isn’t even a possibility, think again. This belief can lead to a kind of complacency. While this may not always lead to divorce, it can lead to something equally dangerous: a flat or stagnant marriage. Staying together isn’t the goal of a great marriage, thriving is. Thriving means never taking each other for granted and continually expanding our capacity for joy, love and growth. It’s a lifetime process, and the more you do it the easier it gets.
- Don’t let disappointments turn into resentments. In an effort to avoid conflict many of us try to get over feelings of anger or disappointment. There is no problem with doing this when we can genuinely and completely let these feelings go. If we can’t, they are likely to turn into resentment and become a toxic presence in our relationship.
- Don’t wait too long to get help. The average couple that enters marriage counseling has been troubled for six years. By this time, it’s likely that workable difficulties have disintegrated into entrenched patterns. By all means, do everything that you can to handle challenges on your own, but be willing to recognize when your best efforts aren’t doing the trick.
- Remember to play. When work and play get out of balance in a marriage a correction needs to be made. Those times that we think that we don’t have the time to relax and play with each other are when we most need to. It doesn’t require a long tropical vacation to reinvigorate a relationship. Sometimes a short break from a life of ongoing responsibilities can be enough to remind us of why we wanted to be together in the first place.
- Learn to forgive. Nothing erodes the foundation of a marriage faster than grudge- holding. It’s poison that over time is highly destructive. Although feelings of disappointment, hurt or irritation are inevitable in all close relationships, they can dissolve when there is a willingness to forgive and let go of resentment. Forgiveness isn’t a one- time event; it’s a process that occurs gradually and incrementally over time. It isn’t always easy and sometimes it doesn’t even seem possible, but with an intention to heal, steps in the right direction can be taken even in the most strained of circumstances.
- Learn and grow together. Long-term happy couples continue to be curious and have a sense of wonder, like kids. They don’t suffer from hardening of the attitudes.
It’s true that great marriages can at times involve work on both partner’s parts but the fruits of your labor infinitely outweigh all the effort.