Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce, and another fifty percent of second marriages do the same. While the statistics are shocking to those who are contemplating the cost of a modern-day wedding, we could also turn the statistics around to marvel at the half of all couples who manage to stay together throughout their lives. Granted, some are not particularly happy marriages, but there are still plenty of people around who marry and live happily ever after.
However do they do it?
When researchers look at longtime happily married couples, they find a certain mind-set (or maybe we should call it a “heart-set”).Tolerance, gentleness, consideration and genuine appreciation are important components in maintaining a relationship that may outlast war and separation, jealousy and temptation, economic difficulties, births of children, illness and frailty.
Successfully married people tend to conceptualize their relationship differently from those who are not successful. In successful marriages, partners see three, not two participants. For these people, there is the husband, the wife, and the relationship itself. People with this unique mindset, ask themselves not only about the state of their feelings about their partners, but the state of their relationship as a whole. Conceptualizing a third “partner” helps them stay focused on the big picture when trouble threatens: they act not only in reaction to a partner, but in consideration of their action’s impact on the marriage. It's more than an idea about “the perfect marriage” that drives happily married people: it’s a commitment to behaving in ways that support the health of the relationship.
Having a good relationship isn’t rocket science: but it helps to have the attitude of a space engineer! Patience, persistence, consistency and dogged optimism characterize the maintenance of a happy marriage. The rest of this article contains 12 recommendations for creating and maintaining a happy, lasting relationship. It’s good for both men and women and can be applied in any situation to increase the happiness of both partners.
1. Know where you stand. Ideally, marriage is based on agreements between partners on the basic ground rules of the relationship. Monogamy and truthfulness are two basic agreements most married people expect to uphold with their partners. Whether to have children, where and how you plan to live, religious and philosophical beliefs and lifestyle issues are good starting points. The more specific you are about your relationship before tying the knot, the less likely you’ll be to have disagreements later.
2. Support each other. Too many married people allow other relationships to come first, ruining the security of their partners by not taking their sides. Letting parents and in-laws interfere, taking sides with children against your spouse, or being swayed by friends to neglect your spouse’s feelings are three examples of ways that people drive each other away. Make it a rule to support your spouse. Consider each others’ feelings, by siding together whenever possible and by standing up for each other when people outside your marriage interfere. You will sometimes disagree with each other; do it privately and work the matter out between the two of you without other people around.
3. Protect each other. If you love someone, keep them safe from harm. It can be in little things, like answering the phone when your spouse is napping, or in big things like encouraging them to see a doctor when they aren’t well. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that marriage is about taking care of yourself while your spouse does the same: it’s about pooling your energy to help each other through life.
4. Don’t go to bed angry. This is an old saw, but a sharp one. Make it a rule that nobody sleeps until the fight is resolved. You may as well—you won’t sleep anyway! If you find yourself in a fight and want to put out the fire, try saying this and see if it helps. Say, “I don’t want to fight with you.” Say it honestly, without anger or frustration, and the answer may be “I don’t want to fight with you, either.”
5. Give a lot. Don’t count the cost of what you do for your partner: count the rewards that come in closeness and appreciation.
6. Ignore the bad little things, appreciate the good little things. Someone else’s habits can be wearing when you’re tired or cranky about other things. But we all have them, and it doesn’t help to blow them out of proportion. Focus on the things you like about your partner, and speak your appreciation out loud.
7. Focus on happiness. When you make decisions as a couple, recognize that your first goal is for you both to be happy. Remember that prestige, money and possessions don’t contribute to happiness. An important part of focusing on happiness is refusing to accept bad behavior from your spouse. Dr. John Gottman, a noted marriage researcher, found that couples who set high standards for their behavior tend to be happier than those who accept hurtful behavior.
8. Dr. Gottman recommends that we "edit" ourselves by not saying every negative thing that flies into our heads. Entire books have been written on how to “fight fair”, but it mainly boils down to one thing. We all have a sense that tells us the difference between airing legitimate grievances and hitting below the belt. When we’re really angry, sometimes we disregard the inner voice that tells us what’s unfair. Gottman also found that arguments escalate because one partner starts off with a critical or contemptuous remark. Make it a personal rule to control your temper in fights, to avoid sarcasm, name-calling or blaming. If you do slip up, apologize immediately and concede the fight to your partner as a penalty. If a fight is getting out of control, back down, say something caring to your partner, make up, or take a break.
9. Give each other mental and emotional space. One mistake couples make is in trying to tell each other “everything”. Loading all your thoughts (especially negative thoughts) onto another person is exhausting and overwhelming for both people. If your partner doesn’t want to talk about something, take some time before asking again, and if you realize that it isn’t relevant to your relationship, let it go. Obviously, some things have to be discussed, and should be, but all people need time and space to reflect and muse, to try and work things out for themselves before talking to anyone else.
10. Get close. People who touch each other with affection get sick less often, have quicker recoveries when they do fall ill, have lower blood pressure, fewer headaches and generally lead a healthier life. Hold hands, stroke faces, walk together, dance, kiss and hold each other. Cuddle up on the couch. Kiss hello and goodbye, and give lots of love pats.
11. Be playful. Thomas Morrison, Ph.D., at UC Davis Medical Center, found that couple's "fun" activities decreased an average of 20% in the first year of marriage, while housekeeping and business-related activities increased. It makes sense that when couples start having less fun and more work, they will not be as happy in the relationship. You may not be able to reduce the entire workload of running a home, but make time to enjoy time together as well.
12. Forgive each other. We all make mistakes, but it takes a pretty huge mistake to wreck a marriage. Usually, it isn’t the mistake that calls an end to the relationship; it’s the unwillingness of one partner to forgive. Let little mistakes go, and once they’re over, don’t bring them up again. When someone makes a really bad error, weigh the situation against the importance of the relationship before making a final decision. If the mistake was yours, apologize, honestly promise not to do it again and ask for forgiveness. (We’re assuming here that recognizing oneself as having made a mistake prevents people from repeating it. It’s an optimistic view, but long-married people tend to be optimists.)
Marriage isn’t a grim, monotonous walk towards death; it’s a shared journey in a fascinating world. Don’t just be breadwinners and householders and child-raisers and car-fixers: play together! Be sand-castle-builders and remote trails hikers and picnic-eaters and Scrabble players. Amuse each other. Disappear together for no reason except the joy you find in discovering things in each others' presence. Share a hobby, take up dancing, or create things together. Celebrate everything you can think of.
There’s nothing sadder than a marriage that ends because two people “just can’t get along”. With some patience, the frictions of daily life can be no more than minor distractions, leaving you both free to explore and enjoy each other—a process that grows deeper and more satisfying with the passage of time.