No one enters a marriage or long-term relationship expecting it to fail. And yet, the statistics are sobering: around half of all marriages end in divorce. So what distinguishes the relationships that last from the ones that don’t?
“Tell us how to make a relationship work!”
Overwhelmingly, the couples who come to see me at my counseling practice, as well as people who read my blog, have one thing they want to know more than anything else: how to make a relationship work. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all, hard-and-fast “rule” about this since relationships (and individuals) are so personal and so different from one another. This is part of what makes relationships so exciting, but also part of what makes them frustrating at times. Sometimes you don’t know what will work until you do something that doesn’t.
However, despite the gloomy stats, there are many, many couples that have a healthy relationship. (After all, looking at the numbers from the glass half-full perspective, half of marriages don’t end in divorce!) And when couples are determined to learn about what it takes for long-term relationships to succeed, their union stands a much greater chance of doing just that.
And as with anything that you want to learn more about or learn how to do better, it can help to have a mentor. That mentor can be someone you don’t even meet, actually—someone whose wisdom you soak up and apply in your own life. In the spirit of that, let’s hear from Josie and Ron, married for 4o years.
How to make a marriage work: a married couple shares 5 tips
1) If you can’t deal with frustration, don’t get married
“I used to have a low threshold for frustration,” Josie said. “The littlest things out of order would set me off.” She shook her head and laughed. “My mother used to tell me I was a perfectionist. But she didn’t say it like it was a compliment.”
“On the other hand,” Ron said, “I’ve never been accused of being a perfectionist.” He reached for Josie’s hand. “So in our early years, I was like a walking classroom for my bride to learn how to deal with screw-ups that were out of her control. I’m really glad she wanted to learn the lessons instead of dropping the course altogether.”
Couples often think that the way their relationship is at the very beginning is how it will be in the future. This can be a set-up for difficulty down the road, when the “new relationship energy” (that can feel magical) inevitably wears off and we see each other as we really are, flawed human beings dealing with life’s complexity. Too often people think this means they’re with the wrong person. That’s not at all what it means. Rather, it’s the natural progression of stages, from new love to committed love.
“So marriage is not for people who need things ‘just-so,’” Josie said emphatically. “I was like that in the beginning, but Ron meant too much to me to give up on. I learned how to adjust my expectations to make room for frustration at times. Not only did that allow our marriage to last, but it’s made me a more peaceful, balanced person as well.”
2) Marriage is not for narcissists or for the arrogant (it requires big doses of humility)
“Did you ever notice how it’s easier to feel arrogant when you’re alone than when you’re interacting with someone else?” Ron mused aloud. “Making a life with another person demands humility, and lots of it.”
Josie agreed. “For me, part of what’s important about humility when it comes to my marriage is that humility allows me to be open to Ron, to what he might need and want, to how he might see the relationship. It’s this openness that prevents me from making assumptions about his needs, assumptions that might shut him down.”
“Also,” Ron interjected, “it’s kind of tied in to what I was saying before, about how my lack of perfectionism tested Josie in the beginning. I had to have humility to even admit that. If I hadn’t, and if I had instead told her that her needing everything perfect was the only problem, I doubt we would’ve made it past our first anniversary.”
Ron and Josie tapped into a vital ingredient of relationships that last: the ability to put yourself aside at times and fully make room for the other.
Humility is the cornerstone of intimate connection: it acknowledges that the relationship is a dynamic entity, not a fixed one, and that since you are both flawed human beings, there will be many times when you will each be needing the forgiveness of the other. And furthermore, humility allows you to have true relationship vision—it allows you to see your partner as s/he is, rather than an unrealistic ideal of what you want him/her to be.
3) Along the lines of ‘don’t go to bed mad’: Don’t let unfinished business go underground
“Deciding to improve your relationship is all well and good,” Josie said, “but you won’t get very far if you let unfinished business go underground, where it’ll get bigger and fiercer and eventually erupt with a vengeance!”
“Yes,” Ron concurred. “We always tried not to go to bed mad. Not just because it makes for a very uncomfortable night, but because whatever it was between us at that point was likely become a steeper wall to climb by the morning.”
“There’s a difference between letting go and burying,” Josie added. “I’ve learned to let the little things go, and I’ve learned how freeing that is. But some things you just have to come back to and work out and not try to make disappear under a magician’s handkerchief.”
Part of our human leaning toward pleasure and away from pain means that we naturally veer away from something unpleasant. This is why it can feel so easy (and so tempting) to deny problems you’re having as a couple, to just bury them under life’s obligations and tell yourself there really isn’t a problem at all.
You don’t need to feel guilty about that tendency, but if you’d like to have a healthy relationship, it’s in your best interest to work on issues that arise as they arise instead of relegating to them some dim, dank basement somewhere. (And Josie’s right: they’re sure to resurface at some point anyway!)
4) If you want something to talk about, create a life away from your partner as well as with him/her
“It’s sad,” Ron said. “Sometimes Josie and I will be out to eat and we’ll see couples at other tables that aren’t even talking to each other. They’re looking at their phones or just sitting there waiting for their food and not saying a word. I just think that’s a sad way to live.”
“I find that if I spend every waking minute with Ron, I won’t have anything to tell him that he doesn’t already know. This is one reason I have my own hobbies and activities and groups, apart from the pursuits Ron and I enjoy together. I think those separate interests keep us interesting to each other in an important way. They wake us up out of a kind of slumber you can fall into when you’ve been married as long as we have.”
It’s good to remember that when you become part of a committed couple, you don’t relinquish your identity. Your partner was originally drawn to you for the unique person that you are. So make the time to do things for yourself, on your own or with friends. This will nurture you and add depth and dimension to your marriage/relationship.
5) Go out of your way to make your mate feel like s/he really matters
“All of us humans may be very different on some level,” Josie said, “but in many ways we’re all alike. And the way that I think matters most to remember in relationships is that we all want to feel like we matter. Not just matter in a generic way, but matter to the people we love.”
“I know it’s probably old hat to bring up the Golden Rule,” Ron said, “but since I’m in my 60s, I think I’ve earned the right to be old hat.” He chuckled. “Treating others as you want to be treated is the way I try to live. And, like Josie said, I know that I love the feeling that I matter to her, so I try to show her—every chance I get—that she deeply matters to me.”
Too often we think we don’t have the time to show our partners that they matter to us. But the truth is, it’s the little things that have a positive cumulative effect (when they’re done regularly and sincerely).
So don’t put off a demonstration of how much your mate matters to you till when you get a bonus paycheck at work or till when you get a babysitter. Deciding to make a relationship work means seeing opportunities in the day-to-day, in the briefest moment, with a word, with a glance, with a gesture. You already have everything you need to express your love and appreciation to your spouse/partner.
Here’s a big thank-you to Josie and Ron for sharing the wisdom they learned over the course of their 40-year marriage! And here’s to all of you who are in the process of discovering your own truths and the wisdom that will make your relationship stronger than ever.
Here’s learning how to make your relationship work!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Top photo “Boy and girl holding heart” by Lordjiew from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net