When my husband and I were first married, one of my sisters remarked — to my great surprise given how “sickeningly” in love Gil and I were as newlyweds — that she didn’t think our marriage would last because we “argued too much.” As it turns out, given our 50-plus years of happy marriage, her love barometer was just a little off. These days, people frequently express surprise that a marriage can last that long today (let alone continue to be happy) and ask what we did to have a happy marriage. Ironically, a new Redbook article, “8 Things Happily Married Couples Do,” lays out some surprising things that contribute to a happy marriage. One of the 8 keys to successful marriage is, “They bicker.” The author explains that, according to the American Psychologist journal, little arguments are beneficial because acknowledging differences helps a marriage in the long-term.
Though differences initially are part of what attracts, they often grate as time goes. Having the strength and confidence to air those differences can help bleed off the frustration and help the couple understand each other better.
People today — ranging from neighbors to movie-makers, from researchers to relatives, from pastors and priests to politicians — are concerned about the decline of marriage and the breakdown of the family. Everyone in-the-know is concerned — or ought to be — about the fact that nearly half of the nation’s children will grow up without the everyday presence of their fathers. While their solutions vary, scholars generally agree on the problems related to the breakdown of marriage: Children, to the detriment of their future, are “caught up in the vortex of family change.” In general there is consistent pessimism about the future for young people across cultures.
No wonder so much of popular culture wonders — and many worry — about how to have a happy marriage. Basically, Redbook’s 8 things are simple actions and habits that anyone can learn. For instance, stopping what you are doing to show common courtesy: “Research shows that how you spend the first four minutes of the evening at home sets the tone for the rest of the night.” As I discussed in my article, “Love Potion Number 0,” even such simple gestures as holding hands with a loved one produces oxytocin, a necessary ingredient for bonding and for couples to feel an emotional attachment to each other. Working in the nation’s capital, I can count on one hand the number of older couples I see holding hands while walking the National Mall on a summer day. Seeing couples with children connecting as they walk along is also infrequent; often only one of the adults is an active caregiver and the other seems emotionally detached, not interacting with the kids or the spouse.
The necessity for affection, and expressions of passion that include kissing, are keys to strong relationships. Redbook quotes Wendy Walsh, one of CNN’s relationship experts: “Studies of long-term happy couples show that frequency of kissing, more than frequency of sex, is linked to relationship security.” Obviously, spontaneous expressions of affection or passion require a foundation of mutual trust and openness. They also require a couple to be vulnerable with each other; including being willing to apologize and seek forgiveness. Vulnerability also requires being willing to talk about difficult things and to willingly share real emotions with each other. It also means freely admitting desires as well as irritations and expressing deepest needs as well as passing emotions.
One of sad ironies of life is that everyone acknowledges the fact that true friends are the ones that provide support during difficult times. Few understand that, in a marriage or other close relationship, sometimes the triumphant times are harder to deal with. I vividly remember being shocked when an acquaintance asked, after a significant honor was given to me, “How did your husband handle your success?” That acquaintance didn’t understand that my husband and I have always been each other’s biggest cheerleader. Redbook notes, “A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that how couples react to each other’s good news may be even more important than how they help each other copy with sadness.”
One of the problems with the current “hook-up” culture is that one of the necessary ingredients for a lasting romantic relationship is to have fun together. Building a strong, lasting relationship requires learning to have a good time when there is no money for expensive entertainment or when your lives are too hectic and chaotic from raising children. A relationship based solely on nothing more than physical “chemistry” together is doomed for long-term failure. Actually, as Redbook reports, scientific evidence makes it clear: “The correlation between fun and marital happiness is high and significant.” My long-time friends, David and Claudia Arp, teach couples the importance of continuing to “date” each other. Their “Ten Great Dates” program has gone international and includes a Gold Medallion Award-winning book and over one million books in print.
Another problem with “hook-up” relationships is that long-term relationships include sharing the boring trivia of day-to-day life. Since opposites attract, it is sometimes necessary for one spouse to teach the other how to chat and share insignificant details. The same goes for developing inside jokes. Such banter is, as Redbook notes, “an important way to stay up-to-date on each other’s lives.” Years ago, my husband and I watched an episode of the Andy Griffith show; at one point two characters were sitting on a porch, just rocking back and forth without talking. Finally, one turned to the other and said, “What’s the plan, Carl?” The two kept sitting and rocking. Eventually, the other drawled that he was thinking about going to do something, but he kept on rocking and didn’t move a muscle to get up and do it. Ever since, when Gil and I are tired and trying to muster the energy to go somewhere one or the other will ask, “What’s the plan, Carl?” and we’ll laugh and remember a long-ago shared moment of amusement.
Love and romance — and happy life-long marriages — are built on such simple things; they are also slowly eroded over time by the lack of such simple actions and behaviors. Without simple, everyday interactions, couples become estranged; withholding from each other the mundane changes and thoughts keeps a couple from forming a unit and “becoming one.” Without the nurturing of the priceless emotions that bind a couple together, the needs of one or the other will drive them to seek those emotions elsewhere.
Harriet Beecher Stowe understood the importance of little things when she wrote, “To be really great in little things, to be truly noble and heroic in the insipid details of everyday life, is a virtue so rare as to be worthy of canonization.”