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What Makes Marriage Work?

People ask me all the time, “What makes marriage work?” What if I stop loving him/her?

What clearly does NOT make marriage work is believing that one must be in love all the time to make the marriage work. People who believe that love is the key ingredient are romantics, They are in love with love and the minute that they don’t detect the “love” feeling they believe it is time to go–and they do.

What Makes Marriage Work?

What marriage DOES requires the idea of COMMITMENT. We stay because we said we would. In marriages of 50 years and more (I have been married to Ed both happily and not so happily for 41 years) and there are times of loving and times of not so loving. There are the good times and the not so good times. But through it all, we stay, we work it out, we negotiate our differences because it is our decision to do so.

We do not ask ourselves daily if we love this person any more than we ask ourselves if we like our face or these children. Those are facts in our lives and we make them work.

If there are no children, one can declare a fender bender and move on with no collateral damage. However, if there are children, children need the marriage even if we don’t think we do. Divorce damages children. The best they learn if parents divorce is that no one loves anyone enough to stay–no one is committed enough to stay and no one keeps promises about anything–especially the big things. So the children grow to be adults who don’t understand commitment either.

I am not suggesting that people stay in a marriage unhappily. Rather, that they learn what makes the connection to the partner and that they do those things.

In my office, I have seen many marriages-both those that are arranged and love marriages. The factors that make for success are always the same.

The first ingredient is honesty. Without honesty the intimacy is broken and the marriage falls apart. The second ingredient requires that people go through the full range of emotions in any given day. I certainly recommend that they skip the anger sounds. No one likes anger and people tend to hide from it.

Thus, one cannot be married to someone of whom we are afraid. Men tend to fear disappointing the nearest woman–the one he married. Women tend to fear control. They fear being supervised by a man who thinks his way is best. So the couple need to learn how to resolve conflict by listening to each other with respect and negotiating their differences.

Each needs to expect from the other that listening will happen, requests need to be made, and solutions found.

Problems in marriages keep coming up. However, it is important that they are not the same problems. So solutions are found and when they are, sometimes someone forgets. In which case, the partner gently reminds the other of what agreements have been made, the solution is reinstituted, and the marriage goes on.

This brings me to the third ingredient of successful marriages. One cannot win at marriage. There is no right way or wrong way. It is important to fight to find out what one Is doing wrong. This has an entirely different sound.

Conflict goes out of control when people fight to be right. This is my first clue when couples call me to tell me that the presenting problem is the fighting. I know that they are trying to win with each other and that is an invitation to the divorce court.

The last ingredient then, is that the message must be heard. It is impossible to be married to someone who does not honor requests from the partner. We judge how important we are by whether people do what we ask. The marriage ground needs to be paved with requests rather than criticism. This is where the negotiation happens.

There are many myths about marriage. One of course is that love rather than commitment is the deciding factor. Another myth is that opposites attract. Rather, the more similar the value system, the easier the marriage.

Liking is important. It is amazing to watch what happens in my office when I suggest to couples that each say to him or herself, if I were a friend and he/she were a friend, what would I do next? This concept changes everything. It is important to be married to a friend as well as a lover.

Intimacy is important in marriage. We hide ourselves when we fear control, criticism, guilt, or blame. Again, one cannot be married to someone whom we fear. Listening with respect and finding solutions is the best way to gain trust from one’s partner. Of course this goes along with truth telling–ALL the time.

People who are married for a long time disagree calmly. Each describes his position and desires. There is no personal attacking or blaming. Life simply keeps presenting problems to be solved.

People who seek perfection get disappointed. The marriage really begins when the imperfections show up. Because men are trained to work hard, compete, and keep the nearest woman happy, they typically hide their imperfections to keep their spouse from knowing them too well and becoming disappointed. Men may push to control things fearing blame if things don’t go well. This creates conflict as women want to know their men, feel the intimacy of trust, and be allowed to make decisions for themselves. This is then the basic glitch in marriage. The men who want to protect themselves from being “found out” by the women, wanting to control so things will go well, and women who want to be ‘close” and be allowed to exist in a partnership. There are some men, who, fearing that their wife knows them too well, may resort to infidelity to protect their image of perfection. That image falls apart when they are found out. The marriage can come back from infidelity but the hardest thing is then for the man to live with a woman who knows how imperfect he really is. He has a very difficult time recognizing that she is the safest woman of all for him because she knows that he is imperfect and wants him anyway.

Marriages that go well contain partners who contribute in whatever form, equally to the relationship. Everyone does everything until it is all done.

People who stay married for a lifetime are not “lucky”. They may have married young and thus their choice in a partner was lucky. But good marriages endure because of the core ingredients we are discussing here. They are the same core ingredients in all the marriages that last: The honesty, the full range of emotions, fighting to find out what was done wrong, and hearing the message. People then sexualize it to bring each other closer.


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