Happily Ever After

Two things about my life surprise me. One, who’d’a thunk I’d end up having been married three times? Definitely didn’t plan on that. Second, that I ended up having just one child wasn’t my earlier outlook either. This is a case of the first surprise resulting in the second, pretty much.

Do I really have to say I’ve been married three times? Does that first one really count? Eloping after dating all of ten weeks, actually physically living together a mere six months of the two years the relationship lasted (9 months during which we were separated by half of the country), the division of assets required at its culmination pretty much amounting to who got which CDs of our collection—I ask you: are these the terms of a bona fide marriage? Can’t we just call it…a mulligan?

All right, all right. Lawyers and judges were involved, and much familial grief was incurred. I get it, it counts. Still, I can’t even remember what her middle name was (“Hellcat” rings a certain bell).

Anywho, you can look at my having been married three times as either granting me particular credibility in understanding what makes a good marriage, or the exact opposite, which I’ll leave to you to decide. Being a psychologist, I’m of course tempted to avoid any universal dictums about successful marriages and and just say “it depends”—on the personalities of those involved and what it will take for those two people to get along. Can’t really argue with that.

Still, I have suggested for years now that there are three things necessary for sustained happiness in married life which I’ll throw out there now for your consideration. I discussed these most recently just last summer, when speaking with a newly engaged fellow, in his mid- to late 30s, who’d obviously gravitated only slowly toward the altar in his life.

My three principles of a good marriage are:

  1. In the vast majority of instances and experiences, you’ll have a better time if your spouse is present than absent.
  2. You fight well.
  3. Whatever the differences are between the two of you, not only can you tolerate those differences, but you in fact actually appreciate what’s different about your spouse.

I could stop there, making this my shortest blog post yet…but what fun would that be?

The first principle is essentially the friend principle. I’m hardly breaking news here when I suggest that you and your spouse will have much stronger legs under you if at the end of the day you really are good friends, and experience and treat each other as such. I like the elegance of the litmus of wanting your spouse to be present in the majority of the kinds of things you like to do by way of signaling the big picture quality of the relationship as a marriage. And I’ll bet on friendship over passion for a long, happy marriage any day of the week. Then again, I’m old.

The second principle reflects the reality that when you put two dynamic entities into close proximity across a great deal of time, they will inevitably slam into each other, and sometimes in hard, painful ways. Thus, how they slam into each other, and what they do to stop the slamming, becomes everything. That conflicts are reasonably short-lived and don’t result in deeper hurts should be the general expectation. Bonus points for those who actually learn something important about each other and avoid running into the same conflicts again and again.

The last principle, of appreciating differences, is a real mark of mature relationships. Early on in most relationships, there’s a dominance to noticing all of the many ways you get along and are alike. And this is good, since the research on marriages and divorce much more support the notion of birds of a feather over that of opposites attracting. But eventually the ways in which you don’t mirror each other slowly surface, and these can become the things that drive you crazy about each other (and turn you into one of those stale, constantly bickering couples—blech!—if you don’t achieve this principle). I’m not saying you should expect to not feel some of that irritation. My point is, good marriages are characterized by a mutual recognition that your spouse’s way of doing things or looking at things holds real value to your relationship. Ann is orderly and planful, while I’m much more wing it and spontaneous. Ann delivers us to vacations that proceed as expected, while I maximize the color of each vacation day, to offer one example of this.

A bonus fourth principle (that could be seen as being part of my first principle) is that you agree on most things, and certainly most important things in life. Core values resonating is important stuff, obviously.

I’d be remiss not to mention something awfully wise my dear mother said to me (sadly, a few times along the way): Marriages are work. But they shouldn’t be that much work.


Finally, an underdeveloped idea of mine pertains to symmetry. I’m not sure quite how to articulate this, but over the years I’ve found myself reflecting on the quality of symmetry in a relationship as being the driving force behind success. Symmetry as being key would change some things; for instance, it wouldn’t be as important that you like having the person generally involved in what you’re doing as it would be important that you are symmetrical in whatever degree of involvement you do share (you must know a couple that seem to do very little together and yet seem perfectly happy in their relationship. Maybe it’s the symmetry in their respective lack of desire to be so engaged that yields their success).

Your turn. What do you think is important for a successful marriage?

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