Long, Happy Marriages Take Work

Excerpted by New York Psychotherapy Group
from The New York Times, Personal Health by Jane E. Brody – 7/29/92

Long, happy marriages take work, work, work.
Asking long-married couples why their marriages have endured while nearly half those around them have been torn asunder is like asking 10 blind men to describe an elephant. The answers vary widely, but nearly always reflect mutual commitment, concern, love and respect.

For most long-married couples, “happily ever after” does not just happen. Couples in long, happy marriages reflected this fact of life when asked what has made their relationships a success.

“We work to keep the romance, alive,” one partner said. “We enjoy our differences and learn from them,” said another. Still a third said, “We voice our discontents freely and deal with them right away instead of letting them build into thunderclouds.”

But in a way, the thing all the couples have in common was reflected in this observation: “Even when things were really bad, we were both too stubborn to quit.” None of the 10 couples interviewed married with the idea that if things did not work out they could always split.

For many the road to marital longevity was not a smooth one. The bumps included a very disappointing inability to have children, the death of a child, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, a child with a serious chronic health problem, a difficult economic crisis and highly stressful career changes. But like a stockholder who invests for the long run, the couples did not consider selling out when the price was down. And their ability to stick with the marriage through thick and thin paid off, making their relationships stronger and richer.

Although none said so specifically, it was obvious that two other factors were important to their marital success. First, even though some couples faced considerable differences in personality and sometimes heavy emotional baggage, they maintained respect for one another and refrained from trying to remake their partners. And second, none of the marriages was marred by psychological disturbances too severe to preclude a true partnership.

Although one or the other may have faltered at times, there were no prolonged periods when either partner was unwilling or unable to contribute to a committed relationship.

Many couples with children are determined to stay together at least until their children are grown. But couples typically live 20 or 30 years longer, and with just a little effort these years can be among the most fulfilling times in a marriage.

What Therapists Say

Perhaps the best people to ask about the secrets of a successful marriage are the professionals who deal with troubled marriages all the time. Too often, these therapists find, couples wait until at least one has really decided to call it quits before seeking help, actually looking for confirmation that the marriage cannot work.

These therapists say couples should isolate the trouble spots and make improvements before moving irrevocably toward separation and divorce. Here are some of their recommendations:

• Work from a position of commitment. Too many couples believe the secret of a happy marriage is in finding the right mate. When problems arise, they assume that they made a bad choice and start looking again. But the real secret is not in finding the right mate but in being the right mate, a mate who is willing to weather the hard times and make the adjustments that come with children, job changes, financial difficulties or simply learning more about the person you married.
• Learn to accept each other’s shortcomings. Even happy, well-matched couples can experience conflict, hurt, disappointment and anger. They may recognize shortcomings in such areas as showing appreciation of each other, willingness to converse and expressing emotions clearly. But as Dr. Stuart A. Copans, a psychiatrist associated with Dartmouth Medical School, put it, in spite of such difficulties, studies showed that happy couples were able to “maintain a positive attitude toward each other and continue their ability to cooperate, compromise and appreciate each other.” In an article in the professional magazine Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, Dr. Copans concluded: “Complaints by themselves don’t mean that a marriage is unhappy. It is when those complaints keep the couple from being positive and supportive of each other that the marriage is in trouble.”
• Don’t shy away from conflict. Disagreements can lead to marital growth, not distance. “Conflict is actually a sign of ongoing problem-solving, much as a fever is a symptom of the body’s battle to overcome illness,” said Marcia Lasswell, a Los Angeles therapist. But try to appreciate your partner’s perspective and arrive at a compromise or agree to maintain your differences but respect them.
• When you find yourselves arguing over trivial matters, try to zero in on the real reasons – for example, the feelings of hurt, fear and neglect that underly the anger.
• Do not take understanding for granted. Too often couples assume that if they really love one another, they will intuitively know what the other wants and needs, inevitably resulting in disappointment. Problems not dealt with do not go away with time, they simply go underground or loom increasingly larger until a bomb explodes.
• Maintain a balance of power. Each partner needs to have a sense personal authority, power, significance and equality.

Be willing to work at your marriage. Do not assume that since the first 10 or 20 years were good, the next 10 or 20 will also be good. Love needs to be fed with shared experiences, joys and sorrows. This requires time, attention and emotional energy.