February 17, 2017. Today, the world celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Day, and while I’m all for practicing this non-official holiday, the date takes on a more significant meaning within the walls of our family home. Forty-two years ago, my parents made a vow to stay committed to each other for the rest of their lives—and so far (and so, forevermore), they’ve made good on that promise.
Theirs is a marriage that has been tested by my father’s illness and the rigors of raising four children, and with every test they’ve come across, they have emerged stronger than ever. Now, that is the type of commitment that every couple should aspire for. To commemorate this very special day, I’ve decided to write about marriage—specifically, the secrets to a lasting and happy marriage.
So, with that in mind, what are the secrets to a happy union? I suppose that that’s the million dollar question. In a world where most romantic relationships crumble and a trip down the aisle is no longer much of a guarantee for ‘forever,’ how does one begin to build the foundation for a strong and healthy marriage? Before I go about trying to answer that question, let me back those statements with statistics.
Staying is the New Shame
A few months ago, while on a TED trip on YouTube, I came across a very interesting talk by the renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel. Although her talk was mostly about rethinking infidelity in the marriage context, she did touch on a myriad of factors why relationships tend to fail.
According to Perel, prior to marriage becoming the natural ‘next step’ after two people fall in love, marriage was more of an ‘economic enterprise.’ It was an agreement between two families for their betterment and a way for a man to ensure that his wife’s children were his. It was a way of making sure that his children were the ones who will inherit the cows, the land, etc.
Marrying for love, on the other hand, is a rather recent phenomenon. And yet, if nowadays, we get to choose the person we marry, why are so many couples still splitting up? In the context of infidelity, this is what Perel has to say:
“But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor, but we also have never been more inclined to stray. And not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where “I deserve to be happy.” And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”
And indeed, divorce has become the go-to option for many couples when their marriages hit a series of snags. And, quite frankly, I’m not against divorce so long as it really is what’s best for the couple. But, here is the caveat. Divorce may be the best cure for a rotten marriage, true. However, isn’t prevention still better than any cure? The truth is, the average number of divorces worldwide may have dropped since the 1980s, but it’s still pretty high.
According to Divorce.com, a website that claims to be “Your best resource before, during, and after a divorce,” there are a number of countries where divorce rates per capita exceed 50% of the married population. The top five countries in their list include Belarus (68%), the Russian Federation (65%), Sweden (64%), Latvia (63%), and Ukraine (63%). The United Kingdom sits at 10th place (53%) and the United States is at 12th place (49%). The site also has a disclaimer about the difficulties of being absolutely accurate with their figures, so let’s try another round of statistics.
This time, it’s from an article from The Telegraph called “The Haven for Honeymooners Where Everyone Gets Divorced.” According to the September 2016 article, the Maldives has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being the divorce capital of the world. We’re looking at 10.97 divorces per year for every 1,000 people in the country. According to the UN, the average Maldivian woman would have had three divorces by the time she’s 30—talk about a major quarter-life crisis.Also making it to the top five countries with the highest annual divorces per 1,000 inhabitants are Russia (4.5), Aruba (4.4), Belarus (4.1), Latvia (3.6), and the United States (3.6)
Supposing that the actual number of divorces per head in the aforementioned countries are slightly lower than reported, when placed in the context of how a lot of these marriages are ‘love matches,’ these figures remain rather unsettling.
Now, more than ever, it feels imperative that couples know the secrets that will inoculate their unions against the possibility of ruin. This brings us to the article’s original question: What makes for a happy and lasting marriage?
The eminent French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has a humorous answer to the question. According to Montaigne:
“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”
Now, the statement may be funny, but if it were true, the vast majority of the world’s couples are screwed. Let’s try again.
Is it LOVE?
Love, it seems, would be the logical answer to the question, right?
The Oxford Living Dictionary defines love as “a strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone,” and “a great interest and pleasure in something.” Now, that sounds about right; after all, the sexual attraction bit is what would differentiate husband/wife from friend or relative.
Another definition for the word love, particularly in the realm of sports, is “a score of zero; or nil.” That sounds about right too. Because as the great thinkers Sartre, Pierre Reverdy, and Jean Cocteau have pointed out:
“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.”
Cue Natalie Portman’s epic scene in the film Closer, where her character, Alice, tells Jude Law’s character, Dan: “Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it, I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.”
The film came out right about the time I was taking my Theology 131 class called “Marriage, Family Life, and Human Sexuality.” Although the rest of the semester is pretty much a blur now, I do remember one particular lecture from my professor. He talked about the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone.
The feeling of being ‘in love’ is not something you can control. It’s the honeymoon phase of the relationship—the part where desire (or hormones) is present. And quite frankly, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will tell you, this phase is temporary. It’s one you can rekindle multiple times in your relationship, but it’s not always present, nor is it always necessary.
Real, lasting love is a decision you make every day. See, you may not always be in love with your partner, but so long as you love him/her—and to love is still very much an action word as it is a noun—then there’s hope for ‘so long as you both shall live.’
I believe that the main secret to a lasting relationship lies in the constant practice of that action word called ‘love,’ and the following are the factors that make love in a marriage possible.
Respect is a fundamental part of loving someone. While it’s true that you can respect people you don’t necessarily love or even like, (your boss, your teacher, an actor/actress, a politician, etc.), it’s impossible to love someone without having a modicum of respect for that person.
Now, I’ve read a number of articles, that I won’t put here out of respect for their authors, detailing the importance of respecting one’s husband—his authority, choices, and decisions—and while I agree with these authors in some ways, I do believe that respect is a two-way street. It is just as important for a husband to respect his partner, and I’m not backing down on this.
FRIENDSHIP OR COMPANIONSHIP
“The first time you marry for love, the second for money, and the third for companionship.” – Jackie Kennedy
I’m not going to knock Jackie Kennedy’s statement—there is some truth to it after all. But I, for one, believe in marrying for love and companionship the first time. It will save you the heartbreak and the wallet drain of two divorces. This is a sentiment that Franz Schubert and Friedrich Nietzsche appear to be in agreement with. To quote them both:
“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” – Franz Schubert
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
This is advice better said in the Huffington Post article called “America’s ‘Longest Married Couple’ Wants to Give You Love Advice.” The article features a 2016 interview with John and Ann Betar, a couple who have been married for 83 wonderful years.
The couple had eloped in 1932, when Ann was just 17 years old, and John was just 21. Ann’s family had wanted her to marry an older man, so the couple decided to run off and build a beautiful life together. According to John, the secret to their long marriage is contentment.
“We struggled in the beginning, but, luckily, we were content with what we had. It’s just important to be content with what you have.”
Now, that’s pretty sound advice, wouldn’t you agree?
KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY (PARTICULARLY, GENEROSITY OF INTENT)
In 2014, The Atlantic released an interview with esteemed psychologists John and Julie Gottman. The couple has been studying other marrieds for four decades in a bid to determine what makes relationships last and what factors contribute to their decay.
According to the Gottmans’ research, kindness is the glue that keeps couples together. It is in practicing kindness that we are able to make our partners feel our love. Now, it is easy to be kind to your partner when everything is going well; but kindness is most needed not during these periods of happiness but during the down times, during periods of fighting and brewing contempt.
As Julie Gottman puts it, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and that’s the kinder path.”
This is also where generosity (of intent) comes in. When your partner does or says something that is hurtful to you, it is important to give your partner some ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Instead of immediately assuming the malevolence of an act, try to find its root. Beyond seeking to be understood, also seek to understand.
Last, but not least, there is the importance of expressing love through gratitude. In 2012, an article from Psychology Today discussed the role of appreciation and gratitude in maintaining relationships. It talked about a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley psychologist Amie Gordon. The study, which was featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved asking 50 couples to write in appreciation journals.
The results of the study showed that couples who practiced reciprocal appreciation were more likely to stay together in the following months. They also exhibited stronger ties with each other. So, it’s true. Showing love through appreciation really does help create a loving and nourishing environment for couples.
Now, I’m sure that this list of ‘secrets’ is far from complete, but I do believe that practicing these tips can help secure a lasting, healthy, and happy marriage. At the very least, true love is always worth the shot, right?