The Guest Room

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The Happy Couple

How to make happiness a habit, one little loving thing at a time.

By Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. 

More than twenty-five years ago, a Unitarian minister named Robert Fulghum published a book with a simple credo: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book became a best seller; its title became a cultural meme. While it was not overtly a philosophical book, it espoused a philosophy with which we could all identify: life is not really complicated. We all learned at a very early age how to live successfully with other people, but we all seem to have forgotten it as we grew older. 

The same philosophy can be applied to marriage, but books on marriage tend to make it complicated. Some cloud marriage in theory with little guidance about how to actually be married; others offer advice without much theoretical basis. Some are based on science and brain research and depict the process of change as deep and complicated, requiring a steep learning curve for the couple. 

However, most books on marriage agree on one thing: couples want to be happy and do not know how. And each offers its view of the perilous journey from misery to joy. For some, the reasons for a couple’s unhappiness are located in the intrusion of childhood into their adult relationship, and the couple needs to achieve profound insights into their unconscious urges. Some books go to the other extreme, viewing a difficult relationship as the result of missing relationship skills; they send couples off to a sort of couples camp where they can practice. Ignorance of relationship skills is another possible cause, so couples are advised to take classes together. Pure stubbornness about their willingness to change, or “resistance,” is often cited, so a stint in therapy may be considered necessary. But all couples are counseled by all marriage books that happiness is on the other side of change.

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In his book The Happy Couple, Barton Goldsmith has done something unique. He has assembled a remarkable list of ideas and exercises for couples that, in my view, will actually work. And he has done it without the befuddlement of theory, yet every page exhibits a theory of change. Obviously, it reminded me of Fulghum’s philosophy: We all learned long ago that being negative gets you nowhere. A positive attitude is a prerequisite for a good relationship. You have to make a commitment to make anything happen. Talk with your partner. Don’t criticize. Have fun together. Greet each other when you come home and say goodbye when you leave. It’s simple. What would make marriage work for everyone is not rocket science. Not a single suggestion or exercise is exotic or complicated or requires a college degree. All of them ring of common sense.

What I like about what Goldsmith has done is that he brings all of these “truths” together, illustrates each one with a story, and offers an exercise that would put the concept into action. What makes the book challenging to couples is that the author refuses to delude them by saying that becoming a happy couple is easy. No, but for the couple who wants the happiness they say they want, this is an amazing workbook, a map of the journey—every step of the way. The only way a couple could fail is to not do the work.

Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., is co-author with Helen LaKelly Hunt of Making Marriage Simple: Ten Truths for Changing the Relationship You Have into the Relationship You Want.

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