Despite Tolstoy’s claim that all happy families are alike, I think there are many different ways to be happily married. All of them depend on a shared understanding of implicit rules (or, if you prefer, contingencies regarding what effects will follow from different behaviors). You could say that every marriage is a culture of its own, and there are many different functional and dysfunctional marital cultures. Many marital cultures are dysfunctional because one of the partners only pretends to be a member of the culture. A gay teen going to condemnatory church services with his or her family is not unlike a spouse who performs monogamy but only gets sexual pleasure from new conquests, or a spouse who finds school-age children boring but gets discredited as a mother if she claims they’re anything but fascinating.
A key question for any marriage concerns which needs will be met only by the spouse and which can also be met by others or only by others. If one partner likes to ski and the other doesn’t, then ski companionship can be imported. But if the couple has an idea that all activities, or all overnight stays, must be conjoint, then there will be trouble of one sort or another. There are successful marriages, although I wouldn’t want to be in one of them, where the partners are not friends or even lovers.
Over the years, I’ve met couples whose culture I describe as “true love.” This is the culture I live in, so it has taken a long time for me to discern its parameters, much as an anthropologist can often spot the key characteristics of a foreign culture more easily than his or her own.
1. True love is not a love story! I think it’s useful from time to time to ask yourself what kind of movie you want to live your life in. I’ve already blogged that traumatized people are living in horror movies and paranoid people are living in action movies. True love requires a romantic comedy, not a love story. Two selfish creatures committing to a partnership need an ironic frame, not a sincere one, a frame in which it is understood that the tension between declaring concern for the other while pursuing one’s own agenda will be resolved in laughter rather than in sacrifice or self-deception.
2. Whatever activities threaten the spouses’ alliance must be monopolized by the marriage. This usually means sex, but it might mean playing bridge, co-authoring an academic paper, or divulging a fantasy. There must be some information that stays in the marriage, secrets that bind the parties.
3. As Kevin Bacon said, “Keep the fights clean and the sex dirty.” You are fighting with the love of your life, not with some stranger who is trying to take advantage of you, even though it may feel like the latter.
4. Each partner is a lover and a beloved; neither specializes. If all the world is divided into divas and talent managers, each is equally a diva. Both spouses think they are lucky; neither thinks they could have done better. Thinking how lucky they are to have found the right person is a salve to life’s disappointments and frustrations.
5. In their 20s, or at the start of a new relationship, partners may complain about the other to friends, seeking input on how to think more productively about the beloved. Sometime in their thirties, or a year or so into the relationship for older couples, they stop consulting with friends, reckoning that the privacy will do more good than the advice.
6. When irritated, they generally treat each other well and the rest of the world badly.
7. They separate affection from all demands, whether for sex, for favors, or for forgiveness. Affection is the coin of the realm.
8. They negotiate fairly, according to principles, each having a stake in the workability of the outcome, rather than positionally, where negotiators maximize their own advantage. They negotiate rather than guilt-trip.
9. They are teammates putting on performances for others, and they support the performance that the other is attempting in public. Their teamwork makes them pleasant to be around for others. When they team with others outside the marriage, it is understood by all that the spouse could obtain access to the inner workings of the other team if the spouse felt threatened or excluded.
10. All lovers desire to constrain or capture the beloved. In true love, this is done with reinforcement, not with aversive control. When spouses in a true love relationship start using aversive control (“your children need you,” “you’ll fail,” “you’re fat,” “I’ll leave you”), they know it’s time to revisit the mutual commitment to true love. They don’t get into a huff when the only audience is the spouse. They “get” each other—with delight, not for a source of ammunition.
Several of these factors are different ways of saying the same thing. They amount to a sensibility that the partners are equally invested in maintaining and protecting a rewarding and intimate connection. You can’t find true love by yourself.