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Marriage

The 3 Essential Ingredients of Happy-Enough Coupledom

Here's why marriage is hard and how you can make it better.

Key points

  • It’s normal for married couples to experience conflict and distance amid high stress.
  • A better marriage requires motivation, goodwill, and a genuine wish to create a better marriage.
  • Small, positive changes can lead to more expansive ones.

People spend their hard-earned money seeking the advice of relationship experts when they already know what they need to do to have a good marriage—or at least a better one. I was recently reminded of this fact, listening to the marriage vows that two young people said out loud to each other in front of their community of family and friends.

They said in turn:

I promise to always treat you with kindness and respect.

I promise to be faithful, honest, and fair.

I promise to listen carefully to what you are saying.

I promise to apologize when I am wrong and to repair any harm I have done.

I promise to cook and clean for you.

I promise to be your partner and best friend in the best and worst of times.

I promise to bring my best self into our relationship.

I promise to live these promises as a daily practice.

How do you think this couple came up with their shared promises? Did they plow through the countless self-help books and blogs about the “how-tos” of a successful relationship? Did they consult the work of psychologists and marriage counselors and study the latest research on marital failure and success?

Of course not. They consulted their own hearts, their core values, their life experience, and the Golden Rule. By the time we’re old enough to choose a life partner, we’ve observed a number of marriages and have a pretty good idea about what makes things better and worse. We know it’s usually a good idea to treat the other person as we’d like to be treated.

If this couple lives their promises as a daily practice (even with a large margin of error), their marriage will do very well, indeed. Need the experts say more?

Of course, it's not that simple. With marriage having a 50% no-go rate, it’s obvious that people don’t follow their promises, or their best thinking, just like people don’t eat healthfully even when they know what’s good for them. Paradoxically, it’s in our most enduring and important relationships that we’re least likely to be our most mature and thoughtful selves.

Real life is messy and complicated. When we share a living space with another person, tie our finances together, negotiate sexuality and the countless decisions that daily life demands—well, of course things can go badly. Then there’s the baggage we bring from our first family, and all the unresolved issues of the past, to say nothing of all the stresses that pile up as we move along the life cycle. If we make or adopt a baby (nevermind adding stepchildren to the picture), it’s more difficult still because nothing is harder on a marriage than the addition or subtraction of a family member. In fact, it amazes me that all marriages don’t fly apart by the baby’s first birthday.

The older I get, the more humble I am about marriage. When anxiety spirals high enough, and lasts long enough, even the most mature relationship may begin to look like a dysfunctional one. To paraphrase the novelist Mary Karr, a dysfunctional marriage is any marriage that has more than one person in it. Even the best marriages get stuck in too much distance, too much intensity, and too much pain. Our automatic tendency toward fight or flight is hardwired, and marriage is a lightning rod that absorbs anxiety and intensity from every source. In case you haven’t noticed, stress will always be with us.

Life is one thing after another, so it’s normal for married folks to yo-yo back and forth between conflict (fight response) and distance (flight response). And just because the universe hands you one gigantic stress, it doesn’t mean that it won’t hit you with others while you’re down. So your mother’s health is deteriorating, your dog dies, your son drops out of drug treatment, and your husband is laid off—all in the same year. Unless you are a saint or a highly-evolved Zen Buddhist, intimacy with your partner may be the first thing to go.

If you want to have a better marriage, keep in mind that nothing is more important than motivation, along with goodwill and a genuine wish to create a better marriage. You also need a willingness to focus on yourself. This does not mean self-blame, but rather the capacity to observe and change your own steps in a pattern that is bringing you pain. You need a willingness to engage in bold acts of change and to practice, practice, practice.

Anything worth doing requires practice, and having a good marriage does too. One can practice choosing happiness over the need to be right or to always win the argument. One can practice playfulness, generosity, and openness. One can practice having both a strong voice and a light touch. One can practice calming things down and warming them up even when the other person is behaving badly. One can practice taking a firm position on things that matter—a position that is not negotiable under relationship pressures.

There's plenty of good advice out there about having a better marriage, but keep in mind that you already know one or two things that you can do to warm things up and calm them down.

So what are the three essential ingredients of creating a happy-enough couple relationship? The key ingredients are motivation, courage, and a willingness to practice, practice, practice.

Start small. But start! Small, positive changes have a way of morphing into more generous, expansive ones. One small positive change leads to another. Your relationship thanks you in advance.

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