Recipe for a Happy Marriage

On the occasion of my step daughter’s recent wedding in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to give a toast and ponder what makes a happy marriage. As I am apt to do, I got lost in the task. Ten pages in, I believed I had nailed the subject, ready to deliver the perfect toast. My wife Felice, knowing my penchant to prolong and pontificate, strongly recommended I read it to her. Upon hearing my read, she cringed and suggested that I reserve such therapeutic nuggets for a paper; for the toast, she proposed that I briefly state what I wish for the betrothing couple and make it about them. Of course, she was right. I efforted the abbreviated edition and the toast went quite well.

The above anecdote actually demonstrates one of the ingredients of a happy marriage: let your partner influence you. Felice is wise and always has my best interests at heart (not to mention her daughters!). She is usually right and when I listen and learn, my choices typically yield the intended positive outcome. Besides, it is validating to have your partner take in what you feel, believe, think, and then change course. It signals, “what you say matters and it is important to me.”

With my toast complete, the couple happily began their journey as a wedded couple. What follows below is an elaborated version of my original toast, a treatise manifest from a long professional career of providing psychotherapy to frayed and strained relationships. It also speaks to expertise of my personal journey to a happy marriage, working the process on a day-to-day basis.

Choose Right: So much has been written about choosing the right mate (Real, 2007). We all know people who, after leaving a lethal relationship, pick someone who bears a striking resemblance to the first mistake. We also know people who learn from their failed relationships, get into therapy, and end up having successful second acts. It’s been said that we choose someone unconsciously who can help us finish our unfinished business. Knowing yourself well—your “parts” or vulnerabilities that determine who you find attractive—is important in order to avoid obvious debacle. Someone who you find irresistible, who ignites your sexual chemistry, may in fact be toxic and not contain the important compatibilities for the long haul. Of course, we can never know how life and its stresses will wear on the relationship. However, by waiting until self-knowledge is gained and giving the relationship time to mature (like letting wine breath), impulsive decisions motivated from “under the belt” can be avoided.

After a long-term relationship ended, my stepdaughter, Eve, gave herself a few years to recover. She self-examined, and eventually dated until finding her current husband, Mike. In turn, they allowed a few years of getting to know each other and sharing sufficient life experiences which was helpful in revealing the truth about the quality of the match. Time allowed each to accumulate sufficient and intimate knowledge of not just the good parts of their relationship, but the edges and sore spots that ultimately manifest. Knowledge of each other develops naturally, experientially, and organically. Eve and Mike gradually melded their lives together, allowing them to become confident that they were truly complementary. They had selected someone who could support their dreams and had similar ways of looking at the world. Mike softens Eve’s sometimes biting edge as Eve organizes Mike’s sometimes chaotic, “live in the now” approach to life. They do not expect the other to provide what is missing or unresolved from the past. Instead, they see each other as independent, self-assured complements that have their own lives apart from the couple. Theirs is a relationship made up of two wholes, the sum of which is greater and promises to be rich.

Update your Love Map: This is the practice of intimacy, of staying connected. Your love map is your inner and intimate knowledge of your partner: who they are, what they are thinking and feeling, and what they are doing. Update it daily. Show continuous curiosity and interest in your partner’s life so that you have a detailed map in your mind. By communicating in this way, you demonstrate that you are present, interested, and that they matter most. There are some couples who do not share their inner world and have an avoidant style of relating. Eventually and inevitably things get stale, the emotional connection is lost, then goes the sex, and the relationship becomes insecure. Next, is a visit to the couples’ therapist and if that doesn’t work, the lawyers.

Deep and intimate connection is a practice. Check in with each other. Call each other (not just text) during the day. Have a ritual where you find each other after the kids are in bed and share about the day. Bring each other coffee in the morning and discuss what the day looks like. Plan to take a trip together without the kids. Look into each other’s eyes and really see. Kiss on the lips and once in a while, let it linger. If your garden is well tended, you can count on a bountiful yield.

Avoid Toxic Ways of Communicating: Terry Real (2007) calls these “losing strategies” and John Gottman (2015) calls these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  These are dastardly and corrosive methods of communicating implicated in marital failure with a 90% probability. It’s not only what you say but the tone and the body language in which you communicate that matters. Check in on how much resentment you’re carrying towards the other and how you communicate that feeling. Are these resentments coming out “sideways” or being expressed with skill and moderation?

Here are the Four Horseman:

1.   Criticism: This is when you blame the other person and tell them what they are doing wrong and what needs to be corrected. Sentences start with “You Never…” or “You Always…” They are shaming statements that cause the receiver to feel attacked, “bad,” and like they have to defend themselves.

2.   Contempt: This is criticism with a side of scorn. It is the roll of the eyes, the looking down your nose at the person. It implies that you are “one-up” while the other is “one-down.” Communicating contemptuously implies that you are “right” and the other wrong. It is invalidating and disrespectful. Often this is the communication style typical of grandiosity.

3.   Defensiveness: This is not hearing, validating or accepting your partner’s feelings. When your partner approaches you wanting to speak about an issue or hurt they are feeling, being defensive communicates that you do not accept any responsibility and that they are wrong. It blocks any hope for repair by denying their reality.

4.   Stonewalling: This is an extreme form of defensiveness where the partner communicates, “I don’t want to talk about it,” turns their back, walks away, or goes mute. The wall goes up and there is no responsiveness. We know from infant studies on attachment that this is extremely threatening to the attachment system. One would rather get negative attention than none at all.

Foster a Climate of Fondness and admiration: It’s been said that relationships exist in a culture of “appreciation deficit”. We all too often overlook the positives and the small acts of kindness and care that our partner provides. What would it be like to notice all the things that our partners do that make life better? I know I am guilty of taking all too much for granted. It does not take that much time or effort to practice appreciation for the small stuff as well as the large. Turn toward your partner, look into their eyes and say a heartfelt “thank you.” While you may think it, say it out loud. They cannot read your mind. Of course, this applies to all genders. They say that those who live feeling joyous practice gratitude. Simply point this in your partners’ direction.

Practice Kindness, Respect, Empathy, and Compassion: We discuss above the “four horsemen” negative forms of communication. One hundred and eighty degrees from these are the positive and loving forms of speaking to one another. It becomes difficult when the relationship is in disharmony and when you are feeling angry and resentful about your partner. However, this is when it is most important to be capable of regulating your emotions and staying in a mindful state, remembering that you are speaking to someone you love and will be sleeping with later on. There is no avoiding conflict in a relationship, but there is a healthy way to verbalize your strong feelings that expresses your reality, does not blame or shame the other, and conveys respect for the other reality in the room.

Couples who get into serious trouble (not withstanding attachment injuries like affairs, etc.), often compete over whose reality is right. They both claim that they have the facts, implying the other is wrong. This escalates the conflict as no one is getting heard and both feel self-righteous. One of my mentors would always say, “you can be right or you can be married.” Try speaking from the “I”. Stay with your own experience and try not to point blame at the other and make blanket statements about your partner. When you feel anger and hurt toward the other, speak to the hurt or resentment you feel with this methodology: describe what you experienced, what you felt, and what you made up or attributed about the injuring partner.

If you are on the receiving end of this, give your full attention. If you are only partially listening while simultaneously preparing your defense (or categorizing what they do that irritates you) you are not present. Take a deep breath, open your heart, and hear what your partner is trying to convey. Try to empathize and understand your partner’s reality, feelings, and perspective. Let them know you get it and reflect back what it is you heard them say. Apologize—even if you have (and will have) a different reality—about what happened.  Remember that there is NO reality, just perception. Remember the most important thing: what lingers are the feelings you had about this interaction, not the argument. If you can do this with a sense of humor, even better.

Presence and Responsiveness: Gottman (2015) talks about the importance in a happy relationship of responding positively when your partner makes a bid for your attention.[4] In this device driven age, being present and giving your full attention seems highly challenging. We all have seen mothers carrying their babies, crossing the street, and texting at the same time; or witnessed families out to dinner and all members twiddling on their own device. I have certainly been guilty where I retreat into my distractions of sports watching and newspaper reading. However, my wife invites me to join her by calmly inviting, “Can I have your attention?” I drop the paper, look her in the eye, soften, and say, “of course.”

When your partner makes a bid, respond favorably. Turn from what is distracting you and show up and be present. If it is impossible at that moment, say you’ll be there in five or ten. These are the micro-moments of responsiveness that when added together over the weeks, months, and years put relational “money in the bank” and lead to positive sentiment. If there is a positive “balance” of sentiment, it then allows for easier forgiveness and smoother repair. It is always easier to accept an apology or forgive someone you feel so positive about, who is for the most part responsive and there for you.

Emotional and Sexual Intimacy: As a practicing sex therapist, it would be remiss if I didn’t mention a key ingredient in the recipe: nurturing your sexual relationship. This is a complicated and multifaceted topic; that is, how to keep this one aspect of your relationship vital and energized throughout the marriage. The precise alchemy of which fills many books and has been repeatedly theorized. My take is that it involves first choosing a partner with whom you have chemistry with from the start. I don’t believe that attraction and sexual desire develops with age. It is better to select someone off the bat where desire is strong and a foundation for your connection therefore exists.

It is also true that the neurotransmitters and chemicals that make the initial phase of your relationship so exciting and powerful will wear off and diminish over time. Hopefully they will be replaced by a stronger emotional connection, greater knowledge of how you can master your and your partner’s arousal templates and synchronize your lovemaking. Perel (2006) has written wonderfully about how the domestic humdrum is the bane of eroticism. No doubt, having young kids, busy and stressful careers, long commutes, kids and adult activities, and multiple screens and devices can distract us from being present with one another.  Time and presence are, however, exactly what is necessary in order for partners to connect with their sexual desire. It is clear that without a mutually satisfying sexual relationship, the profound and pleasurable screws holding the whole ship afloat loosen and sooner than later, you find your relationship underwater.

How do you keep things alive? There is no substitute for maintaining a close emotional connection and we have discussed above certain ingredients. Having a great emotional bond is necessary but insufficient; you must find each other amidst the distractions, the stresses and strains, pushes and pulls, and consciously communicate your intention to be sexual. Schedule a time and then, as Perel (2006) suggests, have sex worth having (in order to have more sex). Spontaneous sex is overrated. Maybe without the kids, when the chemicals dictated the action, spontaneous sex was functional; or when you were on vacation and there was libation, sand, sun and a nice room. However, this is typically not how life works.

Sex in a long-term relationship is not something you do to each other per se, but a space and time, a container you co-create. A place you go. Schedule a time when the kids are asleep, and you have privacy. Give thought and attention to the fore-fore-play. Take a bath or shower together. Connect with the sensuality of touch and give each other massages. Don’t rush to get to the dessert, but savor the journey including appetizers and soup. Look directly into each other’s eyes and soften, pull each other close, slow it down and focus on the wonderful play of skin on skin, the textures, smells, sounds and sight. Feel the love emanating from these marvelous bodies of ours. Through touch and all the senses and sounds, show and receive the gratitude you feel for having this person in your life.

A Final Word: A successful marriage cannot thrive without presence, wisdom, awareness, and compassion.  It is certainly not for the uninformed and inpatient and unconscious. With the divorce rate approaching 50% and many singles deciding to remain single, it might in fact be an endangered species (or one certainly in need of upgrade). We have realized many diverse ways of coupling and being sexual, such as open marriage, polyamory, gay, bi, and bi-curious. The world is opening for alternatives and this is a wonderful thing.

However, at present, the straight and narrow, hetero, long-term committed relationship remains the meat and potatoes of this society and the most popular choice within which to raise children. Two parents committed to each other, supporting and co-regulating each other, able to offer the other respite, acting as a synchronized team, and having each other’s back through thick and thin has the greatest potential of providing fertile soil in which to grow healthy children.

It is a long journey this life and to be happy in marriage takes commitment and work. Skills are needed as we are not born with the answers. If we did not have a functional relationship modeled for us or were not the beneficiary of secure and attached parenting (or at least “good enough” parenting), we are shooting from the hip, often re-enacting the same bad patterns we witnessed and were victims of. There is “earned attachment,” however, the kind you get from entering therapy, spiritual development, or intellectual study. You can learn how to act in a manner that will promote a positive connection and help assure ongoing intimacy. There are many wonderful resources out there. If you are stuck, find help, read, talk to a friend, and most of all, talk to your partner. Life is too short to be stuck in misery. Find courage and confront what is missing. The stakes are high but the benefits bountiful.     

The author is indebted to his teachers, mentors, and inspirations for the ideas that follow, including Terry Real, John Gottman, Susan Johnson, Stan Tatkin, Ether Perel, Toni Herbine-Blank, and the many couples that have taught me so much. Special thanks to Michelle Jolson who edited this piece. And of course, my wife, Felice, wise soul that she is.

For further reading see Being Attached by A. Levine, MD & R. Heller and Bringing in the One by K.W. Thomas

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