Friday, March 19, 2010

What makes a marriage happy?

I'm about to retire my old computer and while purging files I found this piece I wrote for a women's wellness publication, over 2 years ago. Not sure if I'd change much now that I have 2 more years of marriage under my belt, so I'll go ahead and post it on here...

Maintenance for Marriage: It's a S.E.C.R.E.T. (January 2008)

My husband and I have been married for almost 10 years. For some married couples, it's a milestone they'll never hit, for others, just a drop in the bucket. And lately I find myself asking, "What makes a marriage happy?" Maybe that's normal protocol as any couple approaches the 10 year mark or maybe I just want to ensure that we'll at least try to maintain a level of happiness for the future. I guess this would also depend on one's interpretation of the word happy since there are varying degrees, starting with contentment all the way up to fulfilled vitality. Perhaps most people settle for contentment and never allow themselves to experience much more than that. But I truly believe living in a contented state will eventually lead to disappointment, resentment and ultimately, unhappiness. And if you experience just one of those in a marriage, things can start to spiral out of control, pretty fast.

We've read a lot of books on marriage just to make sure we're still on the right track, whatever track that is. Many books talk about communication and how "constructive communicating is the key to a happy marriage." While it does enable you to express your feelings openly and honestly it doesn't help much if your feelings are the cause for your unhappiness. You could be telling your spouse, "I'm not in love with you anymore" or your spouse could be saying to you, "You always put work first. You don't consider me a priority in your life" but yet because you are both communicating effectively that's supposed to solve your problems? It's not that simple. Then there are the books that talk about spontaneity and how it's natural after a certain amount of time for the marriage to become routine and subsequently taken for granted. These books offer suggestions and little pick me ups on how to bring back the spark, whether it's breaking bad habits, spicing things up in the bedroom or having more time alone, away from the kids. And while some of these methods may work in the short term, it's not a guarantee for a lifetime of bliss.

After almost a decade of marriage, I believe the secret to a happy marriage will not be found from reading words on a page or tearing through tissues behind the doors of therapy. So, with some input from my husband of course, I'll explore our own marriage and share some of the things that have worked for us. After all marriage is just that, work. Based on our life together and the direction we want to go here is what we believe is the SECRET to a happy marriage, whatever your definition of happy may be.

Share responsibility:
This one's simple, because not only is it measurable but it benefits each partner once the responsibilities are clearly defined and executed. Whether it's painting a bathroom, taking out the trash or maintaining the household finances, if one spouse is more adept and willing to take on a particular task, then let them. It's important to know what works for each individual and to ensure that the responsibilities are communicated and understood from the start. I used to get angry with my husband when he would load the dishwasher because he'd stack bowls right side up, plates would face the wrong way, glassware would touch, etc. After a few chipped glasses I finally decided that this should not be on his list of things to do. Now that I think of it, I wonder if he was doing it intentionally?? Regardless, he's in charge of all things outdoors and I'll stick to the dishes. We don't try to push each other towards those tasks that we either despise or aren't experts in the field. We each have a fair share of "to dos" in our day to day lives and we know what works for both of us and what doesn't. You'll never catch me mowing the lawn on Saturday just as he would prefer to stay away from cat box clean up.

Erase the fantasy:
This may be hard for some people (especially those who marry young) who have always had that fairy tale idea about marriage. I believe the wedding day can be every bit of that fairy tale, but if happily ever after is not grounded in reality there will be major disappointments and resentments down the line. Life happens no matter what so when bills pile up, work stresses mount, toilets break, kids get sick, no doubt this will effect the overall happiness of the marriage. If you're not able to accept the fact that marriage is not going to be a constant state of wedded bliss then you will be in for a huge let down. Be realistic with your expectations of marriage before you say I do. How you deal with the things life throws at you, together, is an indicator of how successful your marriage will be in the future.

Compromise is KEY:
In any relationship whether it's husband/wife, brother/sister, parent/child, there is always going to be compromise. No matter how much you love someone, there will be moments when you will feel differently about situations than your partner. It could be something simple, for example, where to take your next vacation or it may be something more significant such as deciding to go back to work or continuing to stay at home with the kids. You and your spouse aren't supposed to agree on every challenge that arises in a marriage but it is important to meet somewhere in the middle and find a level of compromise that you'll both be comfortable with. Otherwise one will feel slighted and may even use their feelings of having to sacrifice as a crutch down the line. Sacrifice can be a dangerous word in any relationship. It denotes a void of happiness by doing without something you desire and that's not how you want to view the choices you make in your marriage.

Rewards vs. Regrets:
Make sure your rewards outweigh your regrets. Whether it's personal, professional or marital it's unavoidable in life to not experience some level of regret. Sometimes regrets can weigh on us like a ton of bricks and cause us to doubt ourselves and some of the decisions we've made. And part of being married is accepting the fact that there are going to be regrets but along with regret, comes forgiveness and you have to be willing to forgive yourself or your spouse in order to move ahead. On the flipside we need to be able to recognize the rewards that marriage has to offer and ideally in a happy marriage, the rewards are significant and the regrets, minimal. But, they will be there from time to time and rather than dwell on them and live your life questioning your past, accept them, forgive and move on so you can continue to reap the many rewards that marriage has to offer.

Embrace your individuality:
While one of the benefits of marriage is sharing your life with someone, it's important not to lose sight of who you are as an individual and maintain a healthy level of independence. Remember the things that you used to do that made you happy before marriage and continue to do them (well, most of them). And it's ok to share some of these things with your spouse, if they derive the same amount of pleasure as you. I love to spend hours in a bookstore, just browsing the aisles and then finding a corner to sit and read my selections. This is torture for my husband and I wouldn't want him to suffer through the boredom so I continue to do this on my own. My husband LOVES to golf and could spend all day on the course every weekend. That's not a barrel of fun for me, but I know how happy this makes him so I want him to enjoy it whether or not I do. This often leads to compromise so he gets up extra early to play on the weekends, that way we still have the bulk of the day to spend together, doing things we both enjoy. And most importantly, stay young and have fun!

Treat each other with respect:
Sometimes I feel this is one of the most important virtues, and not just in marriage but in life. When you respect each other on a day to day basis it's hard to take one another for granted. Understandably there are going to be times when we might say or do something that is not coming from a place of love, especially in the heat of an argument, but it's important to choose words and behaviors that are not critically damaging. Personal attacks on character demeans your spouse which can cause a great deal of hurt and it's true, sometimes we treat strangers better than the ones we love the most. Love your spouse, respect them for who they are and remember what brought you both together in the first place and keep that in mind the next time you feel like saying something you might regret. Or just count to 10, sometimes that works too.


Anonymous said...

Wow--wise words and written as though you'd been married much longer. I'm happy that some people have successful relationships as friends and lovers--I have some friends that have been together more than 40 years, and now they are together almost 24/7! It's amazing to me. I made a mistake in my choice and I was left too damaged to ever consider trying it again--I guess I should work on getting over it. I know I'm missing some of life's brightest spots! Thanks for your wisdom. I'm printing this out for my daughter and her husband to read.

Kay said...

I agree with YKW. Wise beyond your years. You and your husband are lucky to have found each other. I know there is no such thing as perfect but as a couple you two come pretty close.

J-Mom said...

Very well written and agreed on completely. Coming from a person who's been through this once before unsuccessfully, you've hit the nail on the head with all of your points.

Smileygirl said...

Thanks you guys. There are so many more that can be added to this list but I had to keep it concise. But really, these are the ones that seem to work best for us at least during the first decade.

Tracey Axnick said...

I gotta tell you, girl.... I've been married 18 years (as of May), and these words are true-true-true. (Especially the "fantasy" part... I want to tell EVERY young starry-eyed bride "have fun on your honeymoon but EVENTUALLY you need to realize that he's NOT Prince Charming and you're not Cinderella. LIFE is real and you're both human".)

Seriously, Laura, excellent little article - you should submit this for publication somewhere... really! I may link over to this from my blog (with all due props, of course...)

Smileygirl said...

Thanks Tracey, you're sweet and after 18 years of marriage, obviously know a thing or two about it! I wrote this 2 years ago for a (dare I say it) woman's mental health publication. Since I don't have clue about mental well being I was fortunate to write on something I know a little bit about. :)

Live For Today said...

I love that you mentioned broken toilets in the article...have you had others published?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and we all forgot to mention that you two were/are an exquisitively beautiful couple!

Stephanie said...

I loved this!! Wonderful advice and definitely something we all need to be reminded of. I wrote a post on my page linking people to your post so they can read it too.

karen gerstenberger said...

This is all good, sound advice, given after it's been user-tested. Great article, and not preachy. I liked it. Maybe you should do an annual update for a magazine series?