Only people who are interested in marriage and in what makes marriage last should read this book. As a marriage and family therapist, I have seen many couples with relationships in trouble. Some couples are able to build on their strengths and maintain their marriage. But too many others have sought a divorce.
Why do some marriages last a lifetime and others end in divorce? In North America today, divorce has become commonplace. Surveys indicate that the average length of most marriages ia about twelve years. So what is the glue that keeps a couple together? Researchers state that similar values, interests, ethnic backgrounds, intellectual capacities, and religious beliefs are the important components of a lasting marriage. Therapists state that caring, commitment, communication, conflict, compromise and cooperation make marriages workable. Lawyers state that marriages fail because of unreal expectations, unmet needs, addiction, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, and lack of communication and conflict resolution skills.
In my personal quest to discover the “ingredients” of a lasting marriage, I decided to invite couples in their first marriage who have been married thirty years of longer to tell their stories. It seemed like a simple plan: to document these stories and glean information from people who managed life’s stresses and transitions and to learn from the experience of an enduring relationship. What you will read in the following chapters is the outcome of this work. the contributors are couples who have shared their personal stories with me by writing them or by telling them to me. I feel honoured to be allowed inside the marriages of these couples and to be trusted to tell their stories.
Each story is a wonderful biography of a marriage, highlighting significant events that placed stress on the relationship. The couples took this opportunity to look at their process of coping, resolving difficulties, and maintaining commitment. All of these couples related a richness of lived experience that I found rewarding and gratifying.
What Makes Love Last?
Being close to another person is the most basic of our psychological needs. Intimacy facilitates confidence and resilience if it includes honesty, self-disclosure, listening, and sharing. Feelings of love and passion may wax and wane during the course of the relationship, but successful couples work each day at renewing and rejuvenating their “good feelings” for each other.
Researcher John Gottman, in Why Marriages Succeed of Fail, states there is trouble when:
Partners do not think fond thoughts about each other when apart
Partners are critical, complain, and blame
Partners store up resentment and contempt
A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to deal with stressors and resolve differences. The relationship develops as the partners relate and grow. Each partner learns to give as well as take.
Each person needs to develop skills to “soothe” their partner and themselves. Ask yourself these questions:
What do you want out of this relationship?
What are you willing to put into the relationship?
Can you postpone personal gratification in order to enhance the well being of your partner?
Each of us wants our marriage to last. But marriage is a complex and complicated arrangement. As two people bond in a relationship, they perform a delicate dance of attachment and autonomy. This delicate dance means being close and present while maintaining your individual sense of self.
Therapist Wayne Muller writes: “What we love galvanizes our attention. It forms our life. It forms the soil in which we grow; it is the seed in the ground. We give our hearts to what we love. Our love teaches us what to look for, where to aim, when to walk. With every action, word, relationship, and commitment, we slowly and inevitably become what we love.”
Marriage is a profoundly life shaping state of being. Intimacy nurtures the relationship giving it “heat”. Each partner experiences the other up close, skin close, over a long period of time.
The comedian Sam Levenson says, “love at first sight is easy to understand. It’s when two people have been looking at each other for years that it becomes a miracle.” This is a miracle that grows out of dreams, hopes, and expectations of partners who work at maintaining their love year after year.
Commitment is a necessary ingredient to hold the relationship together while emotional repairs are being made. Disagreement, conflict, and disillusionment evolve from personal differences and these feelings can threaten a marriage. Commitment means that partners are prepared to “stay with it” and honour the obligations and promises made to the marriage.
Consider these commitment promises:
“I want to love you without clutching
Appreciate you without judging
Join you without invading
Invite you without demanding
Have space from you without insulting”
Maintaining obligations and commitment enriches a couple’s relationship. The couples in this book are there for each other “for better or worse.” As you read their stories, reflect on the issues the couples cope with and how you and your partner deal with similar situations and sustain your marriage. In Section I, the Couple Care section, we all address the marital issues people try to avoid discussing: sex, money, and religion. Dixie and Claude relate difficulties they encountered in making their commitment. Dennis and I provide information from our individual areas of specialization; Dennis writes as a financial consultant, while I write as a sex therapist. Delphine and Lloyd share their spiritual beliefs. Section II deals with differences between the partners. Joyce and Graham relate the difficulties of making a mixed racial marriage work. Sonia and George write about how opposites attract and the fascination that follows.
All relationships have stress. In Section III, Betty and John deal with extended family. Anne and Tom describe their busy, dual-career, married life. Myra and Peter share their grief and loss when their daughter is killed in a car accident. Dennis and I relate our sadness and struggle in coping with our son’s diagnosis of schizophrenia. And Mary and Laurie share their acceptance of homosexuality in their family.
Parenting brings both joys and sorrows to a marriage. Section IV features three very different aspects of parenting. Shirley and Paul are unable to conceive and are happy to adopt. After too few years as a family they must prepare to let their children go. Myrna and Bernie conceive out of wedlock and adopt out. After too many years they are reunited with their daughter. Lili and Jack describe their struggle in becoming grandparents and finding a balance in their lives.
The last two chapters bring us to longevity in marriage–past fifty to seventy-five years! For newlyweds, these numbers are hard to fathom. Helen and Frank relate how their marriage is for them in their golden years. I write about the lifelong journey in the marriage of Maria and John. I had the privilege of attending the celebrations for their seventy-fifth anniversary. It was a wonderful milestone for them and their story is truly remarkable.
We all want our love to last forever. The feeling of love is different for each one of us. Some people have high expectations about what a loving relationship can provide. In lasting relationships, each person needs to know their “self” and needs to develop the capacity to love another person.
I realize that lasting relationships are not the exclusive domain of married couples. The focus in this book is on married heterosexual couples, but the ingredients for lasting relationships are relevant for homosexual, bisexual, and common law partners. Everything in life seems to change, but the really important things remain, like love. Love keeps partners together with the caring, understanding, and trust that create a lasting relationship.