What Makes Marriage Work

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.

The Holiday of Love is fine and good, but I am more interested in what comes afterwards–after the roses have drooped, the candles are blown out, and the chocolate has been eaten except for the yucky ones with orange cream filling. I am interested in the 364 days between the Valentine events, and the work it takes to keep a love relationship functioning smoothly and happily.

My husband and I have been married for 20 years, a good solid number, and I think I can speak for both of us when I say we are in it for the long haul, but as my friend Seth puts it, marriage needs “tending.” Interested in how others tend their relationship, I sent out a questionnaire about marriage to a few select people: my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, college classmates from way back when, three couples who are wonderfully happy in their second marriages, a few fellow mothers from the playdate trenches, and a husband and wife who have been married for almost 60 years.

Interestingly enough, the responses about what makes a marriage work from this fairly diverse group overlapped repeatedly. Their answers also corresponded with the advice given in the bestselling marriage book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by psychologist John M. Gottman. I have separated these marriage pearls of wisdom into four categories.

Play Nice

Gottman, who has been researching marriage since 1972, can predict with 91 percent accuracy whether or not a couple will stay together or eventually divorce by listening to them converse for a mere five minutes. This sounds unbelievable until Gottman explains some of the warning flags of a doomed relationship. And it isn’t what you think. It doesn’t matter how much a couple fights or how heated the arguments become. What matters is the language and tone used within the fight. The two biggest death nails for a relationship are criticism and contempt.

Gottman explains that it is okay to lodge a complaint against your spouse but not a criticism. “A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, but a criticism ups the ante by throwing in blame and general character assassination.” He describes contemptuous behavior as any kind of sarcasm, sneering, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, or hostile humor. Ouch.

A few years ago I belonged to a book club that consistently veered from discussing the chosen book to discussing our husbands. We complained bitterly about piles of clothes left three feet from the hamper, their general inability to find anything in the refrigerator, and their lack of interest in all subjects important to us. After these meetings, fueled by wine and chocolate, I would come home to my husband feeling surly and self-righteous, but also a little ashamed of myself. Even before I read Gottman’s statement that “happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other from overwhelming their positive,” I realized that bagging on my husband with other women did not benefit the most important relationship in my life.

Gottman suggests a seven-week course in fondness and admiration to “get you in the habit of thinking positively about your spouse.” Those surveyed by me also suggest that marriage needs a lot of “kindly love” and “mutual respect.” As my sister-in-law Jenny states so succinctly, “A good marriage is the result of two people seeing the best in each other.”

And sometimes seeing the best in someone else in turn teaches you to be a better person. My friend Corrie Kate wrote, “I used to think I was a pretty good person, now I know that Dustin is a good person, and I just try really hard.” I feel the same way about my husband Stephen. He teaches me to be better by not saying much at all, but through years and years of patient kindness.

My friend Leo says it especially beautifully. “I have learned to love myself by seeing my partner love me for my goodness. Loving me makes it more possible to love her more completely.”

Funny he should put it just that way, because his wife is currently working on painting a giant canvas for their bedroom that features the Lao Tzu quote, “To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage.”

You Drive Me Crazy

My favorite love song is by Greg Brown. The lyrics go something like this: “You drive me crazy/ with all the things you do and do not do./ I love you soooooooooooooooo much,/ I’m going to drive you crazy too.”

This may seem like a strange sentiment for a love song, but Gottman says that another essential ingredient to a good marriage is to learn to accept each other’s faults. My old college classmate agrees. Seth wrote, “I think a marriage works when the partners have a high degree of tolerance. I use that word deliberately. There are things Kate does I really can’t stand, but I tolerate them. I know for a fact the reverse is also true.”

My husband has a habit of leaving his shoes at the door. I have no idea why, since he also has a habit of tracking mud and leaves through the house. When the pile of shoes at the door grows to three or four pairs and I am constantly tripping over them, I find myself starting to grumble. But recently I realized that even though the shoes at the door drive me crazy, they are also a reminder that I am a part of a greater whole. In a marriage you need to “be able to see each others’ worst and feel your humanity and compassion arise as a result,” says my brother-in-law, Brian. A shoeless, neat entryway might be nice, but not if it meant trading in my husband, the best thing that ever happened to me.

Gottman says that along with accepting each other’s faults, healthy couples realize that “most marital arguments cannot be resolved…because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values.”

This was also echoed again and again in my marriage surveys. Jenny, who has a beautiful marriage, friendship, and business partnership with her husband Brian, says, “I have also learned that holding grudges hurts no one but myself.”

Ron and Nancy, who have been married for 58 years, reiterate this wisdom but in the most interesting way. Nancy advises, “Be true to yourself. However, be ready to change your point of view, change your attitudes, adapt your principles.”  Her husband writes, “Each spouse has to be willing to deny him/her self at times of things [either material things or ideas or convictions] that seem essential.” According to Ron, a working marriage is a paradox because “each partner must both be true to him/her self and be able to give up the self.”

Brown croons in the final verse of his song, “And even if we still look puzzled/ let your face be the last one I see./ You drive me crazy./ I’m going to drive you crazy too.”

Make Repairs

My friend Jara shared a wonderful story about her husband John, CEO of the local hospital and a man of few words. One Saturday afternoon Jara was having a guest drop by. She suggested in a wifely way to her husband, who likes to let his hair be “free” on the weekends, that he attempt to do something with his mop so not to scare her guest. Her husband disappeared while she finished getting things ready. Jara writes, “After the person arrived, I noticed [and so did she] John walking around the house wearing his hard hat from the construction project at the hospital. It was his solution to the hair problem I guess.” She was exasperated, but also greatly amused.

By donning a hard hat, John performed a perfect “repair attempt.” Gottman says a repair attempt is “any statement or action–silly or otherwise–that prevents negativity from escalating out of control” and is crucial to a successful marriage. So much so that he states that “the success or failure of a couple’s repair attempts is one of the primary factors in whether their marriage flourishes or flounders.” As my friend Sarah says, “Love is an act, not just a feeling. Love is a verb.”

My husband is the King of Repair Attempts, but before I knew what repair attempts were, I just thought he was trying to change the subject or distract me. And in a way, he was. Successful repair attempts allow for couples to step back, take a breath, maybe have a laugh, and hopefully give the situation enough space to see everything from a broader angle. A repair attempt can be as simple as saying “I’m sorry.” (I have been known to purchase barbecue potato chips as a peace offering.) But according to my survey, the number one repair attempt is humor.

Humor and shared humor was mentioned over and over as the saving grace of marriage. Laughter keeps the hard moments at bay and helps forge a strong friendship. Corrie Kate, who shares parenting four children with her husband, says that the favorite part of her marriage is “when we both see something funny and crack up at the same time. We never have to say anything, but seem to get what the other is thinking.”

John is not the only one in his household who understands the repair attempt. When answering the survey question “What have you learned through your marriage?” Jara quipped that “blond works better.” Her informal scientific research has shown that she and her husband are more harmonious the lighter colored her hair.

She stayed blond for him, he wore a hard hat for her, and they lived happily ever after.

Pay Attention (to your relationship as much as your kids)

Even if you play nice, accept your spouse’s faults, and master the art of repair attempts, as Seth says, “A child throws a monkey wrench into the whole thing.”

According to Gottman, “In the year after the first baby arrives, 70 percent of wives experience a precipitous plummet in their marital satisfaction. [For the husband, the dissatisfaction usually kicks in later as a reaction to his wife’s unhappiness.]”  Well, duh. There is nothing like sleep deprivation and juggling the steep learning curve of how to take care of a newborn to fray your nerves and erode your self-confidence. Any additional pull, even the gentle tug of a once beloved husband needing your attention, is enough to send a normally loving wife completely over the edge.

Seth warns about the danger of “making the child the focus of the relationship.” When our girls were young, I was definitely guilty of prioritizing them (as well as the laundry, getting dinner made, and sleep) above my marriage. But then Corrie Kate took a parenting class. She reported back to me that having a healthy marriage and having your children witness you prioritize your spouse is the single most important parenting step you could make. This is reiterated by Christine Carter in her book Raising Happiness. She says that “the quality of marriage has a huge influence on our children” and advises parents to take care of their marriage first. “Before you start worrying about raising happy kids, get yourself–and your marriage if you’ve got one–to a happier place.” (Interestingly, Carter is divorced and raising her two children as a single mom. She says that divorce does not harm childhood development, but that it is crucial for ex-spouses to work on having a respectful relationship.)

Corrie Kate and I decided that we needed to try this advice of prioritizing our husbands even though at the time with the demands of small children and a bedtime of 7:30 (mine, not theirs), it seemed like an impossible task. The workshop experts suggested small steps, such as calling a 15 minute no-kid zone once a day so couples could get some private time to catch up with each other. We tried it, and even though it took the girls a while to learn not to interrupt us, it became a routine that we still practice to this day, five years later. Corrie and her husband came up with a clever plan. They head to the garage for a little time alone and tell their four children they can’t be disturbed because they are discussing Christmas presents.

As I have mentioned, but I think the sheer wonderfulness of it bears repeating, survey respondents Ron and Nancy have been together for almost six decades. I see them all over town, running errands together; sharing a table at the library, books and papers spread out between them; and walking down the street leaning into each other like trees seeking the light. He is kind and courteous, and, when in his presence, she is as lovestruck and happy as a young girl.

They are what marriage is about. Nancy offers 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 as guidance for a strong relationship. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”  She adds that “to strive for that is a huge ideal.”

A good marriage is a huge ideal, but what encouraged me the most as I read the words and thoughts of those surveyed was that no one seemed to shrink back from the work of marriage or harp on the seemingly impossible task of committing themselves to another person for a lifetime (or even part of a lifetime). As my accountant friend Carrie says, “You have to be willing to put yourself fully into the equation and take responsibility for your part of the relationship.”

It is Ron who sums up best what makes marriage work: “a few years and maybe a few kids and maybe a few surprises and maybe a few losses. In other words, maturity, however gained.”

Note: I just want to thank everyone who participated and allowed me to share their stories and thoughts–there were so many more lovely things you all wrote. I do want to say this to Jenny, Brian, Sarah, Jillene, Carrie, Leo, Jara, Nancy, Ron, Corrie Kate, and Seth: your spouse is very lucky to have you. As I am so terribly lucky to have my Stephen.

(My sister-in-law Jenny suggest this NPR This American Life segment that features Gottman’s research for those interested in more marital advice. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/261/the-sanctity-of-marriage )

About flyingnotscreaming

My weekly quotes and "Notes from Flights" are my attempt to learn how to soar through life's unknowns with grace and gratitude. Thank you for flying with me. --Melissa Myers Place, writer, reader, massage therapist, mother, wife, and daughter
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3 Responses to What Makes Marriage Work

  1. Lynn Burgoyne says:

    Wonderful Melissa! Thank you! I will never look at Jody’s cave the same way again! He is a treasure in a box of treasures!

  2. Jenny Lumb says:

    Great read, Melissa. I love the way you wove together the wisdom of Gottman’s research with the daily life research of your questionnaire respondents with your own life experience. I remember a great segment uears ago on NPR’s This American Life that featured Gottman’s research. You can find it here:


    Much love.

  3. Seth says:

    You did a wonderful job with this article. I gained greatly from participating and reading the result. It was very informative and well constructed. You write with care, clarity and respect. Well done!

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