On Successful Marriages

I’ve been married to my wife for a long time. You can tell by the halo above her head. As such, people will sometimes ask “How did you do it?” Much research has been done and many books written on that subject. Here are a few things we’ve learned on this most amazing journey.

Successful relationship appear to be based on four foundations: good communication, mutual respect, a good sex life, and a spiritual connection.

I’d sum up good communication to consist of fair fighting, openness of feelings, and especially listening.

Couples argue, sometimes with anger. That’s not the problem. A good fight is intended to solve a problem. Unfortunately couples get off track by such things as name-calling, dragging in the past, and interrupting. Fair fighting is not necessarily calm fighting but it is based on finding a solution, not on winning or being right. A good fight results in a mutually acceptable solution.

Openness of feelings is an area with which I struggle. I grew up believing that anger was wrong. I also grew up being exposed to the power of the silent treatment. As such, learning to be open about what I feel remains a work in progress. I still keep a lot to myself. But being open with feelings, especially anger, reduces the likelihood of the greatest danger to relationships–resentments. We all have them but, left unhealed, they are toxic.

Some years ago a woman came to see me. After a brief statement of why she was there, I launched into a diatribe on what I thought the problem was and how to fix it. After a few moments of that, she politely lifted her hand and said “Would you please be quiet and listen to me” When listening stops, communication stops.

Mutual respect means that I honor my spouse’s physical integrity avoiding violence. It means that I do not say things that I know will hurt. It means that I honor my spouse’s journey as just as important as mine. And it means that I honor the bond with fidelity.

I remember in a support meeting once hearing someone say “If God made something better than sex, He/She kept it for Himself/Herself.” A good mutually satisfying sex life is good for your physical and emotional health. It is built on being creative and on talking about sex. It remains amazing to me that many couples do not talk about sex. As such, it becomes difficult to know what each person finds pleasurable or uncomfortable. Similarly, sex can become automatic if it is not approached with a degree of creativity and adventure.

By spiritual foundation, I do not necessarily mean a shared religious practice, although that indeed can be part of a couple’s spiritual foundation. What I mean is that together the couple develops some shared sense of a higher power and some shared way of connecting with that higher power. The connection may be made through prayer but I have to say that I have also felt a deep spiritual connection with my wife as we stood on the shore of the Skelligs in Ireland or stood before the waterfalls of Yosemite.

A shared spiritual foundation also means that the couple help one another explore such powerful spiritual themes as meaning and purpose. It means that the relationship becomes a safe place for sharing questions and doubts. It is a place where fears can be named.

There are plenty of books out there for you to read. That’s fine but I’d encourage you also to reflect on your own relationship experiences to see what you have learned. After all, people who’ve weathered the storm and stayed together are the real experts.

Reflection: What are your own thoughts and experiences regarding good relationships? Do you know what your partner’s beliefs are about good relationships?