My wife and I once had a discussion of what contributes to a successful marriage. We (mainly she) came up with : respect, good communication, and a good sex life.
When I respect someone, I speak to them in a way that honors their dignity and humanness. I do not attack or name-call. I treat their opinion as valid even if I don’t agree. I honor their physical and emotional boundaries. I do my best to support their path of growth even if it creates inconvenience for me. Although I may know their vulnerable spots, I do not poke those spots either out of anger or a poor attempt to be funny.
The most difficult part of good communication is listening. When I listen, I don’t simply sit silently and stare. I ask questions to clarify. I may reflect back what I am hearing to ensure its accuracy. I don’t interrupt.
Good communication also means that I try to express my thought and feeling without attacking or blaming the other person.
This does not mean that good communication does not involve arguing. It does! The problem with arguing is not that couples argue but how they argue. The goal of a fight is to solve a problem, perhaps to compromise. The goal is not to win or be right. The kinds of behaviors that throw couples off track and into something ugly include: name-calling, bringing up the past, and blaming. Couples need to also avoid fighting when one or both have been using alcohol.
Good fighting involves accepting responsibility and acknowledging the other person’s point. It involves admitting when I am feeling defensive. If necessary, it involves taking a time out so that I can calm down.
Finally, good communication involves talking about mutual needs. Some years ago, my wife and I were going through a bad time. She asked me a good question: “What are your needs?” I thought for a moment then said “Well, other than that I apparently have a great need to meet other people’s needs, I don’t know.” She made the perfect response: “Well, when you figure out what your needs are, please let me know because I’m very interested in trying to meet them.” Good for her! Only I can figure out my own needs but couple’s often get into expecting one another to mind-read each other’s needs.
Regarding sex, I’ve noticed that many couple’s have trouble talking about sex — their wants, what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy, what they’re interested in trying. As such, there is much room for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. For some couples, sex becomes a focus for all their difficulties. For example, resentments get expressed through sex.
Another phenomenon that I see is the sexless marriage not due to illness but simply due to life style. I remember one couple. Both were in their 30s. They were very attractive professional people with no children. When I asked them how often they had sex, they said maybe once a month. They both acknowledged being interested in more sex but stated that professional busyness led to time limitations and fatigue. I made a suggestion that some couples do not like– scheduled sex. Of course, we all really like spontaneous, tearing off clothes sex. But I always argue that scheduled sex is better than no sex!
I have been fortunate to have been married 52 years to an extraordinary woman. We have had our struggles. At one point, we looked at separating. But I believe we have never stopped working at it. A successful marriage is much like sobriety. Keep trying — a day at a time.
Reflection: What are your thoughts on what makes a marriage successful?