Ask ten happily married people, “What’s your key to success?” and you’ll get fifteen answers — many of which contradict each other.
Some will say couples should never to go to bed angry. Others will say it’s fine to sleep on your arguments. For them, World War III or not, it’s lights out at 11.
Many will say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” while an equal number will tout the virtues of talking things out.
Do opposites attract or should we be birds of a feather?
Are we better off lowering our expectations, or setting a high bar?
And do couples really need to be each other’s best friend?
The truth is, many of the widely-dispensed bits of marriage advice are more fiction than fact.
Which is good news to me.
If the following common beliefs about marriage were true, my husband and I, and many of the happily married couples I know, would be sunk:
1. A good marriage requires good communication.
In the midst of a heated disagreement, few of us are able to follow all the “rules” of good communication. Most of us get defensive. We interrupt. We throw up our hands — especially when we’re being criticized.
Sometimes the closest we get to an I-statement is, “I think you’re wrong.”
Fortunately, messy communication isn’t nearly as harmful as most people assume.
Yes, in an ideal world we’d remain open-minded and calm, curious about our spouse’s point of view, able to yield. In the real world, we have a dust-up, and when the dust settles, we have to clean up the mess.
More than good communication, a good marriage requires good self-development. It takes strength to advocate for what we feel is important, to tolerate being contradicted or challenged, to know how to proceed when we don’t get things our way. To be able to stay calm or calm down when our partner attacks us. To apologize and forgive after a big fight.
2. Couples need to have shared interests.
Really? What if we don’t? What if I want to do yoga while my husband’s in spin class?
What if I’d rather die than watching golf on TV?
The good news is that in order to have a good marriage, we don’t need to give up our passions or do things we don’t like. The fact that my husband and I both love to walk, that we enjoy a good cup of tea… well, those things are a bonus. But, even without them, I know we’d be fine.
We are, after all, two separate people with our own set of interests and our own full, busy lives. All of which makes the time we do spend together more lively and fun.
More valuable than a couple having shared interests is the wholehearted interest they take in each other’s lives.
3. Marriage starts out great and goes downhill from there.
As I approach my 36th Anniversary, thank goodness this one isn’t true!
Yes, people wax poetic about the honeymoon phase, as if early marriage is all fireworks and hot sex. As if we all start out in a state of unwavering bliss.
We’re told, “After the honeymoon… reality sets in.”
Wait. What’s wrong with reality?
In a long marriage, reality is building a life together. Making a home. Coming to know each other deeply, over time.
Reality is seeing each other struggle and seeing each other grow. It’s exploring new things, taking risks, learning to let go. It’s recognizing the ways that we’re loving and generous and the ways we are not very nice.
Reality is the richness and delight of creating a relationship that can get better and better with time.
4. Most of the trouble in marriage comes from our differences.
If our differences are truly the source of our marital troubles, then we really are doomed, since we’ll never find someone who’s exactly like us.
No matter how wonderful a partner we pick, he or she will be different from us — in many ways we like, and some that we don’t.
Fortunately, it’s not our differences that make trouble for us; it’s the ways that we deal with them.
Say you’re a filer and you married a piler, or you’re obsessively punctual and your spouse has never once been on time. What doesn’t work is to flip out and demand that your partner be more like you. What does, is to become more open-minded and flexible, to tolerate your differences — or, better yet, to embrace them.
Remember, differences add novelty, which in the long run will make your marriage all the more interesting.
5. Some marriages are destined to fail.
If ever there was a marriage that seemed destined to fail, it would have been mine.
Like many couples I work with, my husband and I had plenty of love — but, along with it, we had many of the bad behaviors that are the harbingers of divorce.
The well-cited foursome — defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt — made regular appearances in our all-too-frequent fights. And though statistics would say we would inevitably divorce, we, instead, figured out how to keep them at bay.
I see these same bad habits in the couples I treat. Habits they can change before it’s too late.
Most of these struggling couples have simply lacked the skills they would need to succeed. Or they’ve gotten bad advice or no advice at all. Many have had poor role models that they’ve unwittingly followed. Some have been told by experts that they’re beyond help.
Experience has shown me that no matter how far down the wrong road a couple’s marriage has gone if they’re willing to work at it, there’s no reason to believe they can’t turn it around.
By Winifred M. Reilly, M.A.