The secret to a happy marriage


Following the publication of my most recent blog in honor of Valentine’s day, my daughter/editor proposed a question which has been asked of me previously.  I am asked to divulge the secret to a long happy marriage.  Of course those terms are not necessarily synonymous, and my own marriage has certainly not always been happy; although, I would guess that it would register above average on the happiness meter.  The most encouraging thing for me is that it seems to get better as time goes by.

Marriage and Divorce in the “Good Ole Days”

In my day, lengthy marriages were the rule and divorce uncommon.  Divorced people were apt to be stigmatized. The women were referred to as “grass widows.” Men were often assumed to be philanderers.  In those times, most wives became stay-at-home mothers (housewives) who had been conditioned and trained to be just that.  Those few who had chosen a career were expected to give up their jobs as soon as they became pregnant.  Daycare centers were few and far between.  Consequently, a woman abandoned by her husband faced insurmountable obstacles to becoming self- supporting.

Men likewise faced financial hardship sufficient for them to eschew divorce.  This was during the days of alimony before the days of no-fault divorce, and adultery was the most common charge leveled by the complainant.  Awards could be punitive.  Divorces were often nasty, long, drawn out, and expensive.  Reputations suffered as the family’s dirty linen was made public.  At times, courtrooms were filled with spectators who had attended in hopes of hearing some salacious gossip.

Thus there were many pragmatic reasons to stay married and undoubtedly many men and women felt trapped in their marriages (quite a few of whom ended up in my office); however, there were also many more who were quite content with their marital relationships.  All of this raises the interesting question as to the ratio of happy versus unhappy relationships, both in those old days and now.  It could be argued that my contemporaries stayed together because they were stuck with each other or could it be that since the alternative was so distasteful that they were more diligent in finding ways to be compatible?

Although the divorce rate in the U.S. has been reported to be as high as 50%, there are some encouraging signs.  During the past decade this number has gone down some, and there appears to be a significant decline in the rate when the couples are married later in life.  As a matter of fact, there appears to be an inverse relationship between divorce and age beginning in the thirties.  Presumably this would indicate that maturity and/or life experiences might be an asset to a happy marriage.  That was not true for me as I was married at 22, and was as green, naïve and inexperienced as they come; although, I thought I was really cool.


As you might expect, infidelity is a frequent cause of marital discord.  I don’t believe this is only due to changing of societal sexual mores.  In my experience most problems of this sort occur in the workplace, which should not be surprising since women are now frequently side by side with men.  They may share in their accomplishments and failures much as happens in marriage, and may spend more time with a coworker than with a spouse.  Likewise, the coworker is likely to be more understanding of work stresses.  Those who work closely together are apt to see each other at their best, but may arrive home after a hard day tired and grumpy.   In addition the development of effective means of birth control lessened the risk of sexual liaisons.  Needless to say, fooling around can be a real downer for a marriage, and is not recommended.

Is an unhappy marriage better than divorce?

None of this should be construed to mean that I am unalterably opposed to divorce.  It can be very dangerous to live in a dysfunctional family environment.  The U.S Bureau of Justice reports that 6.5% of all murders in the US. are committed by spouses.  Obviously, family relationships are important factors that influence children in hundreds of ways, not only when witness to violent behaviors, but how they view those relationships affects their ability to express feelings, develop self-esteem, have healthy relationships and functional marriages of their own.

Although I have quarrels with some of Freud’s writings, I believe that he was right on with the concept of identification.  In simple terms the concept is basically “monkey see monkey do” and we often end up unconsciously adopting characteristics of others: usually our parents.  One of my former patients was a perfect example of this phenomenon.  This very sophisticated lady whom I had seen occasionally throughout the years had a great deal of animus toward her mother.  During one visit, she was discussing problems related to her daughter, and suddenly announced: “I have become my Mother,” an insight of which she had been blissfully unaware until that moment.  Many of us will have a similar experience and will end up unconsciously mimicking characteristics we found abhorrent in one of our parents.

All this brings to the fore a problem which has been vexing to me during my entire career.  Although I have rarely recommended divorce, I have always been troubled by the question of which is the more damaging to a child, divorce or growing up in a dysfunctional family.  The patients who focused on family as a cause for their problems seemed evenly split.  Some were angry that their parents had divorced while an equal number blamed them for staying together, so maybe it is one of those damned if you do damned if you don’t situations.

So, what’s the secret to a long, happy marriage?

I realize that up to now I have written little to answer Maggie’s question about how to stay happily married.   It is a simple question that deserves a complex answer.  The melding of two personalities into a functioning unit requires more than lust; although, that can certainly be helpful in the early stages.   In my early days as an academic, I was placed in charge of a family and couple’s therapy clinic where we made use of communications and systems theory in our treatment plans.  We have all had times when our messages have been misinterpreted, for example, the recipient thought we were being sarcastic (the words did not fit the music).  In other words, the tone or nonverbal message was inconsistent with the verbiage, a situation we called sending roses and feces in the same box.  This is only one example of the myriad ways in which communications can become garbled and result in a great deal of frustration.

Another characteristic of couples caught up in these systems is that they both are unaware of their part in the problem. It is as if they are swallowed up in their communications system and cannot see beyond its borders.  The therapist’s job is to become a meta communicator, that is to communicate to each of them about their communication system so that each can see the part they play in their problems.

The person who plays the part of meta communicator is not necessarily a therapist.  Barb and I have had therapy both together and separately, but the most insightful revelation for me came from one of my students who after a party said, “I can’t believe how you treat your wife.”   Initially, I thought: “Who, me?  The great communicator, insightful couple’s therapist, and kind considerate husband? The audacity of this pip-squeak!”

Then, I thought more about that observation and began to see our relationship in different terms.  With awareness, I was able to put forth some effort to improve our relationship, which was in need of some improvement at that time.  But old habits are hard to break and even after all these years I still relapse from time to time.

Of course people always bring their own unique personality characteristics to the relationship along with their needs, expectations (often unrealistic), and dreams.  In our case Barb and I probably fit into what I categorize as a complementary relationship.  Opposites often attract, and in our case (in addition to that swivel) Barb seemed to fill the void of my shyness with her outgoing personality, and sensitivity while I came across as an in charge, stoic person.  She must have felt that I could look after things and provide stability.

What turns you on is what will turn you off

In my experience the qualities that attract couples to each other are the same ones they will come to complain about after a few years.  True to form I found that her emotional responses eventually became irritating to me and she began to complain that she felt ignored and put down by my apparent lack of feelings.  She hungered for conversation, but after a day listening to people and talking to people, I wanted solitude.

We eventually worked that out by scheduling 30 minutes after dinner to talk.  I learned to listen, and she found she didn’t need that much time after all, mostly just needed to be appreciated which I learned to do.  She likewise has learned totolerate my  foibles and we now roll along with only minor skirmishes.  I know she will be there for me and she knows I will do likewise for her.

As you have undoubtedly noticed I have no secrets for success in this marriage business.  I do have some hints that you could just as easily have learned from your Grandmother as follows:

  • Be patient Rome wasn’t the only thing not built in a day.
  • Listen, I mean with both ears.
  • Sex may lessen the sting, but is not enough to solve the problem.
  • When you think you can’t stand him/her see if you can’t find a little bit of something good.  Nobody is all bad.
  • Don’t be sticky, you both need time away from each other occasionally.
  • Trust, paranoia will tank your marriage, if your mate is screwing around there will be plenty of time to shoot him/her later.
  • If you don’t “feel the love” mutual respect may well resurrect it.
  • If there is abuse, get the hell out.
  • Remember it often takes work to make it work, but when it succeeds it is well worth the effort.
  • If things still don’t click, find a professional who sees couples. Individual therapy is not likely to be very helpful.  Dancing lessons without a partner don’t work very well.


4 thoughts on “The secret to a happy marriage

  1. Hey dad…wondering what you think about this. When Steve and I were seeing a marriage counselor (I think he was a Freudian guy) he said you often marry a person who has characteristics similar to the parent with whom you had the most strained relationship. The theory is that you are subconsciously trying to mend that relationship or something. Another thing I thought was more interesting was his rationale for why people can live together just fine and then when they get married, all hell breaks loose. His rationale was that people unknowingly have pre-existing ideas of what the role of “wife” and “husband” entails. These roles were developed at a young age in response to what they perceived as the roles their mother and father had as a married couple. I wondered what you thought about that.


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