What Makes a Marriage Work?

We’ve all heard that half of all marriages end in divorce. Turns out, that’s not exactly true (it’s more like 43%, probably). And while there was a spike in divorces in the 1980’s, different demographics are experiencing different trends. Young people are getting married later, if at all, and their marriages are lasting at a rate greater than fifty percent. People who are over 50 are seeing an increase in divorce, particularly if it is their second or third marriage. Culture and education are also factors. For example Native Americans have a higher rate of divorce but people with college degrees have a lower rate.

Beyond the trends, what qualities of a marriage contributes to couples who stick it out for the long term and those who call it quits? There’s a fascinating study that breaks it down to a pretty obvious thing. In his studies of thousands of couples, psychologist John Gottman separated the group into Masters and Disasters. Generally, the masters stayed happily married for the six years he watched them and the disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.

To figure out what makes the difference, he compared their physiological state while the couples were sitting together and having a conversation about their relationship, such as where they met, a major conflict they were facing and a positive memory they had. The masters remained calm during the discussion whereas the disasters had increased heart rates, active sweat glands and a faster blood flow. The disasters were in fight or flight mode and even though the conversation wasn’t anything crazy, the couples were prepared to either attack or be attacked.

Looking further into what made the masters successful in a happy marriage, the researchers concluded that it comes down to kindness (duh) and “turning toward” rather than “turning away.” The couples who were making it work showed interest in what their partner was talking about and interested in, even if it wasn’t a big deal, like a job change or an argument with a friend. If, for example, the wife started talking about how well her garden was doing and the husband responded with his full attention and showed interest by asking questions and sharing her joy, they were on the right track. On the other hand, if he simply said “that’s nice” while still looking at his phone or worse, ignored her, this makes her feel worthless, invisible, not valued. All of which leads to contempt and resentment in the marriage.

These “bids” for attention and connection when one partner shares something in conversation are tiny things that happen a zillion times in a marriage and partners have ample opportunity to respond in a kind and interested way. It takes practice and commitment and sometimes you have to do it even when you don’t really feel like it. Because if, over time, one or both partners do not attend to these bids, it deteriorates and eventually kills the relationship.

Bottom line, to succeed with a happy marriage, you need to be intentional about responding to your partner’s bids for connection. Do it to be kind and show your partner you value them. Do it even when you’re tired, stressed and – this is the toughest - when you’re in a fight. You can still be angry or hurt but you don’t have make it all worse by chucking spears at them. Practice intentional kindness through genuinely responding to your partner regularly and maybe your fights won’t be as often or as painful and maybe you’ll stay happily married for a very long time.