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How to Keep Your Marriage from Failing – Unless It Should

Did you know that most marriages fail? Split up or not, only three in 10 unions remain healthy, according to Ty Tashiro, author of “The Science of Happily Ever After.” Three in 10! Those are some tough odds.

Meanwhile, current stats show that nearly 6,200 weddings happen each day in the U.S. – almost 2.3 million per year. Do the math and, post-honeymoon period, that’s a heck of a lot of unhealthy relationships.

Or we could look at it a different way: In the face of such extraordinarily daunting odds, people believe in love, fall in love, put all their eggs in the unpredictable basket of love, and get married anyway. Through this lens, matrimony is practically a revolutionary act. A feat of brazen, unadulterated hope. A collective middle finger thrust in the face of generations of wary advice givers. 

Better yet, a New York Times survey suggests that the nature of marriage itself has evolved, making it more sustainable.

One year ago this Thanksgiving, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. My brothers and I invited family and friends and threw them a big surprise party. As guest after guest stood up to toast five inspiring decades of marriage, Mom and Dad’s smiles radiated around the room. I’ve never seen them happier together.

Memories of that day have been a great comfort to us since my father’s death last April. He had less than six months to live as we all raised our glasses that day, but he looked like a man who would live past 100 – indomitable smile, rosy cheeks, straight back, ready wit, Mom-adoring twinkle in his eye as his arm draped around her shoulder the way it has for so many years. While not every moment of his seasoned husband-hood has been exemplary, this is how we’ll remember him.

When I think of it now, that gathering was statistically unique, not only for the couple it honored, but also because the rest of us – my brothers, cousins, and our spouses – enjoy that illusive “happily married” state of being. (It’s also worth noting that each couple has produced two or three reasonably well-adjusted children.)

Of course, none of these partnerships are difficulty-free and two are second marriages. But all have settled into or molded, as if out of clay, a distinctive modus operandi that works for them. Just as every individual has different strengths and weaknesses, so does every relationship.

Yet a few common threads seem to run through every marriage that endures. My siblings and I have had the good fortune of watching our parents weave, mend, and reweave those threads into the warp and weft of every day they spent together.

Incredibly basic at first glance, these habits – which are more than habits…they’re beliefs, values, heart-compass settings – should not be underestimated:

Kindness

Be kind to each other. Never take your partner’s kindness for granted. And make sure the current flows in both directions. It’s really as simple as that.

I think we get so used to our spouses that we assume they understand our good intent. But assumptions are dangerous and quickly slip into carelessness, or worse, negligence. Like Neil Armstrong taking a single step onto the moon, kindness is an ordinary act with the extraordinary potential to impact everything else about your partnership.

Even though the machinations of your married life may rest upon a tacit foundation of understood affection, small gestures still feel good – for the giver and the receiver. They have the power to slow you down, help you smile, and feel connected, right then and there. Sometimes they end up saving you.

“Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” says psychologist Julie Gottman, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger.” Julie and her husband John run The Gottman Institute, which uses scientific studies as the basis for helping couples foster healthy, loving relationships.

In an article published in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith delves into the Gottman’s findings. The central takeaway: Exercise your kindness muscle on the regular. “(T)he more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves,” notes Smith, “which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”

I’m all about the upward spirals. Kindness begets more kindness. That’s burst-out-into-song-worthy information right there.

Humility

You ain’t all that. And yet you are. Especially to your spouse and kids. Keep both in mind.

Second only to parenting, being a spouse has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Not because my husband doesn’t make me feel special; he specials me up in spades. It’s because we’re committed to this idea of growing as a couple, as well as individually.

Therapist, love coach, and spiritual teacher Shelley Bullard calls what we’re working so hard to achieve a “conscious relationship,” in which “two individuals have an opportunity to expand more (together) than they could alone.”

To accomplish this for real, we need to own our shit, as Bullard so aptly puts it. We all come equipped with hidden, iceberg-like histories and baggage and scars and faults. There’s simply no way to navigate a relationship without ramming Titanic-style into a few of them.

But if you can be honest with yourself, and subsequently with your spouse, about those submarined issues, you’re on your way to recalibrating your heart sonar and setting a fresh course for open water.

“Dysfunctional patterns will dissolve,” says Bullard, “but only when we take responsibility for them, first.”

All this requires a big fat load of humility.

Togetherness

You’re not alone in this! And don’t let your drinking buddy convince you otherwise!

It’s fundamentally impossible to be alone in a relationship. The very definition of relationship is “the state of being connected.” So stop crying in your beer about feeling ignored. You are 50 percent of this love equation, brosef.

Part of the reason some people end up so dissatisfied stems from an adolescent tendency to enter relationships with one goal in mind: to satisfy their personal needs. That’s a recipe for disaster from the get-go.

My mom talks about how she and my dad were “always in it together.” They intentionally considered where the other was coming from until it became a reflex. This made it easy to think on each other’s behalf, which, in turn, made them feel (as Smith puts it in The Atlantic article) “cared for, understood, and validated.”

For me, this represents more than selflessness or some obligatory version of sacrifice. This is what love looks like.

Creativity

We are creatures of habit. We figure out what works at some juncture in our lives and continue that pattern without question. The upshot of this: achieving a reliable rhythm. The downside: getting hopelessly stuck.

How do you get unstuck? Face fears. Take risks. Ask questions. Try new things. Be open to thinking differently. Uncomfortably so. Then apply that different thinking to all aspects of your relationship. If you’re lucky, a little dab’ll do ya. Or maybe a complete overhaul is in order.

If he always shovels the driveway, get out there before sunup after a big snowstorm and heave a few tons in his stead. When he comes downstairs to suit up, head him off at the stoop with a winded kiss. Your flushed cheeks might please him even more than the clear path to the car.

If she always initiates sex, get naked while she brushes her teeth, slide under the covers, and feign reading a book. When she turns off the light, blow her everyday, “Night, babe” expectations to smithereens.

People who vehemently adhere to a certain way of operating in relationships, or the world, don’t often leave room for adaptation and growth, which necessarily deems them a bore in due time.

Change it up. Live a little. You may find the embers were just waiting for some fuel.

Lucidity

Sometimes relationships aren’t meant to be. “You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole,” Dad used to say. While I think the origin of that idiom has more to do with conforming to societal norms, I know what he was getting at relationship-wise.

I’ve witnessed the misery of many couples who finally decided life would be better if they lived it apart. Some have gone on to find affection better suited to their souls. What a joy it is to watch these friends evolve, clear-eyed and open-hearted, toward their full potential. 

Lucidity of this sort can take years to attain, and no one can attain it for you. While thrashing through the conjugal underbrush, I believe it’s essential to remember what’s beautiful and admirable about all that trying.

As Jack Gilbert observes in his poem “Failing and Flying,” “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”

Anticipation

I remember my father’s satisfied grin as he waited for Mom to realize he’d already thought of doing something she was setting out to do. Finding the laundry folded, the dog walked, or the dishes done, she’d open her mouth in an expression of happy disbelief and exclaim, “Oh, Dave!”

“Gotta make sure you keep me around,” he’d say. 

I aim to do my parents proud. In the course of writing this article, I’ve managed to surprise and delight my spouse, only to frustrate and confuse him a little later on. Balance tipped, I set out to find it again. He responds in kind. In this way, we’ve kept our ball in a solid volley for quite a few years.

Just now, he took time out of his busy day to serve me up a yummy lunch. The look in his eye communicated something not too dissimilar from gotta make sure you keep me around.

Chewing, smiling, I thought, I plan to.

And so, the beat goes on.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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