What is the Key to a Healthy and Happy Marriage?
May 22, 2019
I would guess that most people would tell you that the secret to a good, lasting marriage is (a) being in love and (b) communication. “Being in love” might be expressed in different ways, but the underlying idea is about the passion and intense attraction many of us feel when we are dating and engaged.
There is nothing wrong with these answers. Love is central to a good marriage. Marriages are more likely to be successful when the couple communicates well. But when I speak to engaged couples in our marriage preparation program, I tell them that I am not convinced that either of these is the key to a good marriage.
The caution I offer about being in love is that our culture poisons our notions about what that means. (“Poison” might be too strong a word, but I’m going with it.) Song lyrics, romantic comedy movie plots, and other cultural influences may shape us to believe that being in love is like having a magic spell cast on us. We feel these intense feelings of romantic love and sexual attraction, and we are swept up, transformed, and carried away to a life of gazing at sunsets in an eternal embrace. If we expect to feel that feeling forever, there’s nothing quite like having 2 or 3 kids, dirty diapers, no plans for dinner, and sleep deprivation to make us wonder whatever happened to “being in love.”
Forty years ago, when Marilyn and I had OUR marriage preparation experience as a couple, we learned that we think too much of love as a feeling. Love, we are often told, is a decision. It’s a commitment. I think that is true. If marital love is only all about those intense, romantic, sexual, tingly feelings, we are all in for a rude awakening, if we haven’t already had it. If, on the other hand, we commit to a love that joins us with God and to each other, truly through the good times and the bad times, we will find that sustainable and much more likely what God intends for marriage to be.
In the marriage preparation program, I suggest that communication, while important, is not the key to a happy marriage, as everyone says it is. I have known many people who want to communicate in an open and intimate way with their husband or wife, who understand that their spouse needs that, and yet, still, they just cannot do it. And because they have heard about a thousand times that communication is the key to a happy marriage, they feel terrible because they cannot do it. Many of us have had any number of experiences that bring us to adulthood unable to communicate well, particularly about emotionally-charged matters. It is also worth noting that many couples have long marriages, with which they are at least content, but don’t spend much time at all talking to each other about their feelings.
What if communication, while a very good thing, is not the key? What if a marriage is more likely to be healthy and happy when it is built a strong sense of connectedness and belonging? This is related to an understanding of love as commitment to unity, and a shared purpose, vision, and values. These are, for many, spiritual matters. A couple can build their sense of connectedness and unity in many ways, not just by talking. If our marital partner has trouble with intimate conversation, perhaps, rather than be angry or hurt and rather than interpreting it as stubbornness or a lack of love, we can see it as a product of our loved one’s history and struggles. Perhaps we can work to stay connected by simply being together, doing things together, with regular time spent expressing physical affection. Couples can do more than just work on their communication. Each person can learn what the other needs to feel accepted and loved and do their best to provide that to one another.
This summer, I'll be posting again on marriage. I will share some thoughts on the critical role of forgiveness.