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 watch 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 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.
Now it’s your turn. What myths about marriage are you glad aren’t true?
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I enjoyed your article.
What marriage couldn’t use insight!
Same as raising children 😉
Yes, marriage and children. Two of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Your articles are always so thoughtful and reassuring. I’m so glad you’re out here posting.
Thanks. Comments like this make my day!
Winifred, loved this one!
Not married yet but it’s a relief to know this
Glad you found this helpful.
Back when I got married the only advice we got was, “Good Luck!”
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I always enjoy the wisdom–and humor–in your advice, Winifred!
I always love your posts. You are so realistic, yet always manage to be so encouraging. I work with alot with couples and totally agree that if people are willing to work on issues together, chances are, they will pull through the tough times together. It is also relieving to know that how we are ‘supposed to behave’ in relationships isn’t always how it happens and that’s ok, if we can sort it out with each other after the argument!
Marriage is way too complicated to have to do everything just right! 🙂
Winny I am failing to stay idle without saying a word of appreciation on what you are trying to put on this page of Speaking of Marriage. I realised through what I have read in this page that I contributed to the downfall of my love affair. This page I assure you is even more better than some or all the page I come across on the Facebook or any other site. Madame, am sure if I continue reading things here am going to be a changed and my woman will really enjoy the family, I wish you will be there to advising me so much. May be you may have some more tips and advise which I missed please send me Yours faithfully,
Sam C Malikebu Phone: +265 996 426 696 +265 888 850 739
Thanks so much, Sam. So glad my posts are helpful to you.
They also say that you shouldn’t marry the same star sign 😉
Although we’re not married, we’ve been together almost 18 years now and we’ve been through some pretty horrid times. I have found that appreciating each other really works.
I always think of good communication not as arguing well, but as telling your partner what you need when you need it, and being clear about each other’s wants, needs, and expectations in the relationship.
True. That’s also part of communication. My message here is to make room for imperfection – when dealing with a heated issue or asking for something. We all have plenty to learn!
Nice to hear from you. 🙂
My husband and I have our birthdays 2 days apart. Glad we missed that sage bit of advice. 🙂
So true about appreciation. I’ve been mulling over a Thanksgiving post about gratitude and appreciation. I think we can’t hear that message enough.
I’m wondering what opinion you might have on the following:
Long term (20+ years) couple have grown apart. Desiring more closeness, one of partners says, “I’m willing to recommit to our relationship. Are you willing also?”
Is that a fair thing to say? Would you deem it helpful or hurtful to relationship? Thanks for any insight.
I think marriage repair has to start somewhere: somebody has to make a positive move, a move toward. Very hard to go out on a limb. And yes, the other partner will no doubt experience some pressure.
Another way of thinking about this is that it’s a moment to answer the question, “am I in or am I out.”
If this is you, I hope things go well.
I’ve been reading a few articles of yours off and on as my relationship has progressed. We moved extremely fast in terms of our emotional commitment to each other and we are finding that at 7 months in, we are hitting a lot of rough patches because we are backtracking on getting to know each other in the more granular sense. I knew how he felt about kids, marriage, big-issue politics, and international issues before I knew his favorite color or even what kind of desserts he prefers. It’s almost as if we were married before we started dating. This is a long winded way of saying that I appreciate your posts and they reassure both of us as we go through this new phase of learning about each other. So, thank you.
I’m really glad you’re finding my posts to be helpful!
Remember – as we get to know someone we do learn things like what their favorite dessert is, that they don’t like hot baths, that they can’t fall asleep without reading. We also get to know things about that person that we find less than ideal. Unless they’re true deal breakers, the task at hand is to become as tolerant ofthem as possible. Or as I often say, to figure out how to not be driven totally nuts. 🙂
On the way to tolerance, remember that some bumpy road is just part of the deal.
Thanks so much for sharing.
If we knew the perfect recipe we would pass it along. But I would say that communication is key to a successful marriage. Not taking ourselves too seriously and being able to laugh at our own ridiculous bursts of anger is also often enough to stop a bigger argument. It requires a little bit of humility and I think I got better at that after 25 years with the same guy. He does too by the way! Thanks, Winifred.
I second the idea of not taking ourselves too seriously. Especially when being ridiculous!
Time does make all this easier, doesn’t it?