Many articles address reasons and how a marriage can come apart though it is just as helpful first to understand some of the ways that healthy marriages are structured, and how they function.
Healthy marriage partners are compatible partners In a marriage that is to stand the test of time, romance is important, but compatibility is critical. By and large, partners in healthy marriages come to agree upon common agendas regarding the directions their marriage will take, and the way each partner will behave. These common agreements may never have been discussed, but they will be present implicitly in how each partner chooses to act.
Friendship. Successful partners develop a significant friendship at the core of their relationship. They genuinely like one another, amuse and comfort one another, and prefer to spend time with each other. This friendship and mutual liking is somewhat separate from other aspects of the relationship (sexuality, for instance), and can survive the loss of these other aspects of the relationship. A strong friendship and mutual liking is often the basis for repair of troubled relationships.
Role expectations. The partners reach agreement with regard to how household responsibilities are divided and how they will behave towards each other. Traditionally, and still dominantly, the male or masculine-identified partner will take on the majority of financial obligations, while the female or feminine-identified partner will take on nurturing roles. Tradition has broken down significantly in the industrialized west over the last century, however, and it is not at all uncommon to find ‘women’ who take on financial obligations, ‘men’ who take on nurturing roles, or to find both partners sharing these roles to one degree or another. Failure to reach agreement with regard to roles can be a major source of conflict.
Emotional intimacy. Successful partners learn to trust each other, to be vulnerable with each other, to laugh together, and to support one another in times of need.
Sexual expectations. Partners come to basic agreements as to how they will be sexual with each other. Frequently (traditionally) this means that they will be sexual with one another, and not with other people, but this is not necessarily the case. Sexual expectations may further dictate the kinds and patterns of sexual activities that each partner will and will not engage in. Coming to agreement with regard to sexuality can increase trust that couples feel for each other, and failure to reach agreement can be cause for conflict. As sexual activity is strongly rewarding and bonding for couples, it is best for marriages when partners agree upon sexual expectations and are both satisfied with their lovemaking.
Vision/Goals. Successful partners agree that they want to pursue the same life paths, values and goals and mutually commit to those paths, values and goals. Examples might include decisions to have children or not, to attend or not attend religious services, to raise a child in a particular faith, to save or spend money, or to live frugally or extravagantly, etc.
Successful marriages tend to be made up of partners who come to their marriage with pre-existing significant compatibilities (of personality, temperament, goals, etc.) that make it easier for them to reach agreement because they frequently end up wanting the same thing. They may share commonalities with regard to personality, temperament, or preferences for volatile or conflict-avoiding interactions, as well as goals, religious and ethical ideals, etc.
While these areas of agreement do tend to be present in healthy marriages, we should note that no marriage is perfect, and that many perfectly good marriages harbor disagreements with regard to some of the domains we’ve discussed. In general, however, the more domains you and your partner are in agreement on, the better are your chances for a healthy marriage.
Background factors play a minor role in determining marriage success. Personality, temperament and goal compatibility is very important in determining whether a marriage will be strong. However, other background factors are also important. Better marriages are reported by people who chose to marry later in life as opposed to younger, by people who recall being very intensely in love with their partners prior to getting married, and by people who maintain close family relationships and whose parents’ approved of their marriage. Also, people identified with more traditional sex-role and religious values tend to report having higher quality marriages overall (although it isn’t clear that such people aren’t just reporting positive outcomes based on their desire to present themselves in a positive light). When all factors relating to marital adjustment are considered together, personality and life-goal compatibility seems to be of paramount importance, and background factors such as whether partners come from similar family, religious or economic backgrounds or whether they have similar dating histories appear to be of lessor importance.
Healthy marriages have healthy boundaries Healthy marriages are characterized by healthy boundaries. A boundary is something that separates one thing from another. When two people are in an intimate relationship (like a marriage) we can think about that relationship as being bounded. The two relationship partners share secrets and experiences with one another that are not shared with other people as though there is a literal boundary or barrier that keeps these secrets and experiences within their mutual private domain.
The boundary around a healthy marriage is a flexible thing; it needs to be able to bend but it should never break. Although there may be strain that develops within a marriage, a healthy couple ultimately continues to act as a unit (or at least to act in concert with one another’s desires) despite the best efforts of the world and others around them to pull them in different directions. For example, a healthy couple doesn’t allow parents who are critical of their union to break that union in two, nor will they allow their child to play them against each other. A healthy couple will not break confidences or promises they have made with and to each other. Maintaining the boundary around the marriage means making the welfare of the marriage first priority, even in the face of other ‘first priority’ activities such as parenting.
At the same time that healthy married partners keep their marriage as their number one priority, they are also not enmeshed; not joined at the hip. Each partner participates in relationships outside the marriage (family, friends, employment, etc.) and allows themselves to be influenced by those other relationships. The healthy marriage boundary can stretch to accommodate this activity. However, if push comes to shove, healthy married partners close ranks and act as a unit independent of outsiders (e.g., in-laws).
Healthy marriage partners act positively towards each other Marital satisfaction is affected by how frequently partners get into conflicts, but not by whether they get into conflicts at all. Marriages vary widely in terms of how much conflict the partners tolerate. Partners in a volatile marriage are highly expressive and willing to give and take a fairly large amount of conflict, whereas partners in a conflict-avoiding marriage, by definition, try to minimize clashes and downplay displays of emotionality. What distinguishes these two groups most starkly is the vigor with which partners attempt to change their partner’s minds. The varying tolerances for displays of emotionality, expressive persuasions and outright conflicts observed across different marriages derive from the constituent partner’s personalities and temperaments. These differences in willingness to bicker and fight appear to be normal variations in how partners communicate and are not particularly significant in themselves. It is only when bickering and fighting between spouses results in lasting contempt or hurt feelings that it suggests anything about the health of the relationship.
If the extent to which partners are willing to conflict with one another doesn’t tell you much about the health of their relationship, the relative amount of time they spend in conflict with one another vs. having more positive interactions does. Healthy stable couples are observed to produce about five positive (happy, pleasant) interchanges for each negative (angry, hostile, upset) one. Couples whose marriages are in trouble are substantially less positive towards each other than couples with healthier marriages. These findings suggest that it is not how willing one partner is to attack the other that indicates problems within the marriage; it is the frequency of those attacking episodes that is associated with marital problems.
Building and maintaining a healthy marriage takes time and effort. With the day-to-day pressures of work, children and chores it can be easy to neglect to nurture your relationship and to take your spouse for granted. This list offers basic tips to help you build a successful marriage every day.
Learn to communicate effectively. Communication is perhaps the most important key to a strong, healthy relationship. Effective communication requires you to be an active listener—listening without judgment and focusing on what your partner is saying—as well as expressing your own feelings in a positive, truthful way.
Make time for each other. Part of being able to communicate effectively is making time for meaningful conversations in a setting free of distractions. For example, turn off the television in the evening to make it possible to have a real conversation or order a pizza and catch up during a quiet night at home.
Fight fair. Don’t expect to agree on everything. An important part of resolving conflicts is being respectful of your partner’s feelings, even when you are arguing. Let your partner know you value what he or she is saying, even if you don’t agree. Try to avoid criticizing, ridiculing, dismissing or rejecting your partner or what he or she is saying. If you’re feeling frustrated and feel as if your anger is taking over, take a time out from the conversation and agree to resume it at a specific time later. Note–If you ever feel as if you may physically hurt your partner, walk away and seek help immediately.
Make a commitment to your relationship. Make your relationship with your partner a priority in your life. A relationship is a work in progress. It needs attention and effort to grow. No matter how busy you are, make time to spend quality time together, even if you have to schedule out specific time slots on your calendars. Celebrate each other’s accomplishments together and support each other during harder times.
Express appreciation. Saying thank you can go a long way toward making your partner feel special and appreciated. Even though you may feel that your partner knows you care, it doesn’t hurt to say thanks—even for everyday things like cooking dinner, putting the kids to bed, or taking out the trash.
Maintain a sense of humor. Laugh often with your mate and be willing to laugh at yourself. Maintaining a sense of humor can relieve stress and tension, and help you get through a difficult time together.
Learn to compromise. Compromise is important in any relationship, but it’s especially important in a marriage. If you disagree on an issue, discuss the problem calmly, allow each person to explain his or her point of view, and look for ways to meet each other in the middle.
Practice forgiveness. There may be times when your partner makes a mistake or says or does something hurtful—whether intentionally or unintentionally. While it’s okay to be angry, it’s also important to then let go of the anger and move on. If you constantly bring up past hurts, it’s difficult to have a mutually loving relationship.
Keep romance alive. Relationships are often romantic in the beginning, but as time passes and couples become distracted by other things—work, children, bills, the house—they often take each other for granted. Make your partner feel special by doing something romantic, no matter how small. For example, make breakfast in bed for your partner, make a date for a special night out, take a walk on the beach, or have a picnic.
Take time for yourself. It’s normal for couples to have different hobbies, interests and friends. While it’s important to spend quality time with each other, it’s equally important to spend time alone or with friends. For example, plan a girls’ or guys’ night out, take an exercise class or join a book club. By making time for yourselves, you’ll appreciate each other more.
Finally, if you are having difficulty with your marriage or relationship, seek help. There are many resources available to help you including, therapists, clergy members, marriage workshops, and support groups. Additionally, you may have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through your employer. EAPs typically provide confidential counseling services and referrals to other emotional health resources in your area. Ask your Human Resources representative to find out if your employer offers this benefit.
Dr. Bahareh Talei received her Doctorate of Psychology (Psy.D.) from Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology. Dr. Talei is a licensed psychologist and is co-founder of Diagnostic & Counseling Center (DCC). Her experience has primarily been in working with children and adolescents with various disabilities such as autism and difficulties with learning and attention. Throughout her career, Dr. Talei has been actively engaged in the assessment of a diverse population (e.g., pervasive developmental disorder, learning disorders, central nervous system damage) and training of other professionals. Her experience and interests also includes conducting individual and group psychotherapy with family members of children with developmental disabilities and other populations (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, and infertility).