It was not too long into our marriage—once my wife and I began to bicker in a way we never had before—when I discovered that I didn’t understand how to do marriage. I realized I knew what a good date was—but how to sustain love over time? I didn’t have a clue.
Ironically, the very day I discovered that our marriage was lost at sea was the day our church asked us to take over teaching its marriage preparation program. After some initial hesitation, we agreed to accept the challenge as the best means of learning how to be married ourselves.
Not knowing where to turn for advice, I began to pore over books about marriage. More than a decade later, using our own marriage as a laboratory to test the insights I gained from my reading, my wife and I have revived our relationship and are equipped with the tools to make our marriage great.
Through reading, working with engaged couples preparing for marriage, and counseling married couples, I continue to learn not just how to do marriage but how to do it well. Aside from the game-changing rituals that keep my wife and I from taking one another for granted, I also discovered that there are three defining characteristics of a truly happy marriage.
01. In a happy marriage, love is creative.
I work hard to provide for my family, but I can be a little messy. Early in our marriage, my wife would nag me about my dirty socks on the floor but wouldn’t thank me for the hard day of work I had put in. It was demoralizing.
I was worse than my wife. After she came home from a hard day at work and had made me dinner, not only would I not thank her for anything she had done, but I would also gibe at her, “What does it take to get a cup of coffee around here?”
My wife and I took each other for granted remarkably quickly. We focused on what irritated us, and we harped on it more and more. This is the road to a miserable marriage. In happy marriages, couples build each other up; they do not tear each other down.
In the play The Jeweler’s Shop, author Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) posits that the most important thing about your love is whether it is creative. The true measure of love is how much you bring out the best in each other. Wojtyla argued that couples should look upon each other with a “creative loving restlessness, to find all that is good and beautiful” in each other.
This bracing argument led to a change of heart in our marriage. Today, my wife and I have learned to look for the good in each other the way an artist looks for beauty and inspiration. We also learned to say thank you a lot and make an effort to overlook each other’s failings.
Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman says that focusing on the positives is a recipe for a happy marriage. “In a happy marriage, while discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones,” the Gottman blog explains. “For example, ‘We laugh a lot’ as opposed to ‘We never have any fun.’”
But being creative in love is about more than just saying thank you. We’ve learned that we need to ask each other about our dreams. And we’ve made it our jobs to help each other’s dreams come true.
No one wants to come home to his best critic for fifty years. You do want to come home to someone who is building you up and helping your dreams come true. Be that person.
02. In a happy marriage, love is joyful.
Many self-acclaimed marriage gurus will tell you that date night is the key to a happy marriage; it is not. Date night is helpful, but it is only the icing on the cake.
The “cake of marriage” is the little daily interactions that make life together not just bearable but inspiring and joyful.
It’s deflating to come home to someone who is not happy to see you. I have to admit, I was often buried in my computer when my wife walked in the door. My thinking was, “I work hard during the day; let me relax when I get home. We can talk when we go out for dinner on Saturday night.” But the message I was sending her, without realizing it, was, “I am no longer excited to live with you. My MacBook is more interesting to me than you are.”
We’ve learned that we need to jump out of our chairs when the other walks in. After years of marriage, I have concluded that the only thing I truly need is for my wife to smile at me when I walk in the door. Her smile tells me that the love of my life is happy I’m alive, and I feel welcome in my own home. What more could one ask for?
At first, it might seem like a tautology, “a happy marriage is a joyful marriage.” But, if I have learned one profound thing from working with more than three thousand couples, it’s that we underestimate just how much positivity is required to enjoy married life.
Gottman found that couples need to be five times more positive than negative when discussing problems, and, in normal times, couples need to be twenty times more positive. As I tell the couples I work with, “That’s a lot of positive!”
Married couples need consistent, sustained joyful communication if they are to enjoy being married over a lifetime together.
03. In a happy marriage, love is resilient.
On my wedding day, I promised to be true to my wife “in good times and in bad.” I always thought these were beautiful, poetic words, and I couldn’t wait to find someone worthy to say them to.
In marriage, I discovered that my wedding vows were not mere poetry; they had deep meaning. In the intoxication of our romance and the excitement of planning our wedding, it never occurred to me that we would experience bad times in our own marriage. Yes, I did consider that we would get old and sick one day, but that was far into the distant future.
We hit rough waters soon after our ship left port. At first, the bad times in our marriage were so small that we didn’t even recognize them: a frustrating day at work, a tough loss for my favorite football team, a cranky mood brought on by a sleepless night.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I loved my wife less during these small bad times early in our married life. In my defense, it doesn’t come naturally to love someone when you are frustrated or upset, or when your partner is cranky, but it is a violation of the wedding vows to withhold love even in these small bad times.
We were traveling in Italy when the wisdom of all this hit me. My wife tends to get cranky when she is tired, and she gets tired often when we travel. After poorly handling her grouchy outbursts several times on the trip, I decided that the next time she got cranky, I would call her “My Crankissima” and then dance with her. I was surprised how well this new approach worked.
I’m glad it was the small frustrating episodes of our life that taught me the important lesson of remembering to love in bad times because it was not long before a major disappointment was to dominate our married life: four long, bitter years of infertility. My wife was devastated by our failure to get pregnant, and each day, despite my own disappointment, I sought to lift her up. I would greet her with twice my normal enthusiasm, to show her how much I valued her.
This is a resilient love. You build each other up during the good days. And, you work twice as hard to build each other up during the bad days.
To love in good times makes the good times a little bit better. To love in bad times makes the bad times a lot better. In my own head, I have rewritten our wedding vows: “I will love you in good times and twice as much in bad times.”
So, to get back to the question I asked myself in the beginning, how do you sustain love over time? If your love is creative, joyful, and resilient, you stand a very good chance of thoroughly enjoying many happy decades together.