Like others, my wife and I have had marital trials and tribulations aplenty. At times the path onwards seemed impossibly steep, such that running away seemed like a tempting option. Now, over 30 years on, we have something invaluably special together.
Maybe you're reading this because your marriage falls well short of expectation, is undesirable, or even unendurable.
Maybe marriage is on your horizon, but you wonder how to make it work in a seeming growing culture of marital failure. Or maybe failure has been your past experience, but you want to try again.
My hope is that this article helps you, just as so many helped my wife and I on our marital journey together.
It was actually my wife who suggested I attempt to extract from our decades together the most significant 'success factors' and present them as an article. This is that attempt.
The Magic Marriage Formula
Don't you wish.
But no, there is no blueprint ensuring marital bliss; no perfect soul mate; no sum of money; no act of self discipline or sacrifice that can dispel completely the spectre of matrimonial disappointment.
But that doesn't mean it's all potluck either. Assuming that most in our society get to choose the partners they marry, and that it is for the love of and desire to commit to them that they first make their vows, then there are very powerful attitudes and actions that couples can implement to dramatically raise the odds of success.
No Marriage Guarantees
However, it needs highlighting that marriage guarantees nothing in and of itself; it's no magical institution.
Most everything required to make or break a marriage is found within the individuals composing it. Hence marriage can fail for many reasons.
Yet all those reasons have one thing in common: Challenges outstripped the ongoing resolve that one or both parties were willing or able to provide in order to succeed.
And as to the measures required for success, there are no clear boundaries.
"Most everything required to make or break a marriage is found within the individuals composing it. Hence marriage can fail for many reasons."
No Clear Boundaries
And that is a good place to begin, because success in marriage is relative to the boundaries people set; I will tolerate this, but not that; I will give of myself this much, but no more...
Healthy boundaries are essential in marriage, for boundaries create a balance between what is necessary for the relationship to grow, and what is required to remain true to oneself and one's convictions.
Yet boundaries are a choice. And we can often make poor choices, especially in those unreasonable heated moments. Therefore, as important as they are, my wife and I don't see boundaries as fundamental to our marital success. There are other things which can be more safely set in concrete and which better encourage success, than boundaries.
Defining Matrimonial Success
A definition is in order before we continue. What is meant by a successful marriage?
Due to poorly considered or ill advised expectations of success, seeds of marital undoing can be sown long before vows are exchanged. Conversely a marriage can endure but resemble anything but success, by anyone's definition.
Therefore, filtering out the peripheral, malleable and immature, what are the clear indicators of a successful marriage?
The following are characteristics, often hard won, that I deem core to the success of my own marriage.
Marks of a Successful Marriage
- Commitment to one another plays second fiddle to no other relationship (including one's children).
- Love, though a powerful emotion, doesn't rely on emotion before it acts.
- Awareness of one another's weaknesses defers to highlighting one another's strengths.
- Choices are consistently made that accommodate the others greatest good.
- Openness and honesty that endears trust and hopefulness, even in the midst of failure and disappoint
- Convictions of significance are deeply respected, if not shared.
Allow me to briefly elaborate on these.
Commit to Them Before All Others
"We tell people what our priorities are by how we spend our time."
— Laura Vanderkam
Commit to Them Before All Others
To what level do you demonstrate your commitment to marriage, in comparison to your other pursuits in life?
Many things grapple for our attention, from mundane to exciting, necessary to leisurely, beneficial to harmful. Nobody has time or energy to pursue everything they might want to achieve to the level they hope to achieve it. Therefore, we must prioritise.
A helpful axiom in establishing priorities says, love people and use things, don't love things and use people.
And at the top of those people we are to most demonstrably love, should be our spouses.
Can your spouse tangibly see that you are more committed to them than anything or anyone else?
"There are a hundred paths through the world that are easier than loving. But who wants easier?"
— Mary Oliver
Love Acts Before It Feels
Generally, it's an easy thing to act upon our feelings, to be bubbly and enthusiastic when we're happy, to be generous and kind when we feel affection.
However, as all come to know, emotions can be fickle and circumstances often unconducive to pleasant feelings. Yet it is how we choose to act at these times that determines, to a large extent, the success of our relationships.
Love is not a noun (something to have). Love is a verb (something to do). Therefore, regardless of how I feel, I can still choose to speak or behave in a loving way; even if that requires I say and do nothing, lest my feelings get the better of me.
And, not surprisingly, when we choose to act in love regardless of how we feel, our own hearts will respond in kind. It's the old, act yourself into a better way of feeling, don't feel yourself into a better way of acting truism.
"We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly."
— Sam Keen
Highlight Strengths, not Weaknesses
Finding fault is easy, habit forming and destructive. Obviously, there is a place for constructive criticism, but it is a door to be opened slowly and rarely.
Rather, when the faults of your spouse are ringing loud in your head, seeking correction, choose instead to dwell on at least one of their strengths; something you find attractive, helpful or endearing... And then thank them or praise them for it.
You will be amazed how this can dispel stinking thinking, demolish dividing walls and clear the air of anger or frustration.
"Marriage is a commitment—a decision to do, all through life, that which will express your love for one’s spouse."
— Herman H. Kieval
Choose Their Greatest Good
There is a passage in the Bible that says: "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." Arguably, in no place is this more required than marriage.
Choices we make as individuals should always take into account what is best for our spouse. Of course, the best way to establish that is to ask them. Decisions made together, where each is blessed by the other's earnest consideration, will bond a relationship ever more tightly together.
Decisions made independently and, worse, selfishly, are wedges that can only force apart.
"Radical honesty isn't about a continuous stream of consciousness running through your household. It is about a willingness to include your partner in all aspects of your life."
— Leslie Doares
Talk Openly and Honestly
Share your thoughts, feelings, fears, desires, hopes and disappointments. Possibly there is nothing more unifying than when couples make time to talk... and yet, there are few things more destructive than dishonesty!
Open and honest conversation is essential to a mature marriage. Assume that your partner wants to know as much about your thoughts, feelings, failures and successes as you wish they understood, then set aside time to share it.
A couple that have developed a healthy rapport, in which they share about each other honestly and openly, are a couple not only in love, but in trust.
And if love is the foundation of all successful marriages, trust is the central pillar it seeks to support; and open, honest conversation the mortar that holds it upright.
"When people tell me they’ve learned from experience, I tell them the trick is to learn from other people’s experience."
— Warren Buffett
Honour Their Convictions
Personal convictions are not something to be trampled over, least of all when they belong to your spouse. Whether religious, ideological, political, dietary, moral, cultural or traditional etc, if your spouse has a credo they hold to or feel strongly about, respect it.
Convictions can develop at any time in a persons life, largely due to the experiences a person has and the conclusions drawn from those experiences. They impact a persons life in many ways, from what they perceive as right and wrong through to what they eat, from holy days through to how best to raise children.
If we share our spouses convictions, all well and good. If not, then there is a wonderful opportunity to learn something. To understand what led them to where they are.
Even if you don't end up comprehending, you can still honour their convictions in the way you speak and in the way you make accommodation for them in your relationship.
This article assumes in regards mental, emotional and psychological health, that both marriage partners have no serious unresolved issues requiring professional counselling. If that isn't the case, then I'd encourage you to make it a priority to find healing in those areas as precursor to improving your marriage. Our own brokenness will inevitably undermine our most genuine efforts to build better relationships, causing only further pain. To move forward requires focusing on restoring the damage within first. Only then will we see clearly enough to contribute toward the healing of life's other relationships.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Richard Parr