I recently had lunch with a non-lawyer friend who, like me, has been married over 30 years (34 years for me; 31 for him). He was having some doubts about long-term marriage and found it odd that a divorce attorney (like me) could be happily married and content for so long. He wanted to know if, doing what I do, I had learned any “secrets” about what it takes to have a happy, “forever” marriage. It’s a question that I get asked a lot – usually at parties and dinners outside earshot of the inquirer’s spouse. And the answer is ‘yes’, I have learned such “secrets”.
I have deciphered at least three key attributes to a happy, long-term marriage:
- Treat love as a gift, not a prize. Many, if not most, married people view love as a prize to be won in the mating/dating “game”. Popular culture and romantic myth reinforces this concept: after all, the iconic storybook image of romantic love is the dashing prince “winning” the heart of the fair princess by noble deeds. The problem with this view is that it reduces love to an earned reward. This in turn breeds entitlement: I am entitled to my spouse’s love because I earned it; it is mine to own. And because I already own it, there is nothing I have to do to keep it. This view of marital love is poison to marriage as it: (1) makes us lazy about marriage (I don’t need to invest anything more into it) and (2) puts the focus on whether my spouse is giving me the love that I deserve and am entitled – i.e., are my needs being met? Cue selfishness and resentment.
Long-married, happy spouses treat love as a gift, not a prize. Whereas treating love as a prize leads to self-interested entitlement, viewing love as a gift leads to humility and gratitude. Unlike a prize, which is “won” by the recipient’s own actions, the bestowing of a gift is completely outside the recipient’s control and totally within the discretion of the giver. The giver chooses to make the gift. Your spouse chooses to give you love. The natural and proper response to this realization is humility (the scary knowledge that I have no control over whether my spouse loves me) and gratitude (I am thankful every day that my spouse loves me). Gratitude begets gratitude. Spouses who show each other that they are grateful for the freely given gift of each other’s love set a strong foundation for a strong and lasting marriage. Take the time during a quiet moment to earnestly tell your spouse “thank you for loving me” and see what response you get.
- Give “meaning” to your marriage. Most people view marriage as a “what’s-in-it-for-me” social engagement – much like a game of golf or tennis. I’ll commit to playing a round in the hope that I will enjoy it – but if I don’t, I won’t do it again and will find something else to do. Long-term happily married couples do not view marriage this way. Instead, they view their marriage as something more than just about them. There is a greater purpose or calling to their union than just servicing their own personal wants and desires: they have come together as true partners to work towards achieving some common, greater goal. Whether this greater purpose stems from religious beliefs, cultural or family considerations, political or social concerns, the desire to raise well-adjusted children, or just plain “fate”, these couples view their marriage as a “calling” to a true partnership designed to accomplish something greater than themselves. People’s failure to give their marriage meaning beyond just servicing their own fleeting selfish desires is a primary reason why marriages do not last.
- Do not expect your spouse to “make” you happy. You hear this all the time: “I just want someone who will make me happy.” You will most likely hear this common, misguided plea from someone who is either: 1) forlornly looking for that special someone to be their forever love; or 2) complaining about their forever love not upholding his or her part of “the deal.” If you believe your spouse is responsible for – and capable of – making you happy, then you are destined to be both alone and unhappy for the rest of your life. No one else can make you happy – anymore than someone can make you like broccoli. That is a state of being exclusively within your sole control. Expecting your spouse to make you happy is not only doomed to fail, it is a grossly unfair burden to place on someone else as no one can possibly deliver on such an expectation. Depending on someone else for your own happiness is toxic to relationships as it only breeds resentments and recriminations: resentment and recrimination from the “unhappy” spouse against his/her spouse for not “doing their job”; and resentment and recrimination from the put-upon spouse for being blamed for not giving their spouse something that is not in their power to give.