Sunday, July 20, 2008

Nine Couples Share Secrets to a Lasting Marriage by Dr. Alan Singer

Here is the 2nd of 3 installments about the nine couples I interviewed who are celebrating 30 years of marriage. I hope you find their responses as insightful as I did. It was published in the Home News Tribune on July 15, 2008

When nine central New Jersey couples who are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary were asked what is the secret of a 30-year marriage, most couples gave a one-word answer. Maybe they thought the question was, what is the "secret password" of a long-term marriage? It was intriguing that this question received quite brief answers. "Patience" (Heather and Arthur). "Endurance" (Leibe and Susan). "Communication" (Steven and Diana). "Respect" (Susie and Barry). And Mitch, with his wry sense of humor, responded: "Inertia."

Let's assume that you heard the old adage about what counts in real estate: location, location, location. Based on the majority of responses from these nine couples, the secret of a 30-year marriage is: compromise, compromise, compromise. This gets to the heart of marital longevity. Do couples with enduring marriages make the transition from "me" to "we" better than couples who don't? A marriage where compromise is a basic component will be able to change and evolve, since each marriage is a dynamic entity.

Dr. Bill Doherty (University of Minnesota) refers to marriage as a "continual learning process." That's an important perspective, considering the physical and emotional changes that occur as people age. Finances, geography and careers change as well. And changes in family size tend to have a direct affect on marital satisfaction (mostly negative). Leonard and Linda, in relating the secret of a 30-year marriage, repeated two well-known mantras: 1. Try to see things through each other's eyes. 2. No matter how upset you are, never go to bed without saying "goodnight" and "I love you."

The follow-up question was, What is the most important expectation(s) that you have of your spouse on a daily basis? One reason I asked this question has to do with some fascinating research from the University of North Carolina. Wouldn't you think that couples who have very high expectations of marriage tend to be disappointed if it fails to meet those expectations and that they will not have good marriages? Not true.

"Dr. Donald Baucom found that people with the highest expectations for their marriage usually wind up with the highest-quality marriages. This suggests by holding your relationship to high standards, you are far more likely to achieve the kind of marriage you want." (Dr. John Gottman, "Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work," 1999).

Mort and Lisa expect each other "to keep in touch on a daily basis." Surely, we hard-working Americans endure stress and anxiety each day. But, that shouldn't prevent us from seizing a few minutes to touch base with our "better half." Several couples warned of the problems that result from letting job frustration spill over into family life. Susan expects Leibe to come home each day and be happy to share in her day as well. Arthur and Heather expect each other to be "kind, friendly, considerate, caring, and sharing each day." Leonard and Linda want each other to be "trustworthy, honest, loving, and supportive."

Robin and Michael provided this insight: "We expect mutual interest and support in each other's trials and tribulations and a sense of pride and gratification in each other's successes and achievements." Robin added, "Our marriage has gotten progressively better with the last five to seven years being the absolute best!" (emphasis hers). When I dug deeper into their response, they stressed the importance of couples preparing themselves for children. Numerous research studies have shown a measurable decrease in marital satisfaction with the arrival of each child. Children are the most wonderful of blessings, but the reality is that they add significant stress to a marriage.

"Early in the marriage, you are still learning how it works," explained Robin, "and then child-rearing sort of gets in the way of developing your relationship." Robin and Michael made it through those difficult years of young children and new careers. Unfortunately, not all couples are as lucky. Robin's explanation of why the last five to seven years have been so marvelous: "Our children have grown up and are more independent, giving us more time for each other."

Last is the advice that Lisa and Mort give to their grown children in their search for the right spouse: "Look for a warm, caring spouse and someone who will be your best friend." It is no coincidence that John Gottman's research (1999) strongly emphasizes this same idea. "The determining factor," claims Gottman, "in whether wives feel satisfied with the passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple's friendship. Some men and women come from the same planet, after all."

"Be Counted" columnist Dr. Alan Singer is a marriage therapist in Highland Park. Respond to this column at Dr. Singer's Web site or e-mail "Be Counted" columnists are members of the public.