I start a lot of posts like this …
I’ve been thinking about this for months.
(Heaven help me if I ever find myself needing to write about current events on short notice. I’m a slow processor and it takes me months to figure out what I think about anything.)
It was Jamie and Claire that first got me thinking about it. In Drums of Autumn (that’s Outlander #4 to the unitiated), Lord John admires their marriage, saying, “Do you know how rare such a thing is? That peculiar sort of mutual passion?” (“The one-sided kind,” he notes, “was common enough.”)
Nevermind that Jamie and Claire are fictional. It’s still a good question, though a hard one to discuss.
The topic of marital satisfaction tends to provoke knee-jerk reactions, so I’m wary of broaching the subject. But I think it’s a question worth exploring.
How rare is a great marriage?
I’ll start by saying: I don’t know. Nobody does for sure.
We do know this: the majority of marriages fail. According to psychologist Ty Tashiro, “Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages.”
I could cite you more stats, but they’re only so helpful. Most measure divorce rates, or marital longevity, and “not divorced” is not the same as “happily married.”
When I think about how rare a great marriage is or isn’t, I think first about my own marriage, and about the marriages around me. We have a high number of close friends who seem to be well-matched and happy. In those circles—and this is important—we talk about relationships. And not just the good stuff: importantly, the bad stuff isn’t taboo.
But that perception is only so helpful. Like attracts like, for one: happily married couples associate with other happily married couples. And our perception is limited.
Over the past few years, neighbors and acquaintances have divorced—some of them enduring ugly, heartbreaking messes—but no close friends.
Perception is faulty, of course: early in our marriage, we had a group of fellow newly-marrieds friends, seven or eight couples among us. We were flabbergasted when the first couple in our ranks got divorced. We had no idea they were struggling—notably, we didn’t talk about the bad stuff—until he moved out.
I would have guessed that they were happy, but he’d been sleeping on the sofa since their second month of marriage.
We see other marriages up close, marriages where both spouses are perpetually cranky, yet their marriages appear stable—maybe even happy. If there really is someone for everyone, maybe they’re perfect for each other.
I don’t know how rare a great marriage is or isn’t: but I do know this: it’s not the default position. It doesn’t happen by accident.
Marriage expert John Gottman says two things distinguish happily married couples from unhappy ones: kindness and generosity. Happily married couples purposefully build cultures of appreciation and respect, one interaction at a time.
A great marriage requires intimacy, and therapists say intimacy itself is rare these days, even between spouses. (And even if spouses themselves are intimate, it strains the marriage if that is their only intimate relationship.) The bar is high for true intimacy, which has 7 necessary characteristics:
• emotional safety
• mutual respect
• freedom to be yourself
Reading that list, it’s not so hard for me to believe that only three in ten people who ever get married remain in healthy, happy marriages.
So why talk about this?
It’s worth knowing—whether you’re single or married—that great marriages are possible, but that not every married person is in a great marriage. Disbelieving the first is plain depressing; disbelieving the second makes it impossible to talk about relational struggles.
It’s also worth knowing that intimacy is hard, in or out of marriage. But most of us would be better off with a few more intimate relationships.
Great relationships aren’t the norm. They don’t happen by accident. But they’re worth working for.
I’d love to hear your thoughtful commentary on marriage, statistics, relationships, and intimacy in comments.
Books mentioned in this post: