How rare is a great marriage?

How rare is a great marriage?

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.

How rare is a great marriage? | Modern Mrs Darcy

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.

How rare is a great marriage? | Modern Mrs Darcy

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
• consistency
• love
• compassion
• understanding
• 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:

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70 comments

  1. Cate says:

    I’m single so I watch a lot of the people around me. A lot of the people in my social circle are coming up on their 20th anniversaries and the majority of the ladies fall into complaining about their husbands every time we’re together. There is one woman who has been married the longest (to her high school sweetheart even) and she NEVER has a bad word to say about her him. I asked her once if he ever bugs her since she never joins in. She said that when they first got married they promised each other to never say anything unkind about the other to friends or family. She said there are some days she looks at him and wonders what in the world she was thinking when she married him because she’s human, but she said since he’s the person she loves most in the world, she wants to be a safe place for him and never share his faults with the world. I love that so much.

  2. Thanks for this post. Marriage can be an amazing relationship but it takes a lot of work and effort from both people, both giving 100%. I’ve been married 12 years and for most of that time it has been great. We have battled infertility and pregnancy loss the last 5 years which has been heartbreaking for both of us. After our last loss our marriage began falling apart. We have been to multiple counselors and none of them have been able to help us. We have great communication but our hearts are broken and we are struggling knowing our future does not include children. I am open to adoption but my husband is not. I am not sure where our marriage will end up, i’m hoping and praying for a miracle. I do recommend two books and wish we would have read these together as a couple years ago, we might be in a slightly better place if we had. His Needs Her Needs by Willard F. Jr. Harley AND Love and Respect by Emerson Eggerichs.

    Since my husband and I have started having trouble I have been reminded that our American culture does not do well being vulnerable with each other and allowing others in to know how we are really doing in life, which makes me sad. I think that marriages could be a lot better if we did not feel like we needed to put on a “show” and make the world think everything is great when it really is not. We all know that relationships are not great all the time, but for some reason we feel we need to act like it is. Sorry, got on a little tangent!

    Thanks again for being bold and publishing this post.

  3. Just had to chime in–great conversation! I’ve been happily (passionately) married for 22 years.(I’m 44) We choose each other every day. Its not always been easy–illness, lack of money, moving away from family, advanced degrees, raising kids etc…..but we’ve always put each other first. Mutual respect is key. And I would add…a sense of humor. He makes me laugh. Honestly it gets better each year. (Having friends with healthy relationships is important too!)
    And I’ll share some advice I received on my wedding day:”never expect him to know what you want-you must just tell him plain and simple” Really good advice!

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  5. Leah says:

    My husband often says that he doesn’t know anyone with a marriage like ours. Both our sets of parents stayed together, but there was an enormous amount of discord at times. My mother has since passed away and my in laws are in the grandparent stages now, so things are a little different now. Good advice is to never speak ill of each other (especially in front of the children, they don’t want to pick sides), always remember love is a verb, not a noun, and try to show you love your spouse daily. Also, sometimes it’s best to put your own feels aside and put yourself in their shoes. Make their comfort your priority. A few sacrifices of your own pride can yield years of marital bliss. One thing I did was let my husband take over our finances. It was a leap of faith for me because I technically had more experience in that area when we married. We were struggling with me doing them somehow so he took on that responsibility. He has grown since then, and in so many ways, it was definitely the right choice. We did have a few hiccups here and there as he got everything in order but I’m so thankful I didn’t let my pride get in the way of his personal growth. We dont have stress in that area anymore. We were just 19 and 20 when we got married and some of our personal growth has happened together, which I love:-)! I don’t think it matters if you are older (my dad was almost 30 when he got married) or younger (both my in laws were 21). What matters is if you truly believe that you have found the person you can’t live without. <3

  6. Ellen says:

    I’m just reading this now through your link from today. I want to say something I defense of unhappy marriages. I’ve seen one close to me that has endured 42 years plagued by financial trouble, major health problems, mental illness, and general crankiness. There is not allot of obvious love and romance is all gone. Yet, there is a very deep caring and a white-knuckled loyalty. Neither party are happy or content as I’m sure they would wish and that is sad. Yet…they are such strong, good people and I think it is their difficult marriage that made them that way. This is not to say that we should be ok with misery in marriage, but maybe not so quick to give up either.

  7. Donna says:

    Have enjoyed this post and the comments thread so much – thank you all. We’ve been thinking a lot about what makes happy relationships a lot over the last few years as our boys are now young adults and in relationships of their own. Will definitely be passing on some book recommendations and sharing some of the thoughts with them.
    In my teenage years I believed that you started married life with a certain amount of love but life whittled it away slowly, and it was a bit of a lottery how long the love lasted. I guess that was what my parents marriage modeled. It was such a joy and a revelation to learn how wrong that thinking can be – how the feelings I have for my husband have grown and deepened so much over the 30+ years we have been together.
    While I’ve never fallen “out of love” with my husband, I think I’ve fallen “in love” with him all over again several times in the course of our marriage – seeing him as a new Dad and patient parent, and then much later, helping to look after my terminally ill Mum as she spent her last year living with us.
    I think the comments about being consistently kind and generous are spot on. I also think the earlier comment about “choosing each other every day” is very true – that mindful commitment to work towards each others happiness and to choose to value the relationship over competing priorities every day, builds a level of trust and freedom in the relationship which is a source of deep and abiding joy.

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