Today is our sixteenth wedding anniversary. (I can’t believe it, of course.)
Milestones invite reflection, and I’ve been thinking about what makes relationships work. Or not.
Last year I chose Ellen McCarthy’s wonderful book The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life from a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook as a Get Smart selection for last year’s Summer Reading Guide. It’s fun, practical, readable, and wise, packed with nuggets of wisdom about what makes relationships work. I’ve been recommending it like crazy (and was happy to see this week that my mom even had it checked out from the library).
I was struck by the author’s take on what does make a relationship work: in short, it’s the un-sexy stuff, the kind of things that no teenage girl includes on her man-of-my-dreams list. Skip tall-dark-and-handsome, go for kindness. You’ll recognize “the one” not because he sweeps you off your feet, but because he feels “comfortable.”
That’s not exactly what we’re taught to seek in romantic relationships.
In the book, McCarthy tells of when she co-hosted a radio chat about love with a well-regarded psychologist:
“As I watched his responses to readers’ questions appear on my screen I grew increasingly frustrated. People asked about what to look for in a mate, how to know when they’d found the right person, and how to trust again after a betrayal. The psychologist’s answers were like a broken record. His message: “Choose someone kind. Choose someone kind. Choose someone kind. Be kind, and choose someone kind.”
What makes a relationship last? It’s the stuff we’re tempted to write off as boring: kindness, goodness, gentleness, forgiveness.
Sixteen years in, I’m happy with where we are. I’m hopeful for our future, but I know that won’t just happen. My goal is to be grateful, and to pay attention to where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
While I’ve been warned by older and wiser friends not to panic if we hit a rough patch—strong marriages have bad weeks, months, even years—our challenge right now is not to take the good years for granted.
With that in mind, I especially liked this list of tips on making it last, borrowed from the The Real Thing:
1. TRY NEW THINGS TOGETHER.
Hang gliding, new restaurants, dance lessons—any activities that create interesting experiences.
2. AIM FOR 5X AS MANY POSITIVE INTERACTIONS AS NEGATIVE ONES.
This is straight from John Gottman. You know I’m a fan.
3. MAINTAIN EYE CONTACT AND HOLD HANDS.
Both boost oxytocin levels, which elevates feelings of love.
4. CELEBRATE SUCCESSES TOGETHER, BIG OR SMALL.
Celebrating together increases marital satisfaction and intimacy.
5. LAUGH TOGETHER.
Just for fun, and to defuse conflict.
6. FIND SHARED MEANING AND RITUALS TO REINFORCE IT.
For many couples, this looks like church or synagogue.
7. PRACTICE GRATITUDE.
Actively seek things to be grateful for in your relationship.
8. SHARE DOMESTIC DUTIES.
According to Pew, this is one of the top 3 factors for a successful marriage.
9. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW THE PERSON YOU’RE MARRIED TO TODAY.
Your spouse will change, because we all do. My favorite related quote from the book, from author Mignon McLaughlin: “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
10. SAY “I LOVE YOU.”
I’d love to hear your take on what makes a relationship work, whether you’re married, single, never want to marry, or hope to marry one day.
Books mentioned in this post:
I published a version of this post last year for #15 and a year later I can’t argue with this list. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by.