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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Union Vs. Self: How To Make A Marriage Work

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I've been thinking a lot about 'what makes a marriage work' because I officiated a wedding this summer, my own 34th wedding anniversary is next month, and I see the struggles faced by some friends and colleagues in their marriages.

Scientists have identified several variables that can predict success or failure of a marriage with 70-80% accuracy. The predictors of failure change a bit throughout the duration of marriage but include violence (aggression), negative communication, personality match, and sexuality among others. I don't conduct research on marriage but I find it fascinating that the success or failure could be 'predetermined' with such high accuracy.

Despite this strong body of research, probably few of us use marriage assessment tools to figure out whether to marry or not.

My husband and I are asked this question a lot - 'what's the key to a happy marriage' because we have been married so long, in Hollywood no less. We both seem to have comparable answers (of varying order): 1. Be kind 2. Share and spend time together (have fun, laugh a lot, don't take life too seriously), 3. Be intimate, and 4. Appreciate each other's strengths and overlook the weaknesses.

These four answers are only possible because we value our union over personal interests, that is, there are many times we 'give up' something that might bring us personal pleasure to help the union grow. This sort of 'self-sacrifice' is perhaps key to any successful relationship. But it is a self-sacrifice that is done, not with resentment, or a sense of anger or guilt, but one that is given freely and with joy to strengthen the union. In a way, it is comparable to a self-transcendent experience, where one transcends the little world of self (what's good for me, bad for me) to be part of something larger than oneself (the relationship).

Our four answers seem comparable to the keys to marriage described by research. 1. Be kind (keep violence and aggression OUT of the marriage. 2. Spend time together (aka share and communicate). We walk a lot, every morning and most evenings. When we walk we talk, we share, and we laugh. 3. Be intimate. I heard that Paul Newman once told a reporter when asked how he maintained his fidelity in marriage for so long, "Why go for hamburger, when you can have steak at home?" I loved that line (even though I am vegetarian). Intimacy is important in a marriage: when it begins to fade, so too will the union. At times, partners in marriage are not on the same wave-length in intimacy, and again, letting go of your own personal wants and needs may be required by both parties to find a steady level of intimacy. 4. Appreciate each other's strengths and overlook the weaknesses. I'm not quite sure where this fits into the research on marriage but I am pretty sure that this works because it is a key to self-compassion, in general. To have a strong marriage requires self-compassion, a recognition that you and you're your partner are part of the 'human condition' sharing in the same ups and downs of life. Accept yourself and your partner as you are.

Staying together in marriage requires extensive work and effort, but overtime and with the deepening of the union over self, it becomes (as my husband likes to say) a 'huge high'. It seems a little odd that we, as a country, spend so much time on 'who should be allowed to marry' instead of helping one another to enhance our unions, once made.

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