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Marriage Advice from Couples Married 40+ Years

Maintaining a healthy, happy marriage can prove challenging in a world focused on self, personal career, instant gratification, and “me.” It actually requires a shift in focus. This begs the question: what is the “secret” of a healthy, happy marriage? That’s what researchers asked 180 couples who had enjoyed a healthy, 40-plus year marriage. Here are the top four answers given…well, actually six with two ties.

  • Tied for the fourth most common answer is compromise and love. Compromise is that “give and take” of a marriage. One person can’t always receive while the other gives. Happy marriages focus on compromise, developing a solution that satisfies “us” instead of “me.” Compromise flows when both partners are more interested in their relational health and their partner’s happiness and well-being than they are about their own wants and desires. Love speaks to the need for each partner to feel valued, respected, and cared for. It involves knowing that your partner cares more deeply and will compromise to promote your happiness. A partner knows their spouse loves them because their spouse turns to them first when celebrating a success of any kind and when mourning a loss of any kind. Love seeks out the one they love first.
  • Number three brings in another tie between communication and shared values. It is not surprising that these two go together. Two people enter a marriage with their own values and learn to negotiate shared values from there. This demands communication, lots of healthy communication (and compromise as noted in #4). Couples forge their shared values through living together, talking together, and talking some more. This level of communication demands that we value the other person enough to believe they have a legitimate point of view, a point of view as worthy as our own and a point of view worthy of deep consideration. With this attitude and with lots of communication, a couple develops a shared sense of values that holds them close to one another.
  • The number two secret of a healthy marriage is practicing unselfish, even sacrificial, giving toward our spouse. This flies in the face of the hyper-individualized society in which we live. An unselfish spouse considers their partner as “more important than themselves.” They do not merely look out for their own personal interests but also for the interests of their spouse” (Philippians 2:3). In seeking to meet the needs of their partner, an unselfish spouse willingly makes sacrifices. Such sacrifices are a lost art today, but an essential ingredient in a long-term, healthy marriage according to those married for 40-plus years.
  • And the number one secret of a healthy marriage? Commitment. Commitment remains essential for a long-term, healthy marriage. Every marriage will experience good times and hard times. Affection and attraction may wax and wane, as will your sense of emotional closeness. However, the commitment to “stay the course,” to “take the long view” and “hold on,” contributes to the rekindling of affection, the deepening of trust and, as a result, intimacy, and a maturing of attraction. Commitment is the glue that keeps all these ingredients in play and growing over time.

There you have it, ingredients for a long-term, healthy, and happy marriage straight from the mouths of those who have over 40-years of healthy marriage. Which ones do you need to improve in your marriage?

What Makes a Marriage Healthy?

What makes for a happy marriage? That’s a good question. Many times, I meet couples in which one person thinks the relationship is fine while the other person is ready to end the relationship and leave. One seems happy and completely unaware that their partner is not happy. In our individual-focused culture, you can see how this might happen. One person’s needs are being met and, for them, that’s what marriage is about–their happiness. They enjoy their happiness, focus on their happiness, and never look deeply at their spouse’s happiness. They may even provide their spouse what would they think would make them happy. They provide financial security when their spouse desires quality time sharing important conversation and emotions with one another. They provide service, cleaning the home and doing tasks around the house, when their spouse desires physical affection. But, focused on “my” idea of happiness and “my” own sense of happiness, they miss their spouse’s need for something different.

Overall, individual happiness is not a great indicator of a healthy marriage because a healthy marriage involves two people in relationship. A healthy marriage is about “relational-connectivity”–behaviors and beliefs that focus relationship not individuality. What does that entail? Here are three factors involved in relational-connectivity.

  • Commitment. In healthy marriages, both spouses have a high sense of commitment. They maintain a long-term view of the relationship and nurture the permanence of the relationship. As a result, they turn toward their spouse for emotional support, mental stimulation, and physical affection. They turn to their spouse to celebrate positive happenings in their life and to express sorrow over hardships. They nurture this commitment by:
    • Dreaming about the future together. This may include supporting one another’s dreams as well as developing dreams as a couple.
    • Making future plans together. This may include something as simple as making weekend plans together. It may also include planning yearly vacations and getaways. In addition, it may include planning the trip of your dreams or planning a trip for your anniversary…or planning a trip “just because.”
    • Turning away from other options for intimacy and emotional support and seeking that support only from your spouse.
    • Prioritizing their marriage. We tend to focus on and nurture those things to which we are most committed. We nurture our marriage with kindness, affection, and time when we prioritize it.
  • Practice Being Other-centered. The spouse of a selfish person finds it more difficult to stay in a long-term relationship. On the other hand, having an “other-centered” perspective allows one to see their spouse and their needs as well as respond to meet those needs. An other-centered spouse nurtures their marriage with:
    • Acts of kindness for their spouse.
    • Knowing and “learning to speak” their spouse’s love language.
    • Engaging in behaviors they know brings their spouse joy.
    • Serving their spouse.
    • Making sacrifices, large and small, for their spouse.
  • Compassion. A compassionate spouse is there when their spouse needs them. They recognize times in which their spouse needs extra time, extra rest, or extra affection…and they provide it. A compassionate spouse is also ready to forgive. Ironically, a compassionate spouse is also ready to apologize when they see they’ve hurt their spouse. And they are ready to “bear the fruit” of that apology, to make the necessary change.

Our culture tends to be very individualistic, and this focus on the individual presents a danger for a healthy marriage. A healthy marriage is countercultural. It is relationally focused. It is “other-centered,” committed to relationship, and compassionate.  Open your eyes and become aware of your spouse. Prioritize your marriage. Commit to your marriage. You and your spouse will both be glad you did.

Give a Shout Out for Marriage

Marriage gets a bad rap at times. For instance, reality TV and sitcoms offer a very strange and twisted idea of romantic relationships. Many give marriage gets a bad rap. But marriage is great, even fantastic. I realize that some people fear marriage because they have witnessed marriages that have ended in divorce. However, the divorce rate has gone down. And, when both people in a marriage invest some energy, time, and attention to their marriage, marriage is great. In fact, nothing predicts happiness in America like a good marriage. Neither education, work, money, or sex predict happiness as well as a good marriage. Studies suggest that a good marriage are a “whopping” 545% more likely to be very happy than those who are unmarried or in a poor marriage. That’s a lot of happiness.

In addition, those who are happily married have about 10 times more assets at the age of 50 than their unmarried peers. And it’s more than money. Married people report a greater sense of meaning in life and significantly less loneliness. Might I humbly add, regular date nights with a spouse are also associated with even greater happiness, greater frequency of sex, and greater sexual satisfaction. In fact, happily married couples report the greatest sexual satisfaction.

All in all, a happy marriage improves our lives. That being said, marry wisely and invest in your marriage because an unhappy marriage robs us of everything a happy marriage provides. What do you need to invest in your marriage to keep it thriving and happy so you and your spouse can reap the benefits?

  • Invest time. Spend time with our spouse every day. Talk about your day. Talk about your dreams. Sit together and read. Walk quietly holding hands. Do household chores together. Spend time with your spouse.
  • Invest your attention. Give your spouse your attention. You don’t have to give them attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but give them attention every day. When your spouse approaches you, respond with your attention. I don’t mean fake attention or half-hearted attention. Invest your whole attention in your spouse when you interact.
  • Invest admiration. Admire your spouse every day. Compliment their appearance, their cleaning, their cooking, their work…. Acknowledge their kindness, their inner and outer beauty, their character. Don’t let a day go by without admiring your spouse.
  • Invest your service. Be an active member of the household. Assist with chores. Participate in family activities. Do something nice for your spouse once in a while, something unexpected and kind.  As a matter of fact, do something kind for your spouse often. For instance, you might serve breakfast in bed, give a back rub, bring home a gift, send a note of love, give a random hug.

As you can see from this short list, investment isn’t a burden. It’s a joy that results in greater intimacy and a happier marriage. And a happier marriage will change your life. It will improve everything from your physical health to your finances to your emotional health to your sexual satisfaction. Go ahead and invest. See if you don’t reap these amazing benefits. Then, like me, you’ll give a shout out for marriage.

2%, 3%, or 10%?

If I were to ask you which of these three factors—demographics (age, gender, socioeconomic status), financial difficulty, or marital satisfaction—would have the greatest impact on a person’s mental health score, what would you say? Obviously, all three have an impact, but which would have the greatest impact? A study published on February 14, 2024, in PLOS ONE offers some insight. It noted that one of these three factors accounted for 2% of the variation in the mental health score of participants, while a second accounted for 3%, and the third accounted for a full 10%. Guess which factor accounted for 10%.

Financial difficulties? Many people attribute marital problems and mental health issues to financial issues. And, in fact, financial difficulties did impact a person’s mental health according to this study. However, only 3% of the variance in mental health scores among the 6,846 participants was attributed to financial difficulties.

Demographics? Variations in demographics only attributed 2% of the variance. That leaves only one more option….

If you answered marital satisfaction, you were correct. Marital satisfaction accounted for 10% of the variance in the participants’ mental health scores. A healthy, secure, happy marriage promotes mental health. An unhealthy, conflictual, insecure marriage damages mental health. In other words, if you want to nurture positive mental health in you and your spouse, start by nurturing your marriage. Building a healthy marriage leads to greater mental health. How can you build a marriage that will promote greater mental health?

  • Become a student of your spouse. Recognizing that everyone changes and grows means that knowing your spouse is a lifelong activity. Your spouse will grow. They will learn new things. Old interests may fade or become more defined. New interests will arise. So, take the time to know your spouse, even if you’ve been married for years. As you invest in knowing your spouse, you will gain the knowledge necessary to serve them in more meaningful ways, express your love for them in a more effective manner, and celebrate or mourn with them in the changing times.
  • Be responsive to your spouse. When your spouse communicates with you, respond. Notice I said “communicates” rather than “talks.” Your spouse may communicate through facial expressions, gestures, or touch as well as speech. Be open to hearing them all. Respond in love. Respond with your full attention more often than not. Respond with kindness, playfulness, caring, concern…. Respond with love.
  • Express your love for your spouse. Make it a habit to express gratitude and admiration to your spouse every day. If you have been a good student of your spouse, this will prove easy. Thank them for all they do for you, your children, your home. Admire their character, their beauty, their taste…. In fact, take a moment now to think of two things for which you could thank your spouse and two things you admire about your spouse. Then tell them. Right now, tell them. If you can’t talk to them at this moment, send them a text. You’ll both be glad you did. Then make this practice a daily habit.
  • Dream together. Sit down with your spouse on a regular basis to share a cup of coffee (or tea or pop) and dream. Where would you like to visit? What would you like to do? Both as individuals and as a couple. Consider what you can do to help your spouse achieve their individual dreams and begin planning to enjoy your dreams as a couple.

Investing in these four practices will nurture a marriage that will promote positive mental health in you and your spouse. It will also increase the joy and intimacy in your marriage. Sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it?

5 Practices to Keep Your Marriage Thriving

It’s an older study now (2012) but insightful all the same. It offers five practices that can strengthen your marriage. If you want to build a strong, healthy marriage, make sure you keep these 5 practices in the forefront of your relationship.

  • Have fun together. Make sure you spend time playing together. Laugh together. Tell a joke or two. Laugh at silly cat videos together. Go on some adventures together, whether they be to a local amusement park, a concert, or a beach. Whatever way you choose (and I hope you choose several), have fun! Enjoy one another’s company.
  • Share household chores. Don’t expect your spouse to do all the work around the house. Make sure you participate in the tasks that keep the home running smoothly as well. You might even have some chores that you and your spouse do together. (Men, just so you know, some say that seeing you do household chores will be an aphrodisiac of some sort for your wife…go figure.)
  • Keep your social media accounts transparent. You can have separate accounts if you want, but make sure your spouse has full access to any account you have. Let your spouse know your passwords. Let them see your activity if and when they want to see it. This will prove beneficial to you in terms of accountability and in terms of trust within your relationship.
  • Share your feelings with your spouse. When we share our emotions with our spouses, we open ourselves up to be known by them, we reveal ourselves to them on a deeper level. We allow our spouse to learn about us—our priorities, values, goals, and passions.
  • Assure your spouse that you are committed to our relationship. By practicing the four actions above, you assure your spouse that you are committed to them and your marriage. You can also assure them of your commitment by talking about the future together. What would you like to do as a couple in the next five years? When your children “leave the nest”? Dream together and plan together. Then, have fun making those dreams come true.

These five practices will strengthen your marriage and keep it healthy for a lifetime. If I might, I would like to add one more practice. This one was not mentioned in the study cited above, but other studies have shown how this practice strengthens marriage. Pray for your spouse. Prayer has been shown to strengthen marriages in several ways. Take time each day to say a simple prayer for your spouse’s well-being. 

That’s six practices to strengthen your marriage. Start engaging in these practices today and enjoy a thriving marriage with your spouse for a lifetime.

What Mom Wants from Her Husband

I enjoy a good James Bond movie…or a Mission Impossible adventure. The heroes spark my imagination. They are strong, ingenious problem-solver, attractive to women. They live adventurous lives I only dream about. Surely the mother of my children (my wife) would like me, the father of her children, to have all those “great” qualities. We’d live an adventure-filled life of intrigue and passion. Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, according to a survey of 291 mothers, your wife, the mother of your children, would NOT want that! In fact, that is the type of person a mother wants least as their husband. Know what this survey suggests women want most in a husband and father to their children? A friend–somebody who shows a genuine interest in them and their children, somebody who exhibits kindness toward them and their children. Sounds kind of crazy but think about it.

This kind of husband will notice when his wife seems stressed or needs rest. And he’ll step in to help provide that needed comfort and rest. That’s what friends do. A husband who takes the role of “friend” seriously will take the time to listen, understand, and empathize with his wife rather than jumping in to “fix it.” He will also initiate conversations to learn about his wife’s day with all its joys and sorrows. Overall, he will take responsibility to nurture his relationship with his family (including his wife). That’s what friends do… all this and more.

John Gottman goes so far as to suggest friendship is the core of every healthy marriage. The friendship on which every healthy marriage stands is developed and nurtured through small, daily actions like:

  • Asking open-ended questions to learn about your wife and her life.
  • Developing the habit of responding to your wife with genuine interest and listening intently to her in conversation rather than giving half-hearted attention or faking attention.
  • Communicating appreciation, adoration, and gratitude for her every day.

…After all, that’s what friends do.

Your wife, the mother of your children, doesn’t need a sexy, strong, adventurous husband (although I’m sure you’re all those things). She needs a friend who cares enough and loves her enough to walk by her side and actively participate in family life with her. Will you invest the time and energy to develop that friendship with her? If you do, you’ll reap the amazing rewards of a joyful, healthy marriage.

Self-Compassion & Marriage?

Are you hard on yourself? Do you expect more from yourself than you do of others? Do you struggle to forgive yourself? If so, you could be robbing your marriage and your spouse of greater happiness. A study involving 209 heterosexual couples found that a “caring, kind, and attentive attitude toward oneself, especially with regard to your own shortcomings,” contributes to greater happiness in marriages. In other words, self-compassion leads to happier marriages, happier spouses, and greater satisfaction in sexual intimacy. Men, in particular, reported a higher level of relationship satisfaction if their wife was self-compassionate. Doesn’t that sound like something you’d like in your marriage? Ironically, it begins with practicing self-compassion, “a caring, kind, and attentive attitude toward oneself, especially with regard to your own shortcomings.”  Even better news, you can increase your self-compassion and so increase your marital satisfaction for both you and your spouse, by engaging in these practices.

  • When you experience a personal failure or perceive a personal inadequacy, ask yourself, “How would I behave toward my friend if they were in this type of situation?” “What advice would I offer a friend in a similar situation?”  Then give heed to your answer. We often find it easier to show compassion to our friends than to ourselves. Give yourself the same advice you’d give your friend…and listen to that advice.
  • Look closely at the expectations you place on yourself. Are they realistic? Do they leave room for mistakes? What might be a more realistic self-expectation?  We often place unrealistic expectations on ourselves. We become perfectionistic and overly critical of any shortcoming. Examine your expectations and accept that you are human.
  • Offer yourself encouragement. We easily slip into self-critical or self-degrading comments. We tell ourselves we’re a “lousy cook” when we overcook the chicken one time or call ourselves “lazy” or minimize our knowledge. Instead, be honest with yourself. Sure, we all have shortcomings but don’t turn a shortcoming into a character trait. Encourage yourself. Don’t make a passing failure a permanent state of being. Instead, encourage yourself. Consider times you have done better. Make a plan to learn and grow. Restate those harsh criticisms with greater self-compassion and with a more accurate truth. Learn to offer yourself encouragement and affirmations.
  • Listen to your thoughts and reframe them into more accurate thoughts. Throw out the “always” and “nevers.” Replace them with “this time” or “sometimes.”   Replace the global statements (everything, my whole…) with specific statements (this time, this incident, this moment). Admit it’s not “all about you” and you’re not to “blame for everything.”  Then have the grace to take responsibility only for those things over which you actually have control.
  • Do something nice for yourself today. It could be simple: take a bath, call a friend, read a book, take a walk…. Do something nice for yourself today.

Learn to show yourself a little compassion. Show yourself as much compassion as you would show a good friend. When you do, you will find greater joy, your spouse will experience greater happiness, and your marriage will grow more satisfying.

The Starter Ingredients of a Healthy Marriage

Marriages require at least two basic ingredients added in the right order at the start. The first ingredient is dedication. That makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, if we desire to find success in any enterprise, we must dedicate time and energy into creating that success. In marriage, dedicating our time and energy means moving from “me” to a “we” and an “us.” We don’t simply move to an “us in the moment” either, but an “us with a future.” In practical terms this means placing a greater priority on our relationship than our individual self. We express our desire to remain an “us” by investing time together to build our relationship with our spouse. We willingly serve our spouse because we love them and are dedicated to their happiness. We forgive minor offenses because we are dedicated to a future together and have already seen the joys of our time together. We recognize that our love can continue to grow, and our intimacy continue to deepen, so we willingly make sacrifices, some small and some large, for one another.    

Dedication is supported by a second ingredient: constraint. Constraints are the bonds that naturally grow in relationships and make it more difficult to separate. For instance, when a couple announces to their friends that they are in an exclusive relationship, they have taken on a constraint. To break up after that announcement requires explaining to additional people and forcing those people into the awkward position of caring for (and possibly choosing between) both parties in a painful situation. Another constraint is buying a house (or getting a dog or buying a car) together. Joint ownership adds a layer of complication to separating as you have to negotiate how to “divey up the goods.”  Of course, having children adds another layer of constraint. As you can see, constraints arise naturally.

When dedication is strong, naturally arising constraints simply serve to strengthen an already strong relationship. However, without dedication, constraint begins to feel like a prison, an inescapable trap. This brings up a third surprising ingredient: timing. Ideally, a couple begins to build dedication before constraint, commitment before accepting the constraints of moving in together or having a baby together, for example. If a couple “slips” into a relationship through constraints, the relationship begins to feel like a trap. For instance, some couples move in together for convenience rather than dedication—it’s closer to work, a way to save money, an experiment to see if “we want to dedicate.” Such situations, often made without consideration to the level of dedication in the relationship, result in ambiguity, dissatisfaction, and even resentment. If constraints arise without dedication, the relationship eventually suffers. With that in mind, it becomes important for couples to clearly communicate their level of dedication and commitment before adding any level of constraint to their relationship. Your long-term happiness depends on it.

The Harmony of Truth and Love in Conflict

The happiest marriages hold a beautiful harmony of truth and love, even in the midst of conflict. I like how Jimmy Evans puts it (You can read this quote from Jimmy Evans and more @ Jimmy Evans Quotes (Author of Tipping Point) (goodreads.com)):

“Truth without love is like surgery without anesthesia. Love without truth is like a cheerleader without a team. But truth in love is meaningful…and it is the only way communication can be effective and cause growth in relationship.”

In other words, a healthy marriage requires a harmony of truth and love, especially in conflict and the expression of our thoughts and feelings. Healthy couples strive to create a loving environment in which they both feel safe enough to share their true thoughts and feelings. The ability to share our deeper thoughts and feelings demands truth and love on the part of both partners, the one listening and the one speaking. 

The speaker must give voice to their thoughts, concerns, and feelings in a loving manner. This requires a great deal of self-awareness. They must remain self-aware enough to know how their choice of words and their tone of voice impact the meaning of their message and the listener’s ability to hear that message. It also requires integrity, a deep truthfulness within our hearts, to recognize how “my” speech impacts the listener and then a humility that allows one to adjust my communication based on that truth.

In love, the speaker will start the conversation gently rather than harshly. They will begin with kindness and love rather than casting blame, making accusations, or throwing out negative labels. They will begin with the objective truth of what has happened, the objective situations that cause them distress, rather than speculation about the other person’s intent or motivation.

In love, the speaker will reveal themselves to their spouse, offering them the gift of knowing them more deeply. In love, they will reveal their subjective feelings about the situation while still taking true responsibility for managing their emotions and their response to their emotions. They will offer the gift of their vulnerability as they describe ways in which their spouse’s actions or words have contributed to their distress. 

In love, the speaker will also believe the best about their spouse. They will believe their spouse did not intend harm. They will believe their spouse will desire reconciliation and will apologize for any hurt caused. In other words, the speaker will speak in love, believing the best about their spouse in love, and assuming the best response from their spouse in love until there is some objective reason (truth) to believe otherwise.  After all, “love believes all things.”

The listener must also act in truth and love. In love, the listener will accept the gift of revelation from their spouse. They will postpone their defensiveness and their explanation to listen fully, to listen to understand. As they listen, they will consider the truth of their spouse’s message. They will hold the truth of their spouse’s message in their heart and allow that truth to influence them. In love, they will apologize as needed and in truth they will bear the fruit of their apology. They will lovingly change their behavior according to the truth.

In love, the listener will focus on their spouse’s emotions, their feelings, so they can offer comfort and deepen their understanding of their spouse. Selflessly, in love, they will postpone their own response until their spouse feels heard and understood. Even then they will speak with love, accepting what their spouse has said and allowing it to influence them.

As you can see, throughout this process the speaker and the listener must harmonize truth and love in their words, their actions, and their responses. Truth by itself would simply cause more pain. Love, without truth, is no more than a shallow blowing in the breeze…in fact, it’s not really love at all. But the harmony of truth and love produces a beautiful intimacy. The truth brings concerns to the surface so they can be addressed and resolved. The truth compels each one to assess their own actions and behaviors. Love drives each one to tell the truth so the relationship can be strengthened through the resolution of even minor concerns. Love compels each one to state the truth gently, objectively, caringly so the other can hear it more easily.

When we learn to speak the truth in love, the harmony we experience is profound and the intimacy we share is beautiful.

The Cycle of Communication & Trust

Relationships are built on trust and trust is built upon self-revealing communications. On the other hand, meaningful communication requires trust and trust is nurtured by meaningful communication. Trust, however, doesn’t just happen. It needs to be refined. It requires testing. In fact, a wise person tests the water of trust before diving in with deeper, more vulnerable communication. Even in marriages and families, trust is continually tested. In fact, communication and trust form a cycle of increasing or decreasing trust. Let me give an example.

My wife walks in the room and sighs, “What a day.”  With that simple statement, she has “put a toe in the water” of trust. Is it warm or cold? Can she trust me to listen or not?

If I continue staring at my computer screen and say, “Well, what’s for supper?” I have shown the water cold. She cannot trust me to listen or to make myself available to her. If this scenario occurs more often than not, trust diminishes. Communication becomes less frequent and more shallow. As communication decreases, so does trust. And the cycle continues.

However, if I respond by looking up from my computer screen and say, “Sounds like a long day. What happened?” I have shown the water of trust to be warm. I have opened the door to communication. My wife feels more trust and delves in a little more. She begins to tell me about her day.  As I respond with interest and concern, matching her mood with empathy and understanding, her level of trust continues to grow. Feeling safer, she reveals more of herself and her heart. I learn more about her as she trusts me to reveal not just the events of the day but her emotions and concerns as well. If this scenario occurs more often than not, trust grows. Communication increases and deepens. As communication deepens, so does trust.

Responding with interest and empathy creates a beautiful cycle in which trust invites deeper communication. Deeper communication leads to greater trust, which invites the communication of deeper disclosures that lead to greater intimacy.  This beautiful cycle of trust and communication ultimately leads to greater joy, deeper intimacy, and greater security for both partners.

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