Did you know that around 40% of marriages in the United States end in divorce? While we do not think that divorce is bad, we do think that it is almost always sad. Even if you’re getting out of a terrible relationship (which is great!), it is still sad that the hopes and dreams you had for your lives together will not be realized. It’s complicated. But I think we can all agree that the high rate of divorce in our country signals that many of us are getting something wrong in our long term relationships.
As a couples therapist, I think about this every day with my clients. What are the magic ingredients that keep happy couples together for the long haul? I listen to my clients, read the research, stay up to date with the latest therapy models, and learn from my own 10+ year relationship.
But for the first time ever on our blog, I don’t want to share any of my professional knowledge with you. Today I am going to share some real life lessons I learned from my in-laws, Joe and Cindy Megginson. Joe and Cindy celebrated their 50 year wedding anniversary in June! My husband and I were fortunate enough to take them to a fancy dinner in downtown Charleston, South Carolina…where I proceeded to quiz/interview/interrogate them about how they did it!
I want to share their lessons with you. Of course, I have paraphrased and added some of my own thoughts, but the core lessons here come straight from the source – a couple who have discovered, through years of hard work and commitment to their relationship, the elusive magic ingredients.
It seems obvious that you need to trust your partner. Of course, honesty and transparent dialogue are critical factors to creating and sustaining trust in any relationship! But we’re talking about a deeper level of trust. This is the trust you feel at the core of your heart when you know that your partner has your back, even when you’re tangled up in a messy argument. Joe said to me, “The stuff that feels important [when you’re arguing] probably isn’t that important. In hindsight, I can see that we should always believe the best in each other. You should trust what your partner is saying is true for them [even if it doesn’t feel true for you] and let the rest go.” That’s good stuff, Joe. Here is a video that will help you understand why you fight so that you can begin to develop more trust with your partner.
Many couples do not explore their core values before getting married, and this is often a fatal mistake. If your core values do not align, you will likely find that you cannot share a life path without one of you feeling stifled and resentful. For Joe and Cindy, their shared value of spirituality has been a core connection point through the trials and tribulations they’ve faced over the last 50+ years. Some other core values to consider are your desire to have children, the importance of focusing on a career versus being a homemaker, where you want to live (city or small town), how you want to live (frugal or extravagant), how important is it to stay close to your family, how do you want to give back to the world while you’re here, et cetera et cetera. The more your values align, the easier it will be to cultivate a marriage that thrives.
If you want your marriage to last, you have to like each other. Seriously, I see so many couples who really don’t like each other! They co-manage the business of their lives effectively, they are good co-parents, they support each other’s endeavors, but honestly, they wouldn’t be friends with each other if they weren’t married. Cindy said that she loves how Joe compliments her. He is the ying to her yang, and at the end of a long week, she wants to spend the weekend hanging out with him! Do not underestimate this factor. If you’re not really interested in each other as people, you will find it is difficult to stay connected when life becomes quiet and you don’t have anything to manage other than your time together. The more you like your partner, the stronger your relationship will be. Our posts about deepening your emotional connection and staying connected when you’re busy will help you enhance your friendship.
No one said great relationships are always fun. Even if you are best friends with exactly the same values who trust each other implicitly, you are still going to encounter lots of difficulty together. Conflict keeps things interesting! Joe said that he has come to understand that there is no right and wrong in his relationship with Cindy. Things are never black or white. What he wants is not right and what Cindy wants is not wrong (and visa versa). If you get stuck in dichotomous thinking, you will not be able to listen to what your partner needs. You have the ability to support your partner in getting what they need to be happy in this life. I want to be happy, and I want you to be happy. Successful couples are able to balance their relationship so that they are both working to meet the needs of the other. That means that there are times when you prioritize what your partner needs over what you need (compromise!), but you can do this because you trust that your partner is doing the same for you. As long as you are both working for each other, you will always be cared for.
Privileging the Positive
Life is hard. Marriage is hard. Work is hard. It’s all hard! Joe and Cindy mentioned that they have learned how easy it is to spend too much talking about the hard stuff, which detracts from all of the good that is around you. Take a moment to think about how many positive interactions versus negative interactions you have had with your spouse recently. If you’re like most of us, that ratio can easily tilt towards more negative than positive (check out this article for more information about ideal positive to negative ratio). Joe said that he believes he and Cindy are still happily married because he chooses to reinforce what is good in their relationship, rather than focus primarily on where they struggle. Cindy agreed that it is important to focus on what makes you happy in your relationship, even when times are tough. So here’s the takeaway: Let the small stuff go… once you’ve been together for 50 years, you can see that it really doesn’t matter!
There you have it! The five magic ingredients you need to create a lifelong marriage as told by a couple who have perfected the recipe: trust, shared values, friendship, compromise, and privileging the positive.
Joe and Cindy, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. Thank you for showing us that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship, but that it is possible to stay committed and connected to your partner through the course of our very imperfect lives. We all have much to learn from the beautiful relationship you have created. May you have many more years together.