What makes a happy marriage?
It could be a billion dollar question. Some marriages struggle and soar; some struggle and sink; some struggle and keep struggling; and some seem like they were made in heaven.
Many take one of a thousand shades in between.
So what makes a happy marriage?
It’s difficult to answer because people are so different. What “works” for one couple might not “work” for another. People have different needs, different expectations, and different ways of communicating. (Or not communicating.)
Just ask RC Sproul.
He and his wife Vesta had birthdays coming up. “What I really wanted for my birthday was something I wouldn’t buy for myself,” Sproul recalls. “I was hoping for new golf clubs. Vesta, a practical person, knew I needed white shirts. So she bought me six beautiful white shirts. I tried not to show my disappointment.”
He didn’t do much better when her birthday came around. She wanted a new washer and dryer, and he got her a fur coat. They were both trying, but were ultimately out of tune with each other’s dialect.
Some say it has to do with knowing the right balance between being a couple but still having individuality.
Some say it has to do with having common goals.
Some say it has to do with cultivating fun.
Some say it has to do with keeping romance alive.
Some say it has to do with the continual work of love and self-sacrifice.
Whatever a happy marriage is, those of us who are married want it.
Laura and I have been together for 19 years (and married for over 13 of those years). We are incredibly grateful for one another, and are always working at keeping things strong and healthy. But I wonder: Is our key the key for everyone else too? It’s hard to say.
But this week a friend and colleague at Westminster, Claude Cox, shared with me some research. Emily Esfahani Smith reports the findings of psychologist John Gottman of The Gottman Institute, which helps couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.
In sum, one of his key findings is that two of the essentials for a happy marriage are kindness and generosity.
Couples who are kind and generous toward one another are happier and stay together longer.
He found that couples make “bids” to one another. It’s like a little clue that one person in the relationship sends out there—it’s kind of a way of saying, Hey, let’s connect. Say, for example, I tell Laura that I’m really liking a book I’m reading. If she says, “Oh,” then I’ll interpret that as her not wanting to connect with me.
But if she says something like, “Why do you like it?” it communicates to me that she wants to connect, and that she cares. It’s an act of kindness.
Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you. But Gottman’s research says it is.
Couples who are constantly searching their own emotional horizons, and their partner, looking for ways to connect in kind and generous ways discover more contentment together.
They find they are for one another, and not against one another.
Succinctly put, kindness is serving others in practical ways, and generosity is giving to others without expecting anything back. And both traits are like muscles. We need to proactively exercise them to get stronger in these areas.
One of the things I like about Gottman’s perspective is that he says we can even bring kindness to how we perceive our partner’s intentions. If they’re late for an engagement and we assume its because they don’t value our time together, we’re doing the relationship a disservice.
Kindness is also charity toward guessing at someone’s intentions.
Kindness is also a capacity to share in each other’s good news. When your spouse is happy about something—like, for example, they receive a new exciting prospect at work—are you able to celebrate with them? Or do you miss the opportunity to connect with an “Oh, that’s nice”?
Each day is ripe with opportunities to connect with kindness and generosity. Many are overt and obvious. And many are in the small, unseen and subtle contours of daily living.
I personally feel that marriage can be one of the most rewarding things in life. And as someone who tries to follow Jesus, the married relationship has an added sacredness. Why? Because how we treat one another is directly related to our reverence for Jesus: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
That puts everything in a whole new light. The Light.
But Gottman’s research is helpful for everyone. Be kind. Be generous. After all, as Ace Collins says, “Love is the one commodity we can possess that is replenished and increased when it is given away.”
So give it away.
“As long as we both shall live.”