Secrets for a Successful Marriage

One of the assignments for a class in my Marriage and Family Therapy program was to think of an issue relevant to families today and create a program for the issue.  Fun (I love this subject!)!  Our program couldn’t be based on opinion, it had to be backed by current research.  I named my program “How not to Get a Divorce:  A Primer on What Happy Couples Do to Create a Lifetime of Love.”  Actually, I like the title “Caught Up in the Cake:  How Couples Focus on the Wedding and Not Their Marriage and How that Sets Them Up for Disaster.”  Anyway, I focused on how premarital education programs, as well-intentioned as they are, still result in many couples divorcing.  So with my program for engaged couples, or thinking-of-getting-engaged couples, or even single people who want to at some point meet and marry someone, I focused my efforts on what the research is saying about what happy couples are doing in their long-term marriages.  What makes their marriages successful?  What are the 50% of marriages that do succeed, doing right?

The papers that I write for school are based on the latest research–which is great, but it can be a little “dry.”  Here’s what I mean by that:

What are the factors that contribute to marital success?  According to recent research by Britzman and Sauerheber (2014), there are six factors:  1). the couple is earning $50,000 or more of annual income, 2). they have a baby seven or more months after the wedding, 3). they are twenty-five years or older at the age when married, 4). have family of origins that are intact, 5). the couple is affiliated with a religion, and 6). the couple has had some college.

It’s great to know what the research is saying, but what if your circumstances don’t match up to what these researchers found?  Let’s say you are 24 years old, had a baby before you got married, your parents are divorced, and you’re spiritual but not religious.  Those marriages can make it too.  Don’t think that because you are married and you don’t meet one or more of those criteria listed above, your partnership is doomed for divorce.

Let’s look at what another researcher has to say:

couples counselingCanel’s (2013) research found different factors which affect marital satisfaction.  Canel is the creator of the Marital Satisfaction Scale–an assessment that gauges how satisfied couples are in their marriages (if you go to see a marriage counselor, you and your partner might take this assessment).  She has found ten influential factors that affect the quality of a marriage.  The first is the emotional bond and love between the couple. The second factor is how the couple communicates when problem-solving. The third factor is whether there is the presence of conflict resolution skills and the fourth factor is the presence of marital violence. Fifth, does the couple spend time together and sixth, is one or both of the partners sexually dissatisfied? The seventh factor is whether there are disputes over property matters. The eighth factor is how well the couple has met their expectations regarding gender roles and roles in general. The ninth factor influencing a couple’s level of marital satisfaction stems from the influence of each person’s unconscious beliefs that have originated from their family of origins that “play out” in the current relationship. Lastly, having children and the problems that arise from this influences a couple’s satisfaction with their marriage.  Canel’s research reflects the deeper issues occurring within marriages these days.  Still, however, Canel’s research, like Britzman and Sauerheber’s, is missing other innate qualities of what goes into making a long-lasting, loving marriage.  The emotional bond and love between partners, the first influential factor Canel mentions–I’m sure many people wonder how is this fostered.  By honesty and commitment to one another?  By a willingness to grow?  Wouldn’t having shared values help?

A famous researcher and author on the subject of marriage is Dr. John Gottman.  He’s written several popular books on how to have a successful marriage and on raising emotionally intelligent children.  If you’d like to know his research-backed principles for having a successful marriage, read the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  In a future article, I’ll write about what the take-away points are from the book and research he’s done.  Right now I’ll provide you with one factor that can wreak havoc in your marriage:  negativity.  Be diligent about not allowing criticism and contempt to overtake your conversations.  Here’s something else:  The difference between criticism and a complaint is that criticism is an attack on the person, a complaint addresses their action or behavior.  Now you know!  By the way, a fantastic book on communicating your needs and communicating with love, respect, and compassion is Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication.  We all have needs, but not every single one of them can get met (that’s called indulgence if they are).  Learn how, as part of a couple, to communicate your needs in a way that is honoring and respectful.

relationship counselingThe institution of marriage has changed throughout history as have the reasons why marriages don’t last or they lose their sense of commitment and love (you can have long-lasting marriages–but they can be unhealthy and unloving). In the late twentieth century, due to many different factors (more women in the workplace was a huge influential factor), the rate of divorces began to climb. Britzman and Sauerheber (2014) place the divorce rate now at about fifty percent. Gottman and Silver (1999) state the divorce rate for first marriages over a forty-year time period is sixty-seven percent, with half of those divorces occurring within the first seven years. For second marriages, some studies suggest the rates are ten percent higher for divorce.  

With a divorce rate at about 50% it’s obvious that what people are doing isn’t working–something needs to change.  If your car failed 50% of the time, you’d take it into a mechanic to get it fixed.  If you had a health issue, you’d go to the doctor to find out what was ailing you.  However, many people wait until the very last minute to address the things in their lives that aren’t working.  If you don’t take care of your car or your health, the neglect will at some point “come back to bite you.”  People who wait until they’re deep in pain/numbness in their marriage to get counseling often present with one person who’s already “checked out.”  Maybe they’ve had an affair, or they’re spending way too much time at the office with work.  Lack of commitment–checking out–will kill a marriage.  Counseling can help, but the commitment to the relationship must be restored.

For the readers who don’t know already:  I am divorced.  My ex and I did the premarital education program you have to do in the Catholic Church in order to get married.  This program, as well-intended as it was, did not prepare either of us for the realities of marriage.  It did not resolve or even address our wounds from childhood which we all carry with us into our current relationships.  We made it to seventeen years, but only because he was gone all the time working and I was stubbornly clinging to a marriage that wasn’t working because I was so afraid of being alone and having more loss in my life.  And…here I am today.  Thriving, not just surviving like I was in my first marriage.  I didn’t want a divorce, but it turned out to be a very positive event in my life.  It’s provided me with invaluable life lessons I wouldn’t get anywhere else.  It’s opened up the opportunity to heal old childhood wounds.  I’ve met and married the love of my life–and I get a chance to bring my mature, healthy self into a new and loving relationship.  I made the “mistakes,” in my first marriage, and I’ve learned and grown from them.  There was nothing I could have done to save my first marriage–for starters, we weren’t a good match–but there are a whole lot of things I can do that help contribute to the health and happiness of my second marriage.  I’m lucky–I get a second chance at love.  This time, I’m doing it right!

I will leave you this week with the 12 pillars of conscious relationships–taken from our book The  Secrets of Loving Relationships:

  1. Consciousness and awareness
  2. Own your stuff
  3. Gratitude and appreciation
  4. Love and emotional connection
  5. Shared values
  6. Sharing life
  7. Healing your wounds
  8. Claiming 100% responsibility for your experience
  9. Continued growth
  10. Fun
  11. Commit to consciousness
  12. Honesty –with yourself and with others



Britzman, M. J., & Sauerheber, J. D. (2014). Preparing couples for an enriched marriage: A model in individual psychology. The Family Journal, 22(4), 428-436. DOI:10.1177/1066480714547185

Canel, A. (2013). The development of the Marital Satisfaction Scale (MSS). Educational Sciences: Theory And Practice, 13(1), 97-117.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

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