The Secret to a Happy Marriage

The Secret to a Happy Marriage


You hear it often: There’s an epidemic of divorce, with one in two marriages failing. But, according to statistics, you shouldn’t be hearing it quite as often. Recent data shows the divorce rate has been steadily dropping since 1996. This is due in part to economic and behavioral changes, but also because we are maintaining the strength of the marital bond in the face of life’s challenges. Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., co-author of “The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts,” believes before you can have a successful marriage you must complete certain psychological tasks. One of the most important of these tasks is to separate emotionally from your family of origin (parents and siblings) so that you can build a sense of togetherness and identity with your spouse. This shared identity helps couples maintain stronger marital bonds that protect the marriage from intrusions of work, children or even crisis. In my work with couples over the years I have seen several additional things those in happy marriages share, such as abundant compassion for one another, an abiding sense of respect and tolerance, and good communication.


Great marriages are a haven of compassion where each person feels understood, loved and accepted. It is a place where you can safely share your pain, disappointments and sorrow. One great method to increase compassion in your marriage is to change your reactions. Listen for the emotional message your partner is communicating. The emotional message is not the same as the words that your partner is saying. For example, your partner may be criticizing you for not spending enough time together, but the emotional message may actually be, “I miss you and I’m afraid I’m not important to you.” Instead of reacting defensively with, “What are you talking about? We just went to dinner last weekend!” respond to your partner’s emotional plea by saying something like, “You really miss me and want to spend more time together. Thanks for letting me know. I love you.” Even if you read the emotional message inaccurately, your effort to understand your partner’s emotions will pay off! The more often you express warmth, fondness and empathy, the more happiness you will have in your relationship. Get in the habit of asking questions that convey interest and express love. Touch more and smile. Make eye contact.


Romance and passion may bring couples together, but respect and tolerance will keep them together. Many people are surprised to hear this, but one way to demonstrate respect for your partner is to acknowledge when you have done something wrong. Happily married people are more willing to apologize to their partners than unhappily married or single people. Make it a goal to apologize first, even if you only feel partially to blame. This ability is a sign of strength and will convey to your partner they are important. In her book, “The Power of Apology,” Beverly Engel discusses the right and wrong ways to apologize. Meaningful apologies include statements of regret, responsibility and remedy. On the other hand, insincere apologies include the conditional apology (“I’m sorry, but…”), the half-apology (“I’m sorry you feel bad”) and the apology in which the wrongdoer minimizes the damage caused. Tolerance of each other’s differences is also found in successful marriages. One husband shared this: “My wife is highly organized, while I am more spontaneous. My doing things on the spur of the moment annoys her, and I am annoyed by her.” These are different values. Tolerance of each other’s differences increases happiness. People often ask, “Why doesn’t my spouse like this or that?” I tell them it’s simple! They aren’t you.


It’s not whether you argue but how you argue that determines the likelihood that your marriage will survive long-term. U.S. psychologist John Gottman spent decades studying the interaction of couples. He can accurately tell which couples are likely to stay together by listening to the amount of contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling in the first five minutes of an argument.

    Gottman highlights four relationship killers:

  1. Contempt: Name-calling, cursing at and insulting your partner, and behaving as if you are revolted is ‘contempt.’ Gottman found that if this was a regular feature of a disagreement, then the relationship’s days were very likely to be numbered.
  2. Defensiveness: If someone begins yelling as soon as their partner broaches a subject and feels overly threatened or attacked, and this is a continuing and regular feature of the couple’s interactions, then the relationship is in crisis. Being defensive blocks communication and severs intimacy.
  3. Don’t criticize but do compliment: Partners who criticize one another risk damaging their relationship beyond repair. This doesn’t mean you should never complain if your spouse upsets you, but a criticism is much more damaging than a simple complaint. A complaint is directed at behaviors rather than the core identity of the person. For example: “You are such a ___!” implies they are always like that and that it’s a fundamental part of who they are. It’s not specific or time-limited as is “I thought you were grouchy today. That’s not like you.” Some partners feel they can ‘improve’ their spouse by pointing out what is wrong with them. Even if the intention is good, the consequences are not. Criticizing partners publicly is humiliating (for both partners) but saying nice things about them when in company and privately is a wonderful thing to do.
  4. Withdrawal: Emotionally withdrawing or stonewalling when a partner is complaining is another predictor of breakdown. While criticizing is generally more of a female trait, men use stonewalling more. Men’s biology is less able to cope with strong emotion than women’s, so when a wife is complaining a man may instinctively withdraw emotionally to avoid an argument. A partner may withdraw during conversations by ‘switching off’ or may ultimately spend more and more time away from the relationship as a way of ‘escaping.’ The danger is that the stonewalling pattern will become permanent and the partner using this strategy will isolate themselves from potentially positive parts of the relationship.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Protect your investment. Treasure the pleasures in your marriage, build the skills to sustain goodwill and remember to cherish each other. Divorce rates are dropping because we’re getting better at making our marriages work.

By Susan L. Shackelford, Ph.D.