For Jen and Mladen–The Secret to a Happy Marriage

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what makes a happy marriage.  From the perspective of 30 years (27.6 of them happy, cumulatively), I think I can say that I have isolated the ONE thing that will ensure your future happiness:

–plain, old, blind, dumb luck.

That’s right.  Luck is the one thing that separates the good from the bad, the sublime from the truly awful.

I know it’s an unsatisfying answer for a couple of goal-oriented, high-achievers like yourselves—not to mention bad news for Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, Dr. Ruth and all those people who grind out millions of pages of advice in “women’s” magazines.

But it is the truth.  It’s amazing how much of it comes down to stumbling on the right person and being, for whatever reason, at a point in both your lives when you are smart enough to recognize it.

So while there isn’t much you can do now, having found the right person and all, to ensure your happiness, there are a few things you can do to protect against unhappiness. So here is the only secret I have figured out.

Fighting is no big deal: I am always skeptical of those couples who never fight.  After all, this is a huge step you are taking.  You are promising that you will never again, ever, make a major decision without taking into account the needs and desires of another person.  And there are some huge decisions not far down the road for you—whether, when and how to have kids, where to live, where to work, how much to work, how much to spend, how much to save. And that’s just for starters.  You will need to revisit some of these decisions again and again as time, fate and luck (remember luck?) play into the equation. 

With practice, most couples find ways to navigate the big decisions, but that leaves the small stuff.  Things like—

–What-is-this-(alleged-collectible, hideous-piece-of-furniture, free-loading-relative)-and-why-is-it-taking-up-room-in-our-house? Or

–What-do-you-mean-you-took-the (trash, dog, free-loading relative)-out-the-last-time? And the ever popular

–Would-it-kill-you-to-(replace-the-toilet-paper, run-the-disposal, wait-on-the-freeloading-relative)-just-once?

Or whatever the little frictions in your particular relationship may be. 

Anyway, fighting or arguing or bickering is just the way that, having pledged to go down the same road for the rest of your lives, you negotiate the direction, speed, vehicle, and all the many things that remain negotiable.  So don’t worry about it, unless you run into

The Three Horseman: The three horseman of the marriage apocalypse are money, sex and the kids.  If a couple is fighting about one, they are normal.  If they are simultaneously fighting about two, danger signals are flashing.  And if they are fighting about all three, it is just a matter of time before you are sending their Christmas card to two different addresses.

The thing about the three horsemen is they are bedrock values issues.  When a couple is at odds over all three for an extended period of time, they almost always expose a true fissure in the relationship—a couple whose core values are growing apart.

So it’s important to know what you are really fighting about.  Money, sex and the kids are all short hand for what you value. You demonstrate what you value by how you allocate your resources, time and attention.  What you attend to says more about you than anything else.

Which brings us to

R-E-S-P-E-C-T:  Marriages can survive deep financial setbacks, horrifying personal losses and infidelity.  But they can never, ever survive the loss of respect.  When one spouse loses respect for the other, even if love remains, it becomes just a matter of time until the marriage, one way or another, is over.

So the good news is, each of you holds half the key to the success of your marriage in your hand.  Whenever you are at a crossroads, make the choice that allows you to maintain respect for yourself.  And if you make the wrong choice, grab hold of it, fix it, stop it, turn it around.

The bad news is, each of you holds only half the key.  You cannot control the other person.  You will find there are times when a word, gesture, action or even silence helps the other person make the right choice. You will also find there are times when nothing you do or say can make a difference. If you picked the right person (and you did) then they have it in them to make the right choices.

And that is the secret.

Which pretty much brings us back to the luck part.

Jen and Mladen–I have no doubts about you.  You are strong people who have each faced adversity in your own lives and come through with strong and common values.  And you have been lucky enough and smart enough to find each other at just the right time.

I hope the universe brings you nothing but happiness.

3 thoughts on “For Jen and Mladen–The Secret to a Happy Marriage

  1. It takes a brave woman to add a single syllable to something as true as Barb’s words of wisdom, but here I go.

    Hang on to 2 “let’s”:

    Let go: Have the same love and compassion for the other that you want for yourself. You are entitled to state your piece – ONCE. And it’s done. You are NOT entitled to have your spouse see it your way. Consider the letting go an investment in a happy old age. Those horrifying old married couples you spot in restaurants, not saying a word to each other: they’re the ones who just couldn’t stop themselves from making deposits in the Grievance Bank. The ones chatting and laughing: they put all their deposits in the I Love Him/Her Anyway Bank.

    Let yourself fall in love again and again: Maybe a big news flash right now, but down the road you might not be “in love” every minute of every day. That dumb luck thing will make you both stressed or angry or something and that delicious feeling will slip away. DON’T PANIC. It will come back – if you’ve found the right person and we all know that you both have. In fact, it will come back again and again over the years. You’ll learn to expect it and welcome it with open arms.

  2. I’ve stumbled accross this post by accident and i must say i laughed at the title :))
    I laughed because i also have a friend named Jen and we’re not married. :))
    I mean what are the odds of 2 mladen’s knowing 2 jens???

    Have fun!

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