In the 22 years that I have been a marriage counselor I have rarely met a happy couple. Couples do not walk into my office saying, “We are so blissfully happy. We respect each other, encourage each other to be the best we can be, and we communicate greatly. Can you help us?” This type of happy couple is a specimen that needs to be examined, studied, and emulated. They are the 50% who have thrived in the face of the despairing statistics on divorce. While they concede that marriage is hard, these couples have found ways to uncover their deep potential and rediscover the initial joy and attraction that brought them together in the first place.
So, what do happy couples offer as advice for marital longevity? I had the opportunity to interview a few such couples, and they all agreed that the foundation of their marital contentment is good communication, shared responsibility, and the willingness to overlook mistakes. One long married couple provided this metaphor for marriage which really resonated with me.
Imagine that you are going out on a canoe trip. You will need to communicate in order to plan the itinerary. Some of us can speak about a route; some of us need to draw a map. It’s important that both communication styles are respected. It must be clearly communicated who will be responsible for what. If one of you doesn’t know that he/she is responsible to bring an oar, then you will spend a lot of time going in circles. While each person must be responsible to the other, what happens when one of you does forget the oar or gets lost along the way? The willingness to overlook mistakes becomesparamount. As neither one of you wants to go around in circles, you will have to take turns rowing so you can move ahead. If you have lost your way, approach it as an adventure, and work together to find your way back to shore.
An elderly gentleman, married for 56 years, looked a little dissatisfied with this conclusion. When I asked him what was on his mind he responded: “Focusing on these three foundational elements will definitely lead to more contentment in marriage, but to truly have a joyful, fulfilling experience in your marriage you have to be willing to give more than you get sometimes.” Now, I have heard many unhappy spouses claiming that they give more than they receive and it sounds like this: I do everything and he/she barely does anything in this marriage.” I am pretty sure that is not what this happily married man meant.
The concept of giving more than you get in marriage is a Torah concept that Rabbi Simcha Cohen speaks about in his book,
‘What Did You Say?’. “Since humanity was created in the image of Gd, clearly we must be similar in some respect to our creator.”
Rabbi Cohen continues: “Gd gives to his creatures and does not receive anything from them in return. Accordingly, our eternal divine image gives us a feeling of self-fulfillment when we give….”. In the same vein Rav Dessler exhorts that giving is not a result of loving someone, but rather love comes as a result of giving. To clarify, giving in the context of building love is about sharing oneself and the willingness to put the needs of the other ahead of your own.
Think back to when you began dating your spouse. Remember how you would contact them during the day with loving messages, buy little trinkets or candy bars, go to restaurants that served your partner’s favorite food and forgo the party that your significant other was not interested in attending? And did your significant other do the same – put aside their own preferences in order to please you?
Rabbi Cohen reminds couples that both members of the couple entered the relationship with the expectation that their loved one would continue in the same vein – unaware that this type of selflessness is difficult to maintain for a lifetime. When our expectations are consistently unmet, we are disappointed and resentment builds up. So, in order to renew and sustain a joyful marital relationship, we have to revert back to that same selflessness that endeared us to our spouses. At times, we have to give more than we get, not interminably but consistently, graciously, and lovingly.
Mozelle Forman has been in private practice for 20 years.
Visit her at mozelleforman.com