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What are the keys to a successful marriage?

Copyright Ó 1996, Dorian Scott Cole

Writers portray a picture of marriage that varies from love that typically fades and ends in divorce, to love that overcomes everything in sixty minutes. Neither seems true to me. What do you think are the keys to a successful marriage? 

My daughter got married recently. I've been happily married for twenty-seven years, but the divorce rate runs between 25 and 50%. Staying married is tough. If doing everything right was what made it work, I would have bombed out a long time ago. That made me ask myself, what does it really take to make a marriage work? As I went through the typical list, I asked myself if this was the thing I could actually say to my daughter and son-in-law, "Use this and your marriage will be successful." I ruled out some surprising things.

Is commitment the key ingredient? We beat a lot of people over the head with it. I guess there is a glue called commitment and if we just apply enough glue to our marriages, we won't split. There's always the story about someone who was forced to get married, "arranged as a child," who later realized they had come to love the other. 

I think commitment might be a problem for some people - when the going gets tough, they get going. That raises big questions for me about why they got married to begin with. Why do people get married? Most of us know better than to get married for things like money, or because of the clothes someone wears, or because the other person has the right job. Sometimes people do slip up and marry for easy answers: for sex, to defeat loneliness, because of a deep seated feeling they are basically not likable and no one will want them. If marriage was an easy answer, then divorce is an easy answer, too. 

I've seen people struggle to stay married in spite of major problems. I have to admire some of them for their fortitude. But problems don't disappear just because the're ignored. Hostility intensifies. They might as well be divorced because a wall of hostility has become a barrier to love, and if they don't want to love each other, they already are divorced. I don't think the "glue theory" is a major key for most marriages.

Is compatibility the key? Incompatibility is often cited as the reason for divorce. Opposites clash so much that marriage can be a war zone. But I'm not sure compatibility means having a lot of things in common. If a man spends all his time at the office, or a woman spends all her free time on artistic pursuits, so one doesn't want to be with the other, I suppose that is incompatibility. There is a big desire to go in different directions. 

But if the woman suddenly decides to take a job in the same office as her husband, I doubt this will resolve the "different direction" problem. One person just doesn't really find much value in being with the other. So I doubt that having a lot of common interests is the key to successful marriage. In fact, my wife's different interests and thinking is often the key to spicing up our life, and to my seeing things differently.

Is being friends the key? I love to cite this one myself. "Be friends first, then get married." I don't think marriages work well unless the two can be friends and are friends. But friends who get married often end up being enemies - it isn't the main ingredient in a marriage. 

Is it sex? I have often heard that sexual incompatibility can ruin a marriage. I suppose it can. But I also know that most sexual "problems" can be fixed, and that quality sex is a barometer of the relationship - it doesn't make the relationship unless that is all the realtionship is based on. Sex is a celebration - not the marriage.

Is it Love? Amore? Ha, haaaa! Of course this must be it! If people just love each other, then that's the main thing it takes to stay married. Except, what happens to all those people who are madly and deeply in love, sometimes for years, then suddenly it's gone? They hate each other. They divorce. Yikes! We're in trouble here. Has something gone terribly wrong with love? It doesn't work anymore? Has Cupid been shooting people with biodegradable arrows? 

Is it God? Well, divorce and remarriage is a common event in most religious circles, where God is supposedly at peak influence. Religion can certainly make people stay together, but making people love each other and make their marriage a success - that's another story. 

So what is it? I can define love for you in many ways from contemporary definitions to various ancient Greek Biblical definitions. These are, perhaps, what love should and could be, an ideal to work toward, but not necessarily what we have now. I can point to many things, such as love, and say they are key ingredients without which marriage will certainly fail to be successful. I can even define successful so that it means nothing more than not divorcing. But a successful marriage is greater than the sum of its parts - two people help each other through life. My wife often brings out the worst in me - I suppose so I can address it. She is also a key to bringing out the best in me (if there is any - she doubts this). 

My wife and I always used to sit together in the car, then seat belts put an end to that. We still hold hands when we walk together. Not long ago we were driving and came up behind another car. The couple was sitting so close it was difficult to tell there were actually two of them. A moment later we passed the car. It was an elderly couple. They still found pleasure in each other's company. When I first saw my daughter and her husband together, I knew they were probably going to get married, and it would probably be a successful marriage. They took pleasure in each other's company. Oh, they fight like cats and dogs, too. They are two very strong willed people who clash at the drop of a hat, and neither will give an inch. But they want to be together - I don't think anything will overcome that. 

If people want to be together, they will keep finding ways to make marriage work. If they want to be apart, they will find a way to make that happen. In human motivation, I have seen nothing as powerful as what the person wants to do - regardless of the reason - any one of these I listed will do. If you are just getting married, my toast to you is, "Fifty years from now, may you still want to sit together and hold hands." 

Concepts for plots and subplots

Opposites marry and live in continual fear that they will not get along and will divorce, because of a psychologist told them that opposites usually divorce. They conflict a lot, but they love each other too much to part. They learn their personalities are opposite, but their interests are the same. Their personalities reveal different aspect of their interests, making them more rewarding for both. 

Two people file for divorce. They seem to hate each other. But their conflicting wants and their continual frustration is covering up their love for each other. They are forced to work together on a project, which brings them into greater conflict, but as the days pass they both discover a genuine love for their work, work complimentary, and rediscover their love for each other.

Two people have been married for many years, but they have always had separate pursuits and have never really been together. They retire and are forced to move to a smaller house, but it is away from their familiar life and pursuits. They now must spend a lot of time together. They learn they dislike each other. Then they find their common ground, rediscover a little of what attracted them to begin with, then find new things about each other that are genuinely helpful to the other, like squeezing a nickel until it squeals. 

* Ideas can't be copyrighted, but if you use a fully developed idea from these pages it is customary to give credit - you won't get sued if you don't, or charged if you do. This page is copyrighted - that means you can't copy the text from this page and post it anonymously or give authoring credit to another person. Fully developed ideas are marked with a !. Credit for an ideas is usually in the form: From an idea by (name). 

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