How 100,000 People Helped Save A Marriage

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How 100,000 People Helped Save A Marriage
Love

Chrisanna Northrup was a fairly typical wife and working mother of three; she and her husband both worked long hours, cared for their kids and had little time left over for themselves. Their marriage, she felt, was on the back burner and she wasn't sure how to fix it.

Northrup turned to the web, to self-help books and even to her local university library to figure out what couples in today's society were doing to maintain happiness. While she found plenty of theories and expert advice, she didn’t find practical input from couples themselves. Rather than retreat and accept it as a "phase," as she says her husband was inclined to do, she eventually teamed up with two of the country's leading sociologists and launched The Normal Bar project.

In the years that followed, The Normal Bar team surveyed nearly 100,000 people around the world about their relationship habits and attitudes. The result was The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating A New Normal in Your Relationship. From communication to sex, housework to gift-giving, the book offers data and advice on practically every element of a romantic relationship, all of which helps to illustrate a baseline "normal" for couples who are eager to see how their own relationships compare.

We spoke to Northrup in 2013 to find out more about the book and how it affected her own marriage at the time.

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The Normal Bar project emerged from a challenging period in your own marriage. Can you tell us more about the kinds of struggles you and your husband were encountering at the time?

We were fourteen years into our relationship, my husband and I were both working full-time jobs and juggling housework and young kids—we were barely making ends meet. The little time that we had together was just a few moments at a time and it mainly consisted of us talking about what was going on with the kids, what needed to be done, or who was doing what. It's not quite how I pictured my life. I kept thinking, where is all the fun? Our weekdays were work, shopping, fixing things, making dinner, cleaning, homework, sports, and it would flow right through the weekend.

I felt as if my relationship with my husband was taking a backseat to everything else and we were drifting further apart. Communicating was becoming a struggle too. We would either not talk about certain things to avoid an argument or let things build to the point where one of us would virtually explode.

I was curious to see if this is just the way it's supposed to be or if things could be better. I started asking friends and family what their relationships looked like to get a better idea if the "normal" we led was similar to theirs. 

At the time, how did your relationship seem to stack up to those around you?
There was a wide range, but it did seem like the majority of couples were dealing with some ups and downs of their own. Everything from one of my closest friends telling me she hasn't slept with her husband in six months, to another saying they just go through the motions everyday and it was "OK," to friends that were on the edge of divorce, and there were the few that seemed to be very much in love living happily ever after (but I couldn't help wonder if that really existed).

It's a funny thing, when you start comparing, depending on who you are comparing to, you almost feel better about what you have. But I still wanted more and so did my husband.

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What was your definition of "normal" before you started The Normal Bar?
Normal to me was patterns you create in your own life and maintain day after day.

And what was the "normal" baseline you were striving for, do you remember?
Of course I do! Because the baseline I was striving for is what I have now!

I wanted my relationship normal to be filled with passion and fun. I wanted to have the kind of relationships you see in the movies where the couples laughed, played, and had really intense sex. I wanted my husband to be my best friend to talk to about anything and everything without worrying about what he was going to say and how he was going to react. That's what I wanted our normal to look like, but I often wondered if it even existed or if I was expecting too much.

How did your husband react when you told him about your idea for The Normal Bar?
He loved the idea! He was just as curious as I was and he wanted to have a better relationship too. He was very committed to do or try anything. When I told him about my mission to compare relationships around the world by age, ethnicity, religion, income, kids or no kids, years in relationship, etc., he fully supported the idea and it became a joint effort. I couldn't have done this without him.

What are some of The Normal Bar findings that have most profoundly influenced your own relationship?
Every single finding impacted our relationship to one degree or another. When I was in full swing with The Normal Bar research alongside my coauthors, Dr. Pepper Schwartz and Dr. James Witte, we had hundreds of pages of data coming in on a daily basis. Every night my husband and I would go through the data and talk about it. It was so easy talking about very difficult subject matter when you had a baseline to work from. There was no bickering or criticism about why it was brought up or some hidden agenda. The data was black and white and it was very easy to have an open conversation with my husband.

I kept thinking, how could we have been together for over fifteen years and not have ever discussed these things? Everything from how often we kissed to how we communicated.

What's your current definition of "normal"?
My definition remains the same: Normal to me was patterns you create in your own life and maintain day after day.

The only difference would be in the beginning I thought your normal was affected by outside factors you maybe couldn't control, such as money, culture, family, etc. Now I know none of this matters. Nobody controls your normal, not your husband or wife, your kids, your boss... nobody. The only person that defines the patterns created and maintained on day after day basis is yourself. I'm in control of my own normal, nobody else. It’s up to me to create the normal I want. 

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Can you give us example of some of the most mind-blowing, counterintuitive findings from the book?
There's so much to list! I have hundreds of pages of data that's not in the book and a lot of the most fascinating stuff is in the book. Here's the top five that come to mind first:

1. Homosexual couples. I truly thought we would be able to write a second book on the Normal Bar when it came to love relationships for gay and lesbian couples. I found it interesting that this was not the case. Not at all. Gay and lesbian couples almost always fell right in line with heterosexual couples. Just because gay and lesbians have a different sexual preference it doesn't make their relationship any different. We all love the same and have a very similar normal when it comes to relationships. We touch on this throughout the book.

2. Happiness. People were a lot happier than I ever expected. It was fun to see what really made a difference in our happiest couples. For example, going on vacation together without the kids is extremely important. My husband I didn't go on a vacation without the kids until I started the research for the book and this came up. We went to Kauai for a week together (no kids) and had the time of our life. I can see why our happiest couples vacation alone together once a year, because it is important and it's awesome!

3. Communication. How much you think you know what your partner wants or needs to be happy and how out of touch you might be. This could change over time and if you don’t talk about it, you don't know. You could be wasting your time doing something you think is important, that you think makes him or her happy and later find out it doesn't matter.

Communication was the number one reason why our happiest couples were fulfilled and also the number one reason why people said they left their last relationship. I would have thought it was sex or affection… focusing on communication is way more important than having more sex to be happy. Although, the sex comes when communication is working right!

4. Fantasy. That men fantasize more about their wife or girlfriend than other people. They fantasize about things that they don't think their partner would be up for.

5. Disconnect. The large disconnect between men and women. Throughout the book we can see men and women want the same things out of a relationship and just don't know how to go about it. The book not only makes this clear, but makes it easy to discuss with their partner. A great example of this is men and women both said they want more variety in their life sexually, but neither one of them do anything about it. This theme carries throughout when it comes to romance and affection too.

Based on your own experience doing so, how can couples translate the collected wisdom from the book into positive changes in their own love lives?
Use the book to get a better idea of what other people are doing and figure out what you want. Whatever you want your normal to look like, make it happen! You are in control of your own normal, nobody else.

Our relationship prior to The Normal Bar was very unstable. We were not in touch with what we both wanted from the relationship, each other or life to be happy. So, we kept just doing what we did day after day, figuring that we just needed to brush our issues under the rug and move forward. If we tried to tackle any of our issues it would turn into a big argument or one person would feel criticized.

By using data and research from our study, my husband and I not only discussed in great detail what we wanted out of life and from each other, we became more in line (the bar) with each other. We eliminated the gray area and made it more black and white. I don't wonder or guess what my husband needs, I know, and he knows what I need. We respect it and support each other’s needs. This doesn't happen overnight, but it can happen very quickly with a lot of long talks and negotiations. This all comes very easy when you have a resource.

Our normal went from extremely hectic and not spending any time together to still very hectic with spending a lot more quality time together. We have so much fun together and as a family. We changed our normal from all work to a lot of work and a lot of play. We go away almost every weekend after our kid's last game to the desert to camp and ride our desert toys. Our kids are thriving more than ever too!

We make time to do fun stuff. My husband and I make time to go out and enjoy each other and talk. I now have the normal that I always dreamed about and my husband is a million times happier too. Relationships are work, but they shouldn't be that much work. Our relationship is so much easier now. We can talk about anything and everything (just like I always wanted) and we are more in love than ever.

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Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in February 6, 2013 and was updated with the latest information.