The Secret to a Long Marriage


The real secret to a long marriage is not at all what you think it is.

I did not entitle this column: The Secret to a Long, Happy Marriage.

A long marriage need not be happy, and a happy marriage need not be long. We have all heard of happy marriages that suddenly turned miserable.

And I am not going to tell you about Amanda Byrne‘s “secret.” By now this “secret” is the worst kept secret in human history. Still, it is one of the world‘s best marketing ploys.

By now, however, I hope that no adult really believes that wishing will make it so.

In all likelihood, more marriages have ended prematurely because one spouse or the other read about "the secret" and started thinking that he or she did not have to do much more than envision a long marriage.

If we want to be honest, the sad truth is that marriages last longer when divorce is forbidden. Even when divorce is permitted, if it is stigmatized, then marriages will probably last longer.

I am not sure what this says about marriage, but that doesn’t make it less true.

We no longer need worry about what marriage would be like when divorce is forbidden or stigmatized. Today, divorce is another lifestyle choice, so it takes more effort to sustain a marriage.

I did not say that it takes more love. I am certainly not against a loving marriage, but love doesn't last all by itself. It only lasts when you make an effort… not to be more loving, but to be more disciplined, more trustworthy, and more loyal.

Today, with divorce hanging like a sword of Damocles over every marriage, our world is awash with advice about sustaining marriage.

If I dare generalize, most of it says that, as the song goes, all you need is love. I suspect that this belief is indigenous to adolescents. It is clearly not true.

As a relationship develops, love is going to be socialized and domesticated. It cannot remain the kind of consuming passion that it feels like in the first months of your relationship.

Everyone who has gotten beyond adolescence, in body or in spirit, knows this.

People who rely on love believe that they don’t need to do very much more than showeri their spouse with love.

And yet, all the world's love is not going to save you if you go around embarrassing your spouse in public.  

Others believe that great sex will sustain a marriage. Even if the sex is great, it is devilishly difficult to know whether the sex is sustaining the marriage or whether the couple is having lots of great sex because it is otherwise happy.

Aside from the fact that the human body loses some of its desire and desirability as it ages, great sex is, strange as it seems, too intimate to form the basis for your participation in a social institution.  And marriage is nothing if it is not a social institution.

More than a few marriages have lasted forever without there being anything resembling great sex.

That being said, we all wish everyone the best sex. Only, do not think that it is going to solve all of your problems and guarantee that you will reach your golden anniversary.

The same applies to beauty. As much as we all like to maintain our good looks, time has a say in the matter. It does not seem like a great idea to make your marriage depend on something that will necessarily fade.

If you ask me-- and I know you didn’t-- a woman who has to choose between spending an extra half hour making herself look perfectly beautiful, and showing up for an appointment on time would be much wiser to show up on time.

He is probably not going to notice the difference between beautiful and very beautiful anyway. But, if he is left alone in a restaurant for a half-hour he will certainly notice, and he will hold it against her.

Still others believe that the secret to a long marriage is open and honest communication. I do not agree. I think it better for spouses to keep a few secrets from each other.

There is no consummate virtue in being an open book or in feeling that you have to confess everything.

In the first place, your spouse probably does not want to know. In the second place, many intimate secrets will hurt your spouse and damage your relationship. If so, keep them to yourself.

Oversharing will do more damage to your marriage than will keeping too many secrets. Making your boudoir into a confessional does not promote intimacy.

When people talk about open and honest communication, they are thinking of marriage as therapy. It is not.

Talking it over, talking it out, talking it through… these might be staples of therapy. They will undermine a marriage. In truth, they are not even very helpful when they are supposed to be therapeutic.

Making your boudoir into a therapist's office does not promote intimacy either. 

I happily agree that trust, confidence and security are essential for a lasting marriage, but that just begs the question: How do you produce and sustain said trust, confidence, and security?

Here I can offer an answer: routines.

Human beings are creatures of habit. It might sound sad to say it but more than a few couples facing a difficult stretch in their marriage choose to stay together because they have gotten into the habit of being married.

If you want to help your marriage to last for a very long time, I recommend adopting couple-based routines.

I am not talking about date nights or occasional weekends in the country. I am talking about something much simpler, much easier, but that requires much more effort.

Having breakfast together every day, walking to the subway together, having daily family dinners, a midday phone call, a kiss goodnight or a kiss goodbye… it does not matter what you do together. What matters is that you do it together, that you try to do it in pretty much the same way, until it feels natural.

Routines do not necessarily involve the exchange of pleasantries or intimacies. It does not matter whether you exchange much of anything at all. What matters is the consistency, because that is how you will be affirming your commitment to your marriage.

Sustainable routines require discipline, commitment, reliability, and responsibility. 

A disordered life and a chaotic household will not increase the chances that your marriage will last forever.

When a couple seems to be living separate lives, when they have no common routines, when their most significant contact involves going bump in the night, they are courting marital danger.

Routines do not preclude intimate conversation. They are its precondition. Human beings are much more likely to confide in someone who they trust. And they are more likely to trust the person they have breakfast with every day or who walks them to the subway every day.

Routines build feelings of trust, confidence, and security. Very few of us are going to open up when our relationship is lacking in any one of them.