What it Takes to Have a Happy Marriage


Spring 2024

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It is a tad ironic (and sad) that it took researching this assignment for me to give serious thought to what it takes to have a happy marriage. That may in part be why I am on my third.

In my defence, my parents’ performance of wedded bliss was not entirely convincing, given that they slept in separate bedrooms from the time I was 12. High school didn’t offer a ‘how to be married’ course, of course, and, not being Catholic, I didn’t have to take a six-month marriage preparation course before getting hitched. And the main narrative of the John Hughes-style romcoms I consumed as a teen in the ‘80s were almost always about falling in love and/or the journey to the altar, not the years that followed the ‘I do’s.

But, if two divorces and various marriage counselors taught me anything, it’s that healthy communication is a big part of a successful marriage. Who knew?! Dr. John Gottman, for one. This well-known psychologist has identified four main predictors of relationship failure: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. (I’m an expert on the latter, because honest relationship talk requires vulnerability, which I suck at.) Taking on what he calls The Four Horsemen, by re-learning how to communicate, can save a failing marriage from fatal patterns of miscommunication.

These next factors pretty much need to be in place from the start of a relationship in my opinion: shared values and goals. The most obvious example is children. In my first marriage, my wife made it clear upfront that she wanted to have kids eventually. I was 22 when we met, she was 24, and I wasn’t thinking yet about having a family but was open to the idea. But, as years passed, it became clear that I didn’t want children – with her. That’s not to say that you need to – or even should – think alike on all matters, but certain commonalities are important. My current (final?) wife and I scored an impressive 94% compatibility on OkCupid, for instance, in part because we both like scary movies – a metric site co-founder Christian Rudder has cited as a significant predictor of long-term relationship success. 

Of course, sex and intimacy are also key predictors of happy marriage. But age and experience have made it clear that interest in sex between partners will wax and wane with age, health, and the stresses of life, like wondering if your kids are still up when you’re trying to get it on. When I was 25 and newly-married, my then-wife and I had sex maybe two to three times a week; now, at 54 and 50 respectively, two to three times a month is pretty standard, which seems to be the average for couples our age. Fortunately, when we do make love, it’s a satisfying experience given the time we’ve been together (almost 11 years) and our knowledge of each other’s likes and dislikes.

But there are things couples can do to increase that average, if they want to. Sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski suggests putting yourself into a sex-positive environment of low stress and high affection. In this case, if you feel pleasure first, desire will often follow. She terms this ‘responsive desire’, and although it is the opposite of what most of us experience when we are younger (desire followed by sex), Nagoski says that the result is not just more but more intimate sex, which is a big achievement for long-married couples.

Maybe the most curious component of a happy marriage is self-care. While the other strategies I’ve discussed have been about how couples interact, the self-care encouraged by the likes of psychotherapist Dr. Harriet Lerner (author of Why Won’t You Apologize? and The Dance of Anger) is all about setting boundaries and taking responsibility for your emotional growth. The idea is if each spouse tackles their own issues then they will be in a healthier place when it comes to work on their marriage. The value of this concept becomes apparent when my (current) wife points out that she has therapists and doctors to address her issues while mine remain mostly unresolved – a key source of ongoing strain in our relationship which I have yet to address in a substantial way. 

Which is all to say that knowing what makes for a happy relationship – by reading this post, for example – is easy. Actually putting these ideas into practice is much harder. It may involve finding a good couples therapist, reading books, changing habits, looking at the effects of your words and actions, and really hearing and understanding how they impact both of you. Otherwise, to quote the Paul Rivoche comic that prefaces Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: “Don’t worry, mother… If the marriage doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced.”

Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer

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