Looking for a Happy Marriage
by Emily Macke
From millennials to retirees, adults are looking for the ingredients to a happy marriage. Several recent articles have shared trends and advice to help married couples enjoy successful relationships.
A USA Today article, “Hundreds of retirees share secrets to a happy marriage,” relates the insights of Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University professor who spent the last four years conducting the Marriage Advice Project. He interviewed 700 retirees, ages 65 and older, who were married for an average of 43 years to gather their insights on the secret to a happy marriage.
Pillemer said that the couples shared that “marriage is hard. It takes spirit and resilience.” They said “it is something that you work at and get better at, but it is never completed.” The couples also stressed the joy of marriage, telling Pillemer that when you “look back from the finish line over a half century or more of marriage, lifelong marriage is incredibly good. It’s almost indescribable. It’s such a source of joy.”
The ingredients to a successful marriage according to retirees were similar to those listed in a Time Magazine article, “Recipe for a Happy Marriage: The 7 Scientific Secrets,” taken from New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope’s book, For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed.
Tara Parker-Pope urges couples to enjoy time together, embarking on new, exciting experiences as a couple. “Make a list of the favorite things you and your spouse do together, and then make a list of the fun things you’d like to try,” she advises. “Avoid old habits and make plans to do something fresh and different once a week.”
In his article, Pillemer noted that “marriage is made of thousands of micro interactions.” He said that the retirees he interviewed urged giving one’s spouse compliments and doing unexpected, little things, like chores, for the other person.
The senior citizens also counseled that one’s spouse should be the first priority, not children, friends or jobs. But Parker-Pope’s research stresses that while the primary relationship, marriage should not be the only relationship. Married couples benefit from good relationships with family and friends. Pillemer’s interviewees noted that it is important to cultivate good relationships with one’s spouse’s family of origin (in-laws and relatives) too.
Both Pillemer and Parker-Pope mention the importance of sexual intimacy within marriage.
Another similarity between the two authors’ research involves one’s choice of a spouse. Parker-Pope urges keeping one’s standards high, both before and during marriage. “Husbands and wives who hold their partners to a reasonably high standard have better marriages,” summarizes Time. “If you expect a better, more satisfying relationship, you improve your chances of having one.”
Pillemer found that his interviewees counseled that both one’s head and heart should be involved in the decision of whom to marry. “All too many people get married with a not-in-love or this-is-wrong feeling, but you have to trust your instinct,” said Pillemer. “One-hundred percent of the elders described a sensation of rightness.” At the same time, the seniors advised considering important aspects of a potential spouse, such as financial responsibility and suitability to be a parent, along with other character traits. They also stressed the importance of sharing the same values. “They said in general, marry someone a lot like you. Some differences can work, but if you have real differences in core values you’re not likely to last very long.”
A third recent article concerning marital success highlights a factor that is not in the spouses’ control – the size of their family of origin. The Sacramento Bee profiled the Grotheer family – seven out of the nine siblings have celebrated at least their 50th wedding anniversary.
Brad Wilcox, sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, said, “In terms of some social outcomes, kids from large families are more likely to flourish. […] They’re less likely to get divorced. It might be the experience early in life of learning to share so much and live with the exceptional stress of having all those different personalities to deal with.”
Research from Ohio State University suggests that only children are the least likely to marry and are most at risk of divorce, while those with four to seven siblings have a significantly lower rate of divorce.
The experiences of Pillemer’s retirees and Parker-Pope’s research are also resonating with millennials. Ty Tashiro, author of The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love, has found that millennials “seem less inclined than previous generations to fall in love with the idea of marriage and instead are determined to find the right person for marriage.” With the assumption that “good relationships come from choosing good partners,” Tashiro wants to give young adults advice on how to choose a good future spouse.
The Grotheer siblings profiled in The Sacramento Bee have a simple way of summing up the keys to a lifelong marriage. Nancy Holtry said, “I love my husband, and he loves me. … We work together. We talk things out, even though sometimes it may not be a quiet discussion.”
Her sister, Betty Pritten, added, “We love the Lord, and we love each other. … There are ups and downs and dry spells. But the closer you are to God, the closer you get to each other.”
Editor’s note: Same-sex “marriage” is mentioned in a couple of these articles in passing, legitimizing it as just another type of marriage.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.