Your marriage CAN last – ask 40 “experts!”

I’ve been married to my partner for 30 years, and I admit we have no “secrets to success” you probably haven’t heard before … open and honest communication – especially during the tough times; understanding and accepting what we like and don’t like and respecting these differences; patience – and lots of it; establishing relationship boundaries, maintaining them and adjusting them consensually as needed; and always appreciating and supporting each other.

Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue talked with 40 celebrity couples in long-term relationships (we didn’t make the list – LOL), and wrote a book entitled, “What Makes a Marriage Last.” Even though my marriage has been working successfully, I learned a great deal from this book and would like to share a few insights from it that have strengthened my relationship with my partner.

First, and very importantly, I want to repeat a statement from Marlo Thomas: “If you get married because you think the other person will make you happy, you are wrong.”

You create your own happiness – with or without a partner. You must be happy with yourself if you have any chance of a marriage lasting. Happiness grows as your marriage grows; you build a life together and you WANT your marriage to work, so you work to make it work.

My training in Imago Relationship Therapy has taught me so much in terms of working with couples and handling my own marriage. Most people don’t understand that after the initial romantic love phase that bonds us to our partners, we hit the power struggle. Romantic love bonds us around our similarities, and the power struggle distances us around the differences. Both are supposed to happen and end.

Here is another one of my favorite lines from Marlo: “The ultimate act of love is going to marriage therapy – not because you need a referee, but because you need an interpreter.”

How many times in your relationship have you thought, “my partner isn’t listening to me;” or “my partner just doesn’t understand what I am feeling.” A therapist will help you find that “ah ha” moment … “oh, that’s what you meant, now I understand!”

When Marlo and Phil spoke in person with some 40 celebrity couples (including Alan and Arlene Alda, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn – married for 76 years, Billy and Janice Crystal, Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest, Elton John and David Furnish, and Viola Davis and Julius Tennon, to name a few of the 40), they listened to dozens of marriage challenges and obstacles – many so tumultuous and traumatic that it was surprising the couples stayed together.

Why did they stay together when times got tough? These couples were not afraid to face difficult situations; they didn’t look for a quick exit. Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, for example, lost their life savings in a Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madof but their marriage withstood this tragedy, Jaqueline Jackson stayed with her husband, Jesse, after learning he had an extramarital affair, Mark Consuelos – filled with jealousy and distrust – hopped a plane from Boston to New York when his wife, Kelly Ripa, claimed she was spending the evening cleaning toilets. (He found her cleaning toilets when he arrived.) This rocked their marriage, but they got through the storm, learned from the experience, and their marriage is stronger than ever.

There is no Plan B when it comes to saving your marriage, Marlo and Phil report in their book. Many couples look for the fastest escape route when the trouble starts. All marriages will have unanticipated challenges. If a couple expects constant smooth sailing, they are in for a disappointing surprise.

The marriages that last, the couple writes, are ones that work through those difficult times together. I would like to add that these couples work through the power struggle. They recognize that the differences between them are there to help them grow and change as a couple and as individuals.

Some other advice Marlo and Phil shared that I think is beneficial for all relationships is try not to make your partner feel bad because they aren’t like you; no matter how hard you try, it won’t happen.

Sometimes during a disagreement with my partner, one of us may take the position of fight or flight. The fighting often gets us nowhere; the flight can help us get through our argument with a resolution. Sometimes, couples need a little time to step away from the argument, gather their thoughts and some perspective, and then resume the argument more calmly and rationally. Time outs are underrated and essential when you feel emotionally flooded during an argument. Just make sure when you retreat, you return within a short amount of time and resolve the issue. Don’t let the problem fester. Get it on the table quickly and come up with a solution together.

Everybody who gets married wants a safe, secure place; you chose to be with this person for the rest of your life because you want to be together, you want to be happy, and you want your partner to be your greatest cheerleader.

Another message that I really valued from the book was that couples spend so much time, energy and money on a divorce; if they invested that time and energy in working on their marriage, maybe they could have saved it. Many choose divorce because it is an easier path than dealing with the challenges they are facing in their marriage. If you go through the fire together, just think how much stronger your relationship can be once you get through it.

Almost every couple Marlo and Phil interviewed noted how humor changes the outcome of a heated conversation. When you laugh, it eases the tension, relieves stress and helps you look at the problem with a healthier perspective, I have found.

In interviewing all 40 couples, Marlo and Phil found these commonalities:

  1. All couples really wanted their marriage to work.
  2. They gave their partner the benefit of the doubt. Step back and remember, this is a person who loves you.
  3. Sexual life was not just sex; it was a touch on the shoulder, holding hands, cuddling or hugging. Spontaneity was key.

I found the book a helpful reminder of why I chose my partner and how much he means to me, why I want to keep my marriage strong and loving, and why I should “stay on the bus” when times get tough, as Elton John said when he was interviewed. The scenery will change, tomorrow will be better, and the next day and the next day. Be patient. Expect the unexpected, and don’t look for the nearest exit sign when things get a little rocky. Once you get past the challenge, your life, your relationship and your marriage will be even better.

And remember Marlo’s words: “The ultimate act of love is going to marriage therapy – not because you need a referee, but because you need an interpreter.”