Tuesday, 4 January 2011

What is the secret of a happy marriage?

In a recent New York Times wellness article, Tara Parker-Pope printed a sustainable marriage quiz that questioned whether relationships can succeed without allowing each party to grow as an individual.   The question has probably crossed your mind, and I would even go so far as to suggest that this point is probably particularly important to you if you are male.  My fiance, Hank sent me the NY Times link and I know he feels that our two years together have helped him expand more than just his waistline.  I utterly adore him and am happy that he feels I have helped him grow.  I wonder if all women feel the same, though.

There is a gender angle missing from the questions raised by TPP.  Fifty years ago, I wonder how many suburban housewives of DC would have said that a relationship had enabled their self-realisation.  Perhaps some relationships helped them realise that they were becoming someone they did not wish to be: an exhausted mother, a hen-pecked daughter-in-law, a domestic maid.  Remember Linda Loman in Miller's Death of A Salesman, struggling to keep the family together while her husband wrestled with his own dreams? And who can forget that scene in Revolutionary Road where Frank Wheeler yells at his wife, April: "You are an emptyemptyhollow shell of a woman. I mean, what the hell are you doing in my house if you hate me so much?"   

Frankly, where else could April Wheeler have gone?  

To echo Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, happiness in marriage was for centuries "entirely a matter of chance" and happy or not, failure was simply not an option.  Austen's generation had no way out of a marriage, just as they often had little choice on the way in. 

At the risk of reading too much into the socio-economic side, (Newsflash: I'm a feminist), I wonder if the freedom to choose when to enter into a relationship - and when to end it - isn't also a huge factor in the relationship's success or failure.  

Historically, the freedom to marry when and whom you chose has been closely linked to income. Women of Austen's generation and social status could neither earn money nor inherit it.  They depended first upon their fathers, then upon their husbands, to whom their fathers had given them away.  Linda Loman and April Wheeler's financial stability depended upon the success of their husbands' professional ambitions.  This tested the wives, yes, but also placed a huge burden of expectation on the husbands.  

In this era of high female employment, you are probably thinking: well, no-one forces modern American women to marry for economic reasons but we still have a 50% divorce rate.  Ok, but let's really think about this.  Pressures still exist.  How does society respond to "career women" who never marry or choose to remain entirely single?  Did you have an unmarried aunt who got a "pity" invite to every Christmas dinner? Did your mother ever encourage your sisters to settle down before it was "too late"  while your brothers only received similar comments many, many years later?  Consider the wildly different associations you have with the words "spinster" and her male equivalent, the "bachelor".

Clearly women still feel the pressure to marry more acutely than men do.  

As a 21-year old I remember thinking my female friends who were already 26 and unmarried were risking being left on the shelf.  Now, at 32, I look back in astonishment. The rest of your life together is a really, really long time.  Why the big rush?   At 21, I was attracting the type of moronic boyfriend I deserved, with that ridiculous attitude.  It was only after I met my fiance, at the age of 30, that it occurred to me: when we women spend time realising our own dreams before marriage, we attract the type of partner who loves our self-realised personality.  Could it be that just when we decide we really don't need to get married, is the point when we become best suited to marriage?  If so, and if at this point you still want to marry your partner, that has to be a winning ticket.  That means less of the tricky renegotiating of boundaries that women often initiate years into a marriage; the wife has fewer abandoned dreams and a fuller pension pot; the husband values her good company and doesn't mind her preference for microwaved dinners.  Both know where they stand - and are happy with their position - before moving forward together.

It follows that the things a woman may later wish she had done before she got married should all be done before she gets married.  I firmly believe we should encourage this in our daughters. That's also why I urged one of my closest friends, a 30-year old on a great salary, to quit her miserable job in the City and take her dream four-month backpacking holiday in Asia.  She knew this could be her last chance to travel like that.  She will return a more attractive person for seizing that chance.   She is not simply 'discovering' herself but actually creating herself out there.  She will return empowered to make the right choices about potential partners, her career, her home, and her friends. 

For most modern women, a marriage and children is fulfilling but is not enough to populate an entire human identity. The concept of choice is important. "A relationship is healthy when both parties have permission to ask for what they want and need, and they both have permission to say no if they choose" writes John Gray.  He is the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the most useful relationship book I have ever read.   I suspect in most modern marriages, the permission he talks about is already there.  It is the "asking" habit which needs to be strengthened.  Often, we women need to teach ourselves how to say "no" to what we don't want. That learning process takes time and probably requires experimentation and challenges which are concentrated outside of a domestic setting.  To experience those challenges some women may choose to travel through Asia with a backpack, or seek validation through work or volunteering. Sometimes academic challenges will be important, or any act of committing to something just because we feel good about it.    John Gray is right about how important it is to give each other permission to choose.  Equally, we women need to give ourselves permission to choose what we get ourselves into - and out of - before we can genuinely be happy helping our husbands to grow.

Revolutionary Road: me at Everest Base Camp (Tibet) the year before I met Hank.
Read the full NY Times article here

I am not a psychologist and my opinions could be way off the mark.  Do leave your comments here. 
Just in case marriage still scares you...  Here's Chris Rock's take on divorce.  Be warned, it is hilarious but not suitable for kids:


  1. Anonymous comment (via email)

    Saw this and thought of you!


  2. well gud article but what you think abt this after reading this article


  3. very well written what you think bat marriage life after reading my post


  4. Hi Innocent Boy - just visited your blog and thought some of it was really relevant to my life, personally! Some important advice in there: "Always judge the positive factors about your partner instead of negative points" would probably be my number one. This dovetails into the point in the original NY Times article about helping each other to grow. Nobody can take over the world if they are being undermined at home!

    Happy blogging!


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