The statistics can seem daunting. The U.S. divorce rate, although in some decline for the last few years, is still close to 50 percent. That brings Americans second only to Sweden for the highest divorce rate in the world! That’s certainly a dubious honor.
But there’s more to the statistics than meets the eye. In fact, 41 percent of first marriages (not half) don’t make it; 60 percent of second marriages and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce. Apparently practice doesn’t make perfect. The divorces of the several times married skew the statistics and can make first-timers more pessimistic than they need to be.
If you want to be among the almost 60 percent of first marriages and among those in subsequent marriages who do make it work, long-married couples have some tips for you. Follow most of these guidelines most of the time and you’ll up your chances for joining the group of success stories.
A Baker’s Dozen Tips for Making Marriage Last
- Commit to the commitment. The long-married are those who take their promise seriously. “‘Til death do us part” means exactly that. Divorce is neither an option nor a matter for discussion. Having made the decision to be in it forever (with no loopholes, escape routes, or qualifiers), these couples don’t head to the lawyer’s office or out the door when the inevitable tensions and problems come up. They work on them.
- Give it all you’ve got. Partners in long-term marriages aren’t in it 50-50. They are in it 100 percent-100 percent. The partners don’t keep a tally on how the other person is doing. They work on making sure they are putting in 100 percent of themselves and they are trusting that the other person is doing the same.
- Bring a whole person to the marriage. “You complete me” is romantic only in the movies. Long-married couples are made up of two whole people who each have a strong sense of self and an equally strong interest in each other. They each have their own friends, interests, hobbies, and intellectual pursuits. They don’t see themselves as halves of a whole but rather as two wholes who enrich each other. They are rarely bored because they are always learning interesting things from each other.
- Make time for each other. Separate interests doesn’t mean separate lives. It means enjoying each other’s enjoyment of things that are a mystery to you, learning about each other’s passions, and finding some mutual friends and interests that make for mutual pastimes and shared memories.
- Be a team. Long-married couples value each other’s contributions and feel that they each are contributing their fair share. Equality doesn’t have to mean sameness. It means that the couple has come to an agreement about what each needs to do to feel equally important and equally respected. Distribution of roles, responsibilities, and decision-making feels mutual and respectful of each partner’s needs.
- Learn how to engage in friendly fighting. Every couple has disagreements. Committing to the commitment doesn’t protect us from misunderstandings and hurt feelings. But long-married couples see themselves as being on the same team, solving problems, not as being on different teams fighting against each other. When they disagree, the long-married have tools (and rules) for airing discontents and differences respectfully. Friendly fighting means that people stick to the issue and work hard to communicate their own position. They listen respectfully to the other and refrain from name-calling, blaming, and insisting on being right.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Long-married couples let a lot of little stuff go. They know that it is unrealistic to expect perfection. Little habits and annoyances are seen as just that – little – or are thought of as endearing. They don’t make a project of changing little imperfections in the other person that the other person isn’t all that interested in changing.
- Do sweat the small stuff. On the other hand, people who are in it for life know that little things can add up over time and become big problems. They work on their own bad habits and annoying flaws. They know they won’t ever be perfect but they are willing to put in the effort to improve on things their partner finds irritating.
- Follow the “golden rule.” Treat each other as you would wish to be treated. If you’d like to be treated with courtesy and kindness, be courteous and kind. There isn’t room for double standards. If you want your partner to trust you, be absolutely trustworthy.
- Be each other’s greatest fan. Everyone needs to know that the person they are closest to is their best cheerleader and advocate. The very married don’t criticize or correct each other in public. They emphasize the positive. In private, they take care that any complaints are presented respectfully and tactfully. Words of encouragement and positive affirmation are far more common than the negative. They encourage each other’s dreams and provide emotional and practical support to make them possible.
- Make yourself appealing. It’s true that the fire of sexual attraction does fade with time. As the years go by, you may not be on fire but you can still stir up the coals. Dressing well for each other during the day shows respect for self and for one’s partner. Showering and putting on something a little sexy before bedtime sends the message to your partner that romance continues to be a priority.
- Respect each other’s families. Every marriage is a cross-cultural experience. Your family of origin probably does things differently than your partner’s. There may be people in each other’s families that you (and maybe even your partner) can’t stand. But it isn’t a big deal to smile through an afternoon, an occasional supper, or a holiday visit. Agree on the boundaries you both want to put around your time with each other and help each other out when the going with family gets rough. You don’t have to love everyone in each other’s families but your partner will love you for not making him or her have to choose between you and the people they love (even if they don’t particularly like them).
- Make special days special. It’s not about expense. It’s about caring. Partners who are long-married make a big deal out of these days, whether they personally see the point or not. Life hands out lots of reasons to feel sad, discouraged, bored, or blah. The antidote is finding times to let our partner know they are valued and appreciated. Every special day is an “excuse” to make life a little more joyful.