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Table of Contents
 
 
 

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WE DEDICATE THIS BOOK to the thousands of successfully married couples we have interviewed over these past 25 years and to our own enduring love for each other.

Foreword
THIS IS A WARM BOOK. I don’t mean that it’s warm because you are holding it or because it may have been lying in the sun. It’s warm because the authors are warm, candid, and friendly people. The warmth of Charles and Elizabeth jumps off every page as you digest their practical, direct, and very doable ideas for success in marriage. As is fitting with their decades of work, they want to be your companions in your journey to build and sustain a marriage of lasting love.
I’ve been conducting and publishing research on marriage for three decades. I know what the vast literature on marriages can teach us but I also know its limitations. One of those limitations is that researchers can too easily focus more on what goes wrong and how to fix it than on what is going right and how to sustain it. Both are valuable and both can teach you a lot. This is a book focused on the latter, based on the authors’ study of very happy, long-term married couples. What are those happy couples doing right? That’s what you are about to learn here. Best of all, these are things you can do and things that, in the doing, can make a difference in your marriage.
I want to highlight two of the things that Charles and Elizabeth accomplish in this book that seem to me most important of all. First, through their stories, insights, and advice, they are teaching realistic and healthy expectations for marriage. In a day and age where so many people have learned to expect levels of unending bliss that are simply not the essence of what really great marriages are like, this is a direct and helpful look at how it really happens.
Second, Charles and Elizabeth have a particular focus that I think is one of the hallmarks of making a difference. They want you to focus on the smaller, daily things you can do—the things that combine over the years to make a life together. This is crucial because you can do the small, meaningful things every day. From my research on sacrifice and commitment, I believe that the small, regular acts of compassion and care between partners trump the big events. To do something big you need a big opportunity. To do something small that matters, you only need today. You have many “todays” ahead, and here’s a great book full of encouragement for how to live them.
Scott M. Stanley
University of Denver
Author of The Power of Commitment

Coauthor of Fighting For Your Marriage
and A Lasting Promise
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Special Thanks
WHEN YOU ENGAGE IN a research project for more than 25 years there are a lot of people to thank, especially when your work culminates in a finished book like Building a Love That Lasts: The Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage. We have worked with many wonderful people along the way, but several stand out.
First and foremost, we would like to thank all of those marvelous and wonderful couples we have interviewed over the years. We have learned so much from them about love, successful marriage, and relationships. They were and continue to be an inspiration for us, and a model for successful marriage in the United States and around the world.
Our colleague David Riklan, at , provided us with the opportunity to greatly expand our work via the Internet. His offer for us to become the Official Guides to Marriage on has changed our lives. David gave us an unbelievable “platform” for our work. Our writings about love and marriage are now read around the world. Thank you, David. Your support means more to us than you will ever know.
Our heartfelt thanks to our literary agent, Peter Rubie, of FinePrint Literary Agency in New York City. Peter has always been steadfast in his faith in us and our “marriage project.” His confidence has lead to things we could never have imagined. We thank Peter from the bottom of our collective hearts. Because of him, we persevered and success has come our way. When others doubted us, Peter believed in us! We will be forever indebted to him.
A special thanks to Alan Rinzler, executive editor of Jossey-Bass, for his enthusiasm about our project. We absolutely love people who are action-oriented like Alan. Our relationship will prove to be a “marriage made in heaven.” From our first lunch together in Florida, we knew Alan was our soulmate!
We cannot say enough about June Clark and Robin Blakely of Get There Media. They are wonderful to work with and have opened our eyes to new possibilities. We appreciate their marvelously creative ideas and their undying support for us.
We are especially indebted to our friend and colleague Pat Kloepfer (PK, as many friends call her). Her final editing work on our manuscript is yet another example of her “eagle eye” when it comes to accuracy. Working with her over these past 14 years has been a joy. PK is one of a kind and we love her for it.
And finally, to our daughter, Kristina, and our two beautiful grandchildren, Hudson and Hope. Their love has inspired us to greater heights to share our message of love, hope, and success. When you are surrounded by family and love, all things are possible. We love you guys!
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Introduction
“’TILL DEATH DO US PART” are the words couples use in committing their lives to each other. It is the promise we made to each other 43 years ago, and to this day we have a lasting love that burns even brighter now than when we first said, “I do.” Why has our love lasted when so many of our friends have long since ended their marriages in divorce? This is the question we began researching more than 25 years ago.
We continually remind others that the divorce rate in America is all too high—some estimate it as high as 50%. And the news gets worse—nearly two-thirds of those who get remarried following a divorce get divorced again, and those who get married a third time have a failure rate of nearly 75%! The simple truth is, almost all of this suffering and unhappiness could be avoided. Yes, avoided! How, you say? Well, successfully married couples can tell you. They know!
That is why we are committed to reducing the divorce rate and increasing the success rate of marriage by sharing what we have learned from decades of research and our own 43 years of marriage—most marriages are worth saving and can be saved!
Hundreds of marriage and relationship books have been written in the past 30 years telling people how to have a successful marriage. So why would anyone want or need another? Well, to begin with, the practical advice outlined in these other books is almost exclusively derived from experts who have studied relationships that have failed in order to predict what will work.
On the other hand, we have taken a completely different approach—we decided that the best way to understand how to make a marriage a success is to study successful marriages.
Our criteria for determining a successful marriage are stringent:
… First, the couple had to be married to each other for at least 30 years.
… Second, in response to the question, “How would you rate the overall happiness of your marriage on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 the highest)?” the couple being interviewed had to agree that it was a 9 or 10.
We gathered more than 15,000 years of collective wisdom from happily and successfully married couples in the United States—people of different faiths, ages, and ethnicities, including Caucasians, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans married in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In addition, we interviewed successfully married couples in over 40 countries on five continents of the world. After 25 years and thousands of interviews with successfully married couples (as well as our own successful 43 years of marriage) we discovered seven pervasive characteristics present in all successful marriages.
While successful marriage isn’t difficult to understand, many couples fail to do the simple things required to make their marriage work. They either forget to do them or they haven’t learned them in the first place.
Successful couples talked about their marriages going through cycles similar to the stages of life. Many of the couples described experiencing difficulties and turmoil with the transition into a different stage, such as the addition of children, the increased pressures of striving for success in their careers, or the empty nest syndrome. While each change brought its own rewards, it also brought with it stress on each individual and on the relationship within the marriage itself. Their stories shed light on ways to use the Seven Surprising Secrets to effectively handle the stress of these anticipated transitions.
Johnny Cash and June Carter said it best in their famous duet, “We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper’s sprout. We’ve been talkin’ ’bout Jackson ever since the fire went out.” So, how do successful, happily married couples keep the fire from going out? How do they stoke their fire until it warms everything around them? Marriages change over the years, and in enduring marriages the partners find ways to grow closer together and improve the relationship that once began with the fiery passion of young love and then matured into a lasting love. Their stories are here, within these pages for you to enjoy.
These poignant, real life stories were garnered from thousands of interviews conducted over decades with happily married couples so the secrets for success could be uncovered and explained. Obviously, rather than divulge the true identity of the people we are describing who have been happily married for at least 30 years, we changed their names and the places to protect their identities, unless they granted us permission to identify them by name. However, their stories had to be told, because no writer could create such perfect examples of how to build lasting relationships. Only the real life experiences of long-time happily married couples could be filled with such intrigue, humor, sadness, and joy. We know you will find their stories fascinating and helpful.
The important point is that successful love and relationships are an accumulation of the little things. The little things matter! It isn’t enough to just think about the little things or just talk about the little things. You have to just DO the little things every day. That’s what makes love and relationships last! If you understand and implement the simple ideas presented in the pages to follow, we are convinced that your marriage will be well on its way to becoming a very successful and wonderful experience.

THE MARRIAGE QUIZ
What are the chances of you and your spouse—or spouse-to-be—being happily married in 50 years? Think you’ll make it? Take “The Marriage Quiz” and see if your relationship measures up with those who have been happily and successfully married for 30 to 77 years.
CIRCLE TRUE OR FALSE
 
COUPLES WITH SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGES
 
TRUE OR FALSE 1. Report that marriage is simple to understand and simple to make work.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 2. Give up their individual identities to form a perfect union with their spouses.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 3. Have private issues that they do not share with each other.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 4. Consider their spouses to be their most trusted friends.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 5. Help their spouses overcome weaknesses by pointing out things that need improvement.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 6. Give their spouses privacy and time alone.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 7. Would ignore their spouses’ large weight gain because they understand that personal appearance is not an important part of their relationship.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 8. Focus on cooking healthy meals together as a sensual and fun activity.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 9. Would make a major purchase only after joint agreement with their spouses.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 10. Explain that it is critical to maintain financial independence from each other.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 11. Report that sexual intimacy is at the heart of their marriage and it forms the foundation for their successful relationship.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 12. Playfully tease about their spouses’ faults with others.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 13. Are careful to keep their lives together routine and predictable so their relationship remains stable and sane.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 14. Find ways of adding surprise, excitement, and adventure to their marriage.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 15. Report that cheating on their spouses would cause irreparable damage to their marriage.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 16. Have experienced very few stressful situations in their 30 or more years of marriage.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 17. Grew closer together following tragic events in their lives.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 18. Find that children only add to the enjoyment of their marriage.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 19. Enjoy learning about the interests of each other, even though their interests are not always the same.
 
TRUE OR FALSE 20. Cannot imagine life without their spouses.
 
You will find the answers to the quiz on the next page. Have fun seeing how you rate compared to couples who have been happily and successfully married for 30 to 77 years.
 
ANSWERS: The answers to the Marriage Quiz are based upon more than 25 years of research on successful marriage.
1. F
2. F
3. F
4. T
5. F
6. T
7. F
8. T
9. T
10. F
11. F
12. F
13. F
14. T
15. T
16. F
17. T
18. F
19. T
20. T
 
If you answered all 20 questions the same as the thousands of couples we interviewed who had successful marriages, congratulations. You have a very good chance of being happily married and celebrating your Golden Anniversary together. You will want to read Building a Love That Lasts: The Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage to hear the poignant, real life stories of other successfully married couples.
If you scored a 16 or less on this marriage quiz, you will want to read the book today! You and your spouse (or spouse-to-be) can learn the important secrets from thousands of successfully married couples.

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CHAPTER 1
How Will I Know I Am in Love?
You suddenly and out of nowhere are inspired to say
I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!
You shout it to the stars. You are in love!
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IN OUR MANY INTERVIEWS with people “in love” we ask them, perhaps, the most revealing question of the interview—“How did you know you were in love?” We have heard very consistent answers. And conversely, many people involved in a new loving relationship, particularly young people, often ask us, “How do I know if I am in love?” We think we know the answer.
While we have heard a number of answers to our “How did you know you were in love” question, we can place them in seven categories. And, perhaps surprisingly, they have stayed the same over our 25 years of research on couples in love. Here they are, in a nutshell.
The first category is physical. People who say they are in love report getting “goosebumps,” “a palpitating heart,” “sweaty palms,” “a lump in my throat,” “teary-eyed when I say goodbye,” “a tingling sensation all over my body,” and the like. People in love have a positive physical reaction when they think about or see the one they love in person.
The second category is emotional. When they think about or see the person they love, most lovers report similar feelings—“I laugh more often when I am with the person I love,” “an uncontrollable smile comes over my face whenever I see her,” and “I miss him when he leaves the room.” People in love feel emotions for the person they love that they do not routinely feel for others.
The third category is positive worry. Over the years, we continue to be amazed about the consistency with which people in love report to us that they “worry about their lover” when they are not around. Little thoughts of what we have come to call “positive worry” about the one they love begins to creep into their mind—things like car accidents, falling down, getting hurt at work, and getting sick. The folks we interview for the most part do not worry compulsively or negatively. These thoughts are normal and natural when you are “in love.”
The fourth category is what we call the I-cannot-imagine-life-without-her category. This is the point in love when you begin to think about the future—your future with the one you love. When you cannot imagine your life without him, you are in love!
The fifth category focuses on the oneness of your relationship. You begin to realize that you truly want this other person in your life. You want to be with her. You want to share with her. You want to live with her, share a bed with her, hold her, and hug her. In our book, we refer to the notion of “turning two into one.” You actually begin to think about the one you love and not just about yourself or your needs. You think about his—his wants, his needs, and his desires. When the feeling of oneness consumes your body, you are in love!
The sixth category is about preoccupied love. Simply stated, you think about the one you love most of the time. You can’t get her out of your mind. You pull her photo out of your wallet and you smile. You are preoccupied with him. When you are preoccupied with him, you are in love with him!
The seventh and final category is love itself and your ability to express that love. You finally have the courage to tell her you love her! You miss him when he is not around. You worry about her. You care about his safety and welfare. You feel about her in ways you have never felt about another human being before. You suddenly and out of nowhere are inspired to say I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! You shout it to the stars. You are in love!
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CHAPTER 2
Learning to Dance
Whether the beat of your marriage is a tango, salsa,
swing, or waltz, when each of these seven characteristics
threads throughout your marriage and describes your
dance together, you will have achieved
a successful marriage.
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WHAT SEPARATES the couples we interviewed in marriages that achieved lasting love from those that failed? In our research we discovered pervasive characteristics threaded throughout the relationships of all successful marriages … but not the unsuccessful ones. It is uncanny the way the successful couples talk about their lives together. The characteristics are a pervasive part of who they are together, as if describing the steps of a well-choreographed dance.
Successful couples have learned and practiced these characteristics, and committed them to memory. It is like watching a pair of ice dancers gliding through a perfectly executed triple jump—they are beautiful skaters individually, but magnificent when together.
On the other hand, failed marriages are like dancing in the dark without knowing the steps. The steps appear to be easy at first, but tragically, divorce statistics tell us that half of all married couples never learn the dance. Instead, they stumble and fall until they eventually give up and quit dancing altogether. If they had learned to make the seven characteristics part of the fabric of their marriages, they could have learned the dance of lasting love.
If you want to achieve a successful marriage with lasting love, first learn and understand the seven characteristics present in the relationships of all successful marriages. Then accept the commitment to practice each of the characteristics. While the seven characteristics would seem to be so simple, successful couples described the hard work it took to make each of the characteristics become a habit in their relationships. As one of our favorite couples said when we asked them what advice they would give newly married couples, “Never give up. It takes real work to be happily married, but it is so worth it.”
As we probed deeper into these characteristics, we found that once successful couples learned and mastered the characteristics, they made them such a major part of their relationships that the seven characteristics actually became the definition of who they were together as couples. Whether the characteristics were naturally occurring early in their marriages or they learned the characteristics in the course of time throughout their marriages, the successful couples all talked about the hard work it took to fully develop them. It is no different than learning to dance the two-step or learning to ride a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget how to do it. But the learning can be challenging and filled with obstacles, and requires constant practice.
If you didn’t start early in your marriage to learn and develop the seven characteristics, it definitely will be more difficult to learn and effectively develop them into habits. However, it is possible at any time in your marriage to learn new characteristics and incorporate them into the fabric of your marriage. It is no different than easily learning to tap dance as a small child rather than waiting until you are an adult to try to become a successful tap dancer. You can still do it at any age—it just takes greater concentration and harder work.
Whether the beat of your marriage is a tango, salsa, swing, or waltz, when each of these seven characteristics threads throughout your marriage and describes your dance together, you will have achieved a successful marriage. You will then be well on your way to achieving a long lasting love like the successful couples we have interviewed who celebrated their Golden Anniversaries together.
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CHAPTER 3
Character in Love and Marriage
In our interviews over the past 25 years with couples
that have had successful marriages we are always struck
by their undying trust in each other. They literally trust
each other with their lives, their fortune,
and their sacred honor.
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IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW IT, there is a character element in love and loving relationships. People who say they love each other and then cheat on their spouse or lover, or lie to spouses on a regular basis, aren’t really in love. Oh, many think they are, but they really are not. People who love each other have character when it comes to their marriage or relationship.
In our interviews over the past 25 years with couples that have had successful marriages, we are always struck by their undying trust in each other. They literally trust each other with their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honor. The words they use to describe the one they love more often than not include words and expressions like trust, honesty, loyalty, respects me, admires me, always there for me, never lets me down, truthful, and never lies to me. Their trust for each other is about as complete as you can get. And when we ask each couple in love during our interviews to place, in an overall sense, where their relationship is on a 10-point scale, with 10 being “Absolute Trust,” without exception, they say “10!” Isn’t that wonderful? Remarkable? These are the couples that will celebrate their Golden Anniversaries together!
Trust is not something all loving relationships start with. For some couples the trust becomes complete in a few years. For others, it takes awhile. But one thing is for sure: happy and successful marriages and relationships survive and thrive on the basis of this trust. Trust is so pervasive in their relationship that they never give it a second thought. They expect it. It’s always there. It is part of the fabric of their marriage.
There is one thing you can take to the bank—all people in love have faced temptations in their relationships. The pretty girl in the restaurant captures your fancy. The handsome man walking down the street draws your attention. The flirt at work is tempting at times. And, we will dare say, sometimes in every relationship you think about slipping in the sack with some of the beautiful people you meet. But here’s where it stops—these are only fleeting moments of passing fancy. These are the moments of momentary lust for another human being that are not acted on. Why? People in love who are happy in their relationship control their urges because they know that while a moment of sexual fantasy is healthy and normal, following through and enjoying sexual satisfaction with someone other than their mate, cheating on their mate, is destructive to the loving and trusting relationship between them. It’s okay to have sexual urges and fantasies regarding another person, but to act on them ruins all that trust. It destroys the tie that binds.
People who are truly in love in their relationship know that a few moments of sexual satisfaction can NEVER replace the loving, trusting, and caring relationship they have developed with their mate. As someone once said to us, “I have a marriage license but I didn’t give up my looking license!” Admiring others in intimate ways is normal and healthy. But acting on those urges has ruined many a marriage and many a loving relationship.
Those wonderful couples we have interviewed resist these normal urges and temptations of life because they know their relationships are so much more important to them. Destroying the trust between them causes the foundations of their marriages to crumble.
Character in a successful marriage or relationship does matter, and character is about trust. Being honest and trustworthy is at the heart of all the best loving relationships we have studied. It really is a 10 on a 10-point scale. In our estimation, character is the foundation of true love!
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CHAPTER 4
It’s the Little Things That Matter
Being IN love is easy. But why do so many people
“IN love” not do the simple things required to help
their relationships stand the test of time?
Why do so many couples fail to make it long
enough to celebrate Golden Anniversaries?
015
WE HAVE BEEN SAYING IT for years, and our 25 years of marriage research proves it—having a successful loving relationship is simple to understand! Yes, simple! Yet, so many couples are incapable of doing or unwilling to do the simple things required to make their relationships work. And we continue to be amazed at how the pundits, the mainstream media, the book publishers, and the psychologists strive so hard to make love and relationships complicated. Sometimes, they even scoff at the simple ideas—the simple notions that expose the truth about what makes loving relationships work. It seems that they believe relationships and marriage must be complicated—must be difficult to understand. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Being IN love is easy. But why do so many people “IN love” not do the simple things required to help their relationships stand the test of time? Why do so many couples fail to make it long enough to celebrate Golden Anniversaries?
Frankly, we think some folks get a little snobby about successful relationships. They want these relationships to be complicated. Maybe they think that if loving relationships are made complicated and difficult to understand, we will have to call upon them to sort it all out—to understand it all. Don’t believe it! Truth is, if you do the simple things in your loving relationship, your chances of making it work, of making it last, will be much better. You don’t need complicated explanations from the so-called experts. Trust us on that.
Here is your assignment—do the simple things and your relationship will stand the test of time. Ignore the simple things and your loving relationship will fail.
So, what are the simple things? Here are just a few examples:
… Remember birthdays and anniversaries.
… Say “thank you” and “please.”
… Tell your lover “I Love You” each morning and before you go to bed each evening.
… Help clean the table after dinner.
… Guys, put the toilet seat down after going!
… Gals, keep your make-up in a case, you don’t need the entire bathroom countertop.
… Go through the rituals of telling each other to “Watch for people running stop lights,” “Watch for ice on the road,” “Be safe.”
… Call if you are going to be late.
… Help carry in the groceries and packages.
… Send your lover an email or call at least once a day to say you are thinking about him.
… Be more unselfish, it isn’t just about you.
… Give your lover at least a dozen hugs a day.
And the list goes on.
The important point is that successful love and relationships are an accumulation of the little things. The little things matter! It isn’t enough to just think about the little things or just talk about the little things. You have to just DO the little things every day. That’s what makes love and relationships last!
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017
CHAPTER 5
Nicknames: The Private Code for Love
You see, love has a private code.
People in love understand!
018
OVER OUR 43 YEARS OF MARRIAGE we have met thousands of couples that deeply loved each other. We have interviewed many, many of them for our book on successful marriage. In nearly every case, they had an affectionate “secret” nickname for each other—a sort of private code for saying, “I love you.”
Some of the nicknames are ones you have probably heard many times before—“lovey-dovey,” “sweetie-pie,” “sugar,” “snookie-poo,” “honey,” “darling,” “sweetness,” “sweetpea,” “baby girl,” “lover boy,” “sunshine,” “sugarplum,” “baby-doll,” “hey, handsome,” “hey, beautiful,” and so forth.
Some of the nicknames are unusual and funny. Names like “butch” in reference to a very petite wife seem unusual, but to her husband, it is an endearing term. “Snookems,” in reference to a very manly man, does not compute with most people, but to his wife, the term is an expression of love and affection. And the list goes on.
Over the years, the funniest “affectionate” nickname we ever heard was from the wife who lovingly referred to her husband as “turkey-fart!” It is not important to understand the origin of “turkey-fart.” What is important is that the name has special meaning to the husband and wife team that coined it. You see, love has a private code. People in love understand! Nicknames are a private code for saying, “I Love You.”
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CHAPTER 6
And Then … Along Came Kids
You thought your marriage was nearly perfect—
And Then … Along Came Kids.
To quote Nora Ephron in
Heartburn: “Having a first child
is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage.”
020
KIDS! WE LOVE THEM. We cherish them. They bring joy to our lives. When we have children in a marriage, we understand finally, and once and for all, what eternity means. While we are not immortal, we learn the meaning of everlasting life when we are blessed with children. They make us feel like we will live through time. We carry on through them. We know that through them our lives will have meaning beyond our time on this earth.
But our children are also a pain in the butt! They challenge us. They taunt us. They demand much from us. They argue with us. They divide us. They unite us. They run up one heck of a childcare bill!
On the other hand, most who are successfully married with children wouldn’t want it any other way. They know that without a doubt, their children enrich their lives in innumerable ways. They value their children immensely. But be clear regarding this—successfully married couples with children understand the challenges children pose to a blissful and romantic marital relationship.
You thought your marriage was nearly perfect—And Then … Along Came Kids. To quote Nora Ephron in Heartburn: “Having a first child is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage.”
While a marvelous blessing, adding kids to a marriage brings a whole different set of issues, stressors, and dynamics for couples to deal with. Successfully married couples report that the addition of children to their relationships changed their family lives; and in many ways caused periodic stress in their relationships. Childrearing responsibilities are even considered by some experts to be the main cause for the “U” shaped curve in the level of satisfaction for couples over the lifetime of their marriages—dipping dramatically after the first few years of each marriage (with the addition of children) and then increasing steadily in the last half of the marriage (after the “nest” is empty).
In the last several months a great deal has been reported about the purpose of marriage, lamenting the fact that Americans no longer consider children among the most important purposes of marriage. While most experts are concluding that this is a negative change, we would like to offer a different perspective based on our two and a half decades of research on successful marriage.
In fact, as you have discovered, we have found seven pervasive characteristics present in all successful marriages. And guess what—the quality of the relationship between husband and wife trumps everything else in a marriage! And you know why—it’s simple, really—without a positive, loving, and thriving relationship between mom and dad, children often don’t prosper; they are not well adjusted; they don’t do well in school; and they are not as healthy, both physically and mentally. In all of our interviews over the years with those couples who have had long and successful marriages, not one of them ever mentioned that the purpose of their marriage was to have children. Oh, to be sure, they loved their children very much. They were delighted they brought children into this world and were very proud of them for the most part. But they also reported to us time and time again that it was the strength of their relationships with each other that made their marriages happy and allowed them to attend to myriad responsibilities and issues present in their marriages.
Marriages thrive and survive more than anything else because of the quality of the relationship between mom and dad. It’s no more complicated than that.
Let’s look at the facts—73% of women 30 years old and older are currently married or widowed. Most important, 94% of all women will have been married at least once by the age of 50.
The truth is, Americans love marriage! We just need to learn how to get it right the first time around instead of having nearly one out of every two of our marriages end in divorce. And the simple truth is, 65% of those that re-marry after divorce get divorced again. So you see, the relationship between mom and dad does trump everything else. Get it right and good things follow. Get it wrong and lots of bad things often happen!
A women quoted in the Washington Post got it right when she said, “When I think of marriage I don’t think of children at all. I have them. But with marriage, I think of a husband and a wife, and I don’t think it’s the children that make it work.”
The purpose of marriage within the historical and social context is strengthened when the focus is on the development of a strong, positive, and blissful relationship between husband and wife. That relationship trumps everything else. Make this relationship work and everything else follows.
So, how do successfully married couples survive and even thrive through the childrearing years? They explained that they had to work especially hard to keep the Seven Surprising Secrets characteristics alive in their relationships during these years. Their first-hand stories about the stresses of children and the associated challenges of dealing with them within the context of their marriages are enlightening. Each couple tells their stories fondly and often hilariously about how they effectively dealt with such issues as loving both their spouse and their child but loving each differently, the competition for their attention, the demands of dual careers and parenting, the miscues involved in getting children to activities, the difficulties of finding a trusted childcare provider, the guilt of leaving their children in childcare, the pressure from not enough time, the stress for the primary caregiver, the skill of their children in taking advantage of situations, and the curse of raising teenagers when “all bets are off.”
Many couples shared with us the difficulty of finding intimate time for each other after their children were born. The case of Steve and Jane illustrates just how difficult it can be to find quality time for each other. It all started when they decided that they couldn’t resist each other any longer while on a weekend trip with their son. Six-year-old Christopher was fast asleep in the other room—or so they thought—and they had done without sex for more than two weeks. No phone, no chores, and no interruptions—the stage was set for a wonderful and intimate evening. At the peak of sexual delirium a little voice at the side of their hotel bed said, “Daddy why are you hurting mommy?” Needless to say, the mood suddenly changed. They were overwhelmingly embarrassed about being caught in the act!
Just getting through that moment put everything in perspective for Steve and Jane. They were in great need of a real plan for how they were going to get quality time for each other.
When Christopher was born, Steve and Jane made a promise that they wouldn’t use childcare or a babysitter for their child. They would just re-arrange their schedules or do whatever was necessary to work it out. What they didn’t realize was that they needed quality time together—alone without their son. The stark truth of that fact hit them hard that night in the hotel room.
After they got Christopher settled and off to sleep, Steve said, the conversation they had over the next several hours changed their lives forever. They recognized for the first time in their marriage that unless they had time for each other to nurture their own relationship, they would never become the great parents they always talked about being. They came to the realization that while raising a child is wonderful and rewarding, it can also be an unbelievable pain and mighty inconvenient at times. That was a difficult admission, since both Steve and Jane loved kids and had wanted to be parents from their first year together. They believed that children would only add enjoyment and excitement to their lives.
Since both of their families lived too far away to help them with Christopher and they had very little money at that stage in their marriage, Steve and Jane had to be creative. They talked about options such as swapping childcare time with their friends, church-provided childcare, and Mother’s Day Out services. Jane said that the first time Christopher went to childcare was terribly stressful because they couldn’t stop worrying about him. However, as you might have guessed, everything went beautifully and their son seemed to genuinely enjoy the childcare time with playmates.
During the rest of Christopher’s early years, Steve and Jane arranged for childcare or swapped time at least once a month to give them the quality time they needed with each other. The rest of the time Christopher went everywhere with Steve and Jane. He seemed to be permanently attached to Steve’s shoulders for trips to the zoo, park, ball games, and science center. Those wonderful memories are etched in their minds forever. Now, almost 33 years later, Steve and Jane still laugh about their child’s untimely question that night in the hotel. They said that it always strikes them as funny that this was an important turning point in their marriage, because it forced them to work hard to find time to keep their passion and romance alive, even with a child!
Many successfully married couples told us similar stories about their difficulties finding time for fun and ways of keeping their relationships strong during the childrearing years. Each stage in the lives of their children seemed to bring with it entirely new challenges. Jim and Iris said raising their three children reminded them of the voyage of the Endurance trying to cross Antarctica. Every time they thought they had the conditions figured out and a working solution, the conditions changed and the solution was no longer workable. A new solution was needed! Just like the expedition force stranded on the ice fields of Antarctica, when the ice moved and conditions changed, they found new ways to survive. Jim and Iris told us that maybe it was the fact that they had three boys that made their situation so challenging. Finding unity and balance in their lives while raising three rambunctious boys was not easy, but they rolled up their sleeves and did it together.
Their biggest relationship issues always seemed to center around the innate ability of their boys to divide and conquer. It seemed that even the slightest disagreement between Iris and Jim always blew up into a major situation with the boys, until they got smart and agreed to always back the other one up in front of the boys. They then settled their own disagreements out of earshot of the children. In that way, they presented a unified front. While it sounds so simple, Iris and Jim said that their boys had such a talent for dividing and conquering that they had to work hard not to give themselves away by their facial expressions or body language.
The first time Iris and Jim knew they were in trouble was over the issue of riding tricycles in the driveway. Iris had totally forbidden the boys from riding their tricycles in the driveway because of the danger of people using their driveway to turn around in. Soon after Iris had “laid down the law” and Jim was alone with the boys, one of them politely asked him for permission to ride their tricycles in the driveway. Jim was so taken with his oldest son’s newly found manners that he immediately said yes. The first thing he did upon greeting Iris was to brag about how his work on manners was paying off with the boys. Unfortunately, when Jim got to the part about how he told the boys they could ride their tricycles in the driveway, Iris hit the ceiling. How could he have been so buffaloed by the boys? Didn’t he have suspicions that the boys were up to no good since they were “too polite for words”? What was he thinking? After Iris calmed down, she explained that the boys had put her through argument after argument about the tricycles and she had finally set them straight about the fact that it was simply too dangerous and there was to be no further discussion of the topic. The answer to riding their tricycles in the driveway was “absolutely not!” At that point Jim said he felt like crawling under the table, except he wouldn’t fit. There he sat feeling like a fool. What seemed like such a little issue to him was indeed a major issue of safety. After much discussion, Iris and Jim decided that whenever the boys found innovative ways to secure different answers from them, they would work together to maintain a unified front. When their three sons were going through their challenging teenage years, Jim said that their unified approach and support for each other kept them from losing their sanity.
Even in the best marital relationships, there are times when situations arise with their children that pull hard at dividing them. One such story sounded all too familiar, as the craziness of managing dual careers with young children presents some of the most unusual challenges even to the most organized of individuals. Mindy and Fred thought they had things going beautifully with the care of their two children in spite of their hectic schedules. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, Mindy would pick the children up right after school to shuttle them off to their lessons, games, or home. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Fred would pick the children up from the after-school care center before 6:00 pm. As with everything in their lives it was all subject to change depending upon work schedules, meetings, appointments, etc.
Since they didn’t have cell phones back when their children were young, Mindy and Fred had to organize their plans each day and then stick with them. Somehow on that fateful Tuesday, Mindy and Fred both thought the other one was responsible for picking up the children. To this day, neither one can remember who was really at fault for the situation, but both take equal blame. It seems they arrived home at around 6:30 pm, exhausted from a difficult day at work. After greeting each other, it dawned on Mindy that the house was too quiet. Where were the children? It took only an instant for pure panic to hit both Mindy and Fred. What had they done? Where were the children? Tuesday—oh my God—they were supposed to be picked up right after school and taken to their swimming lessons. Both of them were too much in shock to even begin trying to figure out what went wrong. They immediately hopped into the car and headed off to school. Everything was closed up and dark. Now what? Where were the children? In a moment of calm, Mindy thought to head back home to check the telephone messages. Why hadn’t they checked them before heading off to school? Too much panic … too much guilt … too much embarrassment and too much confusion due to their hectic lives. In fact, when they got back into the house there were six messages.
As they started to listen, they took a long breath. First, both of the children’s teachers had tried everything to reach Fred and Mindy at work. Both were not in their offices all day and were totally out of reach in the late afternoon. Both of the children’s teachers and the principal had made attempts to contact them at home. The principal had even driven to their house to find them, because one of their children had broken his arm and needed to go to the hospital. That message was left around 1:30 pm—more than five hours ago. By the time they listened to the final message from the principal, both Mindy and Fred were shaking. The children were now okay. Sam’s arm was in a cast and he was resting quietly at the principal’s house. Their daughter was fine and eating dinner at her teacher’s house. They headed toward the principal’s house first, as they worked hard to fight back the tears and talked about how lucky they were to have such a terrific principal and teachers for their children. They spent the next several days developing contingency plans for all types of emergencies so this would never happen again. Oh yes, they made sure the principal and teachers of their children understood just how grateful they were for taking care of their children on that terrible day. While today’s communications are a great deal easier with cell phones and pagers, contingency plans are still required in case of traffic jams, accidents, emergencies, and weather situations.
It seems that successfully married couples do whatever it takes to work through the difficult issues with their children while continuing to strengthen their relationships. The trials and tribulations of childrearing brought them closer together and made them appreciate each other even more when they finally made it to “empty nesthood.”
There is one more recurring theme we heard over and over during our interviews with successfully married couples—the “empty nest syndrome” is grossly over-rated! All of the couples we interviewed who have been successfully married over 30 years and now are “empty nesters” reported to us how much they loved their children, that they missed hearing their sounds throughout the house, that they cherished the times when they visited with their grown children and grandchildren, and that they did really miss having their children around. On the other hand, because their relationships with each other had stayed so strong over the childrearing years, the impact of the empty nest was substantially lessened for them as they quickly adjusted to the change. In fact, if the truth be known, they reported that their sex life was better, they had more time for fun, they traveled more frequently, they took more long walks and bike rides, they ate out more often, they took more vacation time, and they really enjoyed a clean house. You see, happily married couples love each other and practice the Seven Surprising Secrets throughout their marriage, even when the children are living at home. When the children are gone, they are not left with those empty and aimless feelings. Like the commercial says, many empty nesters really do want to go to Disney World by themselves!
While your obligation to your children is critical, the relationship with your spouse is the foundation for making it all work. You only set yourself up for failure if you do not continue to work even harder on your relationship during the often difficult childrearing years. Remember, when the nest is empty and the children are gone, the strength of your relationship during those childrearing years will determine to a large extent how you will spend the rest of your lives together.
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