We’ve had a great marriage for more than 50 years. Sharing our love, passions, terrific children and grandchildren, family, and friends has made our lives wonderful and has given both of us a sense of purpose, warmth, and joy every day. We have skied down slopes and climbed up mountains together. We have gone out in the world working together, gone back to school together, and built a business together that was based on many of the same values we brought to our marriage. Many nights we have stayed at home, snuggled up, quietly read books, and talked over politics and ideas. Now we contribute our energy to improve the lives of young people, and both of us continue to deal with the challenges and occasional disagreements of a long life together. We wouldn’t trade our marriage for anything in the world.
Almost every young couple we know has noticed how happy we are together and has asked us, “How do you guys do it? How do you stay so close for so many years and continue to be so compatible and so in love?” One of these young couples even picked our wedding date for their own because they thought it would be lucky.
The majority of Americans say that their main goal in life is to be “happily married for life.” It’s the dream we have all been brought up on, from fairy tales where the prince and princess “live happily ever after” to the common marriage vows that commit us to be together “till death do us part.”
People want the dream, but most people don’t know how to achieve it. They don’t know what makes a good marriage work or what it looks like and feels like as you live through it day by day. Some years ago, when Gerry was addressing a class at one of the best high schools in the country on how to have a great marriage, he asked the students, aged sixteen and seventeen, if they knew what kind of car they would like to be able to drive by the time they were in their twenties and thirties. Every hand shot up. These young men and young women all knew exactly what they thought constituted a “great car.” They knew the make and model, how much it currently cost, what image it projected, why they wanted to drive it. They had given the matter a great deal of thought and study.
However when he asked those same kids what kind of marriage partner they would want in the next ten or fifteen years, he gazed out on a roomful of blank stares. They did not have a clue about what was involved in a “great marriage.” Some said their parents never really talked to them about what goes into a marriage. Others said the marriages they saw on TV or in the movies weren’t very realistic or appealing. Still others said they weren’t sure they ever wanted to get married because they had never seen a marriage worth having and so many people they knew were divorced.
These high school students are not all that different from everybody else we have talked to on this subject. Whether you are single, married, or near a commitment, you may have only a vague idea of what a really good relationship or marriage is. Like almost half the population, you may have grown up with divorce and, perhaps, fear you’ll repeat the pattern. Or, just as likely, you may see many marriages around you that are not great models to follow. If your parents had a good marriage you may take for granted that yours will be equally good.
So, it isn’t surprising that many of us don’t know what a great marriage is. Schools don’t teach it along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, even though picking the right person to marry and building a wonderful life together will be, for most people, the most important and meaningful aspect of living a happy life. Novelist Anne Tyler captured this observation in Breathing Lessons:
“I mean you’re given all these lessons for the unimportant things piano-playing, typing . . . how to balance equations, which Lord knows you will never have to do in normal life. But how about parenthood? Or marriage, either, come to think of it. Before you can drive a car you need a state-approved course of instruction, but driving a car is nothing, nothing compared to living day in and day out with a husband.”
Choosing the right marriage partner has more influence over your lifelong happiness than any other decision you make more significant than what college you attend, what career path you follow, or how much you earn in life. The head of a very successful technology company once said to us, “I’ve succeeded in everything in my life except my marriage.” None of the other successes he’d achieved could make him as happy as having a good marriage would have.
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Marriages: How to Make the Dream Come True
We would like to share with you what we have learned about how to have a great marriage. We firmly believe that a great marriage is possible even in these stressful, fast-changing, twenty-first-century times. Too many experts, parents, “helpful” friends, and talk-show hosts encourage people to be “realistic.” Our response is: Don’t settle. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t have everything you want. That’s true! But you can have a great marriage, if you’re willing to get yourself ready and are committed to finding the right person for you. We want to inspire you to meet that person. If you’re already in a serious relationship or marriage, we want to help you discover your potential for a great life together and show you the steps to get there.
Too many experts encourage people to be “realistic.” Our response is: Don’t settle. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t have everything you want. That’s true! But you can have a great marriage.
We started to analyze what we thought made our marriage work. Then we talked with many of our friends who also had good marriages. We tracked down dozens of happily married couples across the country. These were people who had been together for anywhere from six to sixty years and who rated their marriage “great.” We conducted extensive interviews with them to find out their secrets to success.
They had extraordinary marriages, but they were not extraordinary people. They loved talking about their marriages and sharing their high points with us. But they also were not immune to problems, crises, and conflicts. One couple lost a child; one husband became deaf after military combat; a wife contracted MS; several lost jobs. Almost all of them had repetitive fights and their ample share of arguments.
The good marriages endured because both partners were able to put love and respect first; they deal openly and honestly with disagreements, share the work and decision-making, have fun together, and are willing to change and grow. The great marriages became even stronger as a result of the partners’ living through difficult times together. And most found enormous comfort in their ability to help each other see beyond the pain to the pleasure they could share.
Here are three truths we have learned:
- Great marriages are possible if you both set high standards for yourselves and each other.
- To have a great marriage you have to get off to the right start: be a great partner yourself, marry a great partner who is right for you, and learn what it takes to achieve the essential elements of a great marriage.
- Love, by itself, is not enough neither is luck. You have to find the right partner and you both have to be committed and willing to work on your marriage every day of your lives to keep making each other happy. Ask yourself, “What have I done today to make my partner’s morning just a little nicer, the evening a little more fun?”
If you can learn about what a great marriage is and how to get there, you have a better chance to achieve one. Maya Angelou once wrote: “You did the best that you knew how. Now that you know better, you’ll do better.” And we want to do more than keep your marriage from turning into a divorce statistic. We want to help you have a marriage that is great right from the start and stays that way. We want your marriage to be happy. We want you to say to yourselves: “This is wonderful our whole life should be like this forever.”
This article was adapted with permission from WONDERFUL MARRIAGE Copyright © 2008 By Lilo J. Leeds and Gerard G. Leeds. BenBella Books, Inc. 6440 N. Central Expressway, Suite 503 Dallas TX 75206. For more information about this book or information about the its authors Lilo and Gerard Leeds, Terrence Real and Susan Seliger.
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