The August sun was relentless. The baked ground radiated. The oven-like air was still, offering no breeze for relief. The birds of the air and beasts of the earth, built for the intense desert climate, had taken shelter in what little shade they could find. Yet, there I stood outside wearing a dark suit, sweat pouring down my spine on a sweltering late afternoon in Texas.
Incredibly, the heat didn’t faze me. My mind was focused elsewhere: she was going to walk down the aisle at any moment and we were going to be married.
My wife and I remember that day fondly. We stood before a group of our family and friends and pledged to live the rest of our lives together. Our decision to get married was life altering and it has been wonderful.
Oh, yeah, one more thing: as far as the government is concerned, we weren’t married that blazing hot day in Texas. According to our marriage license, the only wedding that mattered was the legal one that took place three days before in the back room of a church in Illinois (as Illinois residents at the time it was much easier for us to obtain a license and be legally married in our home state).
Why People Marry
Marriage definitions and practices have changed and evolved throughout history (see Coontz, 2004, for a review). For some people, marriage has been a way of generating economic advantage (e.g., dowry) and political power (e.g., arranged marriages between the children of monarchs). For other people, and most people today, marriage is the response to romantic love (see Berscheid, 2010). From an evolutionary perspective, getting married is an expression of the instinctual desire to bond for life with one sexual partner. And although the desire for a monogamous lifestyle often competes with the desire for multiple sex partners, research shows that the vast majority of people choose to be married and remain sexually faithful to their spouse (Blow & Hartnett, 2005; Goodwin et al., 2009).
The Makings of a Marriage
My wife and I celebrate our anniversary three days after our legal wedding anniversary. For us, our marriage did not begin until we pledged our lives to one another in front of our friends and family. Because of our values, marriage is defined by more than its legal recognition and the other aspects of marriage carry far more meaning to us.
Let me be clear: I do not want to diminish the significance of legal marriage. The effects of legal marriage are wide reaching and, depending on where someone lives, impact federal, state, and employee benefits received; inheritance; family decision-making privileges; legal residency; health coverage; child custody; and many other aspects of life. However, when it comes to what defines a thriving marriage, its legal status seems to play an insignificant role.
A Healthy Marriage
In his book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman, one of my favorite researchers, summarized decades of relationship research that reveal key features of healthy and fulfilling marriages. In satisfying marriages couples develop intimacy by remembering their partner’s likes, dislikes, values, and beliefs. In healthy marriages, couples cultivate a sense of fondness and admiration for one another, not because they do not have disagreements, but because they choose to express love and admiration far more often than contempt and criticism. Even when spouses in strong marriages disagree, they take the time to understand, honor, and respect their partner’s opinion. Gottman’s research has shown that healthy and fulfilling marriages are the result of ways of thinking and behaving that bring spouses closer together.
Building a Happy Marriage
My clients and I focus on the psychological, emotional, and behavioral aspects of marriage in therapy because these matter most when determining marital satisfaction and stability. Some of the couples I work with feel psychologically close but sexually disconnected. Others have strong feelings of love for one another but know very little about their partner. Still other couples run psychologically and emotionally hot and cold, and are filled with passionate love for each other one day and deep contempt for one other the next. Fortunately, therapy can help struggling couples build a healthy, satisfying, stable marriage.
Happy marriages aren’t born, they’re built. If couples feed their marriage with loving words, caring thoughts, and kind actions it will grow. This takes time. I often tell my clients that many of the things that make a marriage strong don’t come naturally at first. Building a strong marriage requires patience, forgiveness, humility, and a willingness to learn. If we remember that marriage is multifaceted and take the time to focus on each of its elements, many of us find that there is no relationship more satisfying than the one we have with our spouse.