What Makes a Truly Happy Marriage, According to the Experts

Not all marriages are happy. But all happy marriages abide by a number of guiding principles.

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Sometimes, the motivation can be spot-on, but if the target is off, the effort doesn’t really matter. Drive east looking for a sunset, and even with a full tank of gas and broad spectrum eyewear, the destination will never be reached.

In a more everyday example, there’s being happy in a marriage. It’s an often-said desire, achieved by some, but for many couples, it feels like an endless struggle, and people are left to wonder what’s wrong with their situation. But rather than a missed opportunity, maybe the problem is the wrong approach. As noted psychiatrist Frank Pittman once said, “Marriage isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you married.”

The warped perspective you have about wedded bliss is a holdover from your dating period. Everything was great. Adrenaline was firing. Time was unhurried, and the positives dominated. All of that created two lingering beliefs. Number one: “This is the right person for me. They should make me happy,” says Dr. Paulette Sherman, New York City licensed psychologist.

This is something of a new concept. In the past, marriage was for things like social status, safety, and children. Then it shifted to a spouse being a best friend, confidante, and source of self-esteem, says Dr. Dianne Grande, licensed psychologist in Batavia, Illinois. It’s a tall order, and a tiring one. In his work, Eli Finkel, Northwestern University professor of psychology, has called it the suffocation model of marriage, and spoken to us about how higher expectations coupled with less time invested has led to increased rates of marital dissatisfaction.

There’s a certain personal responsibility for feeling happy, but just like how spouses can make each other miserable, they can also make each other feel good. “Happiness is contagious. Another person can affect you,” says Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

That brings us to Lingering Belief Number Two: “It will always be effortless,” says Dr. Pat Love, relationship expert and co-author of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. But with marriage and children, everything amps up – the pressure, the commitments, the exhaustion – and it’s hard to pursue happiness when you feel like you’re endlessly sharing your resources, she says.

Love has interviewed happy couples, and, as she says, “they all look alike.” They have each other’s backs, work as a team, and prioritize the relationship. Those are merely the components, but what might be needed is an acceptance of three things. You can be happy. You won’t be that way constantly, and negative emotions are part of the equation. The latter are actually normal and purposeful, says Lyubomirsky, adding that she doesn’t have an ideal ratio of positive to negative feelings. You just want more of the first.

It’s also about balance. Happiness can be a kind of trap, because it comes in short bursts. It’s like watching a football game with non-stop scoring. It’s great for a quarter, then it becomes boring. Love says to strive for contentedness. It’s a continuous state of mind, and one that feels doable. “Being happy comes with pressure. It makes it sound like it’s the partner’s job,” she says.

The unavoidable piece is just the commitment to trying. It’s doing things like being generous, showing appreciation, and saying thank you more than you probably are. “It’s not rocket science,” Lyubomirsky says. But couples fall into patterns. They’re tired. They want the other person to start. Again, there’s no secret to upending the inertia. It’s taking the first step, but once it happens, momentum builds and it spreads. “It creates upward spirals,” she says.

Time together also matters. The underlying dynamic, whatever form and setting it takes, is not always being parents. Out of that comes the part that’s often shunted aside: fun. There’s little happiness without that. “If you never have any fun together, how will you ever value the relationship? You’re only left with the shared responsibilities,” Grande says.

But time can feel like a limited commodity. Love says if there’s a skill to hone to conjure happiness, it’s being creative. Your partner responds well to certain things – fresh bagels on Saturday, a warmed-up towel for bath night. It’s not alone time in the classic sense, but it’s paying attention and doing more than just managing the household.

After that, it’s looking for ways to be together. People can squeeze out time for something appealing, e.g. that last- minute road trip you took. The same rule applies.

“You gotta make your relationship an offer it can’t refuse,” Love says. If the only thing you do is propose coming up with a plan to inject more novelty and excitement, that’s forward progress. “At least that’s a better conversation then, ‘Did you change the diaper?,’” she says.

And if some of your marriage feels like less than spontaneous fun, that’s another thing to accept. The best marriages involve inconvenience. When you’re single, poor listening skills don’t matter, but they’ll be called out by a spouse, and you’ll have to adjust or be called out again. “The person brings out your best and worst self,” Sherman says. “You’re probably a better person now because you’re dealing with another person’s needs. That’s how you improve.”

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