Phillip is a control freak. He exerts his power both at home and at the office in authoritarian and demanding ways. His wife, Pam, rarely has a say in anything.
Even at board meetings for the family business, he cuts Pam down whenever she speaks. So she keeps quiet to avoid being humiliated in front of the other board members.
At home, Phillip rules the roost. No one tells him what he will or won’t do. He can be charming and fun when he wants to be, but everyone in the family knows things will always be done his way. He dictates everything – all the way from when dinner will be served, to when they will go to their lake home for vacation, to whether they will remodel one of their homes.
Pam has learned to cope with Phillip’s controlling ways and to go along for the ride. She lives a luxurious lifestyle, but she doesn’t feel good about herself. In fact, she has rock bottom self-esteem, is very depressed, and spins into deep, downward spirals which her grown children have to “babysit” her out of.
Understanding the Basic Ingredients
The power differential between Phillip and Pam is huge. Phillip believes that since he gives Pam all the money she could ever want and allows her to choose which restaurant they will eat in from time to time, she should be a happy camper.
Phillip doesn’t understand the basic ingredients of a healthy, happy marriage. He also doesn’t understand that, without a solid marriage, the future of his entire family is at risk.
Phillip believes that if he showers his wife with enough material possessions, she won’t leave him – even though he has treated her poorly. Actually, he’s correct. Pam has told me that she is unhappy but doesn’t have the courage to leave and doesn’t want to give up the luxuries that come with her marriage.
But often, abuse of power, lack of respect, and disregard for developing a true partnership are the cause of divorce.
With divorce, come an immediate subdividing of wealth, a division of loyalties within the family, conflict among family members, and chaos that can rip into the very fabric of the family.
Think about how difficult it would be to have multi-generational family wealth without the cornerstones of a family – the matriarch and patriarch. At the very center of a high-performance family is a good marriage, because you can’t create a cohesive family unit around a rotten or dysfunctional core.
The Work of a Relationship
Now you may think that since you’ve been married for 30 or 40 years, your marriage is as solid as a rock, and you can sit back and relax when it comes to marriage maintenance. But let me assure you that, even when there’s love, a relationship is work.
It requires constant work to keep up with the growth and changes in each other’s lives – dealing with the challenges, the tragedies, the grown-up children, and all the ups and downs of life. It requires attention to and sensitivity for your partner. Goodwill toward each other is paramount.
Here are nine keys to a happy marriage. They comprise some of the most important areas of potential conflict or of great joy. Each one represents part of the work of keeping a marriage healthy and happy. You can use them as a template to analyze your own relationship and discover specific areas that need attention or therapy.
Remember, you don’t have to agree in every area. As marriage partners, you don’t have to be clones of each other, and you don’t have to have the same opinions or perspectives. You just have to be able to talk about the differences with respect and an attitude of compromise.
- Power: Whenever two or more people are together, there is power. In and of itself, power is neither good nor bad. It depends on how you use it. Phillip uses it to control other people, including his wife Pam. That’s the mark of an abuse of power.
When one person in a relationship usurps the power, the controlled person will likely get angry and resentful, gradually eating away the joy and companionship the marriage once had. As with Pam, anyone who continually gets beaten down will become depressed and even adopt a victim mentality. As with Phillip, the controller may begin to believe his wife has nothing to offer him and look for someone else more stimulating to meet his needs.
In a healthy marriage, a couple shares power by making decisions together. They discuss, they negotiate, and they compromise. Or one partner can give the power to the other if the other has a greater vested interest in the decision. For example, a husband loves cars and wants to buy a new one. His wife doesn’t care but agrees because it matters to her husband more than it matters to her.
- Communication: When couples tell me they have communication problems, I notice that the problems usually lie in the listening part, not the talking part. People don’t feel heard because we don’t listen well to each other. And they jump to conclusions before they really understand what the other person is saying.
Phillip only listens when he’s interested in the topic, and he quits listening the second he’s lost interest. He cares only about what matters to him. He cares very little about what matters to Pam.
With another couple I recently worked with, the wife didn’t tell her husband what she thought because he attacked her and told her she was wrong if her ideas didn’t correspond with his. So she clammed up and closed down. The result was that they drifted apart.
You can’t stay close to someone you don’t talk to.
So here’s a quick tip. If you think you and your spouse don’t communicate as well as you would like, then just quit talking so much and start listening more! You’ll be surprised at the difference in your marriage when you commit to really hearing what your spouse is saying and trying to understand from their point of view before drawing a conclusion.
- Money: Couples often fight about money because they don’t understand or agree with the other’s viewpoints on earning, spending, saving, investing, or charitable giving. They don’t talk about money because their parents taught them that it’s tacky and inappropriate. The result is that they don’t even know their own money values, let alone those of their spouse.
A couple of years ago I consulted with a middle-aged couple who had very different perspectives about wealth. As the son of the wealth creator, he had taken over the family business. Neither he nor his siblings were big consumers, and they lived low-key lifestyles. But this son became engaged to a woman with the glint of gold in her eyes. She spent his money as though it would dissolve by the next day and got angry at him for his modest ways.
When she began to make threatening innuendos if he didn’t loosen up, he became scared she would leave him over money. So he just shut up and let her do as she pleased. But he didn’t trust her. He put a password on his computer so she couldn’t get into his personal financial information. Not a good sign for a couple that wasn’t even married yet.
Healthy couples talk openly about money and learn to appreciate each other’s economic background and culture. They explore each other’s viewpoints and work toward respect for the messages about money each one received as a child. Together they develop a set of money values and discuss them with their children in order to pass their beliefs down to the next generations.
- Sex: It’s no secret that men and women have quite different expectations, desires, and perspectives about sex. For example, if you lined up 100 women and 100 men in a row and asked them which they would prefer for the rest of their lives if they could have only one – either cuddling or sex – most women would say cuddling and most men would say sex.
Over the years, many clients – both men and women – have talked with me about their unhappy sex lives. Apparently they felt safer talking with me than with their spouse. But if you don’t talk about what you like and what you want with your spouse, you’re not likely to get fulfilled.
Although a good sex life, in and of itself, won’t preserve a marriage, it creates a very strong bond between partners and is an important aspect of a healthy, happy marriage.
- Children: You can’t compromise on this one. You either decide to have children or not. So it’s a topic that should be talked about before you get married. One woman I know tearfully ended a relationship because her partner was unwilling to have children and she was unwilling to give up the possibility of motherhood.
But in raising kids, conflicts arise when two parents don’t see eye to eye on how to discipline… or how much information to share with their children… or how and when to spend time with them… and, certainly, on how to deal with the challenges of adult children and grandchildren.
These differences can play havoc in a marriage and need to be constantly revisited and discussed as children grow older and situations change.
- Values: Values are deeply embedded within who you are. They come from your childhood and show up in your morals and ethics, how you treat people, how you live your life, and how you choose to spend your time. They’re an integral part of your character. That’s why they’re hard to change.
Strong differences in values can be a big hurdle in compatibility in any relationship, especially in a marriage. Work ethic, commitments to education, family traditions, loyalty, honesty – these are just a few of the values that can derail a couple and threaten the well-being of an entire family.
I’ve recently consulted with a family whose matriarch and patriarch are in their 70s. The patriarch has been unfaithful to his wife for their entire marriage, and everyone in the family knows about it. He simply doesn’t share the value of marital fidelity that his wife and grown children have. He doesn’t really want to hurt his wife, but he doesn’t care enough to do the necessary work to shift his value system. It has caused unbelievable pain and disruption within the whole family.
In contrast, another couple suffered a similar disparity in values. The husband had a track record of visiting prostitutes – until his wife found out. She was heart-broken and angry. The three of us had many conversations together before the light bulb went on in the husband’s head.
After a great deal of deep personal work, he came to realize just how destructive his behavior had been. But even the realization wasn’t enough to change the value system that lay beneath the behavior. It required an additional year of soul searching and self-discovery to change the value that was so deeply embedded. He did this work for himself, but he was aware that it saved his marriage and his family as well.
- Goals: Successful marriages – and also successful families – make plans. They know that if they fail to plan, they plan to fail. They set goals for where they want to be and what they want in one year… five years… even 10 years and more.
Couples who set goals together have a greater chance of living happily together and having families who get along and enjoy each other. They set regular times to write down their individual goals and then share them with each other. When their goals are similar, they can work on them together. When they are different, each partner can support the other in meeting their individual goals.
Setting goals together is a tremendous way to bond as a couple as you share deeply personal and intimate desires and visions. It increases your understanding of each other and provides a greater opportunity to help each other find fulfillment.
Goal setting is also important for the family as a whole. When you learn to create them as a couple, you can teach the process to your children. It will help keep your family on the same page, even as they grow older, marry, and have families of their own.
- Spirituality: Spirituality is not the same as religion. It has to do with acknowledging the more abstract, infinite, mysterious part of life. It includes whether you believe there is a power greater than yourself, regardless of whether you call that power God or not.
Your spirituality serves as a search engine or a navigation tool for major decisions and transitions in your life.
It has been my experience that couples don’t have to have the same spiritual traditions. There are many healthy marriages between Catholics and Protestants, gentiles and Jews, Buddhists and Christians, as well as new age believers and traditional believers. But when there is a shared sense of deep spirituality, it overrides rituals and traditions that we often associate with our beliefs.
Some years ago, I was working with a couple whose toddler daughter died quite suddenly from a rare disease. Neither of the parents practiced any religion, but he had a spiritual background and she had none. The way they grieved, their perspectives on death, and their beliefs about what happened after death, were dramatically different. She saw only the immediate tragedy. He got in touch with a bigger picture. Their differences nearly destroyed their marriage.
There is usually a greater compatibility in couples when they both have a belief in spirituality. The differences are opportunities for rich discussions, greater understanding of each other, and increased tolerance.
- Leisure time: A marriage is not just about how you take care of daily tasks and raise your children. It’s also about how you relax and have fun together. How you plan your leisure time is an indication of how much time you’ll spend together and how you’ll build and grow your relationship.
Several years ago, I worked with a couple who had totally different ideas about how to spend their leisure time. He loved sports. She loved culture. So for vacations, he wanted to surf in Hawaii, ski in the mountains, or cycle in Europe. She wanted to visit museums. Unable to compromise, they went on separate vacations.
Although it’s a sign of a mature relationship to pursue individual interests, not sharing vacation and other free time robs you of valuable time for pure enjoyment – time during which you solidify your couple-ship and grow closer.
Tips for Every Stage
No matter at which stage your relationship is – whether you’re just deciding to get married, you’re middle-aged and raising kids, or you’re about to celebrate a 50-year anniversary, these nine keys are important to keep your relationship the best it can be.
Here are some extra tips for a happy marriage.
- Don’t keep secrets. Secrets arouse suspicions and give way to distrust. If you don’t trust your partner enough to share your secrets, think twice about deciding if you want to spend a lifetime together.
- Talk together about anything and everything. Don’t allow any topic to become a “forbidden topic” (i.e., one that is mutually agreed upon not to discuss or that causes such distress to talk about that one or the other of you decides it’s not worth it). It’s the things you don’t talk about that are likely to grow into irreparable problems.
- Listen, listen, listen to your spouse and try to understand from their perspective before you jump to conclusions or make decisions.
- Learn to appreciate and enjoy the differences between you and your spouse. Allow them to enlarge and enrich your life by bringing different perspectives to the table.
- Always maintain goodwill toward your spouse. There is hardly any problem that cannot be resolved when there is goodwill and good communication.
It’s a romantic concept to think about living in marital bliss. We all know the vicissitudes of life interrupt our dreams and get in the way of pure and constant happiness. We also know mature couples who exude love, appreciation, respect, and enjoyment of each other. These are the couples who have, whether by great determination or natural inclination, paid attention to the ingredients for a successful relationship. They have not only enjoyed a richer life together, they have also modeled for their children how to have a happy marriage and a healthy family.
© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 3, Issue 8, August 2015 • www.bonnerfamilyoffice.com