Katharine Hepburn is reputed to have said, “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” The idea that two people should commit to each other for life is alien to many people. They call marriage an institution, but who wants to live in an institution?!
The whole marriage thing has taken some hard knocks in recent years—the high divorce rate has left a lot of hurting and disillusioned adults and children in its wake, and the same-sex marriage debate has triggered some bruising encounters. But for many, marriage is still the ultimate expression of love between two people. For those who are happily married, nothing else comes close to the joy of being in a safe, happy, committed, lifelong relationship. As Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim scholar at the AlMaghrib Institute in Texas, stated, “The successful marriage is not when you can live in peace with your wife, but when you can’t live without her.”
Dr Archibald Hart, a psychologist and author, says research consistently confirms the importance of human bonds: “Without relationships humans wither and die, both emotionally and physically. The quality of our life diminishes when there is no-one to share it with—family, friends or spouse. . . . Everything about us was designed to live in close community and interaction with others. We certainly were not designed to go through life emotionally disconnected.”
Like any long-lasting relationship, marriage isn’t something that simply “happens” of its own accord. A marriage marked by happiness requires some serious thought and work! In their national survey of long-term marriages, David and Claudia Arp, cofounders of Marriage Alive, found three common strands in those marriages that are alive and healthy: (1) the marriage relationship comes before other relationships, (2) both spouses are committed to growing and changing together and (3) they work at staying close. Closeness and intimacy in a marriage are by-products of regular and meaningful expressions of love and affection between couples.
So, are there any “secrets” that happy couples share that make their marriages hum? What do those couples who seem to be so happy and contented and speak so enthusiastically about their relationship do that other couples don’t seem to be able to manage? Shaunti Feldhahn, in her book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, answers this very question. A former Wall Street analyst, Feldhahn turned her energies to reviewing numerous major studies on marriage, as well as carrying out her own research, to find why some couples thrive rather than dive.
In her major study of happy marriages, she asked hundreds of couples this key question: “Are you personally, generally happy in your marriage these days and enjoying being married?” Using their different answers, Feldhahn categorised the couples into three groups: highly happy couples, mostly happy couples and so-so or struggling couples.
Interestingly, when she analysed the highly happy couples, she discovered that very few of them could identify what exactly was making them so happy. What became obvious was that, contrary to popular belief, it was not the “biggies” (in-laws, money, sex) that determined the level of day-to-day mutual happiness in a marriage. Much more often it was the daily, unspoken beliefs, assumptions and practices that made the difference regardless of the big issues. In other words, it was how they handled those big issues that determined how much they enjoyed marriage.
Feldhahn writes, “My research on happy couples showed that an extraordinarily high percentage of them were (often without realising it!) doing a few little specific actions that were making their spouses feel deeply cared for. . . . Clearly, a few small actions won’t fix deep relationship problems. But for most of us, a handful of simple, day-to-day actions increase the likelihood that our spouse will feel that we care deeply about them instead of feeling that we don’t.”
Feldhahn discovered five key expressions of love that husbands and wives could express to each other that made the difference in their marriages and moved them into the highly happy category.
The fantastic five for him
Feldhahn found that wives have a big impact on their husband’s happiness when they do the following:
1. She notices his effort and sincerely thanks him for it. This deeply pleased 72 per cent of all men who took the survey. Examples of positive statements include when she says, “Thank you for mowing the lawn even though it was hot” or “Thanks for playing with the kids even though you were tired after work.” Research continues to demonstrate that men thrive on affirmation. In a world of competitiveness and one-up-manship, men need to know they measure up, that they are appreciated and that their partners don’t take all they do for granted. Feldhahn discovered that while women long to hear “I love you” from their partners, the same expression doesn’t speak to men as much as it does for a woman. What men need to hear is “Thank you!” It’s the emotional equivalent of “I love you” to her.
2. She says, “You did a great job at . . .” This deeply pleased 69 per cent of the men in her survey. Men simply like to know they’ve done a good job. They treasure the assurance that the work they do is appreciated, and not only that it’s been done, but that it’s been done well.
3. She mentions in front of others something he did well. This deeply pleased 72 per cent of all men in the survey. Men respond positively to kind and respectful words about them, especially when they’re stated “in public”—when they’re expressed outside the home and in the hearing of others. Expressing her appreciation for his good work in front of his friends and workmates empowers a man and allows him to feel worthwhile and highly valued as a partner.
4. She lets him know that she desires him sexually and that he pleases her sexually. This deeply pleased 85 per cent of the men who took the survey. Sexual intimacy for men measures highly on their scale of love! Research has indicated that men feel more highly loved in a marriage when there is more sex and less conflict!
5. She makes it clear to him that he makes her happy. For example, she expresses appreciation for something he did for her with a smile, kind words or a big hug. This deeply pleased 85 per cent of all men in the survey. A highly happily married couple never take their love for each other for granted but regularly find opportunities to say how much the other means to them and how much they are loved and appreciated.
The fantastic five for her
The highly happily married couples also revealed some secrets for men that can make their wives feel happy and loved. Feldhahn’s research found that a husband will have a big impact on his wife’s happiness when he does the following:
1. He takes her hand. Examples would be when walking through a carpark, when shopping or in church. This deeply pleased 82 per cent of all women in Feldhahn’s survey. For many men, this action might seem too benign or too simplistic to be real, but notice the high percentage of women who respond positively to this simple action! Smart men will recognise that it isn’t simply the hand being held but the message of love it conveys: “You are special to me and I want others to know that!”
2. He leaves a message by voice mail, email or text during the day to say he loves her and is thinking about her. This deeply pleased 75 per cent of the women surveyed. Women like to know their man is thinking about them during the day, not just when they seek affection or when they are in physical proximity. It’s about regular assurance that she’s Number One in his life and no-one else is!
3. He puts his arm around her or lays his hand on her knee when they are sitting next to each other in public. This deeply pleased 74 per cent of the women in the survey. Just like taking her hand, placing an arm around her is a powerful statement that she is uniquely special and highly treasured.
4. He tells her sincerely, “You are beautiful.” This deeply pleased 76 per cent of women surveyed. Women are constantly bombarded by messages that they need to look young, be in great shape, and wear the latest and best in clothes. Some women will spend inordinate hours at the gym and dollars in the fashion shops to ensure that they keep out in front in the competitive game of Woman of the Year. When a wife hears that her husband sincerely regards her as beautiful, she can relax and give away the compelling call to do more, be more, spend more!
5. He pulls himself out of a funk when he’s feeling morose, grumpy or upset about something instead of withdrawing. This deeply pleased 72 per cent of all women. John Grey, in his classic Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus, describes how men tend to “retreat into their cave” when they feel overwhelmed, confused or worried. This withdrawal can be challenging for wives—many hate it! Feldhahn found that men in the “highly happily married” category do all they can to avoid cave-time. This doesn’t mean they don’t get angry or need space; it means they try to pull themselves out of their grumpiness. Similar results were found by psychologist Dr John Gottman’s research into happy couples. He found that in times of conflict, the men who were able to calm themselves down and not overreact were the men with great relationships.
These highly happily married couples have provided all married couples some great insights and some genuine hope. Happiness in marriage doesn’t appear to depend on exotic cruises, opulent housing or expensive clothes. It does depend on some simple but powerful actions that are achievable by any husband or wife who wants the best for their marriage.