What Makes a Marriage Work?

Today is the anniversary of my 35th year of wedded bliss. Yes, wedded bliss is attainable, but only when you work hard for it. When I queried Mark on what his top tip for a happy marriage would be, he said “laying down your life”. That’s what it looks like to him. He has cut short some of his own dreams and aspirations so I could reach mine. He’s cuddled me when I’m really not that seemingly cuddle-worthy. He comes across as enchanted by me even after I’ve eaten dairy that’s soured my breath. I made some sacrifices too by opting for four hours of sleep each night when the kids were small so I could grow this business and invest in our relationship.

So, on this blessed occasion between our silver and gold anniversary, I wanted to give away a few tips that have made it work so well for so long.

Forgive every day: Never go to bed with unforgiveness or anger in your heart. Own your role in the fissure. Each night we hold hands and inventory our heart and talk through any pain or disappointment. We’ve had the joy of forgiving each other’s flawed humanity, hurtful words, injustices and more importantly forgiving our own selves. Somehow the human heart talks us into believing that if we hold onto an offense, it gives us power. It doesn’t. In reality, when you let it all go, you set yourself free. Listen to each other sincerely enough to understand the role you played in hurting the other. Then, work hard at not doing that again.

Honor your differences: Mark and I are as opposite as they come. I’m an extrovert (ENTJ) and he’s an introvert (INFP). I’m future-focused and Mark is fully present (which makes him more empathetic and got the kids to their sporting events). Even the verbs in our life mission statements have polarity — mine is “to conquer” and his is “to relax”. For years I tried to henpeck him into my own likeness, treating him as if our differences made him flawed in some way. He worked hard for a bit to please me in trying to be different — to become my vision for who he should be. I could see how unhappy he was and I was destroying in him the very thing I’d fallen in love with. Now we use the metaphor of a steamboat to describe our differences. I’m the sputtering energetic one above the surface driving us forward and he’s the wise, prayerful, quiet rudder making sure we don’t run aground.

Decide to love: When the chemistry and hormones of attraction wear off, what’s left? A decision. A decision to love every day even when you don’t feel it. By this point, you’ve seen into the windows of their soul and can still see what attracted you to them but are now keenly aware of their flaws. Seven years into our marriage I thought I was “done”. I was working long hours at my “real job” and Mark was starting the business. He would lay on the couch for days reading this new thing called computer and software manuals (yeah, he’s one of those guys who reads ‘em). I didn’t think I couldn’t keep going due to the inequities in effort around our careers. Instead, I decided to love and endure this season. If I’d left, we wouldn’t have the business today. So, on the days when you don’t “feel” love, decide to love. Make an unwavering decision to display affection as if you really feel it. Simple displays of affection can infuse your fading embers with the oxygen it needs for your heart to become ablaze again. It will blaze again, it just takes multiple decisions to love over and over even when you don’t feel it.

Laugh, a lot: A merry heart is like medicine. The loss of self-deprecating laughter is an early sign that you are too intense. When we were first married I had come from a very broken home. Life wasn’t light-hearted for me so when Mark cracked a joke, I took it personally and was hurt. Over time, Mark taught me how to laugh and makes me laugh every day, literally. Sometimes it’s a snort-laugh, many times it’s something hysterical at my expense. Laugh with each other and always be able to laugh at yourself. Our laughter has chased away troubles.

The human heart craves fellowship and companionship and once we have it, it gets tested. It goes through the ringer and challenges you to the core to muster the resolve to make it work no matter what. It takes steely resolve and tender affection to keep our lifelong commitment. Each day has sacrifice yet it yields great reward.

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