After Virtue: What Makes A Good Marriage?
Much of what I teach in spiritual psychology is virtue – the ability to restrain and work through negative thoughts, feelings and emotions, and therefore speech and behavior, and not unleash our toxicity onto others. Letting that stuff out rarely makes things better.
As I was teaching about some aspect of this at my bi-weekly class at the Silverlake Jewish Community Center through the East Side Jews, I reminded everyone that practicing virtue can clear the space within yourself and between us and others of needless negativity so that the real things can be dealt with, and so that we can actually enjoy the goodness that close relationships can bring.
A younger person in the room asked, what then, in my opinion, makes a good marriage? Meaning, once the virtue practice is in place, what next?
From my own experience, and having officiated at hundreds of ceremonies in my 35 years of this work, and having counseled hundreds of people, here is my rough list, from my impressions. A caveat: not all of these things have to be present in every marriage or life long partnership, but I think that at least some of them have to be present.
Here it goes: First, a bonding chemistry, including sexual attraction. I think we have a human need to bond physically with others. I read recently how good a long hug from someone we like is for our well-being. Couples need to feel nourished by the physical presence of each other. This does not mean sex alone, certainly, but I think it has to include sex, for most people.
Second, have fun together. Having fun when together is far more important than having lots of common interests – quality time over quantity. I knew a couple where one of them had a social life outside of the marriage, so the other one made sure to complain about that whenever they were together. Some people are just more social than others, while others only need the dyad. The dyad types marry the social types for complementarity, and then often resent the other for their gregariousness. Mistake. The social types, for some deep reason, are attracted to the more homebody types, and then resent them for not being more social. Also a mistake. We marry each other more for our differences than our similarities, but then become confused and punish the other for being different. Having fun for many is chilling with Netflix (as the saying goes). Way more people have fun together watching TV with pizza (okay, vegan, gluten free for some) than going for walks on the beach at night.
Three – admiration and gratitude. I remember one woman saying that she would have killed her husband a long time ago if he weren’t such a great person. I think it was a compliment of sorts. We all go through rough patches in marriages and lifelong relationships. We suffer disappointment. We get annoyed. If we can employ the spiritual psychological tool of “thought replacement” (you can’t get rid of a thought, you can only substitute one for another), we can replace negative thoughts with those of admiration for good qualities and gratitude for the goodness that you do receive. Couples that don’t admire each other, or who don’t have gratitude for each other, often run into deep trouble.
Fourth, communicate your love, admiration and gratitude often. I have had people say something like, “but she/he knows how much love and admiration I have.” People forget. Words of admiration, love and gratitude are like hugs. Most of us can’t get enough of it. Sounds corny, but couples need to praise each other. These words soothe us, nourish us, and restore us. We seek in the faces and words of others a mirroring of our self worth. In good relationships, people take care to reflect to the other that they are loved and cherished. In bad relationships, people criticize and scowl way more than they express love, gratitude, admiration and praise.
Fifth, take an interest in the other’s interests, even if you are not interested yourself. You don’t have to love what they love, but know that they love it. Understand why they love it. Let them ramble on for five minutes or so about their friends, their basket weaving, choir practice, stamp collecting, golf or especially Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Love it that they love it.
There are more qualities (e.g., further insights from Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages”, many of whose teachings match my own), but five is a good number to stop at. I have to add what so many people teach, such as Dr. John Gottman with his ‘four predictors of divorce’ (which is the main inspiration of my “4 C’s)”: be virtuous. His list is: no Criticism, Contempt, Stonewalling and Defensiveness – my list includes his: no Criticism, Complaining, Condemnation, or prolonged, useless Conflict.
If you rid yourself of the Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Divorce Apocalypse” or my “Four C’s”, you make space for the five qualities that I mention above, and those qualities that I have not mentioned.
Be virtuous, enjoy the bliss, be resilient when bliss is not present, and know: it really matters.