“And They Lived Happily Ever After,” and other Myths about Marriage
The definitive guide to a fairy tale relationship
Good marriages don’t “just happen,” and contrary to popular belief, love does not conquer all. Take a look around you and it is easy to see the many divorces and strained marriages in our midst. Busy work schedules, the ever-demanding needs of children, financial challenges and other real-world concerns often lead to couples drifting apart. Couples enter marriage full of love and optimism and expect to live “happily ever after.” How disappointing and sad it is when love alone does not guarantee a happy future.
What is a good marriage and how is it achieved and maintained?
A good relationship creates an ongoing sense of feeling safe, special and connected. This is called emotional intimacy. Positive relationships have an enduring sense of “I’ve got your back.” Each person feels this with confidence and consistency. So, how does this occur, and how can it last?
There is one key to having and sustaining a good intimate marriage: Being INTENTIONAL.
Intentionality is about having a “consciousness” about our relationship and then “purposefully acting” in a way that contributes to its success.
Scott J. Pontier, M.A., M.S.W. is a NJ Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor. With graduate degrees in both theology and mental health he brings a unique perspective to his work. He has been providing psychotherapy and couple’s counseling for over thirty years. Scott maintains a private practice in Bridgewater, NJ, leads corporate presentations on a variety of topics, and is also a provider for First Step Counseling (a service of North Branch Church). He can be reached at (908) 203-9444 or via email at email@example.com.
Typically, marriage is lived on “cruise control,” that is to say with little thought and planning about marriage itself. It is like once the marriage occurs, we take it for granted, expecting it to thrive on its own. Certainly this is not very conscious or intentional.
This is immensely different from how a business operates. Consider the amount of planning and accountability that goes into a thriving business concern. Quarterly and annual plans, project deadlines, clear accountability, status updates, goals measured against outcomes – these are the hallmarks of an organization. And, work organizations often have mission statements (that point them in the direction they need to be). No wonder strong companies continue to grow in success and profitability!
Another example might be growing tomato plants in the summer. If one plant is stuck in the dirt and left alone, it is unlikely to bear the same amount and type of fruit as a plant that is lovingly tended. Adding nutrients, providing water, placing near the sunshine, removing surrounding weeds – all assure a better yield than a plant left to nature alone. Imagine if marriages were given some of the same intentionality and if we applied the same principles!
Good marriage is not about luck. “Paying attention” and deciding consciously what we want our marriage to be (feel like), and working intentionally toward this vision, ensure a much higher likelihood of a rich and rewarding relationship.
How is an intentional marriage created?
First, as Stephen Covey (in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People) says, “Begin with the end in mind.” That is to say, imagine or envision what a great marriage looks like. This becomes the “vision statement” for the relationship. Achieving this is done by (intentionally) behaving in ways that support this goal/vision. For example, to regularly check in with each other about “how we are doing and feeling.” To receive and provide support mutually in this way enforces the “I have your back” concept. Consciously working at the shared goal(s) in an ongoing way leads to positive and enduring results.
Secondly, there are “tools” that can help living an intentional and conscious marriage. A few examples follow.
- “Work” at it. Work need not be unpleasant; pick something you both like. Work is in the eyes of the beholder. For example, while some people might find yard work unpleasant, others might rush home and relish working on their yard and garden. So, if sharing a morning cup of coffee and really talking about what matters feels comfortable, that is good work. Consider regular “state of the (marital) union” meetings! Find a few ways to work at your relationship.
- “Give off the top.” Many churches and religious organizations encourage the biblical concept of “tithing.” This is a concept of committing a percentage of earnings to the church and giving “off the top,” before paying bills, or waiting to see what is left at the end of the week/month. This concept works great in relationships. Often the opposite occurs, which is giving our best to work, children, etc. and saving nothing for our spouse. Imagine what might happen if consciously we “gave the best” of ourselves to each other, rather than what is left over. Setting this priority and making it happen is both challenging and rewarding.
- Listen Well. The art and skill of “active listening” when achieved feels good. It also helps a relationship, its emotional intimacy and feeling of connectedness. Mostly, when we listen to others we are quickly agreeing or disagreeing in our own minds, or comparing the situation to ourselves. We are also thinking about a “fix” for the concern. Often we interrupt and offer these thoughts before the speaker is finished. This is NOT active listening. To listen well, we work to hear and “affirm” the other person’s perception/feeling – even if we don’t see it the same way! It might sound like, “Wow, when I hear the way that felt to you, I can understand how upsetting it would be!” Period. No need to say much more or state your opinion. If more is wanted you will be asked! Sometimes just feeling heard and not judged is very helpful.
- Provide Unconditional Love. People of faith are well versed in the concept of God’s unconditional love. That is to say it is not earned and perhaps not even fully deserved. It just is. While perhaps a lofty or even undoable concept for most, there is a value to be recognized. Consider this – provide love, affirmation, helpfulness, hugs, and generosity – simply because you love your significant other. It is most common that people live in a “quid pro quo” world where “I will be nice to her because she was nice to me” is the reigning philosophy. Imagine what would happen if we just did “the right thing” or provided the love out of choice…..because we love them and that is what we do for people we love, rather than only when they “earned” it. The impact would be huge.
- Keep it Special. Oh how easy it is to let relationships become routine! Couples become a good “team,” good parents, good neighbors but fail to maintain that special feeling in marriage. Think creatively. Plan dates, create surprises, buy a card, and write a love note. When a person feels special, they feel full and satisfied and consistently connected.
It is possible to “live happily ever after,” however, this takes intentionality and consciousness! When the commensurate amount of effort (intentionality) one puts into career and children becomes directed towards marriage, good things happen! Consider enriching your own relationship – make it special again. Ask your partner to read this article and discuss it together. Make the decision to practice a few of the ideas presented here and “check in” with each other a few times a week to see how it is going (and how it feels). Don’t hesitate to enlist the skills of an experienced couple’s counselor for a few sessions to coach you in this process. Your relationship is worth it.
So, consider creating your “story book” romance today. Prove that it is possible to “live happily ever after!”