We were sitting down to lunch. I, a visitor to this large cosmopolitan city, another close male relative, and his daughter. The lunch? A bowl of canned tomato soup that was curdled and lukewarm, and bland cheese sandwiches. My host had done his best and we were just sitting down at the table as his wife, a known gourmet cook, came rushing in to join us, apologizing for her late arrival. Quietly looking at the meal in front of her, she noticed it wasn’t up to her standards. She commented on the curdles… then, with barely a pause, said, “Thanks for making this – it’s just the way I like it.
Simple words. No criticism, no “reality check,” or blunt honesty was shared. Instead, gratefulness, with a touch of humor, made that lunch one of the best I’ve ever had, coupled with an invaluable lesson about how tolerance positively affects a marriage and family.
Over the years I’ve noticed that successful marriages have a few of these “essential ingredients” in common. It’s often been my privilege to watch and learn from others who are modeling good relationships for their children, friends and family. What are other ingredients that make “a good marriage” good?
Coupled closely with the ingredient of tolerance is another essential: forgiveness. I like the Golden Wedding Anniversary Celebration where the wife, at age seventy, shared the secret of her happy marriage with the celebrants. She stated that on her wedding day, she decided to make a list of ten of her husband’s faults, which, for the sake of her marriage, she would overlook. At the end of the celebration, her granddaughter, who was having difficulty in her marriage, asked her grandmother what some of the faults had been. Her grandmother replied, “To tell you the truth, dear, I never did get around to listing them. But, whenever my husband did something that made me hopping mad, I’d say to myself, Lucky for him, that’s one of the ten!”
In any relationship there will be misunderstandings, hurts and frustrations. If left unacknowledged and unforgiven, these feelings can easily grow into resentment and anger. It is amazing how quickly walls of resentment can be created by not dealing with the hurt and annoyances that were once small.
It is equally amazing to see how these walls of resentment and anger can be dissolved when a couple is willing to set aside time to listen to another’s feelings, reactions, disappointments, triumphs and frustrations. I’ve observed the most successful marriages to include daily in-depth conversation with one another. It is not just passive listening that occurs. The hindrances to good listening are put aside; stubbornness, assumptions and inner rebuttals refuting the other’s opinion. This listening is an intense, undistracted involvement where two people truly work at understanding the other – why they think, feel and act in certain ways. In doing so, marriages are moved into deep closeness and intimacy.
I’ve also observed that in good marriages, criticism is given sparingly and constructively, with gentleness. Appropriate times are chosen carefully to share concerns and/or potential conflict issues. Criticism is not given publicly, and many more positive encouragements are given to every criticism.
In reaction to criticism, I’ve noticed my own tendency to leap quickly to my own defense, to excuse or refute my behavior. What a difference it makes when I am open to listen, to hear my spouse’s perspective, and even, though difficult, to apologize when I’m wrong – which seems to be more often than I care to admit. In fact, I’ve noticed great truth in a little piece of Ogden Nash’s poetry. He writes: To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it, Whenever you’re right, shut up!!
I’ve also observed an attitude of selflessness in some of the best marriages I’ve seen. This is not an easy concept to handle in this day of “meism,” and “personal rights.” This attitude of selflessness incorporates an “other- centeredness” – a deep respect for the other person, an attitude of wanting what is best for both, not just what is best for one.
Decisions are made together, not unilaterally, with both persons’ interests considered equally valuable. No one person in the marriage has more “rights” or more “say” than the other. Each person has his or her own identity and abilities which are valued for what they contribute to the relationship and family.
There is a great deal of humor and laughter in the marriage. It is a certain type of humor. It is not sarcasm, directed at putting another down. More often it is self-deprecating humor, often elevating another at the expense of one’s own self.
Meaningful, affectionate touch is part of these good marriages. Respect is always conveyed through physical touch, and no one party demands more affection or communication than the other is willing to give.
Finally, I’ve noticed in a good marriage, commitments are made and adhered to, unchanged by flights of fancy or feeling. Both parties commit to the marriage for life, and to resolve all problems that arise. If necessary, marriage counselling is sought for problematic issues.
In the truly “great” marriages, I believe both individuals commit to being the best they can be within themselves, for themselves, for their partner and for the others whose lives they touch. These are the marriages that, often without knowing, perhaps over a simple meal, affect the next generation powerfully, for the good.