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Love is not all you need in a marriage

Monday 3 June 2013

There are three keys to an enduring relationship. Love may be important, but communication, respect and trust are essential

Tim Lott , The Guardian, Saturday 20 April 2013

I would like to write about what makes a successful marriage, which is unfortunate, as I don’t know the answer. All I know is what a working marriage looks like close up, which is a different thing. The first thing to say about "happy marriages" is that I doubt there are many of them. Very roughly, half of all marriages end in divorce.

I suspect that of those who stay together, half are hanging on because of children, money, or fear of loneliness. Some are truly and consistently happy, out of a fortunate combination of circumstance, rather than any particular brand of love or tactic. Most of the remaining marriages, I think, are not about happiness or unhappiness, but accommodation and negotiation. And I say that as half of a married couple in which both of us have probably made one another both happy and unhappy, probably in roughly equal measure. We are very different people, but then all people are very different people. And therein lies the central problem of marriage, which asks you to spend close company with one person for years on end.

My wife and I both have a very strong sense of individuality, and I like that, but it means we have our fair share of fireworks. Anyone who does not have a lot of disagreements in a marriage is probably repressing a lot of stuff, which is liable to explode sooner or later.

I have already had one marriage that did not work out (I hesitate to call it a failed marriage because it succeeded for a fair while) and this one has already lasted a lot longer, which I take as a good sign. We have the basics – we love each other – but that is just the beginning. To me, there are three keys to marriage and they are all very difficult to forge.

The first is communication, which I have written about here before and which I don’t intend to go into again. Suffice to say that good communication requires practice, goodwill, determination and a considerable amount of inborn talent.

The second is respect, which in many ways is more important than love. Love comes and goes, but respect endures, and provides the space for love to flow after the ebb, which is bound to come in all long marriages sooner or later.

The third is trust. And this is the hardest of all, because if you have ever been let down – and we all have – reconstructing the trust is difficult. This isn’t about infidelity, but many small matters – broken promises, bad intentions, frustrated hopes.

You have to trust, even though you have no guarantee you won’t be let down, and then, if you are let down, trust again, and then again. You must keep doing this as long as you are humanly able to, and your marriage will either stand or fall on it. This requires what I call the power of "forgettory" as opposed to memory. You need to forget and forget again about any perceived hurts and mistreatment. Dragging the weight of the past behind you will drag you down in the end.

But you will never, can never, "get there", because there is nowhere to get to. A marriage is a moving process, a living thing, and if it stops being fed with these existential nutrients, it will finally expire. Complacency and laziness is what kills marriage, far more than lack of love, and that is why it is often described as hard work. But no work is ultimately more rewarding.

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