To What Do You Attribute the Success of Your Marriage?

Wedding bands.
Not everyone takes the same path toward a successful marriage.

Photograph by Andranik Makaryan/Hemera.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Marcus Geduld, Former dateless nerd, now 20 years into a relationship:

We’ve been married for 17 years and together for 19. Aside from that mysterious thing called “chemistry,” here are the things that work for us.

I want to be really clear that each of the following has worked well for me and my wife. I am not saying that all marriages should be like ours. For reasons I don’t quite understand, when people ask me why my marriage works, and I tell them, they assume I’m judging other marriages. I’m not. If your marriage works via some different criteria, good for you!

1. We were best friends for a year before we even started dating. That’s my general way of operating, though it’s not something I’ve consciously tried to do. I’ve simply never started a romantic relationship with someone who wasn’t my friend, first, and I can’t imagine ever wanting to do so. To me, romance is something you build on top of friendship, not the other way round. (See Marcus Geduld’s answer to Life Lessons: What are important things and advice to know that people generally aren’t told about?)

2. We got married when we were both almost 30. I have friends who married younger and are still happily together, but that’s not the norm in my experience. Most of the folks I know who married young are now divorced or in troubled relationships. By the time my wife and I got married, we had worked all sorts of issues out. We both knew who we were and what we wanted from life. We’d gotten over issues we had with our parents, etc.

3. We have separate bank accounts. I posted about this some time ago, and it caused a shit storm. Please see the boldface text, above. (See Marcus Geduld: What is Marcus Geduld’s philosophy on money in a marriage?)

4. We continually work on projects together. Some of these happen naturally, due to shared interests. Others are more planned. If we didn’t need to work on something together, we’d invent a project, e.g. learning to cook Indian food or whatever.

5. We communicate constantly. Even while we’re at work, we call, email, and IM each-other multiple times a day. And we talk about everything. I know I can tell my wife any dumb, depraved, wicked, or embarrassing thought, and she won’t judge me. And I’m the same with her.

6. As much as possible, we hang out in the same room, even when we’re both doing our own thing. Often, we sit on the sofa together, me on my laptop and my wife on hers. I’m on Quora and she’s doing … whatever she does. But we’re in the same room, and from time to time we make eye contact and share some tidbit on information, e.g. “Guess what some guy on Quora just wrote?”

7. We play together. And I mean play as in “children playing.” We chase each other around our apartment, put on puppet shows for each other, play pranks on each other, and get each other surprise gifts. There’s a whole brain module in my head devoted to doing silly things to my wife. (Recently, I photoshopped a picture of her with an elephant’s trunk and posted it on her Facebook wall. Hee hee!) We’ve both learned to think of marriage as a playground.

8. We are both committed to the idea of marriage, see our marriage as something important that we’ve co-created, and are determined to keep it alive. I’m not going to say there’s nothing that could end it, but I know that before either of us would even consider divorce, there would be many attempts to save the marriage.

I never take my marriage for granted. I never think, “I have to work hard at work, but when I come home, I don’t need to do anything.” My marriage doesn’t feel like work, but I’m always thinking about it and problem-solving to make it better.

As far as I’m concerned, there are no deal breakers. For instance, if I discovered my wife had been having an affair, I’d be very hurt and angry. But I wouldn’t say, “That’s it. I’m out.” I’d at least see if there was a way to salvage the marriage. If my wife didn’t want to work on salvaging it with me, it would probably end, but I know her, know her values, and know she would work on it. Because we both believe in it.

9. Gender isn’t an issue for us. I don’t believe there’s anything I should do because I’m a man or she should do because she’s a woman. If we decided to have kids, we wouldn’t take it for granted (or as a default) that she would stay home with the kids. This is an equal partnership.

10. We both like pie.

Answer by Jon Davis, Married high school sweetheart. Still together:

Puzzle pieces, homework, spreadsheets, a dog, and a sign.

Jennie and I have only been married for nine years, but in those nine years we have been through more than most marriages experience in a lifetime. We have been forcibly separated for two of the first four years, endured two deployments to Iraq when I was in the Marines along with numerous training deployments, the tragic death of a parent, loss of two grandparents (we haven’t even reached year five by this point), seven cross country moves, two degrees, ran a small business, and endured numerous personal failures. And did I mention, we were married when we were only 18? Statistically, studies have shown that any one of these happening to a couple have caused marriage survival rates to drop into the single digits. When combining these together, I am pretty sure that statisticians would call it a miracle, but I think it comes down to who we are and what we have done to make it work. I can honestly say that I hate a few people who have no idea how easy their marriages are. Still, we are happy together. I suppose that counts as a validation of a degree of expertise in the matter.

For Jennie and me, it is a remarkable degree of attributes that come together in the correct manner to perfectly fit our lives. I know how clinical that sounds, but I’ve come to the conclusion that people who think that marriage is at it’s best a miraculous rainbow of love and self-affirmation and at it’s worst “hard work,” are hopelessly deluded into what it takes to survive a marriage when the world is against you. Of course there is hard work, but if you are not a person capable of hard work then it really isn’t the work that is the problem is it? Frankly, if you are working hard just to be married, you have already screwed something up that now you need to fix. Marriage should not be by default hard work, but an escape from the hard things that happen in life. It is my belief that two people are either right for each other, or they aren’t, and only two very, very right for each other people can survive some of things we have. I do believe, however, that there are things that we have done or stumbled into that has granted us a special edge in this fight to overcome seemingly insurmountable Still, in the hopes of helping others, here are some things that I find incredibly crucial to surviving life while being married.

1. Puzzle Pieces
I have this belief certain people just fit together and most people just don’t. I know this is a bit trite, and the weak among you will start to question yourselves already, but I feel it is a fundamental truth that more people need to accept sooner into their failed relationships. I also couldn’t resist the obvious sexual innuendo. As I see it, and this is based off nothing other than my own observations, we all have certain characteristics that we can’t change. You aren’t aware of all of them, but they are a part of you that only gets fixed in romance novels and Disney movies. You are how you are and you can’t be changed and neither can they. Your job now is to find someone who fits who fits into you perfectly and vice-versa. That’s called dating and not the first year of marriage by the way.

I really hate the opposites attract trope. They don’t. You might think that some things are opposite and it is so good that you balance each other out like magnets or something, but you need to completely and fanatically agree on so many things for for a marriage to work. I like the chemistry analogy. No I don’t think that the first kiss is where it is. That is a chemical cocktail of endorphins, hormones, perfumes and is more closely related to something along the lust/euphoria spectrum than love and compatibility. I mean the way two different different, but complementary elements can come together to form a bond that is not easily broken. Most of the time, different elements will just sit around doing nothing in the presence other elements. A few will explode brilliantly and then are blasted in opposite directions. Then there are a few that just marry perfectly together forming a lasting bond that is not easily broken. These two elements have to have just the right properties and those don’t change, but when they come together they make something really important. That’s all for that analogy, because frankly I think that makes hydrogen a slut and I only got a C in chemistry anyway.

The point is that there are a ton of very unique things about each other that are valuable and must be different to make the marriage successful. I’m a thinker and a dreamer while Jennie is the doer and is focused. I motivate and encourage while she soothes. She hates the pizza crust and I love it. I write, she proofreads. Importantly though in other things, we are perfectly in sync, such as our views on religion, finance, family, politics, and obscure childhood cartoon shows. That combination of unique and different, but complimentary, can not also have the base of agreement on many things.

Honestly you can’t just get together with anyone and it be a successful relationship. Most possible combinations are going to fail. You had a nice night once. You think she is beautiful. It doesn’t matter. You have to do your homework to find out what type of people you are, how well you are going to fit for the long term, and if this thing is worth the work your going to invest into it.

2. Homework
Yay for segues. This is the most important step in making it work, checking if it will work.

Before Jennie and I got married (at 18 remember), we were highly encouraged to speak to our preacher and take part in a pre-marital counseling. The truth is that our preacher didn’t give us any blessing or “allow” us to marry, but was a trusted person who gave us the information to decide if we were ready. The point of this was to help us make sure we were aware of what it meant and would be ready. We spoke to my youth minister, because I was still technically in the youth group (ha-hah!) for about an hour one afternoon after school. That’s when he started asking us the tough questions like views on faith in marriage, how many kids we wanted, education for each other, what would we do if… He even gave us a workbook to go through; parts of it individually, parts together.

This is a real test for most people. Being 18, how much do you think we talked about kids? Well, you’re wrong. We nailed it! We had already had long conversations about all these issues just because it was just sort of the thing we wanted to talk about. We even knew how many kids each other wanted and preferred gender combinations. Part of our “I had a bad day” ritual through our senior year was just laying on the bed and pretending what all we wanted in our dream house of our future marriage. Along with all that came a lot of questions that we answered, well before anyone told us we should be thinking about it. Suffice it to say, we talked about being married a long time before the actual planning for getting married. I am actually astounded that just as a product of chance we happened into those conversations and found them so enjoyable. I say that this counseling was one of the most important things we did on our road to matrimony, not because we needed it, but because it gave us confidence that we had in fact found the right one and were making the right decision. We needed that being such an extraordinary case.

That’s why I always give the advice to young couples to take counseling like this. No one ever listens. It gets a lot of things you may not have thought about out in the open. It builds confidence in the team and lays the groundwork for the marriage. I swear that the most stupid thing I see over and over and over is people who spend months and months planning for a giant wedding and overly elaborate honeymoon and don’t even know simple things like, “Would you rather have boys or girls?” Guess what, our wedding consisted of six tiki torches, a portable cd player, a preacher paid in leftovers from the reception, and a lake. We couldn’t keep the lake. We also didn’t have a honeymoon. Why? Because I had to report to boot camp six days later. You just don’t need to focus on one day, when hopefully goal is lasting closer to 18,237 (50 years for the mathematically challenged).

Go to a pre-marital counseling. Churches give great ones, but it doesn’t have to be religious. Just make sure that you speak with someone impartial professional who can make sure to ask you questions about:

  • Children, religion, careers, sex, money, living standards, education, homes, sex, politics, finances, travel, retirement, sex, and mostly your own life goals.

These are all the things that you really don’t talk about in polite society, but you had better know their opinions on the matter by heart before saying “I do.” I don’t really believe all these people who say that being together on all these things is not important. At some point in the next 50 years or so, you are going to run into a few of these issues like a truck and a brick wall. If you aren’t in sync for these you’re going to get fazed by one of these existential dilemmas that break apart marriages decades after you say “I do.”

3. Spreadsheets
Did you know that most couples divorce on account of money? Did you also know that most people suck at math? We know that and have done as much as we can to fix that situation. What is also important is that we both grew up poor and terrified of being without money. We are also incredibly fastidious with our money. For years now, we have known where every dollar was, where it was going, when another was coming in and what to do in an emergency long before there was an app for it. Why? Because I like spreadsheets.

In business school, I heard a mantra that stuck with me. “Treat your business like a family.” I thought that was utterly ridiculous. I go to work so that I can feed my family, who I actually want to be with and who I don’t want to choke to death. But it did get me thinking. “What if you were to treat your family like a business?” Before you get to deep into that, I was studying a lot of accounting at the time and enjoyed the way that numbers moved around and told a story. So no, I am not talking about firing your wife or cat, or the advantages of taking on a new “partner” in this joint venture you’ve created. I’m talking about focusing on the numbers. I kind of sucked at accounting, but I had learned enough to make use of it. I went home and designed several spreadsheets that helped us track everything that was going on in our home. It was actually much easier then what we used to do. We used to go through every single receipt, line by line, and total up our expenses down to how much we spent on what types of items at the grocery store. Because candy is not laundry detergent, you don’t pool them together as “groceries.” We made cuts and adjustments and never once had to worry about money like other people do. We never made a lot of money, but got by. Not in our entire first decade have we ever been truly close to broke. Can you imagine two twenty years olds you know doing that, sitting down every month with all the bills, receipts, an old notebook, and calculator to make sure the ends were meeting? Didn’t think so. I also don’t many twenty year olds who experience a ten year anniversary before they turn thirty. In any case, the spreadsheets saved us a massive amount of time to where we only really need about an hour every month to make sure we are on track.

Technically no, you don’t need to be as meticulous as us in your financial endeavors. You don’t actually need the spreadsheets. I just enjoy making them for some reason. What you do need is someone in the relationship, really both of you, who cares very, very deeply about tracking the money. You need rules, limits, allowances, and balances that you both agree to and that you both enforce. I want to say again that money is the single leading cause of divorce for a reason.

Another thing that I want to say, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else is this; don’t have separate bank accounts. I know a ton of people of will argue with this point and say that it works for them, but here is my logic behind it. Are you willing to combine your living space, your future, and your DNA with this person, but not trust them with knowing how much you make and how you spent the money? First of all, in our family we don’t have individual money. Everything goes into the family account. Everything that is bought is bought with some family goal in mind or with the blessing of the other party. Jennie called me the other day to make sure that it was OK if she bought $70 dollar shoes for work. Of course its OK. ‘Why is she still asking me this?’ I thought to myself, but the answer is that she knows that spending money is either an investment for the family, something to be shared or it hurts us and our goals. It’s about teamwork and I appreciate her for that.

4. Get a Dog
So here you two are, happy that you are together and blissful that your existence together forever is assured. Then someone starts to think that it is lonely and that there is “something missing” in your home. Someone starts talking about the pitter-patter of little feet, the feeling of caring for something, being needed and loved unconditionally, since I guess now your love is worth little more than day old bacon. Well let me tell you something very honestly, all of these things can be done by a dog. Not only that, but if you aren’t an idiot about it it, they can be potty trained in three days, know where to find the food you leave them, and will give you all the love and support you need.

What I am really saying? Wait to have kids. Kids are a blessing so I have been told. All my friends love theirs. I haven’t seen any of them take one back to the store, but I think a trial run is just wise. Dogs are a great way to do that. In that nowhere-near-as-hard-as-having-a-kid sort of way, you get to work with your partner in developing the parts of a marriage that focus on those who are dependent on the two of you. You practice care and nurturing, namely feeding and cleaning, but more importantly training and discipline. Yeah, if you two can’t decide on if spanking a dog is too big a moral hurdle to cross, do you think you are ready for kids? P.S. A bad dog that you screwed up is only is only going to be a bad dog for around fourteen years. You’re stuck with the decisions you made “just winging it” with your kids for life.

Seriously, getting a dog can add two years to the time that you need to have kids. You also see if that person is right for handling someone in their care. It gets you ready to adjust your schedules around that little thing, making sure that you plan for it when you are away, thinking of its feelings and needs along with your own, and all the other things that go into having kids, if only in the smallest degree. You also get to see how that person acts or reacts when the dog acts up. Will they stick to their guns and to your plan or renig at the last minute because they lack heart. Still, a dog is much better than a baby book at getting you ready for one. Plus they’re just awesome. Seriously, Allie is a member of our family. We are those people.

5. A Sign
There is a sign in our room that I have threatened to take down on numerous occasions.

I wanted to add the idea of rituals that bind your behavior. Rituals are the big little things that just don’t matter, but really do. They are the neurotic things you do together that remind you of your shared history. These are the small events in your everyday routine that reemphasize your commitment to each other and to the values you share. It can be things as small as how I always get her a coke when she gets in from work or how, as I have discovered, the first words I say to her should be (must be), “Hi, Sweetie. How was your day?”

Others are deeply important for very sentimental reasons. Like this one, every Thanksgiving, we will go to McDonalds. We will have one of the few times where we go in, order, and sit down in the store and eat our meal, laugh, carry on, and reminisce about old times before going to work on the big meal of that holiday. We do this to remember our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was training in 29 Palms, California, while she was still in Oklahoma. We had been married since June, but had not yet seen each other for more than three weeks, since. Everyone got a long weekend for Thanksgiving, so we planned to have her fly down and spend it with me. (Just so you know, I wasn’t allowed to go home to be with her, in case you are wondering.) After months of being apart, we were going to spend one whole day together in Palm Springs which, appropriately, is an oasis. Don’t forget, also, that this was being done on the pay of a 19 year old Marine Corps PFC, so it amounted to a major financial sacrifice to do it. What we didn’t really think about was that on Thanksgiving weekend … no one is open. No one. We walked around the city for more than an hour looking for something to do and somewhere to eat. It was Thanksgiving and we were starving, a fact we laughed about for about a mile. Then there was one sign still lit, a pair of golden arches. Whatever, we’ll take it. We had our burger, and shared a shake, and loved every bite of it, because we were together, and this was our first Thanksgiving dinner together. Since then we have moved the Thanksgiving burgers to the day before Thanksgiving, for practical reasons, but it still reminds us that Thanksgiving isn’t about a turkey or the work that goes into it. Rituals like this help codify family values and the stories help to enrich and teach the next generation about their importance, as well as continually bringing us closer together.

Of course, this isn’t even our most important ritual. That would be our “Goodnight” ritual. Every single night since we have been married, we have ended it the same way. We go to bed together. After reading or talking, we lean over and I softly whisper “Goodnight.” She echoes. “Sweet dreams.” She echoes again. We kiss. “I’ll see you in the morning.”, “Goodnight”, and one final kiss. These two kisses and twenty four words have been part of our routine every single night for nearly ten years. Even when I was in Iraq. Every day I could, I would call her and even if it was night for me and seven in the morning for her, we would still say this ritual, if only to ensure that it was said. Barring a few black out periods where I literally couldn’t communicate back home, we have said this to each other each and every single night. We even closed our letters with this ritual.

It came about as combination of two other things. One, on our wedding day, we received some advice from the best couple I have ever seen, our role models as married people, my cousins Donnie and Rene. Rene told us, “Never go to bed angry.” The actual wording came from a ritual my mother said to me when I was a little child and she would tuck me in. Together, these two have become our nightly ritual. And we must do it.

It has become such an important thing that a sign reading “Always kiss me goodnight” is the exact sign that hangs above our bed. It is the physical reminder of what the ritual means. The importance of this act isn’t that it is just something we say. We have to mean it. It is very hard not to fight in a marriage. It is also extremely hard not to hold a grudge because of something someone said. What goodnight means to us is that each and every single night, we have to make up and go to sleep on good terms. This has meant dozens of nights where we are up until four in the morning and has had resulted in hurt feelings, told secrets, repressed emotions, unknown context, and a lot of tears. But I can say this, they always have ended. On a few occasions Jennie has wanted to give up and I threaten to take down the sign, and that reminds her of its importance. A few times, she has said it to me. It’s a reminder that we can’t escape a promise we made to each other never to carry one day’s burdens on to the next and to wish each other a pleasant rest from whatever happened on this one. We have done this every day, without fail, no matter how hard it was, for the last nine years. If I had to pick one thing, this is probably the least cool thing we do, but is probably more important to our success in marriage than any other act you have done since getting married.

Look you can take our advice or leave it. Suffice it say I suggest you at least consider it because, frankly, we have been through more in our first decade then most marriages see in a lifetime. I know I sound cocky, but you would do well to consider what I have to say instead of risking your marriage to prove me wrong. There is a lot of value in learning from my experiences instead of dealing with the emotional heartache of discovering it for yourself.

Obviously I don’t attribute my marriage to just metaphorical puzzle pieces, homework, spreadsheets, and a dog. No ritual practice is going save a failing marriage. The truth is that it took two people who were just the perfect amount of whatever they were, to be what they are today. We had to have balance and a ton of teamwork. We had to be that crying shoulder and well timed joke. We had to be the distraction and we had to push each other towards our goals. It took a lot of character from two people who had a very difficult childhood to meet each other that molded them into being what they would become. The little notches in our figurative puzzle pieces were earned through heartaches and struggles before we ever met, and they could only be filled by someone who had experienced them to. Some of these four little items represent some of the things that we luckily stumbled into when we were young and that I wish more people would do in their marriages. Some are just good ideas. All of them I think would make for a better marriage if people would be give them a try, but in the end of the day it just comes down to character. A successful marriage has little to do with what you do, but who you are… and who they are… and who you are together.

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