Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel once said, “None of us are married to just one person in our lives, even if we only marry one person.” For those who have been married 40 years and beyond, this saying undoubtedly rings true. As partners change and grow, good marriages evolve.
We live in a culture that is richly informed by romantic concepts. However, the truth is that marriage is hard for even the most committed partners. We increasingly rely on our spouses to play a vast number of roles in our lives: friend, lover, co-parent and financial partner.
Playing all these roles is a lot to navigate and virtually guarantees that you will not only hit bumps but also some craters along the way. When two people with separate histories come together, there will be periods where the best thing you can hope for is to find a way to coexist and a maintain a neutral stance towards one and other.
However, over time and with work, you and your spouse can grow together and even thrive. Science and relationship studies provide critical features of the roadmap that points to long-term success.
In the name of science and in honor of all those marriages that have surpassed the 40-year-mark and beyond, here are five tips for lasting success so that you can enjoy the different phases of evolution together. It is never too early to make use of them, even if you have just started your relationship’s journey.
1. Avoid The Comparison Level Alternatives Phenomenon
John Gottman, a recognized leader in the field of marital distress, first coined the phrase “comparison level alternatives” to describe the pattern in which we compare our life circumstances with an alternative, imagined scenario in the outside world.
For example, it’s quite normal to ask yourself questions like, “Am I happy in my career, or would I enjoy following a different path?” or “Am I really made for a life in the suburbs?” or“Should I consider a move to the city?”
When a marriage starts going on the rocks, however, you or your spouse might entertain more damaging comparisons or even enter into a marriage crisis.
You might say to yourself, “If I was married to so and so I’d be happier,” or “If I had picked a different person, my life would be less lonely,” or, “Maybe if I were alone, my life would be better.”
Research shows that comparison level alternatives are dangerous and potentially devastating to a marriage. They often manifest themselves in absorption of fantasies of freedom, or can lead to emotional and physical affairs. Avoid this insidious line of thinking at all costs.
When things get hard, try saying to yourself, “Part of being in a relationship is navigating troubled times, and I could be just as unhappy in another relationship. It might look different, but there would be difficulty and conflict all the same.” More simply, you could remind yourself of the truism “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
Instead of entertaining fantasies about some alternative life that doesn’t exist, choose your primary partner; committing to them in every way repeatedly. Spiritually. Emotionally. Mentally. Choose your spouse, again and again.
2. Adopt a Commitment Mindset
Committed spouses lean more towards realism than romanticism during challenging phases, and maintain an awareness that their needs will go unmet a certain percentage of time in the relationship. When asked for the secret behind her successful marriage to George Harrison, Olivia Harrison said, “It’s simple. Just don’t get divorced.”
A successful long-term marriage requires a bit of abandon. You must give up the notion that your spouse will make you feel completely satisfied all of the time. Refuse to view your role in the relationship as contingent on how your spouse makes you feel.
This is a type of mindset that manifests itself — not in a declaration of wedding vows — but in the way you show up for your spouse in the everyday, often mundane areas of life. There is something about an unwavering commitment that makes all other burdens easier to bear, and obstacles easier to surmount.
If you do allow your commitment to waver, on the other hand, you are more prone to abandoning the relationship when it goes through a period of not meeting your needs. Whether you do this physically, mentally or emotionally, you stop showing up in any meaningful way.
Instead, you start searching for the proverbial “Exit” sign.
3. Build Your Relationship “Love Map” (& Continuously Redraw the Lines)
There is immense value in teaching your partner who you are and what makes you feel loved in return.
As humans, we can’t read one another’s minds. However, it’s vital to know what works for both of you and to act on that knowledge repeatedly. Otherwise, you can be building a self-centered marriage, instead of a functional relationship.
The philosophy of love languages–that your partner feels loved in particular ways and you should find those ways–goes part of the distance. But when they don’t see your specific love language and don’t speak it to you, a generosity of spirit can go just as far. Giving your partner the benefit of the doubt is an important stance when they may be too distracted to love you in the way you want.
During the first 3-5 years of a marriage, you are just developing this understanding and building your love maps — a concept originally developed by John Gottman to describe the process of getting to know your partner’s world intimately.
Ask yourself, what’s happening in your spouse’s world? What’s important to them? What makes their heart sing and/or sink? What romantic gestures do they long for, and how often do you satisfy those longings?
These love map questions are not answered once and for all. Partners headed for a golden anniversary will continue to ask them, revising their maps as they go, adding nuance at every opportunity. A successful relationship is partly based on continued attention.
4. Avoid Turning to “Thirds” to Avoid Conflict
While we all need to talk about our problems from time to time, it’s important to be selective in what you say, to whom and how often.
In the world of couples therapy, involving others in your marital problems is what we call turning to “thirds.” It’s when you choose to talk to another about your relationship woes instead of your significant other.
Why is this an issue?
Well, for starters, it creates an immediate ripple effect. All of a sudden, you may have a one-sided jury of people who are rooting for you and will take your side no matter what (even if they shouldn’t). Your “jury” is hearing only one perspective of the issue and may align with you on partial evidence. They are likely to give you a level of confidence in the validity of your view that maybe you shouldn’t have.
Another dangerous aspect of turning to “thirds” is the clear conflict avoidance it displays. Whether from a lack of trust or one’s family of origin, some people are just more conflict-averse than others. However, avoidance never solves the most profound problems in a marriage and may exacerbate the issues.
Bringing your complaints to friends and family on a regular basis, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, can poison the well.
5. Support Your Partner in the Hard Times
Couples who have been married for decades have experienced many seasons of life together: births, graduations, deaths of family members, career moves and financial highs and lows.
With everything life can throw your way, it’s important to have someone by your side to hold your hand and share in the ups and downs.
Caring for yourself includes caring for your partner, knowing that their health and well being supports your own. However, if you have a partner who has not cared for you well, (or even become more of a burden than a benefit), your trust in them may wane. Once the retirement years approach or age starts to take its toll, the stakes for marriage become even higher.
You don’t want to wind up wondering, “Wow, for the next 10, 15 or 20 years, I could be physically compromised. How well is my spouse going to support me through this time?”
The patterns of support you have experienced throughout your marriage will inform how you answer that question. Was your spouse there for you when you had a C-section or your shoulder operation? Were they there for you when you were laid-off from your job or lost your father unexpectedly?
If you have felt abandoned or neglected throughout your marriage, you will have an appreciable amount of trepidation concerning how much support you will receive as you age. And the same may go for your spouse.
One or both of you might be more inclined to say, “Life is short, and I have less of it left. I want to make the next 10 years count.”
This is especially true for if one spouse has worn the hat of caretaker throughout your marriage. They will likely experience burnout. So, if one or both of you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, it just might be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
In old age, things don’t necessarily become easier. So, pay attention to how you support your spouse now and make every effort to acknowledge the ways you might have missed the mark in the past. This is a step to doing it better in the future.
A marriage that lasts decades requires a committed mindset. It asks each spouse to give equal regard to the others’ thoughts, opinions, and values. And, as you age, it will necessitate even deeper levels of trust and support.
If you and your spouse need a little help adapting to this new stage of your marriage or want to find new ways to approach conflict, our couples therapists have over 100 collective years of experience treating couples and spouses.
We offer weekly therapy and private, intensive 2-Day and 3-Day couples retreats as well as new extended hours and a growing team of couples therapists to meet increasing demand for expert, research-based couples therapy.