Relationships & Dating

The Benefits of Long-Term Marriage

Loyalty, of course, is a major stumbling block for many couples because of the widespread issue of sexual infidelity. There are many complex reasons why this is such a danger to marital stability, not the least of which is the blow it strikes to the trust and intimacy between the two partners as friends. The minute a third person is introduced into the equation in the form of a hidden liaison, the cuckolded spouse is no longer the person who is the partner’s most intimate friend, the person who knows the most about him or her. Now there is someone else who knows a secret, someone who knows something hidden, and that creates a rift in the relationship above and beyond the sexual infidelity. This rift, for many, is experienced as even more hurtful and damaging than the sexual betrayal. For this reason it is often very important that all the details of the affair ultimately be revealed, even though it can be very painful for both parties to do so.

But many marriages are able to recover from betrayals, and many people who have survived very bad periods in their relationships report in their later years that they are glad that they “stuck it out.” Long-term couples usually have learned which issues they can manage to tolerate in their partners and which ones they can bargain into a tolerable range. Older people have been shown to have higher levels of gratitude and they often appreciate their spouse’s good qualities more than they used to. One of the most often cited aspects of these marriages is the importance of shared history. “Janet” said that she finds the legacy of the family that she and her husband have raised together a very strong bond. Even though their children no longer live at home, the partners’ shared memories and investment in the ongoing lives of their sons is a mutual interest that supersedes all others in their lives. They have a common “vocabulary” referring to places and events and incidents that they share, as well as goals and events they look forward to, like future grandchildren. Their lives have grown together, like two neighboring trees that have become entwined as the years have passed.

Through the years there were many times when Janet did not think she and her husband would stay married. They had more than their share of life stresses and marital woes, but it seems that they had a foundation of friendship — which included shared values, goals, and mutual respect — that helped them forgive each other’s faults and betrayals and which served as a source of sanctuary and protection against life’s stresses, even when some of them were caused by the marriage itself.

So is friendship the key to staying married? What about sex, which is often the first thing that draws people together?

While most would agree that sexuality is a key aspect of marital happiness, including sexual attraction, satisfaction, compatibility, and fidelity, a great many couples go through changes in one or more of these areas during the course of a long marriage. Furthermore, during the life cycle individual needs vary a great deal. While some couples maintain an active sex life continuously, into their 80s or even 90s, others “retire” in midlife, seemingly without complaint. What they all have in common is that sex is no longer the central “front burner” issue that it is in the earlier years. Anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that there are obvious evolutionary advantages to being hyper-sexual during the childbearing years, but as people age, sexuality waxes and wanes, and is not always the central way a pair relate to each other. Treating couples, however, I have often found that a history of sexual passion is an excellent predictor of how committed the couple will be to the treatment and in general the success of the marriage. It is almost as if the memory and experience of that passion, no matter how far it is in the past, is a form of psychological glue or bonding that is very profound.

The ideal marriage then, has both sexual passion and friendship, but in the long run it is friendship that must endure if the marriage is going to succeed. I think it is well known that a relationship based on attraction alone has little chance, though many begin that way. The lucky couples are the ones that — after the limerence, Fisher’s term for the state of excitement we feel when we are first in love, wears off — discover that they really like each other and become good friends. Staying together over the course of a lifetime is still hard work, but those who do are usually happier for it.

 

References

1. Fisher, Helen. Why We Love, Henry Holt, 2004
2. Helliwell, John F., Grover, Shawn.  How’s Life at Home?  New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness, NBER Working Paper No. 20794

 

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