12 Key Practices in a Successful Marriage

By J 2.0

Over the last few years, a number of readers have asked me to write a guest post about how to survive a dysfunctional childhood and still have a good marriage. As a commenter, I have frequently discussed my difficult childhood and that of my husband, which was actually a good deal worse. For those who are new to my story, DH (Dear, not Dumb Husband) is the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who was so debilitated by life that she hopped from man to man, allowing each one to harm her children. I am the daughter of an alpha thug father and a diagnosed narcissist mother.

We both had very chaotic childhoods. DH’s parents married and divorced each other twice, and each had other partners in between. My mother-in-law married and divorced two other men as well.  My father-in-law shacked up with multiple women. My own parents were married to each other three times and divorced twice. I emphasize “to each other” only because I’d hate for readers to think my parents were unstable. :)

Despite these disruptions in our lives – which also included being uprooted several times as we moved from state to state, changing schools, losing friends, and abandoning beloved pets at the homes we left – my husband and I hold the record for the longest lasting marriage in his extended family. We’ve been married over a quarter of a century and have been together for a few years more. We have never separated, much less divorced.

I’ve been asked several times by HUS readers to reveal the “magical secret” of how we’ve accomplished this, and I have always demurred. Why? For a couple of reasons.

I feel like a bit of an imposter in even writing this post.  

I have no “magic.” I feel as though I am setting myself up as some sort of authority in writing a “how-to” when in fact I have no real, definitive answer to the question.

I do not have a perfect marriage.

DH and I have our share of conflicts. Frankly, because we came to marriage with no real role models of how to be happily married, we’ve made our share of mistakes, had our share of misery and have come close to walking away a few times. Sometimes, we drive each other batshit crazy.

I’ve decided, however, that all of that is OK. My marriage, my life, my personal development are all, even in my late middle age, works in progress. It’s not necessary to have all the answers.












I will share a few things I’ve learned in the hope that this post will benefit readers. I hope it will be taken in that spirit, not as some sort of magic answer from an authority. Here are my key ingredients for overcoming a disastrous childhood to make a great marriage:

1. Locus of Control

Wikipedia says (emphases mine)  :

“Locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them …. A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate).

Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving test results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities. People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors such as the teacher or the test.”

Having a strong locus of control is a good indicator of mental health.

My husband, despite a childhood of being buffeted from bad situation to worse on a regular basis, is the poster boy for having a strong internal locus of control.

He made a conscious decision early in his adolescence to take control of his own life and was thus able to keep aloof from a lot of the tremendous craziness around him.

He adopted a philosophy of no complaints, no explanations, and no excuses.  

It was abundantly clear to him that, if he allowed fate to take its inevitable course, he would end up in either rehab or jail and that only he could prevent that. While others might bear some responsibility for his problems, it was obvious that no one else would be part of the solution. Absolutely no one else would step in to help.

·        Abandoned by alcoholic dad?  No excuse.

·        Crazy, neglectful single mother?  No excuse.

·        Mom’s boyfriend attempts to kill you? No excuse.

Because he had an awareness that no one would take responsibility for him, he took responsibility for himself. Most people in his position, in fact many in much nicer positions, develop all sorts of rationalizations for their failures and complain about the unfairness of it all. My husband didn’t have that luxury. He knew he could do nothing about his circumstances; he could only change himself. Wanna have a decent life? Take responsibility for it.

There is a lot of current discussion about “positive masculinity.” To me, taking responsibility is the height of “positive masculinity.” Who would not love and desire such a man? Who would not trust him? Who would not admire him?

We hear a lot about men feeling denied leadership opportunities and authority. DH has never expected respect based on his gender or role, but people constantly ask him to assume leadership and authority because he can handle himself and is authoritative. Not authoritarian, lording himself over others, but authoritative, knowing his stuff and leading by example.

We hear a lot about men being denied headship and respect in marriage. My husband has never demanded either from me based on his role as “head of the family.” He has never demanded either from our kids based on his role as “paterfamilias.” Because he garners the respect of nearly everyone around him by virtue of his strength of character, “submission” has never been something he’s needed for validation. In fact, he really has a negligible need for validation from anyone.

Do I respect and admire his character? Hell, yeah. I couldn’t be married to a man I couldn’t respect. Is he my “lord and master”? Does he dominate the kids? Nah, we’re all pretty autonomous, and he likes it that way. People with high self-esteem really don’t look for opportunities to control others. They encourage the growth and autonomy of those around them.

Also, as I’ve frequently mentioned here at Hooking Up Smart, my parents were pretty big on shaming. Corollary to DH’s “never complain, never explain” attitude is “never feel shame.” When I am mired in shame, DH will say:

“No one gives a damn, J.  No one keeps score. Someone might have a laugh at your expense today, but tomorrow everyone will be absorbed in their own bullshit and will have forgotten all about you.  You owe no one anything.”

Damn liberating, that is!

2. Equal Apportionment of Blame

Many people, both male and female, love to dwell on what horrid parents they had. Both DH and I had really troubled, selfish, narcissistic mothers. We also had really sociopathic, destructive fathers. One thing that’s helped us a lot in our marriage is that neither one of us exclusively blames our opposite sex parent for any of the hell we’ve experienced.

For example, neither of us blames one parent exclusively for the divorces. DH doesn’t see all women as sharing his mother’s negative traits. I don’t see all men as being like my dear, old alpha thug daddy. We understand that both of our parents screwed us up…and also were screwed up by their own childhoods. We could, at least to a degree, understand and forgive enough to not project the past into the present.

In some ways, we were both more hopeful than we really had the right to be, and we avoided the self-fulfilling prophecies involved in judging all members of the opposite sex as though they shared the faults of our parents. We both really believed that we could find better mates than our parents did and that we could make a better marriage.

3. Admiration

Dr. John M. Gottman, one of my favorite writers on marriage, talks about the “Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse”:

1.    criticism

2.    defensiveness

3.    contempt

4.    stonewalling

The presence of these four elements is highly predictive of an impending breakup. What’s the antidote? Admiration! The more admiration one feels for one’s spouse, the less likely one is to ignore them or treat them contemptuously.

DH and I truly admire each other. We each have personal strengths that the other was seeking in a mate – often traits that our parents lacked – like stability, conscientiousness, and consideration. We also respect each other’s intelligence, find each other funny and interesting, and enjoy each other’s company. Even if there were no sexual relationship between us, we could still have a genuine friendship based on mutual regard.

4. Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness is a trait that DH and I both admire in each other and one that research shows to positively impact everything from health to wealth to marital happiness. People who lack it tend to make their own problems. People who have it tend to build better lives, to let each other down less often and in less destructive ways, and to invest in their lives in ways that make it harder to tear down what they’ve built.

It’s been said that middle to upper middle class people divorce less often because they have too much to lose financially, but I would suggest that conscientious people succeed in all areas of life because conscientiousness is at the base of a skill set that allows for success across the board: academically, financially and in building and maintaining a marriage.

If you want to be happy, be conscientious and seek a conscientious spouse.

5. Creating Win-Win Situations

It is possible to ever truly win a fight with a person you love? Sure, you can get your way, but at what expense? By hurting your spouse or by taking from him or her? It’s important to work at creating win-win situations. Where compromise is impossible, try trading off. If the argument is auto race vs. chick flick, try trading off. Accompany your spouse to the race on Saturday afternoon in exchange for the movie on Saturday night. Make sure that everyone gets what he or she needs from the relationship.

6. Assortative Mating

Like gravity, it’s the LAW. I’m not trying to enforce it, but it’s easily observable that the more a couple has in common, the more likely they are to stay together. Research confirms this.

DH and I are mated assortatively in terms of looks, IQ, social background, experiences in family of origin, etc. I find it increases our understanding of each other and decreases a lot of the resentment we might feel if one or the other of us thought they were getting the short end of the stick. No one feels inferior, no one feels superior, no one feels beholden. It just works better.

7. Fidelity

Often when people feel they are not getting what they want from their marriage, they will seek it from a third person. I’ve never understood how complicating matters by adding a new person to the mix does anything but distract from the issues in the marriage.

While I think we all sometimes fantasize that there is some perfect person out there for us, pulled from the pages of Playboy or Twilight, realistic people know that anyone they could find to replace their spouse would still be far from perfect. They would just have a whole, new collection of exciting and interesting faults to adapt to.

Usually, it’s better to work with what you have. If you have unfulfilled needs, discuss them in a non-threatening way with your spouse, not with your neighbor’s spouse. Your spouse is the person who is already invested in you.

8. Companionship and Friendship

These are probably the most important elements of my marriage. It is a very modern marriage in that respect. The societal changes of the last 50 years have changed marriage drastically. They have virtually eliminated female economic dependence, changed the “wife role,” and diminished the automatic respect that men used to get as “providers.”

Women no longer stay in marriages out of dependency. Unlike their grandmothers, women can leave a marriage that makes them miserable. Because they can and do support themselves, they have become less tolerant of bad relationships.

Men are less dependent on women as well. Most can cook and clean and no longer need a wife to provide those services. Sex and child rearing have been decoupled from marriage, so those who want a family do not necessarily seek a spouse.

We are indeed in the midst of a major social shift. Barring a cataclysm, there is really no way back to traditional marriage. A new sort of marriage is slowly evolving, and it rests on companionship and friendship as the basis for building a life together.

Dr. Helen Fisher has jokingly called this new step “going back to the future.” It was the birth of agriculture that fostered the ideal of lifelong monogamy for all. In hunter-gatherer societies, the norm was lifelong monogamy for the lucky 50% who found a BFF in marriage and serial monogamy for those unsuitable for lifelong monogamy or driven to keep searching.

Post-industrial, relationship-based marriage seems to echo the natural pattern of relationships that existed before agriculture and may well be “wired in.” Marriage based on love, friendship, sexual attraction, common interests and maybe even a little fun is emerging as the new norm.

DH and I are friends. We enjoy doing things together. We have common interests. We crack each other up. We read to each other in bed and cook each other goodies. We trust each other more than we have ever trusted anyone else. We are honest with each other. We don’t play stupid little games with each other.

Sometimes, we have really horrible fights together because we can both be real shits. BUT we’ve built a life together—an occasionally tumultuous life, but a good life nonetheless. Probably the best either one of us was capable of, to tell the truth. And, as our nest is emptying, our life together is based less and less on the parent role and more and more on our relationship.

Some say that friendship between a man and a woman is not possible or that, if a man wants a friend, he can go hunting with a buddy. I agree that most male friendships revolve around activities as opposed to emotional connection. My husband can spend hours with his buddies and still not be able to answer a question like, “How’s John?”

Once, when I marveled at DH’s inability to ask, “How are you, John?” I was told “If John thought his well-being was any of my damn business, I guess he’d tell me.” Wow!  It’s shocking, but frequently the only person who asks “How are you, John?” is John’s wife.

Men really do need our friendship. We are often the only people they can share their feelings with – and, yes, the healthy ones do have feelings.

9. We “Get” Each Other

We are both children of dysfunction. Both of us had other opportunities to marry much happier, healthier people. We didn’t. We didn’t understand those people; they didn’t understand us. They didn’t fill in the holes in our personalities like we do for each other. Their joys didn’t resonate with us. Their “bullshit” didn’t interlock with ours in the same way. We have healthy, healing ways of being together.

We also know each other’s triggers. We can see trouble coming and diffuse it. We know what to take personally and what is just “wired in” reaction to stimuli that remind us of our troubled childhoods.

10. Sex

Sorry, no “steak* and a bj” story, but I will emphasize that sex is very, very important. Mutual satisfaction is the glue that holds a marriage together. Sure, you can get sex anywhere, but you can’t get sex with the same emotional connection and investment outside a committed relationship.

While I have disagreed many times with the notion that marriage gives a man an unlimited or absolute right to demand sex from his wife and while I reject the “sex in exchange for support” argument, I will say that it’s unloving, destructive and cruel to use sex as a weapon.

Additionally, people need to bear in mind that, if you are married or otherwise exclusive, your partner is dependent on you for sexual satisfaction. A permanent breakdown in that department is valid reason to leave a marriage.

*On a related note, I make an excellent, restaurant quality steak dinner and will happily share the recipe in another post.  You do want your husband to keep up his strength…among other things.   Gotta replace those spent proteins.

11. Humor

Learn to laugh at your pain and at your own foibles. It staves off the bitterness and makes you a more likeable person.

12. Never Quit

To celebrate our last anniversary, DH and I spent a long weekend in an area that was full of memories for us. It was not only where we honeymooned, but we have also vacationed there with our kids and camped there with other families. Sadly, two of our former fellow camping families have broken up. As DH and I walked hand in hand down a familiar street, I reflected that, of all the couples we had spent time with there, I would have thought that we would have been the most likely to divorce. Certainly, the odds were not in our favor.

DH replied, “Well, we never quit.”  I frowned at him and said, “Hey, hon, I was hoping for a little more romance and a little less inertia in that response.”  He laughed, “OK, you’re the most beautiful old broad in the world.  I love the way the moonlight glints off your graying hair, but that’s not why we’re still together. We’re still together because we never quit.”

It’s not romantic, but it’s true. A big part of our never splitting up, even for a short time, is that we never quit. It’s that simple. Quitting would have been too costly. We’ve invested a lot in our marriage – time, effort, work, financial resources, but most of all emotion – to blow it all up. We’ve both survived too much – and would view divorce as a failure and a betrayal of all we’ve survived. Divorce was never an option, so we’ve had to work on the relationship.

And, perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway I can offer.

The Simple (and Hard) Truth

Marriage is hard work.  Love is an action, not an emotion. There is no magic.  There is no castle in the air unless you pay the mortgage on it. There is no happy ending that you don’t write yourself – even if you have to fight tooth and nail to be able to write it.

But it is so worth all the time, effort and understanding that you can put into it, if you try!

Susan: I find J’s perspective unique and fascinating. I thank her so much for sharing this very personal post.

What do you all think? Do you have a background, e.g. divorced parents, that makes you worry about your ability to forge a successful relationship or marriage? Does J’s testimony give you hope? A blueprint? Let’s discuss!


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