Once it was simple. You got married, had kids, worked the land, and stayed married whether you could stand each other or not. The concept of "a happy marriage" was no more relevant than the idea of "a pretty tractor."
"That has changed over time as marriage has become more independent," says Steven Nock, a professor of sociology who studies marriage at the University of Virginia and author of Marriage in Men's Lives. "Couples don't need each other for quite as many things as they once did. If you're running a farm with someone, it doesn't matter if you're pissed at her or not. You need her labor as much as she needs yours. The couple is more or less equally dependent on each other."
Chances are, though, if you are reading this, you are not running a farm with your mate. And if you are, you are probably doing it out of choice, not necessity. As a recent Washington Post story pointed out, "As marriage with children becomes the exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent." Marriage in America is becoming more like a luxury car ―― in other words a BMW, not a Harvester.
This doesn't necessarily mean modern marriages are happy marriages. According to the latest U.S. Census data, the overall divorce rate has declined as couples get married later in life, often after living together. But the divorce rate for first marriages is still about 47%.
Having a happy marriage today means thinking of reasons to be together
"From my perspective, the hardest thing is issues of commitment and trust," says Nock, who has followed couples over time and conducted interviews with 6,000 married men since 1979. What does commitment mean to the modern husband? "I'm going to behave myself because I'm committed to this relationship," is how Nock describes it. Because people have left the farm, and because women have achieved financial parity, married people need new reasons to stay together.
"I have studied what people imagine would happen to them if their marriage were to end," says Nock. "If you don't think horrible things will happen, you are a different kind of spouse than if you think they will. In my work, it is a very strong predictor of divorce." In other words, if you can see yourself taking that next step and can visualize yourself as single, you are more likely to be stepping outside the marriage.
A key to happy marriage: Keeping separate lives
While too much independence ― the kind that leads to infidelity or workaholism ― is a marriage breaker, too much dependence isn't the answer either. "Every good marriage is based on an awful lot of separation," Nock says. "People need to have a separate life and existence to feel validated as individuals. They can't live solely as somebody's partner."
Nock also says people have to ask themselves what is going to keep them together when the love fades. The short answer is anything that would be lost to both parties if you split up.
Happy marriage tip: Married sex is better
"If my wife and I split up, I get to keep my own earnings, investments, assets, and toys. And the same is true for her," Nock says. But some things don't fit that category. "I don't know how you quantify that reaction when you and your wife see your child take her first step," Nock says. That is worth something and cannot happen without both partners. And there are countless things like that involving children."
But what if you don't have children? Well, the chances are you have more sex, and, according to Nock, it is still the case that marital sex is better than extramarital sex. "Most research suggests," Nock says, "that couples figure out how to please each other better than strangers do."
Marriage and tradition ― They belong together
It also turns out there is a reason we put stock in anniversaries. Divorces are much more common in the front end of marriage, and the longer you stay married, the less likely it is you will get divorced. When that happens, there are other intangibles at risk.
"After a divorce, lots of couples and kids complain about the loss of traditions," says Nock. "What are we supposed to do on Easter or Passover?" The fact is, we need traditions ― starting with marriage itself.
"People don't think it matters when you stand up and make these public vows," says Nock. "My students don't get it. It may seem like flimsy glue, but it's better than never making those statements ― those pledges of fidelity, of help, and support."
Scenes from a happy marriage: Dating
There are plenty of reasons why you should stay married. You will live longer, earn more, and be a more social and altruistic member of society than your single counterpart. The question remains, in the hassle-free no-fault divorce world, how do you stay married ― happily, that is? Terry Real, a Boston-based marriage and family therapist and author of The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work, suggests you try dating your wife.
"It's good for your children to see you go off for the weekend and leave them at home," says Real. "It's good for them to see you going off on Friday night because it's date night, even if it's just jeans and a pizza and a movie. It's a tremendous inoculation against marriage failure down the pike to put a little time and energy into marriage all the way through."
A happy marriage requires more maintenance than your car
Many men, Real tells WebMD, try to fix their marriage after it is broken, after their wives have turned off or they've lost the incentive. "What I tell guys is, 'If you don't put oil in your engine, it freezes.' Guys will put more energy into maintaining their car than they will into maintaining their marriage, and if you don't maintain something, it breaks."
Among his tips for a happy marriage is to let your wife kvetch. "A lot of guys don't want to go out alone with their wives because they know when the wives are alone with them, they're going to complain." Don't fight that, he says. "Take your woman out and cut her some slack. Don't insist that everything go your way." Listen, nod, agree now and then ― but within limits.
Doing these things is not the same as compromise. "I don't want people to compromise on the one relationship that is the most important relationship of their lifetime," he says. "Women don't get what they want because men can't deliver emotional intimacy. I talk to women about how to go about getting that. Guys don't get what they want either. But we are so dumb and used to having low expectations that we grumble about it, and then don't do anything about it. My message to both sexes is: Go back into the ring and duke it out. Most guys do not feel appreciated, cherished, and loved and desired in their marriage." You need to learn to ask for those things, he says ― before you end up paying for them with an extramarital affair.
"You can ask for what you need on your job; you can say you don't feel appreciated in the work place. You can't be selectively incompetent. Awaken to your responsibility to bring those skills home with you."
Or else go back to the farm.