I’m a single, 20-something woman, so I should note off the bat that I don’t know much about marriage. But most young singles go into what is meant to be a lifelong commitment relatively clueless. Our perceptions of marriage often stem from some mix of romantic comedies, mainstream media, and the example set by our parents, which can leave us with an unrealistic, decidedly negative, and, at best, incomplete picture of what it really means to build a committed, fulfilling relationship.
Coming from a single-parent household (which is increasingly common—the number of single-parent households has doubled since 1950), my feelings toward marriage are cautious, but hopeful. Many of my peers, after watching their parents get divorced or experiencing a divorce of their own, are more cynical about the institution of marriage. They say 50 percent of marriages end in divorce (though that is an inflated statistic). The Huffington Post has an entire section dedicated to divorce, with the despondent tagline, “Marriages come and go, but divorce is forever.”
But even if the 50 percent divorce statistic were actually true, my question is: What about the other 50 percent? How are they making it work? In an effort to find out, last year, I traveled across the country to capture 100 of America’s great love stories with my friend Nate Bagley, for a project we call The Loveumentary.
Shawn Achor, notes in his book The Happiness Advantage, “If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.” Nate and I take a similar approach: if we keep focusing on average or below-average relationships, those are the kind of relationships we will build for ourselves. Instead, we’re interested in learning from the best relationships we can find. The goal of our project was not to paint an overly idealistic picture of love and marriage, just to capture stories of couples that have created loving, lasting relationships—and see if we could find any patterns among them.
We found most of the couples we interviewed through recommendations from friends and acquaintances, and some we met serendipitously along the way. We did our very best to interview a sample size big enough to paint an accurate picture of what true love and fulfilling relationships look like across the country. This included couples from as many socioeconomic classes, races, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds, and geographic locations as possible. This was meant to be an in-depth, qualitative study on love and marriage in America. I do not claim to be an expert on love or marriage. I am only a passionate student—and my thesis is that by studying and sharing what the most extraordinary marriages have in common, we all have a better shot at building our own.
Here are five of the biggest lessons I learned from these couples:
1. Marriage isn’t meant to make you happy.
Measuring the success of a marriage by how happy you are makes it easy to assume that experiencing unhappiness in a marriage means you're in a bad one. But every couple we interviewed agrees it is not realistic to assume you’ll be happy all the time. If a fluctuating emotion, like happiness, is the measuring stick you use to gauge the success of your relationship, you will continuously come up short.
The primary purpose of marriage isn’t to keep you happy—it’s to keep you growing. Steve Hambrick, Lead Pastor of Vintage 242 Church in Dallas, Georgia has been married to his wife Randel for more than 12 years. He says, “It boils down to the selfless understanding that I'm not married for what's best for me. Love is a selfless choice about what's best for the other, because she is the most important thing in my life. The greatest way to find joy in the context of marriage is to bring joy to someone else."
When you approach marriage looking to grow with and from one another, it fundamentally shifts the way you look at the health of your relationship. The catalysts for this growth range from pursuing common goals and interests together, to lovingly challenging one another’s views, to traversing devastating hardship alongside one another.
Of course, happiness tends to be a natural byproduct of healthy growth in a relationship. However, it shouldn’t be the reason you choose to stay in or leave one. Couples that stay together know there will be less exciting or happy seasons. But, these seasons pave the way for personal and relational growth–not an exit strategy.
2. Love yourself first.
This piece of advice is thrown around frequently, but no one ever talks about what it really means. Put simply, loving yourself first is not about being selfish. It’s about coming into a relationship already whole. Most of us seek love from the people we’re in relationships with because we imagine ourselves to be without it—that in order to experience love we think we need to receive it from someone else. This is perhaps the biggest mistake we make, because no one can give us love. We can only feel as much love as we decide to produce within ourselves.
Almost every single couple we talked to spoke about the importance of self-love.
MeiMei Fox and Kiran Ramchandran, who live in Los Angeles and have been together since 2008, both went through a divorce before they met one another. In her first marriage, MeiMei noted that she didn't feel like she was good enough, and thought she had to prove herself or be something more. After her divorce, and before meeting Kiran, she began to work on loving herself fully. She noted, "I put all of my focus and intention into having incredible adventures, a great job, rich family life, great friends, and an incredible community. I was so happy with me, and who I was, and my life. I still wanted to manifest an amazing partner, but I was happy. I felt good. I wasn't reaching to fill a hole in my soul."
What I learned from MeiMei and many of the couples we interviewed is when you fully believe in your worthiness and lovability, you don’t need to grasp for attention or love from your significant other. This makes it easy to build a healthy relationship, because you’re not expecting the other person to fulfill a checklist of needs. When you love yourself, you naturally take care of yourself well—you become emotionally healthy. When you are emotionally healthy, you're capable of bringing your best to a relationship.
Ty Schenzel, Executive Director of Hope Center for Kids in Omaha, Nebraska, has been married to his wife, Terri, for 27 years. When asked how one can become emotionally healthy, Ty said, "By being proactive and intentional about resolving rejection, abandonment, and abuse experiences. Life is so hard on the heart. We should get counseling when we need counseling. We've really worked hard at becoming emotionally healthy as individuals because healthy people have healthy relationships and marriages."
As we interviewed couples along the way, others described the concept of self-love as knowing and setting your boundaries in relationships. Couples also noted that self-love goes hand-in-hand with being aware of and taking ownership of the gap between the person you are and who you want to be. And finally, self-love means being unapologetically yourself and doing things you’re passionate about—because you know the right person for you will find you when you’re doing those things.
3. Hardship is sometimes the best thing that could happen to a couple.
One of the most heart-wrenching love stories we captured was that of a 32-year-old widow who had just lost her husband of more than a decade to cancer, and is now raising their two sons alone. She said of the intense moments of pain: "It's like waves at a beach—they come one after the other. When you’re riding those waves, some will knock you down, and, with others, you land on your feet. All you can do is get up whenever you fall, and put one foot in front of the other."
All of the couples who talked about hardship spoke about it in a similar way. Surmounting difficulties isn't always easy, but it became clear that happily married couples approached everything from small disagreements and differing interests, to trying circumstances and life-altering experiences, as challenges to be overcome together—and sometimes, by necessity, alone.
We got a lot of advice from couples on how to deal with spousal conflict. Many noted that during arguments, it's important to let the storm settle and not make a lot of decisions while one or both people are still upset. Another common piece of advice was learning to master the art of really listening to the other person.
Laura Doyle, New York Times bestselling author of The Surrendered Wife, has been married to her husband for 24 years. She talked about the art of listening during our interview with her, noting, "I don't always have to agree with my husband, but I prefer to honor him and his decisions by listening to him. I've learned the phrase, 'I hear you.' It doesn't mean I agree or disagree. It just means I'm listening. And the first duty of love is to listen."
Couples who stay together have a distinctive approach when dealing with hardship. Difficult circumstances are viewed not as deal-breakers, but an inevitable, strengthening part of life. Interestingly, when the couples we interviewed talked about difficulties they've faced, the sentiment is often that the hardship they experienced drew them closer together—not further apart.
4. Learn how to apologize and forgive the right way.
Along with comments about hardship came countless conversations with couples about apologies and forgiveness. What does it look like to apologize and forgive well?
Gary Chapman, author of New York Times bestseller The Five Love Languages, talked to us during an interview about both apologizing and forgiving in a relationship. His perspective comes from the successes and failures he and his wife Karolyn have experienced during more than 45 years of marriage. On the topic of apologies, Chapman says, "Typically, if people apologize at all, they say, 'I'm sorry.' For some people, that doesn't really communicate sincerity. Learning what the other person considers an apology is important, so that if you are going to apologize, you can do it in a way that's meaningful to them and communicates sincerity to your partner."
Chapman goes on with forgiveness, saying, "It's a choice. You either choose to forgive, or hold it against them. If you choose to hold it against them, the relationship doesn't go forward. If you choose to forgive, it opens the door to possibility that the marriage can continue to grow. The decision to forgive can be made in an instant, even if the emotions might take a while."
What struck me most about the topic of learning to apologize and forgive well in marriage was both the self-awareness and selflessness required. Saying more than "I'm sorry" conveys genuine care for and understanding of the other person's perspective. It takes a great deal of personal reflection and humility to admit when one is wrong, but almost always, it creates space for vulnerability and healing to take place. It does, however, require a heartfelt willingness to understand and resolve the conflict by both people in the relationship—not just one.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a solo act.
Terri Schenzel, along with her husband of 27 years Ty Schenzel, co-created Hope Filled Marriage workshops. When it comes to forgiveness, Terri notes, "If we had hurts in our past, chances are there may be people we've never fully forgiven—including ourselves. Forgiveness is a lifestyle, not a feeling." Forgiveness isn't always fair, either. "If someone really hurt you, you don't want to let them off your hook if you have a high sense of justice. But, forgiveness is ultimately for you."
5. If you want a great committed relationship, start with the commitments you make to yourself.
One personal lesson I learned while listening to and observing the couples we interviewed was this: marital commitment is a promise you make not only to your spouse, but to yourself. Choosing to commit strengthens your personal integrity, and how you think and behave reflects the promises you’ve made, and the values and beliefs you say you have.
Keeping your personal commitments, big and small, better prepares you for the biggest commitment of all: the one you make to your spouse. Whether you're married or single, practice with keeping small commitments—like going for a morning run when it's on your calendar, to attending an event you said you would go to even if you're tired. Then, move on to bigger ones, like starting a dream project or running a marathon.
As you strengthen your commitment muscle, the benefit grows beyond your relationships—it deepens your personal integrity and resolve. This, in turn, signifies to the people you build relationships with that you are trustworthy, and the promises you make have value and meaning.
Whether you're preparing for marriage in the future, or looking to strengthen the one you are currently in, put these five lessons to the test. By studying what has worked for other happily married couples, we have the opportunity to learn from and create our own.