Lessons on Love From 100 American Couples

I traveled around the country interviewing happy couples; this is what I learned.
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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."

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Melissa Joy Kong is a writer based in San Francisco.

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