I was asked (jokingly) by my granddaughter Hannah to write a guide on "How to have a happy marriage" as I have had 55 years of an extremely happy marriage with Jean (I am writing in 2012). Thinking about this, I wondered if a few notes might be of use to many young people who are "looking for a mate". What are the qualities that a person should be looking for in any potential partner for life? What are the problems that have to be faced in this most intimate of human relationships?
This decision is the second most important decision that a person is likely to take in the whole of their lives. (The most important one I will deal with last - it will have a profound effect upon this hugely important but second decision.) The whole subject of marriage is quite complex, and it is difficult to know where to begin. I will set out some of the basic features in a number order, but they are not necessarily in the order of their importance.
[To correct any misunderstanding, in this examination, I usually use “partner” to mean husband or wife. I am NOT referring to cohabiting out of wedlock. “Spouse” seems a little old fashioned and somewhat impersonal word for what should be a warm loving relationship between two people. “Partner” seems a more appropriate word.]
In what follows, most subjects discussed are the potential problems and pitfalls of marriage that are often overlooked. But do not let them create fear and avoidance of marriage. Let me assure the reader that marriage is a truly wonderful blessing if approached in the right way. I would love to see everyone happily married. I deal with this at the end.
(A). Attraction - Are you attracted to them? Are they very physically attractive more than anything else? This can be a good start to a union, but there are far more important considerations than these often initial strong feelings.
(B). Sexual attraction. This is for many the most powerful force for getting married. But is not a good basis for a happy marriage if it is the only or the predominant attraction between two people. Indeed, if it is virtually the only basis it is very likely that the marriage will fail as the sexual aspects decrease for one or both partners.
(C). A strong personality. Most ladies look for a strong husband who will protect them from “attacks” upon their family. They want to feel secure so that they can raise their family reasonably secure from pressures that they will inevitably experience as a family unit.
With this in mind, a strong man can become very attractive as a mate. However, there is one aspect of such a personality that is less desirable; he may well become a tyrant who insists on having his own way in everything to do with his wife’s life and his children’s. This can cause misery for both his wife and their children. Strong characters should show that they have a very gentle side to their nature also – but this is not easy to see in some people at times.
It is something to bear in mind.
On this, I have had a middle-aged lady in tears on the phone because her husband spent all his spare time at the pub and fishing with his male friends. This “macho” image that some men cultivate with their men friends can completely ruin the family life and any tenderness and love for their wife goes out through the window – and they simply do not care about it at all. To show any tenderness in the company they keep is looked upon with derision – and to be ridiculed by their macho friends is greatly feared. So they maintain their macho image – drinking heavily and acting like their friends in order to be accepted by them.
There is also the problems that can arise if your husband drinks. Moderate drinking can be tolerated, but if he begins to use it to get away from life’s problems and not deal with them, then you are at the beginning of what could develop into a very serious problem. The difficulty is predicting this. What is he like under pressure? Does he spend much of his time with his friends at the pub?
Whilst on this important subject of machismo, I have noticed that ladies are generally more open in their nature, and make friends easily. By contrast, the macho element in most men makes them just a little more reserved in their relationships with other men. They tend to “open up” more cautiously – if at all.
Is this due to the natural feeling of self-confidence a man must have in his role of protecting his family unit? Perhaps I am reading more into this than is warranted. What DOES generate a huge bond between men is when soldiers are in battle. I have heard of soldiers discharging themselves from hospital to rejoin their comrades returning to the front line.
Although this is less likely to work in the opposite way – a dominant wife with a weak husband, it is far from unusual. There are very active “vivacious” girls that some men find attractive, but will they make loving, gentle and considerate companions for life? Indeed, will they find other “companions” when their husband grows just a little older and less attractive, whilst they are still “full of life”?
2. Qualities to look for. A very simple question to ask is “Will this person be a loving and good wife/husband to me and mother/father to my children?”
It is easy to list the many qualities that we desire in a partner – (but not so easy to find!)
(a) Love. An essential but not easily defined or ascertained feature. It is not unknown for a courtship where the lady was “swept of her feet” by flowers and attention, only to later find that there was little real love behind it. Some men can manipulate the tender feelings of a woman, but they have no real love for them. The lady should be sensitive to some indication of true gentleness and affection behind any façade that is presented to them.
(b) Maturity. A most important feature that covers a huge range of behaviours. I give here a list of features that we should possess if we want to be considered mature.
WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN TO BE MATURE?
We speak easily about “mature” Christians, as if maturity is an honour gained in exchange for years of faithful service and good behaviour. But what do we really mean when we talk of “maturity” in an individual? The following article, written by an unknown author, appeared in the Prayer League Bulletin.
Maturity - is the ability to control anger and settle differences without violence and destruction.
Maturity - is patience, the willingness to pass up immediate pleasures in favour of long term gain.
Maturity - is perseverance, the ability to sweat out a project or situation in spite of opposition or discouraging setbacks.
Maturity - is unselfishness responding to the needs of others, often at the expense of one’s own desires or wishes.
Maturity - is the capacity to face unpleasantness and frustration, discomfort and defeat without complaining or collapse.
Maturity - is humility. It is being big enough to say “I was wrong”. And when right, the mature person need not say “I told you so”.
Maturity - means dependability, keeping one’s word, coming through in crisis. The immature are masters of the alibi, confused and disorganised. Their lives are a maze of broken promises, former friends, unfinished business and good intentions that never materialise. Maturity - is the art of [changing what we can for the good and] living in peace with what we cannot change.
In the light of the indications above, how do you evaluate yourself?
and I add -
Maturity is not taking offence when snubbed, ridiculed or humiliated in any way. If you do react wrongly, it is your pride that has been hurt – and that should not be there anyway!
(c) Gentleness. Do they insist in having their own way in an aggressive tone? Is their voice gentle or harsh and demanding?
(d) Patience. Do they flare up on the least provocation?
(e) Calmness. when under pressure, Do they tend to panic when things go wrong?
The list is endless. Try making your own additions.
3. Culture differences.
Marriage is one of the greatest tests of a person’s willingness to change the habits they have formed all their lives with only themselves to please. That many fail can be seen in our divorce courts daily, even with couples who are of the same locality, culture, education, religion, etc. If, into this difficult time of two people having to adjust to another person’s attitude to life, there is added a large cultural difference, the possibility of the marriage failing must surely be just that much more likely to take place. Many families have been torn apart by one member taking the children back to their homeland, leaving their spouse heartbroken for their children who they will probably never see again.
This is far from being a racial comment; I am simply noting the fact whilst there are many very successful marriages, that nevertheless this particular ingredient is just another of the many factors that can lead to its ruination. There are many important differences in the accepted normal relationships between a husband and wife in other cultures. Usually the husband is by far the dominant leader of the family, and his wife is relegated to a very subservient role in life. Her legal rights are almost non-existent. This is not always appreciated by ladies in this country used to Christian principles.
4. Seeking perfection?
With the long list of desirable qualities that we could all make in the search for a suitable partner for life, it is obvious that no one is going to fulfil them perfectly. Not one of us is perfect, and we must realise that if we see imperfections in our partner, they will also see imperfections in us also, possibly far greater than theirs!
One of the greatest difficulties in trying to look honestly at ourselves is that it is almost impossible for us to really see what we are truly like in the eyes of others! We are often almost blind to our own imperfections – but our others may see them all too clearly!
How couples deal with these differences, and how far they are prepared to change their behaviour to be more acceptable to their partner will determine how happy the marriage is. I deal with this later.
So if there is no one perfect, how do we choose a partner? Here I can only leave it to each person reading these comments. You may meet someone you are attracted to, but you can see that they have some faults. What do you do?
What is unwise is to say to yourself “When we are married, I will change that particular fault they have”. This rarely works in practice. It can become a sticking point and real friction in the relationship. Remember, that they may also be wanting to change YOUR ways also which you may want to hold on to dearly – because it is part of YOUR personality.
Ultimately, it is one of the most difficult matters to judge whether a potential partner’s habits and attitudes are sufficiently small to be tolerated in the closeness of a marriage relationship. Only you can ultimately make this important decision in weighing up the relative pros and cons. It might be possible to discuss anything that really troubles you with your potential partner before you are married. It would be a very good indicator of how they react to criticisms anyway. Better to find this out before the marriage rather than after.
5. When there are differences and problems arise.
This is really about solving differences after the wedding, whilst this writing is mainly about the situation before the marriage.
There is some interesting new research and comments about marriage in a book by a psychiatrist. Now I am a severe critic of this particular profession, for it causes untold damage to those who consult them. However, this particular psychiatrist is unusual because he takes a very different view of “mental illness” to that adopted by his professional colleagues. Raj Persaud in his “Staying Sane” advocates training people to take positive steps to train themselves to stay sane rather than finish up in the hands of psychiatrists. Needless to say, he is not popular with his fellow professionals! Indeed, very surprisingly there is hardly anything he says in his book I would disagree with.
He reports some revealing research on marriage, and I summarise his main points.
Usually the wife starts a critical conversation with either a –
(i) criticism – a general global statement such as “You always..” or “You never…” This “harsh” start up is a predictor of divorce within six years.
or a -
(ii) comment – a more specific statement about a particular subject or incident. This is called a “soft” start-up as it is not an attack upon her husband’s entire character.
The husband’s response can be –
(a) defensive – the marriage is destined for divorce, or
(b) is more open to her influence; an indicator that the marriage might succeed if the man is influenced by his wife.
There are “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that herald the inevitable end of a marriage –
(iv) stonewalling (listener withdrawal)
With men, withdrawal is usually because they find conflict more emotionally draining than their wives, and can eventually leave the family to avoid this.
Increased soothing of her husband by the wife during the start-up discussion and the husband’s acceptance of her influence are predictors of the marriage succeeding.
After the 1960’s, couples were encouraged to openly discuss their differences rather than suppress it. However, research of older successful marriages found that they were founded on quite the opposite - on “a high respect for tact and discretion when talking intimately, and distaste for direct expression of conflict. In other words you often kept feelings to yourself and referred obliquely to things you wanted changing.”
This old fashioned approach is more successful in maintaining the marriage relationship.
Not paying too much attention (e.g. less eye contact etc.) when the other partner is speaking actually helps the marriage. The theory is that this allows the person “to ventilate their emotions in relative safety.” To give a response is likely to escalate the discussion into a conflict! Younger couples tended to engage in deep discussions of their feeling with” heavy analysis of their problems and confronting each other about their difficulties.”
He concludes by saying “These seemingly incongruous results indicate that much of the received wisdom of modern marital therapy may need to be thrown out and instead that we could learn more about the true secrets of a successful marriage from our parents than the trendy saying of (often divorced) so called marriage experts.”
Regarding his last comment, I know that at one time, and possibly still operative, the major marriage guidance council would only use divorced people as only they “would have experience of what can go wrong in a marriage” – or some such nonsense. One would wonder if they would send their car to a mechanic whose own car was continually breaking down?
6. Problems facing ladies.
One of the saddest things I see in this modern age is the high number of very charming, good looking, sensible, gentle young ladies desperately looking for a good, sensible kindly young man to marry. So many young men these days seem to be more interested in getting them to bed, drinking themselves silly, driving fast cars and showing off to prove just how macho they can be. To find a mate, girls are having to demean themselves by going out drinking in noisy pubs, and acting the fool to be noticed by any other young man who will probably be more drunk than they are. I simply ask “Where are the young men that are actually wanting to get married to a nice wife and have children?” My heart truly goes out to those young (or older) ladies in this situation.
I have long held that 80% of a woman’s aim in life is to marry and have children. If she does not achieve this Godly calling for which she was made, there will always be a deep void in her heart that cannot be adequately filled by any other achievement.
I well remember a charming elderly lady at my tennis club many years ago. She was well balanced and would have made a lovely wife and mother. Sadly, she was one of the many thousands who could not find a suitable partner after the slaughter of the men and officers in the trenches of the First World War.
Exactly the same situation arose after the Second World War.
For those that do not find a suitable spouse, I can only advise that they find some very worthy cause and dedicate themselves to it. It cannot replace their deepest calling, but it can go a long way to filling the void in a fulfilling manner.
7. A word to the men.
God has appointed the man to be the head of the family unit. To fulfil this important role, he has given him a degree of self-confidence and energy in order that he may take on the responsibility of being the “breadwinner” of his family and protect them against the many pressures that will come upon it from outside – and inside.
Unfortunately, the basic pride and sin within all human hearts has degenerated these good features into machismo, boastfulness, arrogance, dominance, exhibitionism of their strength - and many similar corruptions of what were originally good attributes given for a specific purpose.
How many men are prepared to be not only strong when it is necessary, but also gentle and kind to their wives – who always yearn for these in their husbands? How many can hold that difficult balance in their lives between strength and gentleness? I suspect that there are fewer today than say 60 years ago.
I would place much of the blame upon the influence of television, which is an extremely powerful influence upon the attitude of young people today.
It is becoming increasing obvious that the family unit is under attack and is degenerating. One has only to look at the divorce rate and the number of single mothers to see this. I give just one example of the influence of TV. Almost every family in “Eastenders” and “Coronation Street” is full of rows, arguments, conflicts and even murders, etc. People are gradually acclimatised to accepting these as the “norm” in family relationships – and act accordingly.
There has been recently one tragic case of a young boy killing his loving mother in the way he had seen on a TV soap. He had collected many violent scenes from his TV. The TV company refused to answer. Who said TV has little influence upon us? If this were so, advertisers would have given up long ago.
What the present beer-swilling macho young men do not seem to realise is that when age begins to catch up with them and their powers begin to fade, they are very likely to finish up sad and lonely with no true close friendships that a loving happy family and children and grandchildren can provide for the whole of their lives.
What can trouble a marriage is the husband’s addiction to a sport. Few realise that this is deliberately given huge publicity by the mass media. In Rome, to keep the poor distracted from the riots against the rich senators, they provided them with “bread and circuses”; i.e. they fed them cheaply and kept them entertained with gladiator fights. Today, our equivalent is sex and football! When Harold Wilson took power, he ordered a huge increase in the publicity of football. We now see why and what the results are.
It is acknowledged that girls mature quicker than boys around the teenage years. What is so distressing to young ladies is the immaturity of many young men.
What ladies are looking for is a stable, happy protected family in which they feel they can safely bring up their children,
8. A little realised but important factor in a marriage.
One of the finest “lubricants” that eases ALL social relationships is the ability of a person to inject a suitable level of humour into situations that might otherwise become fraught. Raj Persaud in his book says “At the core of a sense of humour is the ability to tolerate a paradox…. A tragedy that has been turned upside down to appear funny…. The capacity to sustain a sense of paradox [i.e. humour] was seen as a defining characteristic … of one of the most mature minds which predicted future mental health and resilience.”
I have certainly found that friends who have a good sense of humour are popular and far more easy to have a good relationship with. I have examined this subject of humour in our book “Breakdowns are good for you.” I give an extract.
I had been discussing the lack of humour in depressives and schizophrenics;
“Recognising this sharp difference, is there a key here to which humour can supply a clue? We suggest that there is. When a person has a sense of humour, one of the first things he has to do is to stand back from the present problem or dire situation, and look at it in an objective way. He must be able to see many facets of the situation and not be swamped by the immediate detail nor see everything from a personal point of view. It is this ability to stand back, see what is really taking place and take the broad point of view that is essential before the humorous aspects can then become apparent.
The second, and similar, ingredient for seeing the funny side of anything, is that the humorist must not see it from a self-centred viewpoint. In, say, a heated argument, each person is presenting his case from a very personal point of view, but the humorist will make a joke which may not only be against them all as a group (say, for being so serious), but it may well be against himself personally as much as anyone else.”
To have a good sense of humour is really a great gift – and I will leave the subject there.
[After writing this paper, there was an article in the Daily Telegraph (6 Aug 2012 p11) entitled “The best way to attract a partner? Make ‘em laugh”. It began “People with a good sense of humour are more attractive and have a better chance of finding a partner, researchers claim.”
Highly desirable features in a potential partner were “sense of humour”, “fun loving” and “playful” and were ranked second, third and fourth. Top was “kind[ness] and understanding”. Physical attraction finished 9th!
One researcher said “Playfulness in a male may signal to females that he is non-aggressive and less likely to harm them or their offspring. A woman's playfulness, on the other hand, may signal her youth and fertility."
I fully agree with the first point. The second seems more doubtful.]
9. The root problem in ALL poor human relationships.
I have long had an interest in human behaviour and counselling. I will not bore the reader with how I stumbled upon the real root of all our problems (Click on www.mbowden.info/mbtbc.htm for this) but I suddenly realised that ALL counselling cases had at their root the cardinal sin of PRIDE. The counsellee had made an unwise, self-centred decision on the handling of a personal relationship problem, and had erected a barrier in order to hide their guilt from public inspection. If this is doubted, you could just look over all that I have written above and I would hope that any wrong or immature behaviour will be easily seen to have pride at its root – “I must have my own way”! I cannot stress the importance of this subject as it can affect ALL personal relationships in greater or lesser degree. Indeed, whenever I see any poor personal relationship in any form, the very first question I ask myself is “Where is the pride?” When this is found – and it is always there – the solution to the problem becomes so obvious – but so very difficult to admit to and correct by one or both parties that it can be fiercely resented. This is understandable because perhaps for the first time, the balloon of their pride has been pricked. The resulting explosion is only to be expected. However, for letters of thanks from those who have been so very grateful to have their eyes opened to what harm THEY have been doing to themselves and to their relatives and friends, see www.mbowden.info/comments.htm
In any loving relationship, the prime factor is whether each person is willing to love and serve the other, in good and bad times, and NOT to take AT ANY TIME a selfish attitude. This does not mean a servile demeaning attitude to your partner, but when problems arise, to adopt a sensible, MATURE and loving approach to it – gently rebuking if absolutely necessary.
10. How about your attitude?
In all this, I have tried to show that each person’s basic attitude to marriage is the determining factor in the success or otherwise of that most intimate of relationships.
Look at yourself and try to assess yourself honestly – but it is an almost impossible task, for we cannot see our faults until they are tested – and marriage is a very severe test of our maturity and love for another person. The problem is that if one discovers a serious weakness that they never knew about in their partner after the marriage, it is really too late to change. This is where a mature and wise assessment of a person’s personality is called for. Again, it comes back to the question “will this person make a good wife/husband for me and be a loving mother/father to my children? Also, no one is perfect, so can I live with what defects they may have at the moment? More important, will MY defects cause problems in the marriage?
11. The happy union of marriage!
Despite laying out all the forebodings of potential problems in the married state, let me close by assuring you that it is truly a very great blessing to both. The shared joy of sex, the setting up of a home, the wonderous arrival of children, the caring of them with all their problems, watching them grow into adulthood and taking their place in society are wonderful rewards for having submersed yourself into sharing your life with another. (Children are experts at knocking the rough edges off their parents!)
There is nothing that can give such a deep sense of reward and achievement for it calls for the exercise of all the mature decisions and actions that a person is capable of. It is even greater than the rewards of a successful career. But a husband who makes wise decisions in his family life is also more likely to make similar wise decisions at work – with the rewards flowing accordingly. Many a rich senior businessman has terrible relationships with his wife and children because he has ignored his duties in this vital area of life.
Basically, if you are prepared to “forget yourself” (lose your pride) and put every effort into encouraging the wellbeing of the marriage and family, you will be surprised just how much sheer joy it will reward you with.
As ever, you get from life what you put into it.
Let me close this section with a story; whether true or false makes no difference to the lesson it teaches.
A lady, married for some years, came to a counsellor and said “I am going to leave my husband and I want to do it in a way that really hurts him”. The counsellor said “For two months treat him with great affection and love. Give him all the attention and comforts that you know he likes to have so that he gets used to it. Then when you leave him, he will feel his loss of you very hard indeed. The come and see me.” Two months later, she returned, arm in arm with her husband and both with big smiles on their faces, and no thoughts of divorce or separation.
I think that counsellor was a very wise person!
THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION OF ALL IN OUR LIVES.
As a committed evangelical Christian, (Born again, Bible-believing, Reformed faith) this is by far the most important controlling factor in my life. Amongst many other blessings, it determines where and with whom I will spend the whole of eternity. I have a simple saying as follows;
“We live threescore years and ten in this life. Eternity lasts forever. Which is the more important of the two?”
For all true Christians, not just churchgoers, (and here I am mainly thinking of the women because they are the most affected by what follows), the Bible is very clear that they should only marry a fellow Christian.
For ladies, this greatly limits the number of suitable men that are available. The church is a great gathering where a suitable partner should be found, but often it is not. Because of the macho image that men like to assume, they are always less attracted to the church than ladies, so the available choice is limited. Generally, a good evangelical church is small so numbers are further limited because of this alone. The chances of finding a suitable partner can be minimal.
I know of a few marriages where one is a Christian and the other (invariably the man) is strongly against it. If the man is a Christian, then usually the whole family will come to church. Mixed marriages can be very happy unions, but the Christian will always have a sense of isolation and sorrow. It can cause considerable heartache (usually in the wife) and even a rift in the harmony of the relationship if a firm restrictive attitude is taken by the husband.
So this is a very difficult added problem for any committed Christian seeking to do God’s will at all times. But I fully realise that attractions can be so powerful, that this consideration is overruled. The unChristian partner is sometimes converted, but as this is really out of human hands, it cannot be relied on.
I can only leave it to each individual to weigh up the pros and cons to come to a decision on this important aspect.
Having raised what is a vital issue for Christians, I will again “leave it there”. Malcolm Bowden. 20 April 2012.
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