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Secrets of a Happy Marriage

Secrets of a Happy Marriage

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 03/09/2010
Last Updated: 01/28/2019

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I got a phone call from my close friend Sarah the other day. "Guess who's getting divorced?" she asked. Oh, no, I thought. Not again.

Turns out I hear this way too often. And in my experience, divorce reaches a fever pitch around the time people's children reach high school and college-age. It is clear to me that these divorces are not sudden - but instead delayed - until the kids get older. The couples are staying together, biding their time, in order to raise their kids. But once the birdies fly the coop  there is no other reason to stay together. Their empty-nest oftentimes leaves two people looking at one another; scratching their heads and wondering just what there is to keep them together anymore.  

My parents were divorced in the late 60s – progressive for that time, I suppose. Not only did I feel ashamed of being the only kid with divorced parents but I never could get a full grip on what exactly the problems were until I became married myself and saw just how difficult it is – and how much work it can be – to keep a marriage together.

I turned to marriage therapist ., Michele is also author of the books . (She also does phone consults; how great is that?)

Michele fervently believes that the vast majority of divorces are not only unnecessary but create more problems than they solve.

Sheryl: In your experience, what are they major reasons for divorce over age 40?

Michele: First, here's an interesting fact.  The divorce rate has gone down in general but there is one group in which the divorce rate continues to climb, and yes, you guessed it, in couples who have been married for 25 to 30 years or more.  Generally, it's the empty-nesters.  Part of the problem is that people put their marriages on the back burner during child rearing years. They work hard and are often child-centric. This means that there is time to chauffeur kids to sports and lessons and do homework and read bedtime stories but no time for intimate conversation, date nights or alone time as a couple.  Many people assume that the marriage will just be there when the kids are gone, but the truth is, if you don't nurture a relationship for decades, there isn't much left when the children leave.  Spouses become two ships passing in the night.  SO TRUE> While children are very, very important, I always say that the best thing couples can do for their children is to put their marriages first.  If they don't, there won't be a marriage.

Also, as you say, many people are unhappy but think that they should just wait until the kids leave to move on with their lives...alone.  They want to give their children the gift of an intact family.  And while this is very loving, the truth is, waiting it out isn't the best of all possibilities.  Getting help IS. Today we know so much about what makes marriages work.  We know that a good relationship requires skills and unfortunately, many people don't learn healthy relationship skills growing up.  But the good news is that people wanting more loving marriages can now take a marriage seminar or get "Divorce Busting" therapy that can teach the necessary skills to stay in love, manage conflict and remain sexually passionate over time.  Yes, these skills can be learned! GREAT PIECE OF WISDOMPeople don't just fall out of love, they simply lack the right tools to stay in love.  

I also think that many people over 40 experience something like a "midlife crisis."  At some point in life, we all realize that life is finite, we all mortal.  And we start to wonder whether we're missing something.  Often, when people are unhappy, it's at this point that they blame their marriages or their spouses for their unhappiness.  They assume that life will be more exciting, satisfying, fulfilling if they leave and start having new adventures.  This might include looking for a new partner or lifestyle. 

Sheryl: It's all well and good to say that couples should stay together. But what about the couples that should never have been married in the first place - the couples who clearly are not right for each other - have never been right for each other, in fact – but stayed together for the sake of the children (who are now grown and on their own)?

Michele: While it's true that some people should not have married in the first place, I have found that the majority of people I've encountered felt some attraction, connection, love, or positive feeling about their mates in the beginning of their relationships. But as things sour, our memory plays funny tricks on us.  If we are currently unhappy, research tells us that we are likely to recall unhappy times when thinking of the past.  If we are currently happy, we are going to recall happy times. INTERESTING FACT> In other words, our current mood influences how we remember things. Our memories are selective, indeed.

Sheryl: Some couples get married very young, perhaps moving straight from their parent's house into a new marriage. And then one (or both) spouses realizes one day that they want to get out there and experience other men/women, and would prefer being single. Or perhaps one realizes they've grown but their spouse has not, or they are growing in totally opposite directions, having little or nothing in common.

Michele:  You are asking about three different situations here.  The first has to do with wanting to experience other people. That is totally understandable for someone who has had limited experience with relationships. A DOSE OF REALITY> But what people need to know is that everyone is a package deal. There will be some things you love about your partner and other things you really don't like at all.  You can trade your partner in for a new and improved version, and you might like certain aspects of the new person more, but I will guarantee that there will be new shortcomings to deal with as well. And if you have children, you have to think about the toll it takes when a family dissolves, even if the children are no longer at home. I KNOW THIS TO BE TRUE> Adult children often struggle when their parents divorce too.

The next example you give is one where a spouse grows emotionally or spiritually and the other doesn't.  This is difficult.  But it is possible to accept your spouse the way he or she is and get some of your needs met outside of your marriage.  I DO NOT mean that people should have emotional or physical affairs.  I mean that a marriage can not be the sole source of one's emotional gratification. Friends, work, hobbies, community involvement can make a big difference.  It’s foolhardy to put all of your emotional eggs in one basket.

And finally, you say that couples can grow apart and have very little in common.  That is absolutely true. However, it doesn't just happen.  Every day, couples make choices about how they spend their time. EXPERT ADVICE> If you don’t continually renew your relationship by doing things together and consciously starting new interests to maintain connection, your marriage will drift apart.  You can change that by reinvesting in each other.  Plus, it’s important to remember that happy couples don’t need to have a lot in common, they just need to nurture the little they do have in common.

Sheryl: Many times one spouse is unhappy and wants to go for counseling – but the other thinks "nothing is wrong" and refuses. To make things worse, he/she may be uncommunicative and not "believe" in therapy.

Michele: NO problem.  On my web site in and my books, I always write about a concept called, "It takes one to tango."  This means that one person can trigger positive changes in a relationship by changing his or her own behavior first. If you handle old problems in new and creative ways - which a good therapist can help you plan- your spouse will respond differently.  Additionally, there is something called marriage education or marriage seminars that are very, very helpful.  Many people are willing to take a class when they’re unwilling to go for therapy. Try that instead!

Sheryl: While you believe in working toward keeping a marriage together, are there circumstances where you would advise couples – even encourage couples – to break up?

I don't advise people to divorce, nor do I ever advise people to remain married.  That's not my job.  I simply help people discover solutions they haven't thought of.  If in the process, they fall back in love, fantastic! And if they decide to end their marriages, so be it.  That is their choice.  In regards to situations that are really troublesome like domestic violence, the primary concern MUST be safety, not the marriage.  But with all serious problems such as substance abuse and chronic infidelity, there are many, many people who are determined to change and transform their lives and keep their marriages together.  I've seen it happen time and time again.  Although close to 50% of first marriages end in divorce, only 10-15% of those divorces are due to substance abuse, domestic violence and chronic infidelity.  The remainder of the divorces are due to garden variety problems which in my experience are solvable!

This Matters> In a nutshell, what are the secrets of a happy marriage? I asked Michele for her top five tips:

1. Spend time together

2. Flirt and touch affectionately

3. Have sex regularly

4. Talk intimately and often

5. Focus on the positives, not what's wrong

6. I know you didn't ask for 6 but….get help when things go wrong!!!


I think it is interesting how she says your current mood determines your recollection of the past. I was recently at an anniversary party and asked the wife what initially attracted her to her husband and then what made her want to stay with him. She said she was attracted to his looks, but that they aren't compatible now and weren't compatible then. Sheesh. I think this was a case of current mood infecting recollections!

Maybe current mood (or something she was drinking :)

Lots of interesting points raised in this interview. Thanks. Readers should check out Happily Ever After, a blog devoted to keeping a marriage together, one that might have helped my first marriage, had the Internet existed 30 years ago.

"While it's true that some people should not have married in the first place, I have found that the majority of people I've encountered felt some attraction, connection, love, or positive feeling about their mates in the beginning of their relationships." Sometimes my middle daughter states that my ex and I were too different and should never have married. This is way too simplistic, in my opinion. Differences attract. Life is so much more complicated than one might expect as a young, newly married person ....

Yes, Alexandra, I've read Happily Ever After and it is an excellent, honest assessment of marriage and relationships.
And I think as you get older, you realize more and more the intricacies of marriage - what it takes and what it's made of.

Great interview! Growing up my parents use to take off for little trips here and there and shared a passion for antiquing. The hubby and I are trying to do that too, staying up to chat and reconnect even when we're exhausted. I hope we'll always be that way!

Aren't you lucky you had such a wonderful role model of a marriage in your parents. It counts for so much.

This was a great interview. I've read one of this author's books before and really liked it. I think the part that really spoke to me was that a spouse is a package deal. No person will be perfect. This is so important to remember.

I agree, Christine. It is simply impossible to find everything you need in one person. Not to mention a LOT of pressure on you and that person!

I think we are trained to believe the Cinderella dream. That the wedding is the culmination to the happy ending and that after you say your vows it will all be easy, that our spouse will fulfill all of our needs and that the hard work is done. Going in with those expectations doesn't make it easier to sustain a marriage.

Melanie, I do think that marriage is not the end of the hard work, but rather the beginning!

These are all great suggestions and insights. I think if you can think back to a time when your marriage was good, then it should give you hope that it can be good again. There are some people who really never had a good relationship. They started fighting in their very first year of marriage, for instance.

Alisa, I agree that if you try to remember the good times, it will bring back what went right - and why.

What a great post -- should be required reading for anyone considering marriage at any time. And then again every anniversary!

Good idea - kind of like renewing your vows!

Great tips! I especially like the part about "it takes one to tango," because it means one person can have a positive impact on the relationship even if the other person is reluctant to change at first.

Yes, Susan, I found that "tango" comment very wise, as well. One person can be the catalyst to making things better.

..the idea that our current state of mind informs our memories was so fascinating and so true!

like marthaandme, I was interested in that point about current mood affecting how one looks at the past. a useful perspective for all sorts of situations.

Interesting commentary. This year will mark my 14th wedding anniversary and I must say that marriage gets better with time--not easier, but just has so much more depth.

14 years is a great milestone! I so agree; marriage deepens with time, but does not necessarily get easier. To me, it's always changing; always a work in progress.

Excellent excellent advice. I get SO SAD when my friends announce they are divorcing, and it's been happening way too often. Two marriages of more than 20 years recently broke up (neither was a case of empty nesters though) and I mourn the loss of their relationships. Maybe it's just me, but I don't see either of these couples HAPPIER being apart. They seem to be repeating all the same problems in their new relationships. Sad face.

Yes, Jennifer, I see that too - for most of my friends who are divorced (though not all). But some are so much happier in that they are able to live much more peacefully without the person that they were not able to get along with. That's not to say they're not lonely, or that they do not have some of the same issues that they had before the divorce. What it boils down to, I guess, is that many times your old problems follow you - they're just following you to a NEW place.

This was a bittersweet read for me, 2.5 years out of a 16-year marriage. So very close to home & tough to comment on.

What I can say, since I struggled with the "what does a happy marriage look like?" question for a long time, is that I stumbled across a documentary about couples in their 60s and what had held them together -- and the reasons ran the gamut.

Some had been kind and loving to each other from day one and never stopped. Others fought like cats and dogs. So it made me realize that perhaps there isn't one set of rules for success, though I would agree with your 6 pointers as basic ingredients for keeping a long-term relationship alive.

I don't ever see references to circumstances like mine when the topic is divorce. I divorced my husband after 30 years together. He was seeing men both openly and secretively(the lattter for many years). He has been publically very antigay. I could no longer stay in a relationship where he had greater desires for the opposite sex, nor one where he was emotionally and financially controlling and disrespectful. My stand was that no one needs to know details of divorce, and that we could both go on living our lives while maintaining a good relationship with our children.
Our children were young adults, and he has filled their heads with false accusations about me. He said that he would do everything to make them hate me if I divorced him. We have been divorced for 5 years now, and my children hardly talk to me. I have never said anything to them about their dad or informed them of his indesrections with men. I feel like they should love each person for their merits, but I never thought they would all hate me. I am in disbelief. But I am on the verge of exploding and telling them and the world, as I feel I am the one being judged as he puts a teflon wall around himself.
I am open for advice.

Your circumstance is definitely not one you read about too often. I wish I could help but I'm not qualified to offer this type of advice. The one piece of advice I will give you is to find a qualified licensed social worker or psychologist and talk to them. It's a tough problem to have, for sure, but I'm sure you will benefit by talking with someone who can give you experienced advice.

So, what if you cannot think of a day within your marriage when you were happy? I understand the current state of mind affecting how one perceives their situation, but I do focus on positive things. My children are at the top of that list followed by friends, reading, movies and traveling. My marriage is not a happy place for me. What kind of advice would you give me?


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