Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint (except for some Hollywood marriages, of course, which only last as long as sprints but probably feel like marathons!). If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that each and every mile can have a different mood. Usually a different part of your body – your knees, your ankles, your feet, your lungs, your heart, your head, your quads – is hurting, or perhaps a couple of them are hurting. But you can also have periods of euphoria, either from a “runner’s high” or just low blood glucose or lack of oxygen to the brain. Every mile of a marathon is different, just like each and every year of marriage is different.
This makes it difficult to predict how any marriage is likely to go, and makes it hard to identify any magical ingredients or special factors that will ensure a marriage lasts a long time. Even a seemingly great marriage can come crashing down quickly, just as any marathoner, even a fit and experienced one, can “hit the wall” and fail to finish.
Though there are no certainties in marriage, you can point to certain factors that increase the chances of success. This is true of marathons, too – how fit you are overall, the mileage you’ve put in during training, your psychological outlook, and what you ate for breakfast all affect your chances of finishing the race. Luck is also important, as it is in marriage.
Here are some of the factors that affect the longevity of a marriage.
Maybe it seems trite to say so, but love is an important ingredient in marriage, whether it is a blinding, wild, at-first-sight kind of love that started when you met, or a slow-building kind of love that developed over time (as in some arranged marriages). Loving each other is a fundamental requirement for a marriage to last long and to be happy and healthy. So be honest about whether you love each other, and take some time to think about and explore what “love” means to each of you.
Mistakes will be made, as the politicians would put it. Both of you are going to make plenty of mistakes, even in just a year of marriage. But over decades you’re going to be wrong dozens or hundreds of times, and you’re going to screw things up plenty often. Your spouse is also going to disappoint you and let you down and make bad decisions sometimes. This is all part of being human. Everyone makes mistakes in marriage, whether it is leaving the top down on the convertible in the rain, forgetting to pick the kids up after soccer practice, not taking the garbage out, or wasting the family’s money. There are also more serious mistakes, such as cheating that can occur and which must be dealt with.
How you respond to your spouse’s inevitable errors is important. If you see their mistakes as part of a zero sum game for the prize of moral superiority, i.e. a chance for you to gain at their expense, that’s not helpful in the long run. Nursing your hurt feelings and reminding your spouse again and again of what they did wrong might make you feel better, but it ain’t healthy for the long term survivability of your relationship.
It’s far better to figure out how to forgive your spouse and move on. If you can truly forgive them – sure, express your anger and frustration, once, then let it go forever – then you’ve given your marriage a great boost.
Conversely, when you inevitably screw up, your ability to admit to it and to make amends is vital for a long, healthy, happy marriage. To do this you need to keep clear the difference between humility and humiliation. Humility is the good one – you want to humbly admit what you did wrong and honestly take steps to make up for it. Humiliation isn’t really good for you – it means groveling and making yourself into a victim, which can lead to toxic resentment later on in the relationship, and that can sink your marriage.
Understanding of change
Everything changes over time. You change, your spouse changes, the world around you changes. If you can accept that both of you are going to change in unknown and unpredictable ways over time, you will be better prepared for some of the things life may throw at you. One of you may get seriously sick, or you may win millions of dollars in the lottery – either one brings changes and challenges you might never have foreseen. It isn’t so important to plan for unknown changes that might never occur (don’t waste too much energy planning for when you win that lottery) as it is to adopt an attitude that accepts that changes will happen.
Think of riding a mountain bike down a steep, bumpy trail. You don’t know for sure which way you’re going to bounce as you hit each rock or rut, so you can’t prepare precisely. What you can do is keep your whole body more relaxed than tense, so that you aren’t flung about so violently and have a chance to react to each jolt.
Accepting that your marriage may end
You should accept that your relationship could change so much that it ends. Your spouse could die, or decide one day that they don’t love you anymore and want to end it. Or you could change your mind, too – people sometimes do, even after decades of marriage. Paradoxically, by understanding and accepting that your marriage isn’t infinite, that it could end, even if that’s a very unlikely chance, you increase the odds that it will last. But this isn’t easy and it takes some serious thinking and emotional effort. Just as on that bouncing mountain bike, the tighter you hold on, the more likely you will fall off.
This is fundamental to all relationships. Both of you need to develop a regular, honest, healthy way to check in with each other. You need to communicate your feelings, what’s going on in your career and your life away from your spouse, and you need to communicate to each other about your dreams, both individual dreams (like getting promoted at work) and dreams as a couple (like buying a new home or taking a holiday in Tahiti). Early in a relationship it is pretty easy to communicate, but after some time everyone gets busier and marriage becomes a more regular and ordinary part of your life, so you tend to communicate less and less. Set up a regular time to check in with each other – take turns talking if you can’t stop interrupting each other. Be honest and pay attention to each other.