Recently, we had a childless couple over for dinner. We did not talk once about relationships but they actually taught me a lot about how to have a happy marriage.
I put lots of love and effort into the dinner, and the children were extremely excited about having that couple over. The guests left later than anticipated, so the children grew increasingly restless but were still playing nicely with each other. At some point, our guest unexpectedly went into an aggressive, bitter tirade about our lack of parenting skills and the behavior of our children (who were playing happily in their own home, mind you). She set the Swiss forth as an example for having their children under control, unlike American parents. She did not leave without implying that my husband, who tries to work at home whenever he can, cannot get any work done in such a household.
Without intention, this lady taught me two important lessons about the secrets to a happy marriage (and no, this is not going to be a lesson about politeness – people do seem to have pretty different standards on that one, it seems…). Here’s what I learned:
In a happy marriage, it's all about expectations
Imagine you’re invited for dinner in a household with 8-year old triplets. Dinner is scheduled at a time when the kids are still up because they are eager to see you. What do you expect? If you expect a quiet and relaxed dinner with uninterrupted conversation and food served on the host’s best china, your expectations are likely to be disappointed, at least when you show up for dinner at our house.
Instead, you’ll find a lively household with five people happy to see you and three kids eager to share their latest adventures, projects and artwork with you. Dinner will be served on break-resistant Corelle dishes and at some point the kids might go off to play by themselves. It will be loud and chaotic and brimming with life; after all, you’re in a household with three young children.
The same holds true for marriage, or any long-term relationship. Do you expect the exciting and romantic honeymoon phase to last forever? The initial excitement will wear off at some point. You’ll get tired of trying to hide your weaknesses and less than advantageous habits. Everyday life will get the better of you.
You will be with each other when one of you is tired or cranky, disappointed or sick, or just plain in a bad mood. You will be with each other when good things happen, but you’ll also be with each other when one of you loses a job or a parent, has an accident or develops a chronic disease. That's life. Your marriage and your relationship will change. But if you don't expect to live an eternal honeymoon, you'll realize that things might actually change for the better even if they're less exciting.
Respectful communication is a must in a successful marriage
There is no question that at times you will be at odds with each other. And sometimes you'll just be irritated because you had a bad day. But it's important to communicate in constructive ways: Talk about how you feel and do not blame the other, try to understand the other's point of view, and make sure there are no misunderstandings.
For a happy marriage, there's no one-size-fits-all approach
As soon as someone tries to sell you a one-size-fits all approach to a happy marriage, run! There’s no secret to a happy marriage that others know but you don’t. The Swiss have not (yet?) discovered the universal secret of parenting, and raising children remains a challenge for all of us. Believe me, I know - I grew up a few towns away from the Swiss border and people did not have magic solutions to all kinds of problems just because the lived three towns to the south.
The Danish may have the concept of hygge, but they’re not all content; the French may have haute cuisine, but they’re not eating oysters and foie gras at every meal; the Americans may have perfected fast food but they’re not all obese. We’re all individual people, after all. And what works for some people and some relationships, does not work for others.
That is actually one point that I particularly like about Bob’s theory of love. It doesn’t pretend that we’re all the same and that all our relationships abide by the same rules. It makes room for different ways of loving, and people with different love profiles can all be happy if they have a relationship that meets their needs. Some people need a lot of intimacy in their marriage, others are happy to spend a lot of time pursuing their own interests. Likewise, people differ in terms of how much commitment and passion they expect in their relationship. And that is just fine as long as their expectations and hopes line up with what their partner can give them.
Likewise, if your expectations and love stories about your relationship match those of your partner you’ll likely be happy, no matter what anyone else may think. Two people may be very happy having a business-like down-to-earth relationship while others are craving for a relationship that's much more romantic. (If you’re interested in the details of your love profile or love stories, you’ll be happy to hear that we’re working on quizzes that will be available soon).
Isn’t that what love is about — meeting each others’ needs and expectations, and not fitting into a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter of the perfect relationship. Make your relationship yours and own it!