It’s late and you’re exhausted. You’re about to get into bed and you’re looking forward to going to sleep. But your partner, who’s probably also tired, is bugged by a question and turns to you and asks, “Are we happy?”
“Huh?” you say.
“I mean our marriage. Would you say we have a good marriage?”
“Of course, sweetie. I love you. Now let’s go to sleep.”
“No,” your partner says, giving you a gentle shove. “This is serious. Jackie and Frank just got divorced. Ed and Martha broke up last year. And you know that Marti and Fernanda AND Joe and Janelle are totally miserable.”
“I didn’t know that...”
“Well they are. Who among our friends is really happily married?”
“Your parents are happily married.”
“Oh, please. They’ve been married forever, and you think they have a happy marriage because they never fight. They also never talk.”
“You can’t say we never fight or talk,” you say cheerfully.
“That’s just the problem with our marriage!! You don’t take it seriously. You don’t take me seriously! You just want to get your little sleep. So fine. Go to sleep.”
“Honey, we can talk about this in the morning.”
A long silence. “You’re not going to want to talk about this in the morning.”
This is not a conversation unique to this couple. In content and manner, it’s replicated thousands of times every day. The fact is,
we want to have good marriages,
we don’t know if our marriages are good, and based on what we experience
we’re afraid our marriages aren’t good.
And we don’t know what to do about it.
So do you have a good relationship? A happy marriage?
This has been most of my life’s work. Both helping couples with their relationships and researching the nature of relationships in the U.S. and the world. And if you’re tired of experts saying there are no easy answers, get ready: there are no easy answers. But I’ll give you what I’ve got.
If you look out over the couples landscape, things may be better than you thought they were. Based on a large and thorough study by the Pew Research Center published in 2019, 54% of married and living-together couples say things are going very well. This is GOOD NEWS.
As you can see, the number rises to 58% of married couples who say things are going very well and 41% of living-together couples who say things are going very well.
You might wonder why the living-together couples don’t seem to be doing as well as the married couples. Well, check this out:
Yup, you noticed it. It’s the people living together who are neither engaged nor very serious who are mostly responsible for the “people living together” group getting the lower score on being able to say things are going very well.
Now when it comes to “things are going well” in your relationship, does that mean you’re happy? That’s a big who knows? It all depends on your expectations.
Happiness in anything is an expectations game. For example, some people expect there will be issues in any relationship and are happy—yes, genuinely happy—if the couple talks about their problems, even if it’s late at night and they’re both tired. Other people expect that being happy means not having problems to talk about, and if you don’t talk about them you don’t have them. So for them, not talking about problems means being happy. If the wheel doesn’t squeak, it doesn’t need any grease.
And of course the expectations game covers every aspect of marriage. If your frequency of sex has fallen over the years, then this is going to hit the partner who expected you’d be able to keep up doing it every night forever. The partner who figured things would calm down in the sweaty-sheets department won’t be disappointed and won’t being saying things aren’t going well, even if they’d like to have sex just as much as their partner.
Hey, you want to be in a marriage that’s really going well and that seems happy to you? The ultimate secret is a) be happy people, both of you, b) be easy-going people, and c) really like each other. What makes this secret tragic is that we don’t have control over being happy, easy-going people, and, even if we are, it’s hard to find someone like that and to find you both really like each other. But, hey, I’m just here to tell the truth, and this is the truth. All need to work on the marriage comes first of all because the two people aren’t happy, easy-going people who like each other.
So let’s say you’re more like normal people. Not so happy all the time, not so easy going. Welcome to the club! You can still have a marriage where things are going very well and you’re happy. Yes! But here’s what you need now!: you need a) for your needs to be as much in sync as possible (you both like to sleep with the windows open, you both like a quiet social life, you both want kids, etc.) and b) you have excellent skills for working things through when your needs clash.
Making sure you find someone where the two of you have the right chemistry will make a huge difference, as we talked about last time. And you’ll find tons of help here in Is He Mr. Right?
Most couples though, sadly, don’t have needs that mesh all that well, nor the skills to work things out all that well either. So they get into power struggles and are left with tons of unmet needs and end up saying, at best, things are going fairly well. But these couples are struggling, and they desperately need the tools in our latest book Why Couples Fight.
You’d be surprised how much of being able to say you have a happy marriage or that things are going very well is a matter of circumstance. Really! If it turns out that your marriage somehow seems better than that of your friends and relatives, you’ll be happier with it. That’s because we evaluate ourselves when it comes to most things compared to our reference groups. If things are going well in your life—health, money, career, kids—things will go better in your marriage. If neither of you acts badly—by cheating, hitting, gambling, boozing, saying cruel things, and so on—then your marriage will seem happier.
Would you like a simple test for whether you have a good marriage or not? Notice I say “good marriage.” I’m not talking about ranking it on some scale. This is just pass/fail. Good enough to close the book on whether you’re happy with it, or not.
Here’s the test. Do this every night, both of you. In some journal or notebook or somewhere on your phone or laptop, give the previous day in your relationship a plus (+) or minus (-). Each of these has a very specific meaning. + means “If every day for the rest of our days together were like today, that would be OK with me.” And – means “If every day for the rest of our days together were like today, that would NOT be OK with me.”
That’s it. OK means what it says. “I’d be totally content, absolutely fine if every day for the rest of our lives were like today.” Not OK means “I could not accept every day for the rest of my life being like today.”
Now it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to score this. Some people just look for a majority of OK days. You might say, for instance, more than 10 minus days is too much. It’s up to you.
But at least now you are basing your evaluation of your relationship on your actual day-by-day experience of it. So many people find this invaluable. And surprising.
I just want you to be happy. This test or something like it--there's our classic book Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay--can be a huge win/win. You end the anxiety and wasted time of uncertainty. Now you know. Now you can decide: to recommit to a good-enough relationship or to put an end to an it'll-never-be-good-enough relationship. Either way, you will be happier.