6 Essential Elements of a Strong and Healthy Marriage

Close-up shot of couple holding hands. Blurred focus on sky and trees in background.Marriage rates in the United States are declining, according to a Demographic Intelligence report released in May 2015. At 6.74 marriages for every 1,000 people, the current rate is the lowest in a century, and further decline is expected.

Researchers suggest two different interpretations of these statistics, however. While some see this rate as a clear indication that the marriage rate is declining, others suggest that people may simply be postponing marriage until later in life.

For many, cohabitation may have replaced early marriage. In 1982, a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, based on a nationally representative sample of women and men, reported that only 3% of women who lived with a man were unmarried, while 44% of women surveyed were married. The same survey, conducted between 2006 and 2010, found that 11% of women living with men were unmarried, while only 36% of respondents were married at the time of the survey. (The survey only surveyed men and women, and did not report on marriages between individuals of the same gender.) The more recent survey implied that for the first time historically, people were postponing marriage: The probability of a woman being married by age 40, according to the data, was virtually identical across all years.

Though the marriage rate appears to be declining, it is clear that many people still desire to marry. Why is that? Two people living together might just as easily say to each other, “I will be committed to you forever,” and be done. Some partners do commit in this way, without much fuss, but others follow the more traditional ritual of marriage, complete with a ring, a party, an officiator, and crying friends and family members. For many, these traditions are invested with great meaning.

Perhaps a desire to be connected at the core is what propels some people toward marriage. This “core,” something nebulous that can’t be pinpointed or measured scientifically, may serve to represent a level of deeper connection that many people aspire to reach. Some may feel this can only be accomplished through marriage. This idea may lead some who want this connection but fear they will never experience it to avoid seeking it altogether, in order to avoid hurt and disappointment.

But beyond this core, I believe there are six essential elements to any strong and healthy marriage (or long-term partnership). These elements, more than any other benefit of marriage, may be what some people are seeking—and waiting for.

Connection

Most of us want to connect with others in some way. Many people consider meaningful connections—whether these connections are with friends, family members, or significant others—to be the most important part of their lives or what they desire most from life. A listening ear, validation, empathy, sharing, and understanding can all be elements of a healthy connection. These elements serve as a basis of establishment as well as the benefits of the connection. This connection is not limited to marriage, however. It can be experienced within the context of a friendship, parent-child relationship, or strong sibling relationship.

A strong connection often serves as a foundation upon which other elements are built. Therefore, when we feel disconnected from our partner, this can be a warning sign, and it might be beneficial to seek the help of a professional in order to avoid losing something fundamental.

Commitment

Connection can be enjoyed in many types of relationships; thus, the desire to marry must be based on something more than simple connection. I believe that something is commitment.

Connection can be enjoyed in many types of relationships; thus, the desire to marry must be based on something more than simple connection. I believe that something is commitment.

Commitment is more than just staying power. In some of the long-term cohabiting couples I have worked with, even couples who have been together long enough to have teenage children, one partner said they felt deprived, in a way, by not having been asked to get married. It seems to me that commitment is the act of choosing a partner for life and, with that act, implying unconditional acceptance of the person—flaws and all.

Cohabiting, like marriage, can end at any time. But I believe the difference to lie in the beginning, not the ending. For some, cohabitation might begin with a sort of shrug, a “Let’s see if we can make this work.” It’s often an experiment. It might be a fun one, but for some, it represents a temporary state of being that will eventually lead to either breakup or marriage, rather than a long-term choice (though of course, some individuals enter a cohabiting arrangement committed to each other, with no plans to alter their arrangement).

A breakup, after which a cohabiting partner moves out, can be painful and difficult. But when a divorce ends a marriage, much of the pain often lies in the rejection of the commitment upon which the marriage was founded.

Giving

I do not often see “giving” in Top 10 lists, yet I can’t think of a more important grease to make a marriage run smoothly. Giving, to me, is the tangible show of commitment, of choice, of a deeper attachment than mere friendship. When one partner focuses solely on the self, the other partner becomes an object, not someone who is special and loved.

True giving is unconditional. When we give to get something in return, we are just being selfish in a different way, and this type of giving is unlikely to strengthen a marriage.

A person may also give out of fear of being alone. This type of giving often comes from a lack of self-esteem, or the internal belief, “I am not worthy of love,” and is often characterized by urgency and fear. This “needy giving,” often intended to keep the other partner from leaving the relationship, is typically not an element of love.

Respect

Giving, even giving from the heart, doesn’t mean much if we don’t respect our partner. Respect comes from a deep understanding of our significant other, of their thoughts, reactions, opinions, values, and attitudes. Respect for who our partner is may cause us to look forward to their homecoming each night, make it unlikely we feel bored in their company. Our understanding of who our partner is as a person, and our respect for the qualities that make up our partner, often leads to the growth of admiration. This, in turn, may contribute to the feelings of pleasure we experience in our partner’s company.

Respect also might grow when the marriage, or either individual in it, faces a challenge. When a marriage is troubled, when one or both partners have lost their respect for the other due to mistakes, choices they’ve made, or other issues, watching a partner withstand trials, make different choices, and repair their share of the damage can lead to the growth of new respect. This newfound respect may in fact become the soil in which the seeds of love are replanted, even when it seems a marriage is over.

Trust

I believe that when there is a solid mutual connection, commitment, giving, and respect, the trust partners have for each other cannot be broken. There would be no reason behind breaking trust, no gain. It is my belief and experience that, for betrayal to occur, there has to be a weak link somewhere. When one partner discovers the other partner is having an affair, for example, it is generally the case that earlier warning signs were missed.

To rebuild a sense of trust when it has been lost, the connection between partners must be reestablished. To facilitate this, both partners must understand their role in the breakdown of the connection. (Both partners have typically contributed in some way to the breakdown of the connection, even if only by not drawing attention to the fact that the relationship was in danger.) This process of understanding, which requires honesty and soul-searching, is unlikely to be quick or simple. Partners must both be honest with themselves and with each other and make appropriate, heartfelt apologies. Open, vulnerable honesty is not only an essential part of the healing process, it is also a necessity for what I have found to be the most important element of a marriage—intimacy.

Intimacy

Most people immediately relate intimacy to sex, when actually, having sex can serve as a way of avoiding intimacy. The most important elements of intimacy are openness and honesty, both of which may require the sharing of things that one is ashamed of. Yet being able to be vulnerable to a partner is the very ingredient that makes the act of sex one of such supreme closeness and, well, intimacy.

The vulnerability of real intimacy can be compared to the thrill of roller coasters: We know we won’t die, but we feel, in the pit of our stomach, as if we might. We are about to give up our very selves, just for a moment, and we could lose everything in that moment. In terms of a partnership, it is in that moment that we are one.

But how do we get there? How do we overcome the shyness, the shame of discussing a father who abandoned the family or a mother who berated us and made us feel small?

To do so, we must develop self-love. We must get to that place where we know we are not our parents, where we no longer believe their abuse. We must love ourselves for who we are and who we can be. This self-love is what can eventually allow us to be open, honest, and vulnerable with another person.

References:

  1. Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J., & Mosher, W. D. (2012, March 22). First marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, (49). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr049.pdf
  2. Kaveh, K. (2015, December 14). 7 reasons marriage is on the decline. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-kaveh/7-reasons-marriage-is-on-the-decline_b_8744654.html
  3. Stevens, H. (2015, May 18). Marriage at a 100-year low—and that’s a good thing. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-marriage-in-decline-balancing-20150518-column.html

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Far Rockaway, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Stephanie

    Stephanie

    August 18th, 2016 at 8:55 AM

    There is no one on earth who makes me feel as loved and respected as my husband does. I know that he is the person in my life who will love me unconditionally, and that makes me love him even more.

  • Marissa

    Marissa

    August 19th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    We still hold hands whenever we go anywhere. I know the kids are behind us making yucky faces but I don’t care. WE have decided to make our marriage a priority, and then everything else shakes out pretty well after that. When you lose that intimacy and that connection, that is when things easily begin to fall apart.

  • peter

    peter

    August 22nd, 2016 at 7:52 AM

    I am pretty convinced that many of us thought that marriage would be easy as pie because you are so in love with that person in the beginning.
    You don’t think about how much your different life situations can change that, not that it changes how much you love this person but if you are not willing to be fluid and flexible then things can begin to fall apart immediately.

  • Cara

    Cara

    August 23rd, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    Yep I hate football and he hates Downton Abbey. But when it comes time for football season I am all in with him, and believe it or not, he watched the series finale with me.
    There always has to be a little give and a little take for things to work

  • trey

    trey

    August 24th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    while i do not see marriage as just this list of critical things to be able to check off a list, you look at these and you automatically know that yes, these are all things that every good and sustaining marriage is going to have.

  • Myra D

    Myra D

    August 24th, 2016 at 2:38 PM

    I thought that my husband and i had all of these things and somehow all of them put together still wasn’t enough to save our marriage.
    Sad but unfortunately true

  • miller

    miller

    August 25th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    More than anything else I think that a couple has to respect one another and give each other the kind of respect that they would then want for themselves.

    And this can’t be a one sided kind of thing.

    This has to be something that both partners are willing to do and give freely. Can’t be coerced or forced.’

    I think that if a couple is meant to be together then this is just something that will naturally be there between them.

  • Karen H

    Karen H

    August 27th, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    no matter what happens
    make sure that your spouse always knows
    that you are grateful to have him in your life

  • Peter R

    Peter R

    June 12th, 2017 at 10:39 AM

    Well, tell me what you’re suppose to do when your wife refuses to have sex with you for 11 years?

  • Irene

    Irene

    September 15th, 2017 at 5:39 AM

    I know there are two sides to every comment. No sex for 11 years.? Why?

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