Secrets of Successful Marriages
All marriages have their ups and downs, and some don't survive. Arlington journalist Amy Brecount White explores how couples can make love last.
Arpan Choski and Cindy Huang were in a bookstore the first time they met. She spied him hunched over his GMAT study guide and asked if they could study for the graduate school test together. “How could I say no?” Choski says with a smile.
So when he decided to propose last April, a bookstore seemed an appropriate place to pop the question. He contacted One More Page Books in Arlington, thinking its intimate space would be just right. Then he put together a 30-minute video featuring wishes and congratulations from loved ones around the world (Choski’s family is in India and Huang’s family is from Taiwan, though she grew up in Peru.) “I wanted everyone she loved to be involved in some way or other,” he says.
When Huang arrived at the store, she was prompted to solve a four-part puzzle in the shape of a bookmark that said LOVE. That’s when Choski got down on one knee. She said yes.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY go wrong with this storybook romance? With luck, nothing they can’t handle. Now planning a March wedding in Thailand, Choski and Huang seem to have the necessary ingredients for happily ever after: solid role models, steady jobs, mutual interests, mutual respect.
Still, the big-picture statistics on matrimony tell a troubling story. Nearly 56,000 couples got married in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2012. That same year, approximately 30,000 divorced.
In Arlington, 3,055 couples applied for marriage licenses in 2012, according to state figures, while 289 pairs filed for divorce. (Though this ratio seems promising, it also reflects the fact that many couples from other jurisdictions come to Arlington to apply for marriage licenses.) Fairfax County saw 5,069 marriages and 3,419 divorces that same year.
Why is it that some unions last a lifetime, while others fray and eventually unravel?
“A lot of people think [marriage] is easy and that you don’t have to work really hard at it,” says Anthony Werner, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church for the past 20 years.
“When you get married, you have to work to build a solid partnership. You can’t be happy just because you checked the box.”
Even those of us who work hard at it find that it’s a struggle at times. We watch TED talks about intimacy and buy self-help books on happy marriages. Some of us eventually find ourselves on the couches of therapists’ offices, searching for solutions to the day-to-day frictions that threaten to break our most sacred bonds. We desperately want to be happily married, but there are days when we’re not always sure what that looks like or how to get there.
While every couple is unique, relationships do tend to fall into vulnerable territory at certain life stages. That stereotype about the so-called “seven-year itch”? It’s a real thing, according to Jennifer Bradley, a divorce attorney at the Arlington family law firm Mullett Dove Meacham & Bradley. The two- and 20-year marks can also prove rocky for many couples.
BY YEAR TWO, research suggests that more than one aspect of the honeymoon is over. Some of it is chemical. Falling in love produces an adrenaline-like rush of hormones—including oxytocin, which creates feelings of well-being and bonding—but that high is never permanent. Once the aura of hormonal bliss begins to level off, partners may wonder where the magic went.
At this point, any psychological baggage we have—and we all have it—starts to rear its ugly head, Bradley observes. And difficulties involving finances, family and intimacy are often triggers.
“People run into problems when they’re not communicating about all the things they should be and [they’re] not having the difficult conversations about money and sex,” she says. Many times, partners haven’t clearly articulated their expectations, yet they get frustrated when those expectations are not being met.
That includes expectations in the bedroom, says Peter Chirinos, an Arlington therapist who specializes in sexual issues. He says couples often come to him complaining about a “lack of connection or low desire.” Frequently, his office is their “last resort.”
“Sex is one of those taboo kinds of topics,” he says. “If you’re not having sex, then you’re not normal, or if you’re having too much sex, then you’re not normal. The question becomes, What is healthy sexuality? And that definition is very specific to the individual.” A person’s morals, and cultural and personal views can all come into play.
Tensions often form “when one partner wants less or more or a different type of sex,” he says, though fights over sex can also be symptomatic of larger dynamics that have formed outside the bedroom—including issues relating to power and control. If one partner has a lower sex drive, for example, the other may feel like that person is controlling the terms of the sexual relationship. Which can then lead to resentment.
Another common source of stress at the two-year mark is the tug-of-war between families, with the in-laws on either end of the rope. To avoid being pulled off-balance toward one spouse’s family over another (in terms of time spent, traditions observed, or even something as simple as how to load the dishwasher), couples must work to establish their own shared identity that’s separate from their families of origin, Werner says.
At the same time, not every couple has a clear road map for creating that new unit of two. Some only know that they don’t want to replicate their parents’ mistakes.
Arlington resident Tracy Hanafin, whose parents and older siblings are all divorced, places herself in that category. “You don’t want to bring the garbage that you grew up with into your new life, and it’s easy to do that because it’s all you’ve ever known,” she says. “You have to make a commitment out loud that this isn’t going to be a do-over.”
The fact that she and her husband, Jerry, are an interracial couple made it even more challenging for them to forge their own identity in the early years of their marriage.
After meeting in 1985 as FBI agents in Kansas City, Mo. (which “felt very segregated” at the time, Tracy says), they requested a transfer to the D.C. area, thinking they would be happier in a place with more-progressive attitudes. Culturally, she says, it was the right move, though it had the side effect of taking them far from their families, with little support in raising their three children.
“It brought us closer because we had to rely on each other, especially when the kids were younger,” says Tracy. After 26 years of marriage, they are now looking forward to being empty nesters.
But there is such a thing as too much togetherness. Finding the right balance between individualism and couplehood can be tricky, says Iris Krasnow, a journalism and women’s studies professor at American University who has written six books on relationships. She advises couples to run “on multiple tracks”—meaning that it’s important to spend time together, but also to carve out time for girlfriend getaways, or playing cards with just the guys.
Todd Parker, who lives in Arlington’s Highland Park neighborhood, has always followed that mantra. “When you’re first married, you have to find the rhythm. That means being cool with your partner not wanting to do something. Not doing everything together is a strength.”
Sandi, his wife of 24 years, agrees. “Respect your partner’s independence,” she says. “Codependency is a killer.” In fact, doing things apart has allowed them to remain interesting and entertaining to each other, she says. It gives them more to talk about.
PERHAPS THE BIGGEST kiss of death for young couples, however, is not knowing how to resolve differences in a way that is constructive and respectful.
John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and founder of the Gottman Institute in Seattle, has conducted extensive research on this topic—specifically, patterns that suggest which couples are “masters” at marriage versus those who are likely to become “disasters.” According to his four decades of research, contempt is “the No. 1 predictor of divorce.”
During disagreements, the limbic system—the part of the brain that controls our emotions rather than our intellect—is triggered to produce a “fight or flight” reaction. Some partners go for the jugular, while others instinctually freeze or run and hide.
This is a pattern that Werner sees often. “What can happen is that one partner feels threatened,” explains the Falls Church psychologist, who uses attachment theory—the notion that how we attach to caregivers in our childhood will have repercussions in our adult relationships—in his therapy.
Take, for example, a husband whose parents were unresponsive to him in childhood, perhaps due to alcoholism, depression or working long hours. The husband learns that unmet needs can be painful. To avoid experiencing similar pain and disappointment, he avoids conflict and disconnects emotionally.
“When things get too close or dangerous with their partners, [these spouses] shut down,” Werner explains. “Their gut is pushing them away” because it feels too risky to move closer. Fully opening up to another person means risking the possibility of being hurt and disappointed, he says.
Healthy couples recognize each other’s vulnerabilities and respect them, he adds. That means establishing “safe” rules for airing opposing thoughts and concerns, and being mindful to avoid traps such as feeling defensive or wanting to win. It also means learning to avoid your partner’s triggers, even if you can’t relate to them personally.
After 24 years of marriage, East Falls Church residents Jim and Susan Arnold have learned to give each other space when conflicts arise and emotions are running high.
“We give it some time,” Jim says, “and then come together and try to really listen to where the other person is coming from.”
Being willing to hear your partner’s point of view is key, agrees Glencarlyn resident Diane Ullius, who has been with her wife, Rhonda Buckner, for 33 years and married for eight. “Part of what makes relationships difficult is that [each person is] different. There’s a day-to-day need—to recognize that the other person isn’t you.”
Like all couples, Ullius and Buckner have had their difficulties. “There was a time when we didn’t know if we were going to make it,” Buckner says.
To deepen their mutual understanding of each other, they’ve attended therapy workshops based on the work of Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want (a 1988 book that was revised in 2007 for a 20th anniversary edition), which emphasizes communication skills and healing early childhood wounds. The couple now makes a point of attending a weekend workshop every year, “like an annual tune-up,” Buckner says.
Janice Sanchez, an Arlington therapist for the past two decades, observes that the couples who are most skilled at conflict resolution are those who are able to express their vulnerable sides—sadness, embarrassment, shame, fear, disappointment—without the fear of being judged or attacked.
“We’re all vulnerable in love,” Sanchez says. “The good news is that if couples can get to that place where they’re sharing and developing the deep trust that was lost or was never there, then they can earn a strong sense of secure connection, even if they didn’t grow up with it. Then, if you get into conflicts, you can talk them through. You’re undergirded by the trust that makes [the relationship] a whole different kind of experience.”
YES, BUT WHAT happens when children, jobs and other life circumstances leave couples feeling exhausted, with little free time to discuss anything deeper than what’s for dinner? That’s the stage that married people often find themselves in by year seven, says Bradley, the divorce attorney, when the so-called “seven-year itch” threatens to strike. Spouses who feel overtaxed and underappreciated can become tempted to look for validation elsewhere.
“The couple usually has kids by then,” Bradley says. “They’re frazzled, money’s tight, and the kids’ lives have taken over. They’ve stopped talking to each other except to make judgments and criticize.”
A big cause of marriage failure at this stage is neglect, insofar as anything that siphons time away from the couple—kids, work, aging parents, community involvement—can create emotional distance.
Some spouses who feel ignored turn to technology as a surrogate, notes Beulah Levy, a therapist in McLean. “He will go watch TV [or get on the Internet] because she’s not available to him or vice versa.”
Social media can also become a source of misunderstanding and pain when couples fail to communicate openly. This is something Janet*, an Arlington resident, learned the hard way when her high school boyfriend friended her on Facebook. She thought it was no big deal to respond cheerfully to his effusive messages (she hadn’t seen him in 25 years and didn’t plan to).
But her husband felt differently. He saw his wife’s messages and posts and assumed the worse. And he continued to read them, secretly. It wasn’t long before a cold war had formed, fueled by hurt, resentment and false assumptions. “We had a whole blow-up over the messages and posts,” Janet says, noting that their usual M.O. of sweeping uncomfortable subjects under the rug only made it worse. “We have a lot of things we put off and don’t talk about.”
Through therapy, they were able to discuss the situation openly and mostly allay each other’s unfounded fears. “I had no idea how insecure he was,” she says.
Janet also had to look in that mirror herself, she says, admitting that she sometimes “catastrophizes” situations and views fights as lethal events, rather than opportunities to clear tensions and find compromise. “Making your marriage your biggest priority is easy to say, but there are so many different ways it has to happen.”
There are times, however, when emotional distance, combined with technology, leads couples past the point of no return. Ava*, an Arlington mom, says she first became aware of her husband’s porn addiction when pop-up ads began plaguing their home computer—often when the kids were using it. “That was horrifying,” she says. “We live in a hyper-sexualized world, and it was out of balance in his life.”
At the time, Ava says she worried she might be to blame. She thought maybe she wasn’t the sexual partner her husband wanted. But time has given her a different perspective. “Porn gave him a sense of a different normal,” she says. “In porn, every woman is always interested in [unconventional] sex. Everybody’s got multiple partners, and it’s okay.”
Unable to resolve their differences, Ava and her husband divorced.
Of course all couples must determine their own norms, says Levy, the McLean therapist, noting that some couples like to watch erotic content together for fun. She says problems tend to arise when videos, online sites and chat rooms, take the place of any real connection between two people.
HOW CAN BUSY couples prevent the stresses of everyday life from coalescing into a wedge? McLean residents Lori* and Tom,* each of whom have two kids from a previous marriage, make a habit of getting up an hour early every morning to have coffee together. It’s a ritual that provides a sense of calm and unity before the chaos of life sets in.
“It is best for us to bring up a topic we have to deal with in the morning, when we’re both refreshed and probably in our best state of mind,” Lori says. “That defuses a lot of the tension and problems that can come with bringing up a tough issue later in the day when you’re stressed and tired.”
Sometimes, carving out time for the marriage also means saying no to outside commitments. “There’s an expectation in Arlington to be socially responsible and to get involved in committees and important causes and to be politically active,” says Columbia Heights resident Belinda Folb, a substitute teacher whose 6-year-old has special needs. She says she and her husband, Josh, are deliberate in limiting what they say “yes” to—to ensure that they still have something left for each other.
They also ask family members for help with child care, particularly when it comes time for their annual anniversary trip to Las Vegas (the choice of location is no accident).
“It’s the one place that it’s not socially appropriate to bring your child,” says Folb. “It’s a time for us to reconnect and just be us for a while, not just being parents.”
In doing so, the Folbs hope to avoid a common trap that befalls parents once the kids are grown. Couples whose lives have always revolved around their children will often wake up one day to find that they have nothing else in common.
“They realize they don’t know the other person next to them,” says Bradley, the divorce attorney. “The question then becomes: Do I want to spend the rest of my life being sort of unhappy, even if not completely miserable, or do I want to possibly find someone else to spend the rest of my future with?”
Werner, the Falls Church psychologist, says he sees this phenomenon all too often around the 20-year mark if couples haven’t been nurturing their bond all along. “They have children and careers and those become really convenient tracks to move onto where they just live parallel lives without closeness,” he says. But once the kids are gone and retirement looms, feelings of loneliness and isolation can kick in.
THOUGH LONGEVITY isn’t the only indicator of a successful marriage, Ann and Tim Felker certainly have time on their side. After 51 years as husband and wife, the Ashton Heights residents have nine children and 16 grandchildren. They still enjoy listening to music together, visiting with family and being active members of their church.
It wasn’t always easy. Their first 10 years of marriage were overshadowed by the Vietnam War, during which Tim was twice deployed with the Army. Although Ann was “diametrically opposed” to the war and took their children to peace rallies, Tim remained on active duty. They moved 20 times in as many years. They didn’t always agree on matters of politics or parenting, but both say their love and mutual respect held them together.
“We always took time to go out together no matter what was going on,” says Ann. “We would dress up and go out every other week, where we could talk without chatter.”
Because money was always tight, they often took advantage of free concerts at places like Lubber Run Amphitheater and the National Mall.
Looking back now, Ann remembers the good parts and the bad parts with equal fondness: “Sharing everything from the broken water heater to the sunshine and grass growing, to the children doing crazy things…” she says. “People who are so overwhelmed by babies and children would be helped to remember that this is a very short period of time in your life.”
Indeed, there are certain perks that, in a good marriage, will outlast the terrible 2’s, the teenage years, career changes and other challenges. Like friendship. And romance. And yes, sex.
“I’ve found some of the sexiest, most lusty, romantic women to be over the age of 70,” says author Krasnow. Her latest book, Sex After…: Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes, offers plenty of anecdotal evidence that good sex doesn’t have an expiration date.
Married for 25 years, Krasnow says she has found an almost Zen-like comfort in her predictable, constant life. “There is a relaxing into the next phase of a relationship, and
if you manage to stay married, couples have reported to me that it’s some of the sweetest, most fulfilling parts of their relationship.”
Such contentment awaits those happy pairs who do hang in there. And communicate with each other, even when it’s hard.
*Some names have been changed for privacy.
POWER OF TWO
What are the habits of highly successful couples?Local experts impart a few pieces of advice.
GO IN PREPARED. Premarital therapy can be helpful, says Jennifer Bradley, a divorce attorney at the Arlington family law firm Mullett Dove Meacham & Bradley. It forces couples to “step outside the fairy tale nonsense and look at the reality of marriage.”
STAY IN TOUCH. Daily hugs and kisses (at the very least) will stimulate oxytocin, a hormone that produces feelings of well-being. “That can really nurture the deep bond and trust,” says Arlington family therapist Janice Sanchez.
FIGHT FAIR. “Knowing what words to use is important,” says McLean therapist Beulah Levy. “And that comes from growing, and learning [about] your partner. Hold onto your own thoughts until you’ve really heard [the other person],” she says. And remember that, for women especially, “emotional connection is foreplay.”
SEEK HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT. If you’re harboring resentments or venting to others without confronting your spouse directly, it may be time for counseling, Sanchez says. It’s important to air and defuse such grievances before they get out of hand.
MAKE TIME FOR EACH OTHER. Whether that means morning walks or monthly date nights. And don’t be afraid to talk about heavy topics once you’re alone. Many couples mistakenly think that talking about anything serious or important will “ruin” the mood, says Falls Church psychologist Anthony Werner, when in fact it may bring you closer.
AVOID COMPARISONS. “It’s really dangerous to compare your own romantic life to anyone else’s,” warns author Iris Krasnow. “Nobody knows what’s going on behind closed doors except the two people in [the relationship].” All couples struggle. None are perfect.
AVOID SECRETS. That includes “emotional withholding,” as well as mundane matters like household management. "Joint bank accounts are a smart play," says Sean Kelly, a divorce attorney with the Fairfax firm Kelly Byrnes & Danker. "If one partner is in the dark about finances, that can lead to mistrust."
HAVE SEX. Even if you have to schedule it or put it on your to-do list. “It doesn’t have to be full-on, mind-blowing sex,” Krasnow says, but it’s important to put a premium on intimacy. Plus, many couples find that it has a compounding effect. “The more sex you have, the more you want sex,” she says.
HAVE FUN SEX. “Sex is healthy and life affirming,” says sex therapist Peter Chirinos, and it doesn’t have to be predictable. Take the pressure off by “instilling a sense of playfulness and levity” in the bedroom. Perhaps that means listening to and taking turns playing out each other’s fantasies.
Roughly a quarter of men and 10 percent to 15 percent of women will be unfaithful at some point in a marriage, according to research by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington. Many who experience this kind of betrayal describe it as the worst emotional pain of their lives. But infidelity doesn't always mean that the relationship is doomed.
Arlington residents Kate* and Matt* found themselves in this situation five years ago. Both worked full time, and whatever time was left over ended up being dedicated to their four children, several of whom played elite sports. Then Matt started traveling for a new job and spending lots of time in hotels or out entertaining clients.
“I felt like we were living different lives,” says Kate, who ended up juggling the demands of her own job, along with the kids’ schedules, homework and household chores when Matt was out of town, and then getting angry about it. “When he came home, he was exhausted and just wanted to play. It was more than I could handle, and I got really resentful,” she says. They rarely spent time alone as a couple, and mostly talked about family logistics.
Things reached a crisis point when Kate discovered that Matt was having an affair with a younger co-worker who often joined him on business trips. “I found pictures,” she says, recalling her feelings of utter devastation.
Matt moved out, but the married couple didn’t call it quits. They started seeing a psychologist together. Seven months later, he moved back home.
During their time apart, Kate also started seeing a therapist on her own. She says the sessions helped her to see her husband’s point of view—how a work upheaval, the death of a parent and her absorption with the kids and her own job had left him questioning his role in the marriage and wondering whether she still loved him.
“Acknowledging that I played a role in all this pain was really hard, because it’s so easy to blame the other person,” Kate says. But over time she chose to forgive him.
Today, they continue to see a therapist weekly, and they make it a priority to schedule regular dinners, just the two of them.
While the betrayed spouse may not want to hear it, the dynamic that leads to cheating of any kind (whether emotional or physical) often involves culpability on both sides, according to Falls Church therapist Peter Chirinos. Even if the betrayed partner identifies the other as the one who is having “the issue,” Chirinos frequently asks to see both parties in his office.
“This is a shared responsibility,” he says. “The problem is co-created by both of you, and the solution needs to be that as well.”
Couples can and do overcome affairs, says psychologist Anthony Werner, who is also based in Falls Church. “Those people do remarkable work if they care about each other and really want to make the relationship better.”
He often uses the “Inch by Inch” speech about teamwork from the movie Any Given Sunday as a parable for marriage. Overcoming hurt and resentment that’s built up over time can be brutally difficult, he says. “But if a couple is not win-win, then it’s lose-lose.”
Married for 27 years, Arlington resident Amy Brecount White found this story fascinating to research and gleaned some good advice herself.