Whether or not you want to admit it, it’s likely that at some point in your marriage, you’ve wondered if your marriage is “good” in the first place. You know, probably during some horrible fight, when you probably shouldn’t be asking yourself a single serious question, but there you are, questioning the big stuff.
I’m no stranger to this question, mostly because I grew up with two parents who had what was decidedly a bad marriage—and I knew I just didn’t want to do whatever it was they were doing. Of course when you Google “how do you know you’re in a good marriage” you get messages that are not always helpful. Most of the articles focus on psychological studies and stats—you know you’re in a good marriage if your therapist says so. There are countless message boards wherein at least one person attests that you’re in a good marriage if you never fight, or you always agree with each other no matter what. People say you’re in a good marriage if you never go to bed angry, if you always do everything together, if you let things go. The Internet seems to be especially concerned with figuring out if men are happy in their marriages, but less concerned with whether or not women classify their marriages as good.
Like most married people, I spend a lot of time hoping that my actions, thoughts, and words are contributing to the overall health of my marriage. But… that doesn’t mean we don’t fight. In fact, I think being able to fight is a sign of a healthy marriage, and I never quite trust a couple when they claim they never disagree. My husband and I have most certainly gone to bed pissed at one another, because hey: we’ve been together for nearly ten years, and we need sleep.
A few weeks ago we asked you guys what you think a good marriage is, and the responses were on point. In fact, the responses were exactly the kind of advice I’d hoped to get but never had. It turns out that the tropes people tell you that you’re supposed to worry about aren’t really the most important things in a marriage.
1. when you stop comparing yourselves to other couples
As I have gotten older I have realized that comparing marriages and listening to other people’s standards does not work. I have been with my husband for ten years. I can’t even count the amount of “perfect” couples who have given us advice and told us about how wonderful their relationship is that are no longer together, or have had affairs. Meanwhile we sometimes fight, we aren’t always perfectly “in love,” we have tough times, but we keep going along happily every year. Years ago we would listen to these couples’ advice and worry that if we didn’t do or feel the things they bragged about, it meant that there was something wrong with our relationship. But time has proven many times over that we only need to worry about being true to ourselves, and that the ones who proclaim they have perfect relationships the loudest are often just trying to convince themselves.
2. when “good enough” Becomes Actually… good
When I was a teenager my mom seriously considered leaving my dad because she felt they didn’t have enough passion and connection. I really thought that they were a terrible match and maybe she should divorce him. Years later, I can see so much more of how they suit each other, how they bring each other joy.
There were bad times in their marriage, that’s for sure. But they decided to keep doing it—it was good enough. And now it’s actually good.
3. when you can both stay true to you
I think a good marriage allows both partners to become their best selves. Partners should help each other grow in positive ways, whether that’s through a gentle push, or cheering from the sidelines, or stepping back and allowing room for the other person to explore their passion. Your spouse should motivate you to be better, without ever forcing you to be untrue to yourself. Support can come in many forms, and I think the kind of support you need changes a lot over the course of a relationship, so really listening and responding to what your partner needs is key.
4. when good and bad are irrelevant
I don’t love the idea of “good” marriages and “bad” marriages, because it feels a little too much like comparing my inside to someone else’s outside, as they say. I don’t think someone outside the marriage can make a judgment call about whether someone’s marriage is good or bad, especially on the whole. The furthest I would go would be to say, “this aspect of their relationship doesn’t seem healthy.”
For me, the marriage is its own entity separate from both my husband and me, and it’s something we work on together. It’s either working well at the moment, or it needs some improvement right now. The term “bad marriage” makes me think abuse or some other major issue is at play. I think when you get to the point that you judge your own marriage as “bad,” you probably need to start getting out of that marriage.
5. when you understand that marriage comes with risk
It was reassuring to hear from everyone that yes, even a “good” marriage has moments of doubt and conflict and fear and anxiety. I asked my pastor’s wife if “marriage is just mitigated risk? Like you marry someone and make the best decision you can and do the work and hope it works out?” And she said, “Yes, basically. Marriage is really hard. But it’s also really amazing.” Which was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.
6. when being there for one another is enough
I’m actually pretty proud of the relationship my husband and I have, considering we’ve only been together four years. The way we’ve chosen to openly communicate with each other has been one of the most positive qualities in our relationship—from the way he told me he had melanoma three months into dating (mole was removed shortly after and he’s cancer free!) to the way we’ve dealt with my recent miscarriage. Even if one of us doesn’t know exactly what to say, just knowing that those lines of communication are open and that the other person is always there, even if just to listen and be there for physical support, is huge.
7. when you’re happy every day
There’s a scene in Sex and the City when the girls ask Charlotte how often she’s happy in her marriage, and she says, “Every day.” Not all day every day, not all the time, but at some point in the day, every day, she is happy. That, to me, is the “good” or “good enough” marriage/relationship. I recognize that there are nuances here; for example, a strict twenty-four-hour time limit seems silly. I also recognize that the happiness can be fueled by something outside one’s marriage/relationship, such as a spouse who achieves a goal they’ve been working toward a long time. That line has always stuck with me, not as a goal to strive for, but as an internal measure of my own level of gratitude. What is the thing that made me happy today? Did I acknowledge it in the moment, or do I only see it in hindsight? Both of those things are okay, but I will probably reap more benefits from learning to acknowledge it in the moment, and find my new happy thing for tomorrow.
8. when you realize you might not know
I don’t have an answer to exactly what a good marriage looks like, but I’m working on it. It feels like it should be a relationship where a couple can communicate openly with each other. Where there’s an understanding that the marriage and the partnership comes first. Where there’s mutual respect and support. The communication thing has been incredibly hard for us—we’re both incredibly conflict-avoidant, so things that should have been addressed long, long ago got pushed aside and ignored for a long time until they got too big to ignore any longer.
if you missed the discussion the first time around (or just want to chime in again), tell us: what else would you add to this list? sub-question: is it enough to know you’re in a good marriage—even if you might not be forever?