Communication. Hobbies. Date nights. All are theoretically important for a healthy marriage — and often unattainable when we’re mired in the humdrum cycle of daily life and dirty laundry.
Let’s face it: For most of us, marriage isn’t a Viagra commercial packed with sun-kissed picnics on the beach. It’s carpools. Lost phone chargers. Demanding bosses. Messy houses, messy kids, messy lives. Sure, there might be the occasional date night or meandering late-night conversation. But raise your hand if you and your beloved spend many nights on your phones watching “Game of Thrones” until someone starts snoring.
I set out to discover what can help a marriage endure through those mundane, everyday moments. People were excited to talk — really excited. I got long e-mails with bullet points for keeping love alive. I received cathartic Facebook notes from people I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years.
Maybe it’s because there’s so much aspirational stuff out there about what makes marriages great. Swoony photos on Facebook and Instagram. Viral New York Times stories on the 36 questions you must ask your mate to spark true love. And, always, the prospect of divorce lurks — according to the American Psychological Association, up to 50 percent of US marriages will end.
Sometimes divorce is the best choice for a host of reasons, but few people enter marriage preparing for its demise, and most wonder what will make love last. Is it luck? Karma? Martini nights every third Tuesday? Here are a few insights from real-life couples and counselors.
When someone reveals their character, believe them. For many of us, “in sickness and in health” can seem like an abstraction. Not for West Roxbury’s Andrew and Ali Barton. Ali went into heart failure shortly after their marriage — while 21 weeks pregnant via IVF — and required a heart transplant after giving birth to their first child, Ethan. She’d been sick since meeting Andrew in 2010, and he regularly visited her in the hospital and assured her he’d be there even if she couldn’t have children, or had swollen limbs, or just needed to rest when they had plans with friends.
“If your marriage is based on just sex or attraction, you’re screwed. . . . To have your best friend to just be there, to listen, and love you, that was key for us,” Ali says.
Andrew agrees. “You take a vow for sickness and health. It should mean something,” he says. “She would do the same thing for me.”
Your partner makes you feel safe. Most couples fight. But those who endure have secure attachments to each other, says Danielle Green, a therapist at the New England Center for Couples and Families.
How do they build those attachments? By proving over and over again that they’re honest, even if that just means they follow through on getting a quote from the roofer or picking up the kids from school twice a week.
“The way we achieve this is by having the repeated experience that our partner is trustworthy, reliable, and they have our back,” Green says. “When the chips are down, you know you can easily turn to your partner and that the person is accessible to your needs.”
Instead of focusing on how much fun you have with someone or whether they have a lucrative job, evaluate how comfortable you feel.
“A lot of people go into relationships with their gut, thinking the honeymoon will last a lifetime, even though all the statistics show that half of marriages fail,” she says. “We think of ourselves as impervious.”
So get real: Do you feel safe? Can you be vulnerable? Do you truly trust your partner? If you’re not sure, heed the warning signs.
You’re aligned on the big issues. Lindsey and Kemi Fuentes-George are pretty different. She grew up in the South, a child of divorce, the type who analyzed her feelings. He grew up in the Caribbean with long-married parents, and over-sharing wasn’t in his wheelhouse.
“Where I grew up, men are kind of stoic and uncommunicative. You suffer silently,” Kemi says.
But despite the difference in their upbringing, they were on the same page since meeting at the University of Massachusetts more than 10 years ago.
“It was almost cosmic, like in World War II, where some old geezer says, ‘I saw her, and I knew she was the one!’ ” Lindsey says with a laugh. “I felt like I knew his heart from very early on, I knew he was in it with both feet, and we connected on the big things — kids, travel, how life would look in 10 years. I never doubted him as a person.”
The lesson: Shared backgrounds may be far less important than shared values and visions for the future.
If it’s right, don’t listen to naysayers. There’s something to be said for playing the field, but don’t let outsiders convince you that you’re missing out if you find the right person early. Jamaica Plain’s Amy Light and her husband, Charlie, met as teenagers and have been together for about 20 years.
“People ask, ‘How do you know it’s right if you don’t have anything to compare it to?’ ” she asks. “Maybe I did miss out on some stuff. But in what relationship don’t you?”
The couple decided they were in it for the long haul before going to college and endured bumps in the road — like Charlie’s stint in a frat, for example. But they were both committed to making it work.
“We came close to breaking up at times. It was tough, but this is what we wanted, and we put in the time. For some people, this is just how it is,” Amy says. Turns out, her parents met in high school, too. After divorcing in 2005, they remarried in 2008.
Treasure your shared experiences, and celebrate your differences. Sherborn’s Kelly DuMar and her husband, Frank, recently celebrated their 29th anniversary. They have grown children and an empty house.
And lots of interests.
“Frank follows his passions and I follow mine — we have his bucket, my bucket, and our bucket. You can’t think your relationship is the whole center. You need interests and friendships and to say, ‘You go do that thing!’ You stay exciting by growing,” Kelly says.
That said, long-term relationships pay off with shared emotional shorthand.
“There’s a huge sense of comfort that he knows me deeply, and we can really be vulnerable,” she says. “My dad died not long ago, and my husband had a relationship with him, too. There was comfort in his knowing what that loss really was — this shared memory bank, experience, and common language.”
Let your partner evolve. East Boston’s Katie Olsen met her spouse, River, on the first day of high school in Arizona. They married at 18. Now 26, they have one child, with another on the way. They recently moved to Boston so River Olsen could start graduate work at Harvard Divinity School. Last year, River came out as transgender and is now transitioning to female.
“A lot of people might have struggled, but it was kind of like, OK, this is who you are. River is happier transitioning, and this makes all the difference in the world,” Katie says. In fact, the couple plan to renew their vows for their 10-year anniversary.
“This will give River the chance to be the bride. We’ll recommit. We’re not the same people, but we still love each other,” Katie says.
Of course, not every couple will undergo such a fundamental shift. But every marriage or long-term partnership weathers a couple’s changing goals, hopes, tastes, and interests. The more that can be encouraged — and yet still shared — the stronger the bond.
Please, stop comparing yourself to other couples. Nobody’s marriage is always wonderful, and something better isn’t just around the corner.
“A lot of marriage is humdrum and simply about having a partner in life,” says Courtney Vareschi, an Andover psychologist who specializes in relationships. It’s not realistic for everyone to be happy or passionate all the time. There are lots of periods where it’s apathetic, where you’re not connecting at all, living parallel lives. It’s really normal.
“There’s something comforting in recognizing that and acknowledging it,” she continues. “Doesn’t everyone look so happy on social media? [That] isn’t real life.”
So go out to dinner. Frolic on the beach at sunset when you can. But most of all: If the sometimes predictable, occasionally frustrating person snoring next to you during “Game of Thrones” usually makes you happy — just enjoy it.