Here’s a deeply unpopular opinion: You can’t fix an unhappy marriage.
Happy marriages start that way and stay that way, while unhappy marriages were doomed from the outset to be unhappy, if workable.
That’s the argument, anyway, of psychologist and career marriage counselor Sam Hamburg and his book Will Our Love Last? A Couple’s Roadmap.
He explains his position plainly on the second page of the book:
The key to a happy marriage is picking the right person in the first place—someone with whom you are deeply compatible.
Of course, this just begs the question: How do we know whether we’ll be compatible with someone—if they really are the one?
The rest of the book is an attempt to answer that question. In broad strokes, the key idea is this:
You cannot choose the right person without first understanding the pressures—on you and everyone else contemplating marriage—to choose the wrong person.
And you will not be really motivated to choose the right person unless you understand exactly what compatibility is and why it is so important to the happiness of your marriage.
As a normal human being who grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies, every romantic, you-can-do-it bone in my body recoils from the idea that unhappy marriages can’t be salvaged.
But the longer I work as a psychologist—hearing real stories from real people trying desperately to save their unhappy marriages—the more I believe the core message of this book is true.
You can become happier in a marriage, but only if the foundation is solid from the beginning.
While this idea may be discouraging for those who are in unhappy marriages, it’s invaluable to those considering marriage.
What follows is a collection of my favorite quotes and passages from this challenging book along with my own brief thoughts and reflections on them.
People who are similar in their values, priorities, tastes, personal habits, opinions, and interests have a much easier time understanding each other, and consequently respecting each other, than people who are very different from each other.
Difference and complementarity are attractive in the beginning. But happy, satisfying marriages seem to rest on a foundation of similarity and commonality.
If you find yourself attracted to someone because they strongly make up for a perceived deficit in yourself, be careful.
It’s not psychologically realistic for people who don’t understand each other to be able to respect what they don’t understand.
A simple test I would do if I was a pre-marital counselor is to ask each partner the following two questions:
- What’s the strangest belief, custom, or value your partner has?
- Why is that belief/custom/value important to your partner?
Empathy, respect, and honest communication all begin with understanding—deep, well-considered understanding.
Without that foundation, your odds for a happy, successful marriage are grim.
On Choosing a Partner
Most people lack a clear sense of what’s important to look for in a marriage partner. Often they simply compare their current relationship with previous ones and point to the ways that this relationship is better… When it comes to choosing whom you’re going to marry, “good enough” isn’t good enough.
It’s stunning to me how thoughtless most people are about arguably the most important and impactful decision in their life—whom they choose to marry.
I have clients come to me in therapy to “work on their marriage problems” who put more care and attention into their fantasy football draft every year than they did into their decision of whom to marry.
There’s very little hope of salvaging a situation like this.
On Romantic Love
Lasting love is not the opposite of romantic love, it’s the extension of romantic love. The only important difference between romantic love and lasting love is that the fuel supply for romantic love is limited, so eventually it stops, while the fuel supply for lasting love is unlimited.
The oppositional dichotomy between romantic and lasting love in popular culture is not helpful.
Better to think about love developmentally: Its nature changes in important ways—and hopefully grows—as you do.
In some cases, partners are attracted to each other specifically because of big differences between them on introversion/extroversion: The extroverted one seems so exciting and the introverted one seems so stable. But eventually that difference comes back to haunt them. The extroverted partner starts to think of the other partner as a stick-in-the-mud who stops them from really living. The introverted one starts to think of the other as superficial and childish. Their big difference on introversion/extroversion puts up a roadblock to the process of mutual affirmation.
It’s a sign of emotional immaturity to choose a partner because they “fill in” some void or need in you.
Pick someone for who they are, not for what you want them to do for you.
That’s selfishness and it will more than likely corrupt a marriage before it begins.
On Words vs Actions
A lot of the most important and objective information you get about people comes not from what they tell you, because that can be spun in many different ways, but from your direct observation of what they do.
If you’re contemplating taking the next step from serious relationship to marriage, this might be the most important thing you can do:
Carefully consider whether your partner’s words and professed beliefs/values align with their actions.
Research shows that spouses who have problems communicating with each other have no trouble at all communicating with anybody else… When couples in unhappy marriages do have communication problems, it’s generally not because the communication problems caused the marriage problems but the other way around: The marriage problems caused the communication problems.
“Communication problems” is an easy scapegoat for a much more uncomfortable reality: It’s not your communication that’s the problem, it’s the nature of your relationship.
Two fundamentally different people, with different values, priorities, preferences, and beliefs are going to have a very difficult time understanding each other in a deep, compassionate way. Of course you’re going to have communication problems!
The problem is, that’s not the real problem.
The Loyalty Rule: No matter how loyal you have always been to your family, once you get married you must transfer your primary loyalty to the new family that you and your partner have created by the act of getting married.
Have the loyalty talk before you get married (or even engaged):
- Where are our individual loyalties?
- What will they be when we get married?
- What sorts of situations might test those aspirations?
- What should we do if we feel like the other person is not living up to our loyalty agreements?
On Growing Apart
Often couples have said to me, “we grew apart.” That’s how they felt, certainly, but that’s not exactly what happened. What happened was that they had been apart from the very beginning, but their own individual identities were not yet developed enough and distinct enough for them to be able to see that.
Ironically, the most effective time to do marriage counseling is before you get married.
Once you’re 20 years in and need marriage counseling… Well, as most marriage counselors will tell you, the outlook is not good.
Commitment guarantees nothing about how happy a marriage will be. All it guarantees is that the marriage will continue.
Okay, but doesn’t a belief in a firm commitment lead to a sense of security, confidence, and trust—all things that could reasonably promote happiness in a marriage?
The way I might frame this is that while commitment may have many benefits for a relationship, don’t rely on it exclusively for a happy or satisfying marriage.
Commitment can be good, but it’s probably not enough for a happy marriage.
When people talk about why their marriages broke up, they talk much more about having been unable to be their true self with their partner than they do about communication and problem solving.
Successful, happy marriages require assertiveness from both partners—the ability to honestly and directly ask for what you want and say no to what you don’t want.
But assertiveness doesn’t happen without values clarity—deep understanding about the things that matter most to you, and the things that matter to you in a spouse.
Marriages don’t work if you can’t be yourself. And you can’t be yourself if you don’t know what you want.
Know thyself. Then get married.
On Getting Married
The pressure to get married causes us to use what psychologists call a “satisfying” decision-making strategy in choosing a partner, instead of the “optimizing” strategy that we use in making other important decisions.
I love my marriage. But it’s hard to be optimistic about the concept of marriage on a cultural level.
Choosing to marry my wife is the best decision I’ve ever made. But in many ways, I got lucky.
The weird cultural pressures we have around marriage push people into unhealthy relationships that often make both parties (and their future kids) miserable.
Are you getting married because you wholeheartedly want to? Or are you getting married because “it’s time”?
On Belittling Partners
A person who habitually makes fun of you, criticizes you, or otherwise humiliates you in front of others can’t possibly respect you. Keep away.
Here’s another possibility:
Someone who habitually makes fun of you, criticizes you, or otherwise humiliates you in front of others has so little self-worth that they can only manage to eke out superficial bits of it by putting other people down to briefly make themselves feel better by contrast.
Are you sure you want to marry someone that emotionally stunted and immature?
The Neat Freak Rule: If you believe you are a neat freak (or don’t believe it but have been told that you are by more than one other person), then either (a) marry another neat freak, or (b) expect that you will be the one who does the extra work to keep the house of to your standards.
Obviously, this applies to any extreme preference, not just neatness.
In general, don’t expect your partner to accommodate your extreme preferences—either assume full responsibility for them or marry someone who agrees with you.
To do otherwise is a set-up for frustration, resentment, and conflict.
On Extra-marital Sexual Attraction
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that the promiscuity of our sexual interest won’t disappear simply because we’ve gotten married. But if we take our marriage vows seriously, we are committing ourselves to not being promiscuous at all in our behavior for the rest of our lives… the trick for married people is to maintain an interesting and satisfying sex life without resorting to novel partners.
I love this more positive and constructive spin on the problem of extra-marital sexual attraction—that is, when you see a hot girl/guy who isn’t your wife/husband and feel some sexual attraction.
Instead of framing it as a bad thing (good or bad, it’s natural and inevitable) you need to “work on” or get rid of, ask yourself:
How can my spouse and I spice up our attraction for each other?
I don’t believe in the popular idea of soulmates—two people cosmically destined to be together, swirling through all eternity in a vortex of spiritual energy.
But I like some of the gravitas associated with it. I like the idea of thinking much more carefully, deliberately, and systematically about whom we choose to marry. If you did end up with this person for the rest of eternity, what are the odds you would be eternally happy together?
But let me leave you with a less grandiose way to think about choosing the right person to marry from the author himself:
If you are in a happy marriage, you feel—you know—that there’s someone in your corner. They don’t fight the fight for you—you fight your fight yourself—but they’re waiting in your corner to help you between rounds, and to help you after the fight is over. They’re in your corner to reassure you that even though you’re out there in the ring by yourself, you’re not alone. They’re in your corner no matter what, even if they’re impatient with you, exasperated with you, enraged at you. They are always in your corner.