Last weekend we spent five lovely days in Sydney. I started writing this post by recounting everything I did, almost in chronological order, but then I realised that this wasn’t actually very interesting and would make a post that read like a second-rate travel blog. Suffice to say that we had a great time, catching up with dear friends and enjoying the many and varied delights of this beautiful city. I don’t think that I will even actually live in Sydney and in some ways that saddens me, as I really like it there, but it’s also quite nice to view it as a bit of a city-sized adventure playground, somewhere that I only visit in order to have a good time. Who knows – perhaps my love affair with the place would wane if I had to wrestle with the city council and all that.
Our weekend away left me reflecting on relationships and, specifically, happy marriages. In my life I have a fairly large selection of friends and family members for whom married life hasn’t meant a lifetime of mutual support and adoration. In many cases I could ghoulishly speculate about why It All Went Wrong (and have done so), but let’s be honest: nobody really knows what goes on in somebody else’s relationship, so attempts to analyse the good and bad points of a marriage are doomed to fail. It’s difficult enough to ‘analyse’ a marriage when you’re one of the two spouses in question – in fact, this is probably the hardest time to do it, which might also explain why so many marriages hit the skids.
Anyway. A lot of my friends and family members have had marriages that did not last forever, but a lot of people I know are (or certainly seem to be) in the midst of happy marriages. And it’s so lovely to see this that I think it does everybody good to stop and acknowledge happy relationships every now and then. I feel like the bad and sad relationships get a lot more attention, probably because they contain drama and lend themselves to discussion, whereas a happy relationship can just jog along without anybody pausing to congratulate the participants on what they’ve achieved.
During our time in Sydney were were fortunate enough to spend time with several happy couples, and although these people are all different, with unique approaches to everything in life, it struck me that they did have something in common, at least with regard to how they conduct the most important interpersonal relationship in their lives. Of course, I have plenty of happily married friends living in other places as well, so the following paragraphs apply to them as well.
I think that is the first charactertistic, actually: continually regarding the marital relationship as the most important one. The people I’m thinking about have decent social circles, family members in their lives, et cetera, but one thing they all seem to do is make it clear that their spouse is the most important person in their lives, and the person whose company they’d choose over everybody else. This should be a no-brainer, I think – after all, marriage is the only time that you formally choose to spend your life with one person – but I’ve definitely known people who would prioritise their mother, or their best friend, over their husband or wife. I believe that you should always treat the person you chose as number one in your life.
Another thing that seems to be a common factor is a sense of physical affection and intimacy. This doesn’t mean that my happily married friends are pawing at each other and making everybody wish that they’d just get a room and spare the rest of us, but the happy couples do make it clear that they still fancy each other and want to be with each other: that they’re actively choosing each other because they’re still attracted to each other. These couples tend to be the type that kiss each other hello and goodbye, say ‘I love you’ without feeling weird or self-conscious, and generally give you the sense that they’d be more likely to voluntarily lose a limb than cheat on their spouse.
The next thing seems to be a genuine desire for their spouse to be happy – these people really do support each other, in good times and bad, and are no shy when it comes to singing their spouse’s praises. They are interested in the other person’s career, and these marriages definitely place equal weight on the accomplishments of both husbands and wives. These friends don’t seem to give in to traditional marital roles, even if the wife is at home with small children: you always get the sense that: a) the decision to deal with child-rearing in that manner was made jointly; b) the husband is still an active participant in his children’s development; and c) the wife doesn’t try to shore up her position by making disparaging comments about the husband’s parenting skills, or imply that entire house will fall apart if she’s not there for a day or two.
Finally, I’ve noticed in my lovely friends an over-riding sense of civility and decency. Some people may claim that, in a happy relationship, you should be able to say anything, do anything, and be forgiven. I don’t believe that: I think that intimacy does not excuse bad manners. I’ve known people who will use the most scathing language when talking to, or about, their spouse – how can anybody be surprised if the goodwill and happiness leaks out of that kind of relationship? Again, if you have chosen to commit to one person for the rest of your life, the least you should do is talk to the person in a reasonable tone, treat them with kindness and respect, and not expect them to put up with behaviour that you’d never excuse from a friend.
The reason I believe in this kind of thing so fervently is because I see my happily married friends subscribe to these theories, without necessarily making it explicit, and I know that their relationships endure through good times and bad, overcoming job losses, health issues, infertility (or – even more challenging child-rearing). And they still like each other and get on well, and that’s what makes them a pleasure to visit. And these people seem to raise happy, funny, well-mannered children – so something is working!