The Science of a Happy Marriage

By nature, men and women aren't made for each other. How to outsmart our DNA and live happily ever after.

By Michael Gurian from Reader's Digest | August 2004

Stage 4: Awakening

What many couples don’t understand is that before drifting apart, there is an earlier step that goes unnoticed. In Romance, Disillusionment and Power Struggle, the man and woman become too close, erasing one another’s individuality. A man might see his wife’s emotionality, need to communicate, desire for sensual romance, even attitude toward housework as a waste of time. She might see her husband’s habits, hobbies, preoccupation with work, and need for independence as dangerous or selfish. In Stage 4, the couple awaken to the realization that they’ve been too close to each other in unhealthy ways and must now psychologically separate. This separation does not mean divorce — it means understanding. In this new stage, the thinking brain overrides emotional responses that could cause conflict and a feeling of grief over their lost romance.

A man might step back and say nothing when he sees his wife doing something that irritates — he just mentally steps around it. A woman might supportively say, “I get what that’s about now,” when he does something equally irritating to her.

Ultimately men realize that women are right: A relationship is most likely doomed if there isn’t enough togetherness. But men are right, too: It is most likely in serious trouble if there is not enough independence.

When we are too far away from each other, that amazing love we knew at the beginning will die. Yet when we are so close that one person will not allow the other to be himself or herself, the marriage can’t survive. Understanding the strengths of male and female chemistry is the key to success.

Stage 5: Long-Term Marriage

The balance between the prototypical male and female ways of relating is a balanced state of love I call Intimate Separateness. The Power Struggle of Stage 3 dissipates, and strategies of mature love that nurture both intimacy and separateness take over. Couples live together, raise children, love and are loved, but not because they’ve become the same as each other — in fact, because they’ve learned to be happily different.

To Foster Intimacy

  • A happy couple in a happy marriage develop bonding rituals, like date nights, family dinners, talking on the phone or e-mailing when one of them is traveling. These rituals become the pillars that hold up the marriage. Every moment of the relationship does not have to be intimate — the husband and wife know that the bonding rituals will sustain the power of love when life gets busy and stressful.
  • They practice kindness and politeness with each other in at least 95 percent of their interactions. There is perhaps no one who deserves better treatment than one’s spouse, but when we’re locked in Power Struggle, we think our partner should be our constant object of stress ventilation. The frontal lobes are really doing their mature job when we realize how a good marriage depends on kindness.
  • They resolve arguments rather than letting things fester. Sure, they get angry and argue, but they make sure to apologize for meanness, and solve their conflicts. When needed, they get help from friends, extended family or professionals.

To Protect Separateness

  • They appreciate each other’s eccentricities and differences, especially as woman and man. Perhaps he hogs the remote control when they watch TV. Instead of reacting, she chuckles. Or perhaps she wants to talk about her feelings with him; he understands how important this is to her as a woman and takes the time to listen.
  • They develop different sets of friends, generally female for her and male for him, and encourage each other in these friendships. Over the years they may find that even while their spouse is their best friend, they are still getting much of their emotional needs met through others.
  • They allow each other different marital domains. If a special project, a hobby or sport, a way of socializing is very important to one, the other helps promote that. This way, each partner has a personal place, a time, an activity which brings meaning and power.

There’s tremendous value in knowing that your feelings toward one another are likely to change over time and that change is normal. Your brain chemistry plays a role, and there’s no point in fighting it. Instead, let biology guide you toward understanding, and natural, long-term love. After all, human beings are creatures of nature, and nature is very wise indeed.