How to make a marriage work

Originally posted on Herald Sun

by Cheryl Critchley

How to make a marriage work


HAVE views on marriage changed so much that we are now confused about what it means? Marriage has always been an exclusive commitment, but the way we commit and for how long has changed enormously. At one extreme it is treated as a commodity and at the other a religious covenant that can never be broken.

Traditionalists define marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman to the exclusion of others, with the aim of producing children. But many heterosexual couples don’t have or want children, and some tolerate infidelity. A growing number also believe same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

Sexologist and director of Sexology Australia Elaine George says that before couples can have a successful marriage, they must be clear on what it means to both of them. “I don’t think couples are that well prepared in terms of expectations, juggling roles and confronting different identities as a spouse, a future parent and usually in addition to managing career development,” she says.

“There has been so much social change in the way we communicate, work, play and rest. All of this has a huge impact on our intimate relationships. There is still a strong tendency to idealize marriage, and many couples jump into marriage with totally unrealistic expectations.”

For example, many couples don’t understand that conflict will occur even in a good marriage. George says conflict can be a good thing if resolved in a healthy way. “Often the pain and conflict of committed relationships arise not out of lack of love for our partners, but from a misunderstanding of what love relationships are about,” she says.

“The giddy romantic phase inevitably fades and often when we marry or move in together things just start to go wrong. In some cases, all hell breaks loose. The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different than we thought they were. It turns out they have qualities that we cannot tolerate or accept. Worse still, qualities we once admired irritate or infuriate us.”

Forty-year couple research veteran Dr John Gottman, who wrote Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says that while many believe conflict causes unhappy relationships, it is how you handle it that matters.

Venting anger constructively can clear the air and re-establish emotional intimacy. But Gottman warns that conflict becomes a real problem when there is criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Contempt for a partner is often a crucial indicator for divorce.

George agrees, saying successful, robust marriages grow and evolve over the years with each partner on their individual path but with a strong interdependent connection with the other. Dealing with the inevitable clashes is part of this.

“Conflict tends to be a sign that the individual psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole,” she says. “However without this knowledge, conflict so often becomes destructive and destabilizes the marriage bond. If it continues unabated it becomes insidious and gradually destroys the marriage viability.”

Physical intimacy, which typically decreases after the initial romantic phase, can also be difficult to negotiate with busy lifestyles. “It can also decline at other stages during the course of marriage including the arrival of babies, illness, menopause, extended family issues or other life stressors (unemployment, relocation etc),” George says.

Couples must communicate to survive. How often do we hear stories about those with “selective deafness” when it comes to their partners’ needs, or partners who nag non-stop despite it clearly making no difference?

US clinical pastoral counsellor Harville Hendrix says romance is the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people, but the romance must end and that is where clear communication is essential to “enable individuals to cross into each other’s worlds”.

Hendrix adds that divorce does not solve the problems of marriage. Even after walking away, ingrained problems remain. “This crucial point is perhaps the biggest misunderstood or unknown fact that pertains to all relationships, married or not,” George says.

“Even if and when a relationship ends, individuals take the same issues that triggered conflict into their subsequent relationship.”

With less societal pressure to stay married, George says the willingness to commit and work on it depends somewhat on our age. But family and cultural background are also critical variables, as are social upbringing, education, career, religious beliefs and emotional resilience.

“Many baby boomers are content and happy in their marriages that have lasted 20 years or more, but not all,” she says. “A recent trend is emerging whereby couples are splitting once the children have finished their schooling often dubbed the Year 12 divorces.

“Couples that are in their 30s and 40s have a somewhat more flexible view to marriage with a strong desire to maintain the commitment and a willingness to seek assistance if warranted. They don’t tend to give up the marriage easily even when big issues arise.”

Regardless of age or marriage stage, George says the ability to resolve issues depends on both partners being willing to accept and work through conflict.



  • Total commitment from both partners is essential
  • Marriage is hard work
  • Difficulties are inevitable and must be dealt with
  • Conflict is inevitable but healthy, and enables growth to occur, once resolved
  • If negative patterns emerge, seek professional help before they spiral out of control
  • Don’t use anger, tantrums, withdrawal, shame or criticism to get your way
  • It is essential to maintain emotional intimacy even if physical intimacy declines
  • By changing your behaviour in response to your partner, we heal our partner and ourselves

Source: Elaine George (