This article was based on the TEDxBrisbane Talk, “Three Ways to Build a Happy Marriage and Avoid Divorce,” by George Blair-West:
Distressing Human Experiences
Almost 50 years ago, psychiatrists Richard Rahe and Thomas Holmes developed an inventory of the most distressing human experiences. Number one on the list was the death of a spouse. Number two was divorce. The third was marital separation. Generally, for any of those three to occur, we need what comes in number seven on the list, which is marriage.
Prevention Is Better than Cure
In modern society, we know that prevention is better than cure. We vaccinate against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, and other illnesses. We have awareness campaigns for melanoma, stroke, and diabetes. However, none of these conditions come close to affecting 45 percent of us, which is our current divorce rate. We have no prevention campaign for divorce.
There are three life hacks for preventing divorce. We can intervene to prevent divorce at two points: later, once the cracks begin to appear in an established relationship; or earlier, before we commit and before we have children.
First: Get Married Later
The first life hack takes is to get married later. Boomers in the ’60s were getting married at an average age for women of 20 and 23 for men. Today in Australia, it is now 30 for women and 32 for men. This is good because the older you are when you get married, the lower your divorce rate.
There are three reasons why it is helpful to get married later. First, getting married later allows the other two preventers of divorce to come into play. They are tertiary education and a higher income, which tends to go with tertiary education. Number two, neuroplasticity research tells us that the human brain is still growing until at least the age of 25. That means how you’re thinking and what you’re thinking is still changing up until 25. Thirdly, and most importantly, is personality. Your personality at the age of 20 does not correlate with your personality at the age of 50, but your personality at the age of 30 does correlate with your personality at the age of 50. If you ask somebody who got married young why they broke up, they may say, “We grew apart.” This is a surprisingly accurate answer because the 20s is a decade of rapid change and maturation.
So, the first thing you want to get before you get married is older.
Second: Share the Power
Number two, John Gottman, psychologist and relationship researcher, can tell us many factors that correlate with a happy, successful marriage. The biggest factor is the reason 81 percent of marriages implode and self-destruct. This is something you can evaluate while you’re dating. Gottman found that the relationships that were the most stable and happy over the longer term were relationships in which the couple shared power. They were both influenceable in big decisions like buying a house, overseas trips, buying a car, or having children. When Gottman drilled further down on this data, what he found was that women were generally pretty influenceable, and it was the men who were to blame. The other thing that Gottman found is that men who are influenceable also tended to be “outstanding fathers.”
Third: Be Reliable
Number three can pull long-term couples apart. Some couples seek counseling after they’ve been married for 30 or 40 years. This is a time when they’re approaching the infirmities and illness of old age. It’s a time when they’re particularly focused on caring for each other. They’ll forgive things that have bugged them for years. They’ll forgive all betrayals, even infidelities, because they’re focused on caring for each other.
What is it that pulls them apart? It is the lack of reliability, which takes two forms. Firstly, can you rely on your partner to do what they say they’re going to do? Do they follow through? Secondly, if, for example, you’re out and you’re being verbally attacked by somebody, or you’re suffering from a really disabling illness, does your partner step up and do what needs to be done to leave you feeling cared for and protected? If you’re facing old age and your partner isn’t doing that for you — in fact, you have to do that for them — then in an already-fragile relationship, it can look a bit like you might be better off out of it rather than in it.
So, is your partner there for you when it really matters? Not all the time, 80 percent of the time, but particularly if it’s important to you. On your side, think carefully before you commit to doing something for your partner. It is much better to commit to as much as you can follow through than to commit to more sound-good-in-the-moment and then let them down. If it’s really important to your partner, and you commit to it, make sure you do whatever it takes to follow through.
The most important decision that you can make is who you choose as a life partner, who you choose as the other parent of your children. Of course, romance has to be there too. Romance is a grand, beautiful, and quirky thing. We need to add to a romantic, loving heart, an informed, thoughtful mind as we make the most important decision of our life.