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Video: What makes a good marriage?

TODAY
updated 6/5/2007 12:32:04 PM ET 2007-06-05T16:32:04

Matthew Boggs, whose parents divorced, was jaded about marriage. But he noticed his grandmother and grandfather, who had been married for 63 years, were still madly in love. To find out what was the secret to a long and happy marriage, Boggs and his friend, Jason Miller, traveled 12,000 miles around the U.S. to talk to what they call the “Marriage Masters,” couples who have been married 40 years or more. In their new book, “Project Everlasting,” Boggs and Miller share advice from the happy couples. TODAYshow.com asked the two bachelors to tell us what are the top seven secrets to a successful marriage. Here they are:

1. “Divorce? Never. Murder? Often!”
Entering matrimony with the mindset that “divorce is not an option” is vital for the long-term success of marriage, say the Marriage Masters (a term we gave couples who have been happily married over 40 years). They went on to explain that this kind of mindset allows a couple to see solutions to marriage’s boiling points — and trust us, not one of our interviewee couples avoided such periods of relational strife — which would have otherwise been overlooked simply because one eye was too busy examining exit strategies.

Marriage Masters simplify this into one word: Commitment. And they’re quick to point out that commitment is the virtue sorely missing from today’s marriages. That said, there are deal breakers that very few of our interviewed couples advocated working through. These are known as the three A’s — addiction, adultery, and abuse. A marriage overwhelmed by any of these three issues is unhealthy, plain and simple, and the Marriage Masters suggest that if you find yourself overwhelmed with any of the three A’s, take care of yourself (and your safety) first, and the marriage second. 

In the end, the old saying holds true: where your attention goes, energy flows. So the next time you’re facing a mountain in your marriage, focus on the next foothold and soon enough you’ll find yourself over the top.

2. “There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage, only perfect moments.”
We were shocked to discover how much work went into creating a great marriage. We’d always figured, “Hey, I’ll just find my soul mate and things will naturally fall into place after that ... we’ll live happily ever after.” Um, not so fast, one Marriage Master wife said with a certain look that meant business. “Whoever said being soul mates was going to be easy?”  Her husband of 52 years nodded, then added, “Marriage is a bed of roses, thorns and all.”

Any time two individuals live together (especially over 40 years) there are bound to be annoying, irritating, and frustrating experiences. But whether it’s the toothpaste cap, toilet seat, snoring, or the last-minute pull-the-car-over-to-check-the-score-of-the-game-at-the-local-bar move, one thing is for sure: the best marriages are served with an extra helping of acceptance for one another’s peccadilloes. “And that’s the beauty of marriage,” said Maurice, another Marriage Master. “All of our individualities, all of our wonderful differences. You gotta have friction. You can’t get any heat without friction.”

We would do well, they say, to expect non-perfection; practice patience and give the acceptance we want in return. There’s no doubt that this is hard work, but judging by the end result, it’s well worth the effort.

3. Unpack the Gunnysack
“People ask us our secret to marriage,” said John, married 48 years. “I tell them it’s the boxing gloves. We aren’t afraid to say what’s on our minds.”

Fireside
Unexpressed frustrations in a marriage can pile up and weigh us down like an overloaded gunnysack. These accumulated frustrations can quickly turn into resentments. “Holding resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” said Sally, married 50 years. “Resentment will eat away at your marriage.” The Marriage Masters encourage us to unpack the “gunnysacks” by opening the communication lines as frequently as possible.

But guess what? If we haven’t created and nurtured an environment where open, honest communication is welcomed and treated with diligent respect, then we can wave these crucial “clearing the air” moments goodbye. So where did some Marriage Masters go to build that trusting, open environment? Weekend marriage retreats! These powerful getaways stood out in many of our interviewees’ minds as the one experience that turned their faltering marriage into a flourishing one. The trick, of course, is convincing the husband to attend.

4. Never Stop Dating
It has been said that it’s the quality of time, not the quantity of time that matters. But now we know, thanks to the Marriage Masters, that it’s the quantity of quality time spent together that leads to a wonderful marriage. Whether it’s a vacation in the Bahamas, or simply spending a night at a local motel once a week, keeping the romance burning is easy: all you have to do is keep stoking the fire.

One woman, married 47 years before her husband passed away, disclosed her secret to lifelong love. Every night, when her husband came home from work, they went up to their bedroom and hung a sign on the door that read “Do Not Disturb: Marriage In Progress.” For the following fifteen minutes they’d focus all their attention on one another. No phones, no pets, no distractions; even the kids knew that mom and dad were not to be bothered. When asked what they did in their bedroom, she laughed and said she’d leave that to our imaginations.  That was probably best anyway.

5. “Love is a four-letter word spelled G-I-V-E”
Marriage Masters have a high degree of selflessness. “I’ll never forget what my mentor told my wife and me before we got married 42 years ago,” said a Marriage Master named Walter. “He looked at us and said, ‘Most people think marriage is 50/50.  It’s not. It’s 60/40. You give 60.  You take 40. And that goes for both of you.’”

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It’s always super-apparent in the best of the best marriages that both spouses have followed this philosophy. Though it’s not a difficult concept to understand — putting one another first —it’s surely a bit more difficult to practice consistently, especially with the prevailing “Me first (and second)” mentality today. “The younger generations seem to have a sort of me-me-me mentality,” says Donna Lee, married 45 years. “The great part is that the me gets everything it needs when it puts the we first.”

6. Join the CMAT Club
Grandma Dorothy Manin, the inspiration for Project Everlasting with her 63 years of beautiful matrimony, formed an informal club when she turned 70 years old. She called it the CMAT club. The CMAT club stands for Can’t Miss A Thing and represents the idea that life is short, so make sure to enjoy as much as you can. The death rate for human beings hovers right around 100 percent, and is expected to remain there for … well, forever. Consider this: if the average life span is 77 years, then that means we only have 77 summers ... 77 winters ... 77 Christmas mornings ... 77 New Years, and that’s it. The Marriage Masters know this all too well. It’s easy to get caught in the day-to-day craziness of life and, in the process, take our spouses for granted. A widow named Betty, married 54 years, says, “Now that he’s gone I wish I hadn’t had so many headaches.”

The Marriage Masters are here to remind us that this adventure we call life goes by in the blink of an eye; relish your sweetheart’s presence while he or she is still here.

7. The Discipline of Respect
“You can have respect without love,” said Tom, married 42 years, “but you can’t have love without respect.” His sentiments were not uncommon in our 250-plus interviews around the nation. By and large, the number one secret to a thriving, everlasting marriage, as declared by the Marriage Masters, is respect. It is the catalyst for all things beautiful in a relationship: trust, connection, authenticity, and love. Unfortunately, respect — in all its seeming simplicity — is too easily overlooked, leading to criticism and all the ugliness that eventually causes both spouses to wonder (and vehemently): How in the heck did I ever fall in love with this person?

“You are the master of your words until they are spoken,” a Marriage Master of 65 years pointed out. “Then they become the master of you ... so choose your words carefully.”

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