Last month marked my 15th wedding anniversary. Every year has felt significant, but 15 has a somewhat mystical overlay. The Hebrew equivalent for 15 would normally contain two of the four letters of the tetragram spelling God’s name (yud and heh), so there is a different customary formulation: “tet vav” or tu, for short. Sprinkle in some multilingual word play, tu being “you” in French, and “to” in English connoting a mutual connection, and 15 is rife with meaning.
This anniversary has also prompted me to consider what goes into a lasting marriage. I began my mental search by polling those of my Facebook friends who’ve surpassed the 15-year mark. Trust. Communication. Acceptance. Humor. Generosity. Patience. Commitment. Common values. Mutual respect for one another’s journey through life. One friend offered the idea of love, as measured by actually enjoying listening to what the other person has to say. Curiously, no one mentioned sex.
There is an inherent catch here, of course. How can we know which of these many laudable qualities are signs of a healthy marriage, and which are prescriptions? In other words, can a troubled marriage be saved by adopting these practices, or do these practices simply flow, automatically, from a solid union?
Some friends did offer some potential advice. Date nights, even if it involves watching a movie on the sofa with take-out after the kids are in bed, one friend said. Another emphasized how important it is not to “keep score.” Where sometimes partners fall into the trap of believing that “reciprocity has to be quantitatively balanced over a short period of time,” she said, it’s better to think of the “partnership as rooted in generosity and mutual caring.” She added that it’s important for the couple to shed external expectations, whether they come from televised images, societal norms or embedded ideals with which one was raised. That imaginary third party’s judgmental voice can intrude on a couple’s relationship in unhealthy ways. At a dinner party I attended, one woman emphasized kindness. Her husband said it’s important to park one’s ego.
And what do the experts say?
A recent article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith profiled a team of researchers who study lasting partnerships. Noting how partners engage in moment-to-moment “bids” for attention, the research team – led by John Gottman – stressed that how the partner responds to these bids is key to the marriage’s success. As Smith describes it, “People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t – those who turned away – would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper.”
This “turn toward” philosophy can also fall into the causality trap. Is “turning toward” a function of a healthy marriage, or a prescription for one? The answer is probably both. But that doesn’t mean that a virtual cycle can’t be consciously created. Over the past several weeks, I’ve been practising “turn toward” and discussing it with whoever will listen, my husband included. My husband and I are now in the habit of “turning toward” more than we sometimes have been in the past.
We even joke about it as we’re doing it, a subtle way of reinforcing the mental links between intention and action.
As for our anniversary, we did something we never get to do anymore: catch a film after work. We saw Boyhood, the tour de force of Richard Linklater, who spent 12 years filming using the same actors. Over the course of two and a half hours, we witnessed the on-screen children developing into adults, and parents struggling to find their way. On the subject of marriage, the film was more bitter than sweet, but we enjoyed it, admiring the director’s fortitude and creativity, and privately reflecting. When we returned home, we discussed the film over a glass of wine, and concluded the evening by “turning toward” one another as one shared with the other some newly discovered National Public Radio podcasts, episodes devoted to love, loss and longing.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.