Leo Tolstoy, in the classic novel Anna Karenina, said that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While I am not willing to say I completely agree that happy families are all alike, I do know that in my experience as a couples therapist, and a member of a couple, I have observed the presence of a few very basic components of almost all successful marriages I have known.

So what makes a marriage successful? Is it the absence of hard times? Is it “staying in love?” Is it “completing her sentences” or “knowing just what he wants?” I don’t think so. I think those ideas of happy marriages are a bit Hollywood, if you know what I mean. Here are three key features of the most successful marriages I have ever seen or, frankly, been a part of.

Number One: Emotional Intimacy

Remember that heady, crazy “in love” feeling we all had at the beginning of our relationships? Maybe you have it now and hope it will last forever, and maybe it will. In most mature relationships, and certainly in the successful ones, over time this “in love” feeling begins to mellow, but in its place something else begins to grow and take hold.

In healthy marriages, the emotional “high” of that initial feeling develops into an emotional depth that is characterized by a knowing of each other that reaches into our innermost beings. A recognition of each other that surpasses that of any other human we have known. It is a space between us that is sacred to each other, that is cherished and treasured and trusted. It is the deepest knowing we will experience, and it is not static, but continues to grow as the relationship continues to deepen.

What is destructive in many marriages is our tendency to use this intimate knowledge of our partner to hurt them, to gain power over them, or to neglect their needs. In successful marriages, this intimate knowledge of each other is never neglected, abused, or taken for granted. It is treated in such a way that partners continue to trust each other with more and more of themselves because it is evident that what we share is held with love and respect.

In my experience, this is a critical part of every successful marriage, and without it, the loss of the “in love-ness” becomes fatal. Without the depth of emotional intimacy, relationships do not have the strong roots and foundation to survive the storms and sometimes the droughts that are a natural part of life. Besides, there are few feelings as crazy-good as deeply knowing and deeply loving.

Number Two: Emotional Honesty

This one seems like a no-brainer, and while I do also mean the nuts and bolts, day to day kind of honesty, what I am talking about here in relation to successful marriages is a different level of honesty. Yes, it is important to be honest about what you do and what you think, but it is even more important, and often more difficult, to be honest about what you are feeling. No matter what.

Emotional honesty is how we build emotional intimacy. Emotional honesty is how we reveal to our partners our innermost feelings, fears, hopes and dreams. Emotional honesty is hard. It is often easier for us to say “that woman was hanging all over you!” than it is to say “sometimes I feel afraid you aren’t attracted to me,” but which statement gives our partner more information about us? And yes, it also leaves us more vulnerable.

This is the trade off; being emotionally honest does make us vulnerable to our partner. It gives them very important information about us, and it requires trust to be able to open up in that way. In successful marriages, each partner has demonstrated, bit by bit over time, that they have earned that trust and that they will treat the other’s feelings with respect and care. And in turn, they will offer their own deepest feelings. And the intimacy grows.

Number Three: Respect, Respect, Respect

Emotional honesty allows us to develop emotional intimacy, and mutual respect allows us the ability to be honest with each other. I have never in my career witnessed a successful marriage in which one partner, or both, did not treat each other with respect. It is an essential ingredient to a truly happy marriage.

How many of us have seen people speaking to their loved one in a rude, sarcastic and uncivil manner, and then answer to door to a total stranger and be kind and civil? This behavior says to the partner “I have less respect for you than I do this stranger who is disturbing my dinnertime.” This is disturbingly common, and yet people seem mystified in my office when they say “I don’t know why she doesn’t want to be with me!”

True respect honors the other person. Respect recognizes that our partner has choice in where and with whom they spend their time, and treats the other person in a manner that invites them to want to be there. Respect cares and supports the needs and wants of the other person. Without respect, there is little possibility of emotional honesty or emotional intimacy. Without respect, a marriage will either fail, or persist in a state of neglect or even emotional or verbal abuse.

Successful marriages are the ones we often see later in life because they have survived. They are the elderly couple walking in the park hand in hand. They are the ones who, after years of journeying through life, still take time to talk and laugh together. They can also be ours, now. These features of successful marriages are simply choices we make, every day, about how we will treat our most important relationship. Start today.

If you are experiencing issues that may become unmanageable for you and may strain your married life, there is help. Contact the intake department at Maria Droste Counseling Center at 303-867-4600 or intake@mariadroste.org to speak to someone about marriage counseling in Denver.

Need Help?

If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

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by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC