Shirley MacLaine might play a lady on “Downton Abbey,” but her real-life views on marriage, monogamy, and love show that she’s anything but. Her marriage to Steve Parker was full of infidelity on both sides and ended in divorce.
Despite this, she opened up in a radio interview about what it really takes to make a relationship work. If you’d like to take the advice of a divorcee who has had affairs, sent her toddler off to another continent, and was cheated upon in return, here it is: open marriage.
If this seems counter-intuitive to you, it’s for good reason. Adultery didn’t keep MacLaine’s marriage together, and it won’t keep yours intact, either. If you’re interested in what it does actually take to go the distance as a couple, there’s good news. Marriage may be hard work, but it’s the foundation of the family, our communities, and our society. It’s worth doing, and it’s worth doing right. Here’s some real help on keeping your marriage strong.
1. Go to Church Together
I’m a pastor’s wife, so it’s not going to be shocking when I tell you one of the best things you can do for your marriage is go to church. Together. It’s true, though. “Yet research found in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, shows that couples who are active in their faith are much less likely to divorce. Catholic couples were 31% less likely to divorce; Protestant couples 35% less likely; and Jewish couples 97% less likely.”
Dr. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project points to this reality, as well: “A new article by sociologist Charles Stokes in www.family-studies.org suggests that the problem here is mainly with nominal conservative Protestants—those who attend rarely or never. It’s these nominal conservative Protestants—e.g., the Southern Baptist couple in Texas who rarely darken the door of a church—who are much more likely to divorce.”
2. Forgive Each Other
Let’s be real. When two people are in any relationship, there’s friction. You’re not married to yourself, so expect to have personality conflicts. When you fight, don’t fight dirty. This means you need to remember what’s important, and it’s not who is on top of a fight that in the long term doesn’t really matter. For Your Marriage, a Catholic marriage resource, has an excellent list of tips on not just fighting fair but also actually resolving conflicts. Check them out, talk about them, and learn to solve those conflicts with your spouse.
3. Fidelity and Trust
These go hand in hand. Trust your spouse. Be someone worth trusting. Don’t get in the habit of being dishonest over little things, and don’t plot how to hide the big things. If you or your spouse breaks the trust in your marriage, don’t despair. See No. 2 above and work on forgiving and rebuilding trust.
It bears mentioning here that some things are harder to forgive than others. Before you make rash decisions, think through how it will impact your relationship. Don’t do things that feel good in the short term but hurt the person closest to you—your husband or wife.
4. Live Together
Live life together, instead of being two lives sometimes intertwined. You’ve got two directions to move as a couple: you can move forward together, or you can grow apart. If work and family obligations pull you apart, make a conscious effort to reconnect.
Friends and fun might be important, but they ought to take second place (I’d personally say a distant second) to strengthening your marriage. Your marriage is a relationship that’ll last for life. When you’re deciding between heading out for drinks with work friends or sitting home for a movie with your sweetie, make sure the pattern isn’t leaving your relationship behind at home.
5. Don’t Forget Sex
Stop flapping your hands at me, I’m not here to give you a how-to or be gratuitous. Sex is an important part of marriage, and I’d be remiss to ignore that. If something in your sex life isn’t satisfying for either person in the marriage, seek help together. Talk to your pastor, your doctor, or a therapist. Talk to each other. Don’t give up until things are better, and work on this together. Here’s a place to start.
6. Respect Roles
Realize who put you together and what your role is as husband or as wife. I’m not talking about shoving women into the kitchen barefoot and sending the men off to work themselves to the bone. When God puts two people, together they become one. As one, they each have strengths and weaknesses that complement each other.
Husbands, be altruistic and remember that love isn’t selfish. Wives, be like the church—let your husband sacrifice for you and do things to benefit you. Remember that trust thing? Circle that back in and trust your husband to put you first. Trust your wife to respect your decisions. There’s that whole submission thing that people huff and puff over, but go back and read the actual words. Together.
7. Remember Self-Sacrifice
Love isn’t about getting what you’re owed, it’s not about coming out on top, it’s not about winning. Love is about finding another person and realizing that you want them to get what they need. You want them to be happy. And they want the same for you. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Sound familiar? It’s true. Love is what binds us together.
8. Take Care of Your Finances
If there’s something really awful to have to think or talk about for most of us, it’s how to spend and save our money. It’s especially stressful when money is shorter than we’d like and there’s a difference between what we’d like to be able to buy and what we can buy. Add in the economic unrest that’s been looming for years, and there’s a perfect storm of contention waiting for a couple.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Idealism aside, take the trust and communication that is so important in marriage and apply it here. Come together to talk about your financial reality and make a plan that works toward some mutual goals. Finances don’t have to rule your marriage, even when money is tight.
9. Love Your Children
You want a baker’s dozen of kids and she doesn’t want any. Or you have kids and the only thing more intense than their misbehavior is the fighting between the two of you about how to correct it, or even if that’s possible. You’re stressed because of special needs, and the stress is swallowing you both whole.
Children are amazing. They’re also messy, demanding, tiring, and a source of stress. Your kids came from both of you. Whether it’s apparent in the moment or not, they need both parents. Divorce is bad for kids. Go read this poignant piece by D.C. McAllister about her children and divorce: “Divorce is bad for children. It’s a pain that never ends. It can’t be fixed. Like death, it can’t be undone. It can only be forgiven. The denial mentality of superficial studies will not lift my spirits or give me hope; it will not heal my children’s wounds; it will not fix what is forever broken. That power belongs to Grace alone.”
Consider how your marriage is the foundation of your children’s lives, and work on your marriage together.
10. Have Individual and Mutual Interests
Share interests, and have interests not in common. Be passionate about something. You were a person before getting married. Something in that person was awesome enough to encourage your great spouse to choose to unite his or her life with yours. Embrace the quirks that make you you. Encourage your spouse to be who he or she is. Be interested in each other, even if the other person’s hobbies aren’t your cup of tea. It’s the joy and energy of an interest that makes you a vibrant person. Be interesting for yourself, and for your spouse. You’re both worth it.
A good marriage takes work. It takes two people, willing to put in the time and effort of nurturing a relationship that isn’t quite like any others. This list isn’t here to tell you that it’s all easy or that major problems like abuse can be ignored. This is about what it takes to make most marriages work—and that is not open marriages or pop culture ruling your relationship. It’s returning to the simple truth that anything worth having is worth fighting for
A strong marriage is really worth having.