Lucky in love

What is the essence of a strong, fulfilling relationship? Experts agree that it should make you feel happy and loved, safe and secure, respected, and respectful. It’s one where you can be yourself, or as Erich Fromm said, you unite “with another while still remaining an individual.”holding_hands1

My husband and I are celebrating our anniversary this week, and it makes me reflect on why our marriage has lasted as long as it has. How much was luck, and how much hard work?

Since 2004, the Cornell Legacy Project has been collecting “practical advice” from a large group of people over 70. They’re asked for their counsel on different aspects of life, such as raising children, living through wars, and dealing with loss.  When they were asked about what makes a successful marriage, the top responses were:

  1. Marry someone who is like you in their core values, and don’t think you can change them after marriage.
  2. Friendship is as important as romantic love in lifelong relationships.
  3. Don’t keep score. Marriage isn’t always a 50-50 proposition. The key to success is that both partners try to give more than they take.
  4. Talk to each other.
  5. Don’t just commit to your partner; commit to marriage itself and take it seriously.

The first two tips are about choosing your partner. Marrying someone who shares your values and can be your best friend allows you to take the leap of faith that true intimacy requires. The word intimacy comes from the Latin word meaning “within”, and that willingness to let someone else inside our hearts requires trust. That’s the first building block.

Intimacy is important, but it’s not enough. That’s why I think #5 – commitment — comes next. There has to be a sense of mutual obligation – we’re in this together and we both have to make it work. Both people have to set the intention that they are going to make the relationship a priority.

But once the choice is made and the intention is set, sustaining any relationship over the long term requires attention and effort. It has to be cultivated like a garden so that it thrives. I agree with the advice that marriage isn’t always 50-50. At any given time, someone is going to be giving more than the other, and there are times when you have to make an effort even when you don’t have the energy for it. You just hope that it balances out in the end, that you feel as if the relationship has enriched your life well beyond what you’ve put into it.wildflowers 3

Communication is the other vital element. The elders say “talk to each other”, but I would suggest learning to listen more than you talk. Listen to understand instead of listening just to reply. Listen with empathy. Don’t react quickly, but respond thoughtfully. Apply mindfulness practices to your relationship.

Ultimately, the support that comes from strong relationships is a powerful component of staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Having someone to confide in, to touch, and to provide companionship leads to a better, longer life. It has certainly made my life richer and more meaningful. So has my marriage required hard work? Definitely. But at the same time, I feel really lucky.

On our wedding day, many years ago, my husband started to say the vows he had written. “I will study…” he began, and then he paused.  I was confused – had he started to give the wrong speech? What did studying have to do with loving me or being committed to our marriage?

After a second or two, my husband went on to say something about studying our past to learn how to keep our relationship strong in the future. But as I think about it now, maybe a commitment to studying has its place in the vows along with “in sickness and in health”.

A new report from the U.K. shows how our brains can continue to develop new neurons, preserve the existing ones, and possibly improve the connection between neurons, if we challenge ourselves mentally. The researchers looked at people training to become London taxi drivers. Over a 3-4 year period, the drivers are required to learn the names and locations of about 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London. By the end of the training, brain images of successful driver trainees showed an increase in gray matter in the part of the hippocampus related to spatial navigation and memory. In other words, they grew new brain cells.

The study’s authors concluded that our brains remain “plastic” – capable of adapting – even as adults. But learning new tasks and skills is what prompts the response. Their work offers hope to people recovering from brain injuries, and refutes the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. If we needed more encouragement to be lifelong learners, this is certainly it.

Lifelong learning” has been associated with continuing professional education to stay abreast of the latest developments in your field of work. It has also fostered programs such as Elderhostel and other classes for seniors. But in the current economy, with so much job insecurity, continuous learning has become critical for people wishing to remain competitive by learning new skills that will enhance their ability to get and retain a job.

Becoming a lifelong learner is also a way to spark personal growth, and to find meaning in your life. Taking classes, or getting involved in new experiences that have nothing to do with a job, can prompt a renewed sense of curiosity about the world. For people who might be facing job insecurity, studying something unrelated is both a distraction and a way to succeed in another arena.

What are some other benefits of learning new things?  Greater knowledge and experience can help people deal with stress better because they can use it to dispute some of their irrational beliefs about stressful events. Mastering new skills also gives self-confidence a boost, which can increase resiliency. Since chronic stress can actually cause cellular aging, reducing stress and boosting the development of new brain cells might slow some of the decline we see with age.

So what does all this have to do with the marriage vows? By staying mentally sharp and healthy, the “sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” could possibly be minimized. By learning new things, being open to growth and change, someone is more likely to be open to a partner’s perspective. And let’s face it: often when people say they are bored with their husband or wife, they are really bored with themselves. So taking a class, learning a sport or finding your way around a new city makes you a more interesting person, and possibly keeps your relationship interesting too.

When my husband said he would study, he referred to us and our relationship. But I see now that studying the world, staying curious, and engaging in self-discovery is what makes each of us, and all of our relationships, stronger and healthier.