What Makes a Good Marriage? Trust, Communication, Compromise, Experts Say

Everyone who marries has a common goal: a good relationship. No one expects to divorce. But defining what makes a successful marriage can be complex.

“I think for most people, a smart marriage is a permanent commitment of complimentary people to one another,” said Beau Weston, Ph.D., a professor of sociology from Centre College in Kentucky, who specializes in marriage and family life.

Weston said that for most people, marriage is to vow to join together and the seal and cement of the promise is having children. “In general, most people marry and have kids. Normally, the happiest people in society are married parents. They are most economically productive.They are really the pillars and backbone in society,” Weston said.

Happiness may come from being grateful for the positive effect marriage can have on one’s life, he said. “Knowing that you are doing a good and uplifting thing is meaningful.”


There are a variety of fundamentals that make marriages successful. According to results from a GfK Roper poll, people believe a successful marriage will be a happy one. Most people believe that a good marriage is defined asbeing happy at least 75 percent of the time. About 17 percent of people believe a coupleshould happy more than half the time. Just one percentthink of marriage as successful if the couple is happy 25 percent of the time.

The people who responded to the poll seem to find themselves in happy marriages. Most of them, 75 percent, said they are happy at least three-quarters of the time. About 15 percent said they are happy at least half the time. Just 5 percent said they are never happy in their marriages.

The poll was conducted was conducted by the independent research firm for Wevorce.com.GFK Roper polled more than 1,500 people in September. The polling sample was made up of about 55 percent women and 45 percent men. The margin of error for the study is plus- or minus-2.6 percent.

Other than evaluating how often the couple is happy, successful marriages seem to include some commonalities. The husband and wife know themselves and know what they want from the relationship. The couple communicates well and knows how to repair from a fight. The couple has a sense of equality and teamwork in the relationship. They also foster an emotionally and sexually intimate relationship.


Beatty Cohan, who has been a practicing psychotherapist for more than 32 years and is based in Sarasota, Fla., said that a good marriages begin with healthy individuals. She said one must be psychologically strong before building a strong relationship. “The relationship is also unlikely to thrive if the individuals do not repair the emotional issues that were problematic in previous relationships. Your marriage is going to be a disaster,” Cohan said.

Sally Dear, who teaches about relationship issues at Binghamton University, also said that people need to understand how a previous relationship derailed. “People are afraid,” Dear said. “They don’t want that history to repeat themselves.”

Dear teaches a class about divorce and relationships called “Divorce Culture: Relationships and Developmental Issues.” She often hears from studentswho are children of divorce and who have found their way to meaningful, successful relationships. She attributes that to the learning about what makes relationships successful. “With the proper awareness and education, I really think that we could significantly decrease that trend of if you come from a divorced family, you are likely to get divorced,”Dear said.


Evaluating why past relationships went off track is just one of the many things Cohan, in her work as a psychotherapist, recommends to her clients. She said that most people have no idea what goes into a successful relationship, so they have no idea what to look for in a partner. She has spent part of her career working with inncer-city teens and wealthy adults. “You know what’s interesting?” she asked. “There are no differences at all in knowledge.”

She recommends that people spend as much time as possible learning about a partner before committing to a relationship. “People are marrying people they don’t know,” she said. “Find out a partner’s background, psychological history. Find out if the potential mate has a history of addictive behavior. Figure out what kinds of goals the person has,“ do they intend onhaving children, practicing a religion, making money, moving to a new city. Evaluating all of that information takes time and can’t be rushed,” she said.

She estimates that it takes one year to truly understand a person and to know what that person wants out of a relationship. “Only then can one understand if that person is a right fit”, Cohan said. “…it forces people to look at the reality of their relationships,” she said.

Understanding expectations will deepen the commitment between partners, according to John Curtis, Ph.D., a former marriage and family counselor and author of  “The Business of Love.” Curtis said there are two kinds of conflicts in relationships: need conflicts and value conflicts. “Need conflicts don’t have as much emotional baggage. An example would be a clean bathroom or managingthe checkbook, etc. Those things, we can flip a coin, we can alternate, we can outsource it,” Curtis said.

The value conflicts are the ones that can be more difficult religious beliefs, political beliefs, he said. Understanding these issues can be a way to deepen a relationship, he said. Knowing partner’s beliefs and intentions in a relationship can put one on the path to a successful relationship. Debra Burrell, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert from New York City, believes that people are entering into marriage with the wrong intentions. “I think people get married now for emotional fulfillment,” she said, “and that is very, very tricky.”


Learning about individuals’ intentions in a relationship naturally leads into positive communications skills. Burrell said the successfully married have something in common: they can discuss their feelings. “Their communication is a give and take. All happy and successful couples know how to repair from a fight. They know how to recover from it,” Burrell said.

Couples must be able to talk about the good things and the bad things, she said. That connection will help the couple move through the negativity left from an argument, she said. “If you are able to express, and the person is able to soothe you, then you will be able to repair that injury,” Burrell said.

Being able to resolve conflicts is more effective when partners are able to listen effectively, Curtis said. He recommends that partners talk to each other in a way that makes the partner want to listen.And, if need be, attempt to make an argument for the other side. “Take the opposite position to try to understand why the other person feels that way. That is kind of what good listening is all about,” Curtis said.

Curtis said the health of a marriage can be evaluated based on the level of authenticity between the partners. Couples in strong marriages continue to learn more about their partners, and they still love and respect them, he said.PARTNERSHIP IN MARRIAGES

Strong communication skills should bring about another element of successful marriages: a true sense of partnership. Curtis said joint decision-making is the key. “If you are doing joint-decision-making, the likelihood of fighting is less because both people are now invested in he decision,”he said.

Cohan and Burrell, both psychotherapists, said that fostering a partnership takes work. Cohan said a test of understanding the depth of the partnership is to analyze what happens when one partner is in need. “How does the other person respond? True partners will rise to the occasion. When committed to the partnership and the well-being of the relationship,”Cohan said, that is what makes a successful relationship.”

Burrell echoed Cohan’s perspective.She said that both partners must have faith that they are not alone in the relationship. “They must not feel that they are carrying too much of the burden of housework or caring for the relationship. The more that women feel they are not doing that alone,” Burrell said, “the more happy and secure they feel, and less resentful and angry.”

People who hold resentments against their spouses will be unable to connect when the need arises, she said. “The partnership can not be sustained in those conditions, she said. The partner has got to know that you are going to be there if they need you. I think that if people do not have that feeling, then nothing can come of that,” Burrell said. “At a fundamental level, you have to believe that your partner is there for you. How can anything else be good if that’s not there?”


In healthy marriages, both partners have faith in the other that he or she will honor the relationship, said Dear. Dear said that when she teaches her Binghamton University students about building solid marriages, she tells them there has to be a trust between partners and an understanding that they are working toward a common goal together. “Basically, what makes a good relationship is love, honor, trust, good communication and a good intimate physical relationship,” Dear said. “And that has to be mutual.”

And both partners have to be willing to put in effort to sustain their relationship, Cohan said. She thinks people are too flippant about relationships and are unwilling to invest the effort. “I think that people really do not want to do the work,”Cohan said. “I really don’t. I think they want to fall in love across a room and have 92 orgasms. But they don’t want to do the work.”

Working hard to make the survival of the marriage a priority is also necessary, Weston said. In his research into the sociology of marriages, Weston said, has found that commitment is the key to the resiliency of the relationship. “People who have permanent, unshakeable marriages,” Weston said, “they are not just committed to their partner, but they are committed to the idea of marriage itself.”

About the author: Michele Bush Kimball has a Ph.D. in mass communication with a specialization in media law.She has spentalmost 15 years in the field of journalism.