Novelists, researchers, theologians and theorists from many fields—literature, psychology, communications, sociology—have long been exploring relationships. Over the past number of decades, people (and couples) who thrive, or struggle, or are somewhere in between, have been analyzed and studied from a variety of perspectives and approaches.
Marriage is one of the most reliable indicators of happiness. Martin Seligman writes in his book Authentic Happiness that “marriage is robustly related to happiness,” is one of the best predictors of life satisfaction, and that married couples express the highest levels of happiness and satisfaction.
There is now much data to support the idea that happy people, and more specifically happy marriages, share common characteristics, such as:
Happy, healthy marriages are marked by a deep and abiding friendship. Researcher John Gottman says that one observable sign of a healthy friendship and a happy marriage is seen in how they interact, finding that spouses nurture their friendships by demonstrating fondness and admiration, allowing the other to influence them, and creating detailed “love map” of their spouse’s likes and dislikes (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work). Happy marriages are marked by more positive then negative interactions, by a ratio of five upbeat positive interactions to every one negative interaction. And best of all, a deep and abiding friendship is strongly associated with couples highly satisfied with their levels of sex, romance and passion.
Neuropsychologists are exploring the idea that happy marriages and satisfying relationships are marked by a form of synchrony, a togetherness or “flow”, with a matching of beliefs, values, ideas, humor, even body language movements that are literally in sync. Scott Stanley of the National Marriage Project finds that happy couples more frequently laugh together, confide in each other, work well on projects together, calmly discuss issues together, and rarely if ever discuss or consider divorce or separation. In fact, these “togetherness” traits are the characteristics used by researchers to define and measure the quality of one’s marriage.
Happy marriages are marked by affection—mutual feelings of fondness or tenderness. Solomon’s description of the affection felt between a couple in love is both poetic and instructive, showing us how to practice this passionate and companionate love. Affection is what C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves said “is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” Feelings and emotions are foundational in the pleasure and joy we experience in life.
The apostle Paul, in a letter written to the early church in Philippi, said that caring for each other (Phil. 2:3-4) above one’s own needs is the mark of a healthy relationship. For James (James 1:19) healthy relationships put into practice the notion of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. These are signs of not only good communication patterns, but of an unselfish regard for the welfare of others. Many couples note with some sadness that the degree of their own selfishness became clearer as the honeymoon period faded and real life together commenced. Having biblical models to practice from has helped many couples find the joy in becoming more other-focused.
Happy couples create shared meaning with each other. A spiritually intimate marriage is one where a couple is prayerfully seeking after God in the innermost, sanctified places of connection that exist between a husband and a wife. Couples find spiritual closeness in a cherished affection for one another, found within a deep, abiding friendship and a romantic love, in a relationship centered on redemptive power of the gospel of Christ.
These five qualities—friendship, togetherness, affection, other-focused, and shared spirituality—are often found in the people who describe their marriages as “happy.” These are the ways we love and desire to be loved—with a passionate, companionate, altruistic and spiritual love—manifested most profoundly in our affection, longing and love for others.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.