Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Qualities That Make Marriage Last

November 1, 1999

All marriages face disappointment. There is an inevitability to the struggle. The initial romance and passion fade. The press of day-to-day life takes over. Love doesn't conquer all. Marriage partners gradually come to realize that their differences are more important than they expected them to be - and that their spouse has characteristics less attractive than was imagined.

Why do some marriages last a lifetime while others with fewer troubles and differences don't make it beyond the first bump in the road? What happens when the bloom is off the rose?

A resilient response is a response from the heart, a mind set or a belief system about handling disappointment. It is a test of attitude, motivation, effort and strength of will to prevail in spite of obstacles in one's path.

Steve Wolin, M.D., from the Washington DC area and author of, "The Resilient Self," finds the principles of resilience also apply to the way couples approach their marriages.


Spirituality/morality. The couple views their marriage as a sacred vessel, a third entity apart from their own needs and happiness. It is guarded and protected, nourished and cultivated.

Marriage is viewed as a commitment to each other, and a responsibility to the children, to the extended family, to the community and to God. Marriage is about honor. It is about adding extra layers of love and attention to cushion the disappointments that come hand in glove with marriage.

The couple work as teammates to preserve the institution of marriage. Regarding marriage as permanent promotes healthy boundaries and wise choices when confronted with opportunity and sexual tension. It is by personal integrity and spiritual commitment that marriage is protected.


Independence. This describes an attitude of generosity, of acceptance and even an ability to love rather than hate the differences between marriage partners. They show fundamental respect, understanding, forgiveness or, minimally, tolerance when confronted by a serious difference.

Partners do not have to be the same. "My partner is doing the best she can. I cannot to ask her to be just like me." This allows for a sense of self, an ability to be separate, a space for individuality. Couples learn to be more tolerant about each other's faults.

Some irritating behavior may be qualities that were initially attractive during the courtship. Differences are strengths and offer balance to the marriage. Even if they are seen as exasperatingly negative, couples learn to live with the difference.

Insight. A resilient couple isn't afraid of taking personal responsibility for their particular contribution to their marital problems. Both respond to the other. Both are worthy of blame.

Marriage partners look at themselves and acknowledge their part of a problem. By looking at their side of an issue, each partner can make amends and take constructive action without waiting for their mate to make the first move.


Initiative. Couples take a team approach to problem-solving. Each person makes contributions to solving problems during hard times. Marriage is strengthened when a couple faces and solves setbacks and life challenges together.

Couples appreciate the hard work they did as couple to surmount the difficulty. "I didn't know we could be as effective as we are." As they go through life, they gain a sense of their competence and a sense of hope for the future. "Hey, we can do a lot together. Look at what we did." A team approach develops a sense of oneness and unity.


Humor. Resilient couples use humor to laugh at themselves and to break the ice when tension develops between them. It is an attitude of making light of their differences and regulating them to the realm of not being that important. "Here we go again, the silly fools that we are, messing up in predictably human ways."

The value of humor is that it minimizes the pain of disappointment. Humor shows an ability to detach and look at the big picture and not let a disturbing difference take away from the overall good feeling a couple has between them.


Creativity. Wolin feels that couples can be creative in the ways they celebrate their marriage through special rituals and traditions. They create a shared identity as a couple. They recognize and take pride in the things they have endured together. They take pleasure in the contributions they make by combining their energy and ideas. Their positive accomplishments as a couple act to counterbalance and minimize their differences.


Relationships. Wolin believes that resilient couples see how freedom to pursue different experiences enriches their marriage. Marital partners encourage each other to go outside of the marriage and bring back information, energy, passion and ideas to make their lives better. Being a part of the community and drawing strength from the community enlarges the marriage.

They grow individually because of their involvement with others and then return and share what they learn to strengthen their marriage.

Couples develop this set of resilient responses in the process of struggling over their differences. Something new comes out of the struggle that enables a couple to absorb the next shocks to the marriage in stride. That's why their marriages last.