Filmmaker Doug Block learned a lot about marriage by accident. A documentarian who also works as a wedding videographer, Block visited a handful of couples whose weddings he'd filmed -- anywhere from five to 20 years later -- and interviewed them about the state of their marriage. The result is his unexpectedly revealing, tender, and thought-provoking film 112 Weddings.
The hope and uncomplicated joy of a wedding is often a stark contrast to the real-life challenges of day-to-day married life. Some of Block's couples weathered the years well, and some did not, but all reveal a lot about our relationships, the expectations and hopes we put into them, and what marriage/commitment really looks like.
If weddings are the splash and fizz of opening night on Broadway, marriage is the slog of the dozens, hundreds, thousands of performances that follow. How are couples supposed to maintain the best parts of the early days of their relationship amid the slings and arrows of day-to-day life?
I asked Block, along with a variety of others -- mental health professionals, relationship experts, as well as laypeople, both married and divorced, happy and unhappy -- for the single best piece of advice they would give to people about creating a successful, healthy committed relationship.
What is it that couples need to do right to keep things from going wrong?
1. Pick Right
Most experts and laypeople alike will tell you that it doesn't matter how hard you work on your relationship -- if you pick someone fundamentally incompatible with you and your core values, no amount of effort in the world will help.
"People often couple for the wrong reasons," says Damona Hoffman, dating expert and founder of relationship site DatesandMates.com, citing convenience, expectations, and pressure to have kids -- other common reasons can be conflation of lust and love, fear of being alone, or even simple security. Hoffman, herself happily married eight years, advocates a "deep period of self-discovery" before jumping into marriage, to make sure you're picking someone you want to wake up beside for the rest of your life.
So what are the right reasons to marry someone? "If it's love alone or passion alone I see little chance of it succeeding," says A.J., currently going through a divorce after 14 years of marriage. Her list of must-haves includes aligned goals, sexuality, and spirituality. For Kelly Harrell, 22 years into her second marriage, the nonnegotiable is humor: "Things will get rough, and sometimes the only thing you can do is giggle."
Interestingly, almost none of the people interviewed talked about specific, concrete differences as a deal breaker in picking a mate -- political, financial, religious, etc. In the right relationship, it seems, the minor details can be worked out -- as long as the big-ticket items match up.
Or as Dr. Duana Welch, author of Love, Factually: 10 Proven Steps from "I Wish" to "I Do," and founder of the Love Science blog, simply puts it: "If you can find and be someone kind and respectful, your marriage will go well, and if you can't it won't."
2. Treat Each Other Right
Unsurprising, then, that kindness and respect come up frequently when people are asked about the most essential elements of a healthy marriage. "With those two characteristics all the variables in life, good or bad, are handled with maturity, and without anger and blame," says Marcie Walter, still happily married to her college sweetheart after 33 years.
The concept comes up over and over in various forms: honor, respect, compromise, communication, lack of judgment, openness, honesty, trust.
But what all the respondents' comments boiled down to, at bottom, was friendship. Every trait cited for how a person should treat his or her partner was -- not coincidentally -- the definition of how you should treat a friend. Many people flat-out listed friendship as their core piece of marriage advice.
"Be friends, always," says K. J. Scrim. "We have been married 35 years and our friendship has outlasted every part of our relationship. Friends are forgiving, helpful, love you for who you are, support you no matter what, will laugh at you as well as laugh with you, and listen better than anyone. When life throws you to the ground, a friend is the one person you can count on to lift you back up."
3. F*** Right
But what about passion?
Friendship is awesome, but if that's all that's needed for a fantastic marriage, then most of us would be content having roommates. Yet despite the Hollywood/romance novel industry representation of love as all-chemistry, all the time, only a few interviewees even mentioned sex.
But as Anne Rodgers, coauthor of Kiss and Tell, Secrets of Sexual Desire for Women 15 to 97, says, "Sex plays a huge role in a happy marriage... It's a couple's private world of pleasure." In her more than 1,300 interviews with women about their sexuality, "Again and again I found that the women happiest in their sex lives and marriages were either gifted with fairly high libidos themselves or blessed with husbands who were committed to ensuring that their wives' sex lives were satisfying in every way. This tells me that if your libidos don't match, communication is key."
That means it's not so much how often you have it, but whether the sex you're having meets your mutual needs and desires. One respondent calls this "aligned sexuality: are we both highly sexed (toward each other) or need a month to get around to each other? Or want a menagerie of people?"
Rodgers spoke with one 80-year-old who confessed that her husband, on learning of her deep fears of intimacy on their wedding night, deferred consummating their marriage. When his wife revealed that she enjoyed oral sex, he made it a regular part of their sexual repertoire, and thereafter she was always eager, decade after decade.
"So the men who listen are the winners," Rodgers concludes.
In other words, communication, respect, and compromise -- again, friendship -- are the key core qualities of even the sexual aspect of a happy marriage.
4. Fight Right
No matter how well you're navigating the seas of marriage, storms will come. It's how a couple weathers them that can separate a successful marriage from a failed one.
After all his research and work observing couples in various stages of marriage, this was the one area 112 Weddings auteur Doug Block zoomed in on as the most important for a happy marriage: "Learn how to fight well."
Mindy Woodhead, married to her partner for five years, agrees: "Figuring out how to communicate during the hard times and the rough times is the hardest part of marriage so far for me. So I think coming up with a mode of communication to process hurt and frustration while still dating is important."
But what does "fighting well" entail?
- "Calmly, without yelling or screaming, for one thing. And don't dredge up your whole history of complaints and grievances; keep it to the point at hand. I think the hardest thing in a fight is to shut up and listen without being defensive. And be quick to apologize, which in my case is easy since I'm in the wrong disturbingly often." (Doug Block, married 30 years)
Getting married is easy, but staying married is a learned skill -- and as with any other endeavor worth pursuing, it isn't necessarily one we're born with. But luckily there are plenty of experts for that.
"Get a therapist," says Syd Sharples, LCSW, an expert in collaborative divorce and relationship therapy, herself divorced, stressing that marriage counseling isn't just for couples in trouble. "And don't wait until you're in crisis to visit with them!"
(112 Weddings is currently available on iTunes, and on DVD and other digital platforms on July 14)
Phoebe Fox is the author of The Breakup Doctor and Bedside Manners, part of the Breakup Doctor series (from Henery Press). You can find her at www.phoebefoxauthor.com, and have news and relationship advice delivered right to your in-box here. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.