What Makes a Marriage Successful? (And Why Divorce Does Not Mean Failure)

I’ve always found it funny/sad how we classify marital success purely by its duration. I mean, imagine if we applied this same metric to other areas of our lives –

She was a really great student – she was in school for fifty years!

He was an amazing dog, but he was a failure as a pet because he died before he turned ten.

It was a wonderful dinner. The service was so slow that the meal lasted for hours!

I’m afraid I have to give the book only one star because it ended.

Pretty crazy, huh?

So why do we then so easily apply this faulty logic to marriages? Classifying them as failures if they end and successes if they persist?

I think we all have seen (either from within or from the outside looking in), marriages that go the duration yet are filled with contempt, isolation and misery.

And we have all witnessed relationships that were once strong and fulfilling come to a premature end as the individuals or the circumstances changed.

Yet in our cultural lexicon, the first couple is heralded as a success (and sometimes even asked for their marital wisdom) while the latter is written off as a failure.

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Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate what makes a successful marriage.

Because it is certainly both more complex and more challenging than simply managing to hold on to one another for a lifetime of journeys around the sun.

In a successful marriage,

You both play for the same team. You know that there will be disagreements about how things should be done. But rather than view your spouse as your opponent in these arguments, you see him or her as your ally in life.

The good interactions outweigh the bad. There will be rolled eyes and hurt feelings. And they will be smothered by hugs and positive words.

You share common goals and values. Even when you take different paths to get there.

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Support is given freely and challenges are presented. You don’t seek to change your partner; you want to enhance the best parts of your partner.

A growth mindset is present. Both for the marriage and for the individuals that comprise the union. Each person learns and grows in response to struggle and success.

Mistakes are perceived as opportunities. And the actions are condemned. Not the person.

There is a balance of independence and interdependence.

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The difficult conversations happen. And problems are perceived as a challenge to overcome together.

Each person takes responsibility for his or her own stuff. And each person is willing to carry more than his or her share when the situation demands. Because there will be days when the commitment to the marriage is greater than your commitment to your spouse.

A legacy is left, either by the children born from the union or the others inspired or influenced by the couple. A successful marriage is greater than itself.

And here’s the hard part –

A successful marriage accepts when it is no longer successful. It is willing to make the agonizing decision to pull the plug rather than condemning both people to live in the diminished world of a marriage on life support.

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Now it is true that no good marriages end in divorce.

But it is also true that the marriage that ended may not be the same marriage that existed for some time before. 

It’s not just about the number of years. 

It’s more about what you do with those years. 

And if that marriage brought a smile to your face and eased your burden,

If that marriage challenged you to learn and grow,

If that marriage taught you what it was like to share a common dream and common goals,

If that marriage opened your heart and made you feel seen and understood,

If that marriage made an impact on others,

If that marriage pushed you and tested you,

If that marriage made you realize that nobody else can make you happy,

If that marriage taught you what you don’t want,

If that marriage inspired you to never again allow anyone else to reduce your worth,

If that marriage taught you how strong you are,

Then that marriage was successful.

No matter how long it lasted.

Or how it ended.

Take the lessons and move on.

Because the only failed marriage is one that you refuse to learn from.

Related:

Why I Don’t Want a Perfect Marriage

10 Contradictory Qualities of a Good Marriage

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13 thoughts on “What Makes a Marriage Successful? (And Why Divorce Does Not Mean Failure)

  1. This is a difficult article to read. I was happy in my marriage, although I don’t think I could be happy again doing the same things (even just a few months later, I have a better idea of my worth and my needs). I don’t know why my husband cheated or why he suddenly couldn’t do this anymore. I don’t understand how someone who seemed happy and says he loves me can just walk away. I try to move forward with just the good memories and the lessons. Although the good memories right now just make it harder, because they make me understand less. How can someone have so many good memories and love so deeply and the other person cheats and runs away? I probably just need more distance from this overwhelming pain.

    1. I think you’re exactly right. In the beginning, the pain is completely overwhelming and is all you can see. The questions of “why” and “how” are all-consuming. In time, as the pain becomes duller and the answers to the questions no longer seem important, you’ll be able to sift through the debris to find the take-aways. Hugs, Lisa.

  2. Words of wisdom on divorce. I have learned not to judge another about a marriage that ended in a dissolution. It takes two to make a marriage work. I now see that if one gives up working on the marriage, it is best to accept the the result and move on. Life is too short.

  3. Excellent post. Even three years out from my then husband announcing it was over (during a cruise – kind of tough to find space when you’re sharing a tiny room!), I’m still learning from you, Lisa.

  4. So many good things you have written in this post that I needed to read and be reminded of. Being the one that decided to pull the plug on our my marriage I tend to feel guilty about it at times even though it was certainly the right thing to do. I agree that as long as something was learned, it was successful. Thanks so much for a great post!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I have been struggling with that feeling of walking around with that big F for Failure on my chest. As if that is the only way people see me. It is taking a conscious effort to see me not as that, but as a survivor, an encourager, a mom and a friend.

  6. Reblogged this on Me In the Middle and commented:
    Having gone through a divorce myself, I’ve often wondered why we look on staying married or getting a divorce as a defining success or failure in life.
    As I’ve learned more about the person I was married to, it became clear that divorce was a blessing for me.
    Some marriages that remain in tact can be abusive and the people inside them become “cell mates” instead of “soul mates”.
    Another blogger opened up this discussion with a great post and I’m sharing it with you. ~ Mary Lou ~

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