Marriage is a social institution with strong political overtones. The institution has created and enforced gender norms throughout every human society in all historical eras. Therefore, one of the reasons marriage works is because it is often strictly enforced with social codes. Marriage is only now starting to fall out of favor, and is being viewed more and more as an option rather than as an expectation. Yet there are still societal and personal pressures placed on individuals, making marriage work on a collective level. Thus, marriages work well in societies with strict taboos against divorce and even in societies with arranged marriages. Even on a personal level, arranged marriages that are socially sanctioned are often more likely to develop into deep and lasting connections between the spouses. As Bentley (2011) points out, "arranged marriages are far more likely to lead to lasting affection than marriages of passion." The reason for the long-term success of arranged marriages is simple: marriage is a social and political institution and not just a bond between two people who are attracted to one another. Unlike marriages of passion, "arranged matches are carefully considered, with thought going into whether potential partners' families, interests and life goals are compatible," (Bentley, 2011). Thus, the factors that a marriage work can be related to the social and cultural contexts in which the relationship develops. Marriages that are made with strong social ties and approval are likely to work because individual preferences and passions change over time.
It is important to define what "working" is in the context of a marriage. Length of a marriage is not necessarily a sign that the relationship "works" for the individuals concerned, or their families. A lot of marriages last for decades, with each partner resenting the other and frequently cheating. Just because a marriage lasts a long time does not necessarily mean that it works. If "working" is defined not in terms of length, but in the overall functionality of the relationship for both personal and collective goals, then there are some key principles that have been found in common to successful marriages. These key principles include acceptance, communication, independence, and self-discipline. Other factors such as mutual respect, mutual support, and the cultivation of a healthy sex life are also important factors that make a marriage work from the inside, regardless of the social or cultural context in which the marriage occurs.
All marriages encounter conflicts and problems; the successful marriages are ones that cope with those problems in ways that create win-win situations for the partners involved. Pop psychologist and self-help maestro Dr. Phil outlines several issues that successful marriages share in common, based in part on his own experience in a 30-year plus marriage. One of Dr. Phil's solutions is "you don't necessarily solve problems. You learn how to manage them." As Dr. Phil suggests, problems are a part of life, and people cannot magically make problems go away by "solving" every one of them. Not all problems need a "quick fix." Just as a boat captain cannot "solve" the problem of story seas, a successful marriage develops and implements tools that will weather storms instead of trying to make those storms disappear. In an article for Psychology Today, Gottman & Silver (2012) claim that the most important thing for making any marriage work is the ability to resolve conflict: "a lasting marriage results from a couple's ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship," (Gottman & Silver, 2012). Thus, a successful marriage accepts the fact that conflicts exist and develops tools specific to the relationship that help resolve conflict.
One of the key ways of bolstering the marriage's ability to weather storms is to "turn toward each other rather than away," (Gottman & Silver, 1999). Turning toward each other is a pattern of behavior, Gottman & Silver (1999) point out. In everyday life, a successful couple share problems. By developing trust through little events that occur on a daily basis, the reserve of emotional energy is available to draw upon when larger and more serious problems arise. "Because they have stored up all this goodwill, they are better able to make allowances for each other when a conflict arises," (Gottman & Silver, 1999, p. 80).
Conflict resolution tools will differ in each situation and for each marriage, as no two individuals or two couples are the same. However, turning towards each other, rather than away, proves effective because it is a technique that emphasizes the partnership and cooperation. Just as teams in an organization work best when efforts are pooled and ideas are collaborative, a marriage works best when both partners are fully engaged in the problem.
Fighting is not necessarily a sign of a bad marriage. In fact, many healthy marriages are those in which frequent fighting take place. A fighting only becomes unhealthy when emotional or physical abuse is involved. Otherwise, fighting can be a couple's mechanism for problem solving. "There are couples whose fights are as deafening as thunder yet who have long-lasting, happy relationships," (Gottman & Silver). Other couples do not use the fighting technique, and instead avoid conflict. While avoiding conflict does not work in some marriages, in other marriages it might diffuse the conflict and make it easier for each individual to come up with his or her own solution to the problem. This does not mean sticking to one's guns on principle. In fact, when the individuals in the marriage are more concerned about being right than about working on the problem, that is when genuine problems arise that can break the marriage. As Dr. Phil (n.d.) points out, "Forget whether you're right or wrong. The question is: Is what you're doing working or not working?"
Another factor that ensures a marriage will work in the short- and long-term is self-discipline. Required for fidelity, self-discipline means avoiding personal pitfalls by resisting temptation. Usually self-discipline is applied to cheating or extra-marital affairs, but self-discipline is also necessary in any situation that might harm the marriage. As Toler (2012) points out, financial infidelity can also break a marriage. Financial problems are among the top issues leading to divorce. As Andrews (2012) shows, some couples make a point to avoid financial dilemmas in their marriage. One couple interviewed states, "We made a pact to never fight about money. Financial problems lead to divorce. We didn't want our relationship to deteriorate over something as inconsequential as money," (cited by Andrews, 2012).
The problems associated with in-laws can be a source of conflict in the marriage, including arranged marriages. Therefore, a key to making a marriage work is negotiating boundaries related to in-laws (Toler, 2012). It is unhealthy and unfair to control the spouse's access to his or her family because of conflicts with the in-laws. In-law relationships might be difficult but they also provide the social context in which a marriage takes place. No marriage is an island, even among people who are insular and do not see their families often. At the same time, it is important to set boundaries. This can be accomplished by developing personal interests that are outside of the marriage so that each partner is free to do what he or she wants, while still remaining loyal to the relationship.
Communication is one of the issues most commonly mentioned in literature related to marriage. For effective communication to take place, each party needs to be aware of nonverbal as well as verbal cues (Dr. Phil, n.d.). Toler (2012) points out that men and women have fundamentally different ways of communicating, and that gender differences should be explored and acknowledged. The differences between men and women in communication might not be universal, but they will have a strong impact on marriages. If each party is aware of the way…