These two articles (see Part 1, here) are new entries in our series to equip engaged and newlywed couples – and anyone else trying to create a great marriage. Based on more than 18 years of research and 12 nationally-representative studies with more than 40,000 men and women, these articles identify some of the most simple (but essential) habits for highly happy marriages. And this research is newly recovered from the vaults! Share it with those getting married! *
Those who are married are often encouraged to pursue the day-to-day issues that matter to them – to stand up for themselves and their wants and needs. As you’ll see below (and in Part 1), while it is indeed crucial for each of us to honor what matters to us (and our mate), our research found we are far more likely to have a happy marriage if we acknowledge what matters to us but don’t always push it to (or past) the point of conflict. In other words, we are far more likely to be happy in marriage if we develop a habit of letting things go – both in the moment, and over time.
How do we actually do that? Especially without losing who we are, or turning into a doormat? That’s what this Part 2 is about. And it is a bit longer than usual in order to unpack the five key action steps that arose from our research on this secret to creating a Highly Happy Marriage.
Action Step #1: Learn the “let it go” habit now –since you’ll probably learn it later anyway
In our nationally-representative survey of married couples for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, we discovered that the willingness to defer and let go of day-to-day issues was crucial to a happy marriage – but was far more likely to actually happen among older couples. The longer a couple had been married – or remarried only a few years but older in age – the more likely they were to let things go. And the more likely they were to be happy in marriage as a result.
As one husband said, “once you’ve been together 30 years, you realize certain things just aren’t as important as you once thought they were.” Another said, “Eventually, you are mature enough to think back and go, ‘That was a dumb thing to get upset about, a dumb thing to fight about.’ And you learn from those.”
When a couple is younger, everything just seems so important! It is easier to get “stuck” on issues that really don’t matter that much.
Here’s a thought: Since research suggests you’re probably going to develop this habit eventually, why not develop it now, save yourself years of frustration and pain, and gain you and your spouse years of happiness?
Action Step #2: Recognize that not every issue is a big issue
We’ve probably all heard the marriage advice that we need to rigorously pursue the “little foxes” (as the Song of Solomon puts it), so the little things don’t become big things that destroy the marriage. It is wise to keep an eye out for those things that could undermine the marriage (see below), but this doesn’t mean we need to pursue every issue into the ground.
One wife said, “I was really focused on the little foxes – the little things that we shouldn’t let go because they could become a problem someday, and destroy the vineyard. ‘Wait, we’re not done yet, let’s work this through. Let’s talk about the little foxes.’”
As her husband put it: “After a while I wanted to get out my .22 and shoot the little foxes.”
Overwhelmingly, it appears that one of the reasons the happiest couples are so happy is that they are far more likely than other couples to say, “it’s not worth it,” if pursuing some day-to- day issue or continuing a conflict would lead to a lack of peace. Even in cases when both spouses did really care about the subject, at least one of them was often willing to say that certain things were “minor” – which eventually led to both of the spouses being more likely to say so over time. (As a way to accomplish this, see Part 1 for one spouse’s advice on how to “rate” what matters to each of you.)
Although our research was focused on “letting things go” in the day-to-day issues (not the big life decisions), it was clear that the happy couples considered even some important and emotionally charged big issues to be worth letting go in order to preserve the relationship.
How do you figure out whether something is major or minor? Well, the happiest couples had some guidance on that as well.
Action Step #3: Is this a godly principle or a preference?
One common comment we heard was the power of doing a little bit of triage when a couple is about to hit that point of conflict.
As one pastor’s wife put it, “We have a basis to deal with things. We ask, is this a godly principle or is this a preference? If it’s a godly principle, we usually recognize we can’t let it go – and we can usually deal with it pretty quickly because we have the common standard of the bible. If it’s a preference then we may struggle, because that would come down to who can present their case better. So those are the things we have to choose to say, ‘okay that’s your opinion,’ and agree to disagree.”
One wife had this to say: “The key is to not make something right or wrong… and realize that this relationship is more important than whatever this issue is. That is what matters.”
A common source of this type of conflict was parenting disagreements. One wife told me that she and her husband had gone through many years with their son being difficult and rebellious – and the marriage being under intense pressure. This was in part, she said, because as a stay-at-home mom she felt she knew their son better. As a result, she would make decisions without consulting her husband. She describes how realizing she could ‘agree to disagree’ not only helped their son, but was the start of them truly having a happy marriage:
Eventually we went to a counselor with our son, and I realized I needed to let my husband work with him man-to-man. My son just knew how to push my buttons as mom! I needed to take a step back and let my husband make certain decisions on how to deal with him. He just took the dad approach, which was more like: suck it up, kid. And even if I didn’t agree with his approaches, I needed to let him do them. Now, I can look back on it much differently than when in the middle of it. It was hard but it was totally the right thing.
Action Step #4: Don’t consistently avoid things that could become big
Let’s return to the discussion of looking out for the “little foxes” that could eventually destroy the vineyard. There is a huge difference between being willing to let some things go, and having a pattern of avoiding things that really do need to be addressed. As you can imagine, avoidance can lead to a damaging unhappiness over time as unresolved problems build up. The key, the Highly Happy couples said, is to be both willing to address issues that need to be resolved if you or your spouse honestly feels that it is necessary, and willing to label some things as less important and able to be let go for the sake of peace.
Many happy couples emphasized that being quick to let things go is not the same thing as never disagreeing in the first place. One happy husband married almost 50 years told me:
We aren’t afraid to disagree. But it is so important to say you don’t have to get to agreement on everything. It’s almost like I used to be in competition to win! But part of loving my wife is that I don’t want to hurt the person I love. And I was hurting her. Agreeing to disagree changed that completely.
As a summary of how to know when to agree to disagree, and when not to, the happy couples commonly suggested a few tactics:
- When you would have otherwise argued a point or forced something to be done differently, ask yourself, “Is getting my way or being right on this more important than the happiness of my spouse or peace in my marriage?” If not, experiment with calling it “minor” by comparison, letting it go, and seeing what happens.
- As one husband suggested, “Ask yourself, ‘in light of eternity, is this point I’m arguing really going to matter?’ Sometimes, it might. But more often than not, that puts it in perspective pretty quick.”
- One woman said, “Think about your own issues that you’re asking your spouse to accommodate and let go of. That will help you come into it knowing that it’s not about resolving the issue by deciding who was wrong and right, but by realizing BOTH were wrong and right. And then you can reflect on what you could have done differently, too.”
Action Step #5: Put it all in perspective
One husband shared that he and his wife used to butt heads all the time. Both had strong personalities. But their marriage turned around when he had a revelation about one key thing. He said, “I don’t like to be wrong. I’m very competitive. But eventually I realized: there’s one thing I’m not going to compete in, and that’s the relationship in this home. I’ll be wrong and I’ll BE wronged, so we can be right. And that is part of my responsibility.”
That’s powerful, isn’t it? But it’s not easy. It was rare that I heard a happy couple say “letting it go” came naturally. Instead, it was the other way around. It went against every instinct of self-protection (“What if I let it go and he doesn’t?”) or fairness (“What if I’m always the one who backs off and she never does?”). It conflicted with selfish desires to get one’s own way, and understandable desires to see that something was done “right.”
Letting it go is a learned behavior that goes against every human instinct. But in the couples that became happy couples, at least one spouse did it anyway. And, as often happens when we are others-focused, the peace and the unexpected reciprocation that eventually came with it were the best incentive to continue.
To discover the 12 other habits that highly happy married couples cultivate – and to move your marriage from blah to bliss – consider my book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages.
This article was also published at Patheos.
Check out the online courses of Shaunti’s research and teachings at SurprisingHope.com.
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