What Makes a Great Marriage?

February 15, 2013
Honda Civic, will you marry me?

Honda Civic, will you marry me?

Recently an unusually cynical and jaded male commenter observed that the traditional male exchange of commitment for sex, i.e. marriage, is a bum deal:



“The buyer isn’t buying anything, but rather financing a depreciating asset for a long term.”

Yikes. Condolences to the wife. Reader J was moved to share her wistful hope of “a dozen roses with a card addresed to “My little depreciating asset” from her husband for Valentine’s Day. But this elegant response from commenter Mr. Wavevector is especially worth sharing for those who want to know what a great marriage looks like, from a male point of view:

Let me consider my 20 year marriage in these utilitarian terms. As I’ve had to fend off a few determined husband-snatchers 15-20 years my junior in recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to consider this.

When viewing my wife only as a sexual asset, this is true. She’s wrinklier, saggier and heavier than she was 20 years ago. However, this physical depreciation is mitigated by the excellent level of sexual service that she has maintained. I can think of only one time in the last few years where she refused my sexual advance. She has maintained this excellent service throughout 3 children and menopause. Could I count on that sustained level of service from a newer model? From what I read, it’s doubtful. They don’t make them like they used to, I’m told. The customer review sites on the internet are full of horror stories from dissatisfied customers.

Another aspect of value is emotional return. The asset has a 20 year track record of dependable character, emotional stability, and pleasing disposition, and a consistent record of yielding high emotional returns. Unlike the sexual value, this type of asset can appreciate strongly in time.

A surprise benefit of the asset has been an unexpected expansion in the food service industry. I entered the corporation expecting a 50-50 egalitarian split of food service chores. Now I have a SAHM who packs my lunch every day and has a hot meal ready when I come home. This benefit was not solicited on my part. It’s like buying a stock that unexpectedly starts paying high dividends.

But the biggest benefit of my continued investment in this asset is that it gives me a controlling interest in the family corporation. This is currently a flourishing enterprise, with three healthy, well adjusted, academically and athletically high achieving sons, a work environment that receives high ratings from the employees, and a management team with a proven track record. Given the rules of incorporation where I live, withdrawing my investment from the depreciating asset would result in my being stripped of my controlling interest and the payment of a large portion of my remaining assets in penalties. (And while emotions should not drive business decisions, I have to admit that this would be devastating to me.)

My conclusion is that this asset is depreciating only on one axis of value. A complete accounting shows that it is an asset that has yielded high returns, such that any attempt to sell with the goal of buying a higher return asset would be likely to produce a significant loss.

My analyst recommendation for this asset is a Strong Buy. (The asset objects to the rating Overweight).

In a New York Times editorial about the short shelf life of new love, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:

Newlyweds enjoy a big happiness boost that lasts, on average, for just two years. Then the special joy wears off and they are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness.

When love is new, we have the rare capacity to experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned. We are in the throes of what researchers call passionate love, a state of intense longing, desire and attraction. In time, this love generally morphs into companionate love, a less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection.

That state of intense longing, desire and attraction has been likened to the state of being high on cocaine. Here’s a new video on the science of falling in love:


From the Times article:

There are evolutionary, physiological and practical reasons passionate love is unlikely to endure for long. If we obsessed, endlessly, about our partners and had sex with them multiple times a day — every day — we would not be very productive at work or attentive to our children, our friends or our health. (To quote a line from the 2004 film “Before Sunset,” about two former lovers who chance to meet again after a decade, if passion did not fade, “we would end up doing nothing at all with our lives.” ) Indeed, the condition of being in love has a lot in common with the state of addiction and narcissism; if unabated, it will eventually exact a toll.

…When married couples reach the two-year mark, many mistake the natural shift from passionate love to companionate love for incompatibility and unhappiness.

Clearly, the role of expectations is key to understanding this phenomenon. If the first two years of marriage are a heady cocktail of sexual surprise and novelty-triggering rushes of dopamine to sustain feelings of elation, we can hardly expect or even wish for that to continue indefinitely. Perhaps “back where we started” is a very good place when you are with the right person. 

Companionate love, what Helen Fisher calls Attachment, does not preclude intense desire or happiness. Fisher and others recommend that couples do novel things together to stimulate the dopamine response. In other words, you don’t just stop trying.  Couples mistakenly assume that the waning of OCD-like behavior is a bad sign. This assumption pervades the culture, and makes many young people wary of signing a lease for a “depreciating asset.”

Comedian Aziz Ansari has long mined the subject of dating and relationships for his standup material. (H/T: Jimmy Hendricks). Summarizing the Lyubomirsky essay as “love fades,” Ansari mourns the loss of his ideal:

It all goes against the romantic notion of meeting someone and falling in love and being happy with them forever, which is all that’s been ingrained in our heads since we were young.

 It’s interesting to note that it’s not only women who have bought into the “soulmate, happily ever after” myth. And Ansari admits to focusing on what doesn’t work:

I have had great dates, relationships, etc. But that stuff is not interesting for a comedian to talk about. Who wants to hear a comedian come on stage and say, “Last night I met this girl, she was really nice, and we connected. We’re now in a successful relationship! Things are looking great.” That guy would probably get stabbed after a show. It’s much more fun to share and laugh at the bad times and the frustrations.

Yet Ansari hasn’t given up hope:

I don’t want to get married tomorrow, but I also don’t want to sit around dealing with stupid texting games or whatever. Maybe it’s that I’m turning 30 this year? Look, I like going out and I like being single, but a growing part of me would rather just stay home, cook food with someone I really like, and do nothing. Well, that’s not a really strong pitch, “Come cook food with me and do nothing.” Maybe that’s my problem.

On the contrary, I suspect that many good marriages include a lot of cooking food together and staying in. You don’t even have to put on your winter coat to find sex!

If young people successfully navigate their way to a marriage commitment, what can they expect? Does Attachment mean the death of Attraction?

Reader J had the brilliant idea of asking married commenters here at HUS what makes their marriages work. What does a successful, happy marriage look like? What are your secrets? 

Does marriage feel like a life sentence? How do the ravages of time affect your feelings about your partner? 

Happily Married Readers, please share your thoughts in the Comments. I’ll follow up with another post highlighting the best of them.