First Things First: Gauging marital health vs. marital length

Lauren Hall
Lauren Hall

My husband and I just celebrated 10 years of marriage. We were overwhelmed by support from friends and family. Messages poured in through social media and texts: "What an accomplishment!" "A huge success!" "A whole decade of life together under your belt!"

While it felt good to look back over the years and note the milestones we've accomplished together, I couldn't help but think: Is a length of time the best measure of marital success? What about the health of the relationship?

While it is crucial for couples to celebrate their anniversary and every milestone in their relationship together, I sometimes worry we (as a collective society) put more emphasis on the number of years than we should. It can be easy to assume because two people have stayed together for a significant amount of time, they have a thriving relationship. But we've all been around those couples — the ones who may have been together for a long time but seem miserable and tired of each other.

What if the collective support for married couples focused more on celebrating and encouraging healthy connection instead of only glorifying the amount of time they "stuck it out together"?

Decades of research, including recent studies published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, suggests that the quality of the relationship is a more accurate predictor of marital satisfaction than the number of years spent together. Longevity alone does not guarantee a fulfilling and harmonious environment for the couple. In other words, milestone anniversaries are undoubtedly worth celebrating, but the sheer length of a marriage doesn't guarantee its success or happiness. It also doesn't guarantee that future generations will have the skills and understanding they need to develop thriving families.

Psychologist David Banks says couples should not only see their anniversary as a time to celebrate the longevity of their relationship but as a time to evaluate the quality of their marriage. "As a couple reaches another year together, they should strive to 'level up.' Think about what you can do to make your relationship stronger year after year. The length of time isn't the only measure of success," Dr. Banks says.

So what does a healthy marriage look like? And how can we encourage married couples to focus on increasing their relationship quality as the clock ticks by?

According to the Journal of Marriage and Family, there are five pillars of a healthy marriage.

1. Communication: Effective communication is the bedrock of a healthy marriage. Couples who openly express their needs, concerns and feelings create a foundation of understanding and connection.

2. Emotional intimacy: Prioritizing emotional intimacy is paramount to marital satisfaction and creating a solid foundation for generational relational health. It involves vulnerability, trust and a deep emotional connection that withstands the test of time.

3. Shared goals and values: Couples with shared goals and values tend to weather challenges more successfully. Aligning aspirations and beliefs creates a sense of purpose that can strengthen the bond between partners.

4. Adaptability and growth: Embracing change and supporting each other's personal development are crucial for long-term success.

5. Seeking professional help: When challenges arise, seeking the guidance of a marriage counselor or therapist can provide valuable insights and tools to navigate difficulties. Proactive efforts to address issues contribute to the resilience of a marriage.

For nearly three decades, First Things First has advocated for the benefits of a healthy marriage. For those benefits to be seen and experienced in our homes, communities and throughout generations, it's imperative to shift our focus from the number of years to the quality of connection. As we redefine success in marriage, let's embrace the notion that a healthy, fulfilling partnership is the true measure of success, regardless of the number of candles on the anniversary cake.

Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at lauren@firstthings.org.

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