If you’re a man on the precipice of marriage or have marriage as a life goal, one worry you likely have is “Will my marriage last?”
While divorce rates have been decreasing since they reached their peak in the late 1970s and early ’80s, there’s still a perception out there that marriage is just a crapshoot — a game of Russian roulette — and that the odds favor you ending up in a family court, or at best in a sad and loveless relationship.
My guest today argues that doesn’t have to be your fate as long as you take a proactive approach to marriage. With some thought and intentionality, you can help ensure that you have a happy, loving, fulfilling relationship that lasts until death do you part. His name is Les Parrott and he’s a clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family. He, along with his wife Leslie, who’s also a marriage therapist, have written a book to help couples prepare themselves for matrimonial commitment. It’s called Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before — And After — You Marry.
Today on the show, Les and I discuss how a man can know if he’s personally ready for marriage, the myths people have about marriage that set them up for disappointment, and the conversations you should be having with your future spouse to help ensure you have a happy life together. While the conversation is geared towards soon-to-be-marrieds and newlyweds, even if you’ve been married for a couple decades, you’re going to find some useful advice and insights in this show.
- How to know if you’re ready for marriage
- Why self-awareness is paramount for a successful relationship
- The five attitudes towards marriage Millennials have
- The effectiveness of pre-marital counseling in helping stave off divorce
- What happy marriages look like
- The expectations people have coming into marriage that can set them up for failure
- The unspoken rules and unconscious roles in a marriage
- The three factors that contribute to lasting love
- How love changes as a relationship progresses and how to nurture it through the years
- Why marriages are their strongest after 25+ years
- How to cultivate passion in a long-term relationship
- The saboteurs of marriage
- The different needs of men and women in a relationship
- Why conflict is good for a relationship and how to have a “good fight”
- What couples who have been married for awhile, but are experiencing marital problems, can do to solve them
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Neil Clark Warren
- How Do You Know She’s the One
- My podcast with Randy Paterson on How to be Miserable
- Half of Marriages No Longer End in Divorce
- My podcast with Duana Welch about love and marriage
- Robert Sternberg
- My podcast with Nancy Sherman about The Way of the Stoic Warrior
- The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer
- The Importance of Marriage Meetings (and our interview with Marcia)
Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts is filled with research-backed insights and actionable steps that about-to-be married or newlywed couples can use to make sure their marriage starts off on the right foot. Even if you’ve been married for a few years, you’re going to find the book useful. Also, consider taking the Parrotts’ SYMBIS Assessment with your spouse for further insights about your marriage.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. If you’re a man on the precipice of marriage or have marriage as a life goal, one more you likely have is will my marriage even last? While divorce rates have been decreasing, they reached their peaks in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, there’s still a perception out there that marriage is just a crap shoot, a game of Russian roulette and if the odds favor, you ending up in a family court or at best, in a sad and loveless relationship.
My guest today on the show argues that that doesn’t have to be your fate so long as you take your proactive approach to marriage. With some thought and intentionality, you can help ensure that you have a happy, loving, fulfilling relationship that lasts until death do you part. His name is Les Parrott and he’s a clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family. He, along with his wife, Leslie who’s also a marriage therapist, have written a book to help couples pair themselves for matrimonial commitment. It’s called Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts: Seven Questions to Ask Before and After You Marry.
Today on the show, Les and I discuss how a man can know if he’s personally ready for marriage, the myths that people have about marriage that set them up for disappointment, the mindsets people have about marriage, particularly millennials, and the conversations you should be having with your future spouse to help ensure that you have a happy life together. While the conversation today is geared towards soon to be married and newlyweds, even if you’ve been married for a couple of decades, you’re going to find some useful advice and insights in this show. After the show, make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/parrot. It’s P-A-R-R-O-T just like the bird for links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Dr. Les Parrott, welcome to the show.
Les Parrott: Thanks. Good to be with you. Appreciate being on.
Brett McKay: You’re a clinical psychologist that specializes in marriage and relationships and you work with your wife, Leslie, who’s also a marriage and family therapist. You work on helping other people have good, strong families and marriages. You’ve written several books. The book we’re going to talk about today is Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts which is all about helping people get on the right path towards a strong and happy marriage. Before we get into specifics of what engaged couples can do, people who are about to get married, to have a good, strong marriage, let’s talk about the individual first because I’ve gotten questions over the years from guys who they want to get married, they’re dating a girl and they’re like, “I think this is the woman I want to ask to be my wife,” but they’re not sure if they’re ready individually to make that commitment to marriage and they’ve wondered if how do they know they’re ready for marriage. Based on your experience and your research, are there things people can look for in themselves to know that they’re ready to be married?
Les Parrott: I love that question. It’s a good place to start. By the way, I should say related to that introduction, my wife and I have do have the exact same name that people are confused. I’m Leslie and she’s Leslie. We’re both psychologists. It does get confusing but that’s why I go by Les. It’s also why we named our first son John. No more confusion there. I love your question because it really does begin with the individual.
In fact, Leslie and I, man, this had to be 18 years ago, sitting around a dining room table in Los Angeles with a fellow named Neil Clark Warren. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the guy in the eHarmony commercials. We’re sitting around this dining room table when the idea for eHarmony first was being explored. We ended up working with that company for 10 years and working on that matching mechanism and all that kind of thing with folks. We have fantastic team there. I remember asking Neil that night in the midst of that conversation, “Hey. If you could only give one word of advice to a person about to be married, what would it be?” I remember the answer was just like on the tip of his tongue. He didn’t have to think for a split second. He said, “Get yourself healthy before you get yourself married.”
That is such an essential thing and such kind of a quippy little thing to say that have such profound depth. Get yourself healthy before you get yourself married. Why is that? Your marriage can only be as healthy as you are. In fact, your relationships can only be as healthy as you are whether it’s marriage or anything else. We had spent a lot of time in our own research and writing looking at how do you have relationship readiness. In fact, my wife and I even teach a class at our university here in Seattle where we live. It’s Relationships 101. It’s a class that is offered at 6:00 in the evening on Mondays, not primetime for undergrads and yet it’s the largest class in our campus.
We start off that first lecture telling these students, “It doesn’t matter to me whether you take any notes. That’s up to you and how you want to function except tonight, I want you to write down one single sentence.” I build the sentence up and I’d finally give it to them. It’s so relevant to your question. I want to give it to you and our listeners. Here’s the sentence. If you try to build intimacy with another person before you’ve done the difficult work of getting whole or healthy on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself.
In other words, we start to treat others as a shortcut towards our well-being. That’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody else. That’s the big answer. We can drill down on that if you want a little bit in how do you get healthy but that’s fundamental to any relationship because your relationship can only be as healthy as you are.
Brett McKay: Let’s drill down a bit. How do you get healthy for a relationship, or whole?
Les Parrott: There are several things. One of the hallmarks of psychological well-being and health is self-awareness. You’re aware of issues in your life that you need to be working on. The unhealthy person just goes around without any sense of their jaggedness, how they’re rubbing people the wrong way and how they’re interfacing with people in a non-productive fashion and so forth. Self-awareness is paramount. That’s why I always suggest if somebody wants to get serious about working on this, that they invite a mentor into their life, somebody that’s objective and has their best interest in mind that will serve as the proverbial mirror in front of them. That’s just one practical step.
Here’s some hallmarks of psychological health. One is what I call unswerving authenticity. This has to do with being true to you. I can’t tell us as a psychologist how many times I’ve had somebody come in my counseling office suffering from that proverbial disease to please. You know what I mean? They’re thinking, “Oh, man. Maybe if I accomplish this goal over here, I’ll get the respect of this group. Maybe if I get on to this team, so and so would be impressed or maybe if I do this, my parents will give me their blessing or win the heart of this young lady,” or whatever it might be. They end up doing things that aren’t authentic. A healthy person knows, “Hey, this is the path I’m traveling and nobody can sway me from that because I got to be true to who I am in spite of what anybody else might say, think or do.” That’s foundational.
That leads to a second one and that is what I call self-giving love. Two of the most healthy among us are people that can transcend their own boundaries and recognize other people’s needs and put empathy into practice and see needs that are unique to that person because most of us, if we’re not intentional, we project our own neediness on other people and then meet those needs thinking we’re really being a loving person when all we’re really doing is loving ourselves. Does that make sense? It’s kind of convoluted but it happens so frequently.
Those are a few things. Self-awareness is paramount and it begins the process. You can only change something, you can only work on something once you’re aware of it. Then, you got to be true to you and then, you got to give yourself away. The more you give yourself away, the more loving you are to other people in an altruistic sense, the higher much you will get in psychological well-being.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about … You mentioned earlier on before we got on the interview this assessment that you did about young people’s attitude towards marriage, this big survey you did. You mentioned there’s five attitudes that a lot of young people these days have about marriage. What are those five attitudes that people have about marriage these days?
Les Parrott: I appreciate you asking this because my wife and I wrote this book, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, we wrote this years ago and really out of our own desire to help our own university students here in Seattle, had no idea that the book would be used by more than a million couples, that Oprah would have us on and Barbara Walters and all the rest. It’s been a phenomenal ride with that book. A few years ago, a publisher called us, HarperCollins, and said, “Hey, this book just seems to keep going and going. Let’s revive it. Let’s update it.” That’s publisher speak for let’s put a new cover on it. We said, “You know, let’s do it the right way.”
We began to do a lot of research around what does it take for lifelong love. It was out of that that we devised this assessment that we can come back to called the SYMBIS assessment. In the context of building that, we did this massive study through the University of Chicago looking at single adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and trying to understand what is their attitude toward marriage, what we call their marriage mindset. This isn’t about any particular relationship. It’s just about how do they feel about marriage in general, just the enterprise of marriage. What we discovered is they fall into one of five categories and they’re pretty predictable. It’s actually quite fascinating. Let me list these five off and give you a little sense for each one of them.
I’ll start with R. The first is the resolute mindset. Now, these are people, anybody that’s listening to us right now that is thinking marriage is for life for me. Divorce is not even in my vocabulary. I can’t imagine not being married because it’s always been a part of my life plan. That’s the resolute mindset. These people are gung-ho on marriage.
The next category is what we call, after resolute, is rational. The rational mindset, and feel free to interrupt me along the way on any of these, but the rational mindset is the person that, “Yeah, I believe in marriage but I know it’s going to be really hard work. In fact, I probably would go … or I saw how not to be married and I don’t want to go through that but I still believe in marriage.” These people will tend to get married later. There’s more men in this category than women, by the way, the rational approach.
The third category after resolute and rational is romantic. These people, this tends to be populated more by women than men, just the opposite of rational. The romantic approach has an attitude of wanting to write this incredible love story because nobody’s ever experienced this kind of love on the planet before and they love words like soul mate and finding the one and so forth. If it doesn’t work out for them, they tend to think, “Well, it wasn’t the one. I got duped somehow.” They tend to have a higher divorce rate than others.
After that category, there’s two more and that’s restless … This is an interesting category because you ask these folks, “Hey, do you plan on getting married someday?” “Yeah, maybe, but it’s really not on my list right now because I’m having too much fun.” These are people that love to party. These are people that love just … They’re just having a blast. They’re just thinking like marriage is the last thing on their list of considerations. The only way you find these people in a counselor’s office doing some pre-marriage work is when there’s some kind of crises. Maybe there’s been an unexpected pregnancy or there’s financial pressure or there’s something else going on.
Then, the last category after resolute, rational, romantic, restless, the last category is reluctant. These are people that don’t believe in marriage at all. It’s just a piece of paper. Why would I ever get married? They’re very cynical just about the whole enterprise. Every young adult between the ages of 18 to 35 will fall into one of those five categories. That’s helpful information especially if you’re preparing for lifelong love with another person because you want to know what their mindset is as well and the combination of those two mindsets can tell you a lot about the road ahead for the two of you. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: That makes perfect sense. I’m curious, is there one mindset in particular that has a lion’s share of the people in that mindset in that demographic?
Les Parrott: Yeah, great question. On average, there’s about 20% in each of these categories. Reluctant is the lowest and then, resolute is the highest, the two anchors on the end of a continuum. When you break it down by some other demographic information, gender’s a big one, that’s when you see more women as romantics and more men as rational. It’s pretty even distribution.
Brett McKay: I think one thing that might put people in that rational or reluctant phase is that they’ve probably seen the statistics about marriage and divorce. I guess the number that’s been floating around is like 50% but there’s studies that show that it’s not as bad. It’s actually decreased since the 1970s when it’s at its peak. Still, it could be sovereign for people. People think marriage is just a crap shoot. Your job as a marital counselor, you’re doing this premarital counseling, is to help make it less of a crap shoot. What does the research say on the effectiveness of premarital counseling on reducing the chances of divorce?
Les Parrott: It’s pretty easy to get discouraged because everybody knows someone who’s divorced. You just can’t find anyone that doesn’t know someone that’s divorced so regardless of what the stats are, we’ve all witnessed, pretty much up close and personal, the devastation of a breakup in marriage. Does it make any difference? First of all, let me say that people still believe in marriage. 86% of young adults say they want to get married and 82% of that 86% say they want it to be for life. In other words, nobody, only a very small handful of people are saying, “Yeah, I’m going to get married but this is kind of the starter marriage and I’ll find another marriage later on.” Most people say I want it to be for life.
If they avail themselves of some kind of premarital education or counseling that does more than just focus on the ceremony, we know for a fact that they lower their chances of divorce by 31%. We also know that they raise their level of fulfillment and happiness and contentment in that relationship by at least a third. There’s no doubt that premarital education is helpful. In fact, I have two teenage boys. If they want to get married and says, “I don’t need any kind of pre-marriage help,” I’d just go, “Are you kidding me? Look at the facts here. You want to do this for yourself. Trust me.” I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to do that. By the way, the statistics get even higher for success when people will go through some kind of personalized experience like taking an assessment like a SYMBIS assessment that I mentioned a little bit ago.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about, what are we aiming for here? If you’re in premarital counseling or doing some education, doing some reading and you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I do to have a strong marriage from the get-go that will last a lifetime?” what are we aiming for? What does the research say on what a happy marriage looks like? What are the traits of a happily married couple?
Les Parrott: First of all, the more alike you are especially when it comes to your values, the easier and happier life is. Birds of a feather flock together. We sometimes hear people say opposites attract. There is some truth to that. There’s an excitement about being around somebody that’s different than you but as the saying sometimes often go, opposites attract and then they attack because it starts to get under their skin like, “Why can’t you view the world the same way I do especially when it comes to my values?”
I’m not talking about surface things. I like to ride a Harley and she likes to garden on a Saturday. Those are two very different things. Sure, that can impact the relationship but not as much as what you might believe about having children or some other values that you hold really dear. When it comes to predicting happiness in a marriage, you really want to find somebody that can be as similar to you as possible on the things that matter most.
In addition, we know there’s other marks. We talked about well-being and psychological health. That’s a huge predictor or success and happiness in a marriage but there’s also, we could put a finer point on that, there’s expectations that we bring, that proverbial baggage that we bring into a relationship. All of us do this. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the epitome of well-being and health. By the way, just going back to that for a second, nobody ever arise… We can’t ever check that off our list. “Hey, I’m totally psychologically healthy now.” We’re always in process. We’re all working on that.
When you begin to look at expectations, they’re shaped so intensely by the homes that we grew up in. You really want to make sure that what you have in mind, your picture in your mind’s eye of what married life is supposed to be like is similar to what this other person is expecting because if not, we get married and we go, “Hey, I thought you love me. A loving husband doesn’t do that. A loving wife doesn’t do that. Why are you doing that?” those kinds of things.
Then, on a real practical level, another marker is just financial security. We just know that happy couples, not that money can make you happy but that when you’re on the same page financially … Inevitably, one of you will feel like more of a spender and one of you more of a saver. That can sometimes feel like opposites. That’s a matter of degree but just making sure you’ve got some solid footing and you’re headed in the right direction for financial management, that’s also a huge predictor.
Age, by the way, a person who gets married at the age of 21 versus 25, their chances of divorce double. Think about that. That’s based on nothing more than just how old they are when they get married. When you look at happiness in marriage, you know that there’s lots of things that go into it but here’s the crux of the matter. Marriage was never ever designed to make a person happy. You make your marriage happy. Let me say that again because this is so key. Marriage isn’t designed to make you happy. You make your marriage happy which basically means it comes down to you and your attitude and that of your partner as well.
Brett McKay: I love that. Let’s go back to these expectations. I thought this was interesting. You have a section in your book about unspoken rules and unconscious roles that people bring into a relationship. I remember when I got married, this came up every now and then. It was like weird moments. It was just like stuff like, “Well, no. This is how you’re supposed to do x thing in a relationship. This is the tradition. We do it at Christmas. You don’t do it that way.” It’s little tiny things that pop up but you don’t think about before you get married. How do you bring up these unspoken rules and unconscious roles to light before you get married so you’re all on the same page?
Les Parrott: Les and I have often joked about how cool it’d be if before a couple got married, you could say, “Hey, bring out your invisible rulebooks. Let’s compare notes.” Everybody gets married with a set of rules about how life should work. We don’t even know that we have these rules until we get married and our spouse begins to break our rules. They can be about silly things. “Hey, when do you open your presents at the holidays? You don’t do that at Christmas Eve, at Christmas morning?” silly things like that as well as much more significant things that might relate to spiritual beliefs or what have you, values.
We have these unspoken rules. One of the tasks, I think, for a couple that’s thinking about enjoying lifelong love together is to do their best to uncover these rules. We, sometimes, call them your personal 10 commandments. If you just take some time to think about what was important in your home … I sometimes liken it to if you could go to your childhood home and maybe up in that figurative attic at least, you’d find this big dusty trunk that would have your name engraved on the side of it. Underneath it, it would say relationship curriculum. You would think through.
You pull out file folders of all the, in quotes, I’m doing air quotes here, of all the courses you took as a kid growing up, feelings we don’t talk about in the family, stuff like that. Maybe you took a class in advanced blame-shifting and how to do it. You know what I mean? We learned all kinds of things from our family of origin. When you begin to look at these unspoken rules that you’re bringing in the relationship and your partner does the same thing, let me tell you, you are solving so many problems in advance and eliminating so many headaches down the road.
Then, you couple that with unconscious role expectations. They’re closely connected but they’re distinct. The rules are just about how life should be lived. Unconscious role expectations have to do with what a loving husband should do and what a loving wife should do and what they should say and how they should feel. We want to uncover that for them as well because that was shaped by the father that you grew up with, the mom that you grew up with or it’s even shaped by the media, things that you witnessed. That’s the kind of person I want. If a wife is really loving, these are the kinds of things that she would say and think and do. The more you can bring that to the surface and make it conscious, the easier life becomes and the happier your relationship will be.
Brett McKay Fantastic. I guess an example of that unconscious role would be a man thinking, “Well, the way I show my love is just working hard and providing for my family.” There might be a woman who came from a family where her dad was very affectionate and spend a lot of time with their family. That’s what she’s expecting but he’s got the complete opposite expectation.
Les Parrott: Right. I’ll give you one other quick illustration. It seems so simple but it was so impactful on this couple that we were working with a while back. They had all these lovely little gifts for wedding presents. They were going to decorate their apartment with some stuff to put on the wall and whatever. It just kept getting put off because in her home growing up, it was always dad who would get out a hammer and nail and a level and put that thing up on the wall. Mom had nothing to do with that. In his home growing up, dad never thought about doing it. That was a woman’s job. She’s the decorator. She’s going to put the stuff on the walls. Here, they were. They were married for about six, seven, eight months and they’re both waiting for the other person to do what, to be a loving spouse because that’s what a loving husband does. That’s what a loving wife does.
I remember when they came back to see us for what we call a marriage tune-up a few months in the marriage and they were just both distraught over this. We were like, “Are you serious? This is what’s weighing you guys down?” To them, it was as serious as a heart attack. That’s the power of these unconscious role expectations. We build this into our psyche that if this person loves me, this is what they would do. It could something as simple as just hanging a picture on the wall.
Brett McKay: Have those conversations before you get married. In the book, you talk about there’s three factors needed for long lasting love in a marriage. What are those three factors and what sorts of conversations should people be having before marriage to ensure that you’re on the same page when it comes to these factors?
Les Parrott: Let me preface my comments and my response to this. I’ll give you the three ingredients of romantic love that we know from studies at Yale University by saying that when we divide the SYMBIS assessment … This is a personalized tool. It takes about 30 minutes to answer these questions. It’s 300-item and all kinds of different … There’s drag and drop questions, true and false and sliders and radio buttons, all that kind of stuff. You answer this online and you get this 15-page report on your relationship. Your partner does the same thing. One of the pages out of the 15 is dedicated to the three things that I’m going to tell you about and that is love and sexuality.
Years ago, by the way, if somebody’s interested in that, they can go to symbisassessment.com, S-Y-M-B-I-S. It stands for saving your marriage before it starts. Years ago, at Yale University, there was a professor who did this incredible study on romantic love when nobody else really was doing that. It was too mushy. It wasn’t scholarly enough to study romantic love. His name is Robert Sternberg, by the way. He did this massive study, the first of its kind, to basically answer the question, what are the ingredients of romantic love? He came up with this thing called the triangular theory of love which sounds like an incredible sleeper, right? Did we just lose half of our listeners when I said that? Triangular theory of love, it sounds so academic but I got to tell you, it’s super practical.
He said that if you just think of love as a triangle and you can visualize three words, one on each side of a triangle where to write them on on the outside of the triangle, the first one is passion. That’s really the biological side of love. Passion is that part of love that just flows with the hormones. There’s nothing particularly noble about it. That’s what gets two people together in the first place. There’s this chemistry that takes place and go, “Wow, I got to get to know that person.” That’s passion, biological.
On the other side of the triangle, you could write the word intimacy and this is the emotional side of love. While passion is biological, intimacy is emotional. This is about all the connectedness. We have things in common that we just go, “Oh, wow. Really? You too?” There’s that sense of intimacy that you give me and I give you like nobody else on the planet like, “Wow, you like sea swimming. You have some deep understanding of who I am.” It’s great to be known and it’s great to know another person that brings us together. That’s intimacy. We’re reading out the same sheet of music here.
Then, on the base of the triangle, you can write the word commitment. Commitment is the willful side of love. If passion is biological and intimacy is emotional, commitment is willful. This is that part of love that truly is a decision. This is that part of love that says, “In spite of all the things in my life I can’t seem to pin down, I have one thing rock solid and that’s my relationship with you.” Now, does that come from your hormones? Of course, not. Does it come from your emotions? No. It comes from your will. Love is a decision, some like to say.
Those are the three ingredients of romantic love but the research didn’t stop there, just on the identifying the ingredients because here’s what’s important about this. The bottom line of all the research was to show that these ingredients are incredibly fluid. They’re not static. Love is to a static thing you fall into and you fall out of. Love changes. There’s an ebb and flow to it. There’s seasons to it. The love that you have today is not the kind of love you’re going to have five years from now or five months from now or even five days from now because love changes. There’s a lot of fluidity to it.
That’s why we always, when we’re doing premarital work with couples, we often work on how do you cultivate those ingredients with passion, intimacy and commitment? If you’re waking up every morning after you get married and expecting all three of those ingredients to be at 10 out of 10, you’re going to be totally disappointed because love doesn’t work that way. It takes a lot of attention in all three of those fronts.
Brett McKay: I imagine when people first get married, passion and intimacy probably are stronger. There’s commitment there but it doesn’t require so much will because they have all these emotional and biological drive to be together. Then, that’s going to change as their relationship matures.
Les Parrott: Yeah, that’s exactly right. When you begin to chart out love over the lifespan, you will see what research has called this big inverted bell curve. You have this incredible satisfaction at the beginning. You ask any couple that’s just got married, “Hey, how’s your love life?” “It’s incredible. It’s 10 out of 10. I’m so glad we got married.” Then, you come back five years later, “Not so much 10 out of 10 anymore.” You come back 18 years later and it’s like, “Love life? What’s that?” They have teenagers and junior highs or whatever.
Here’s the really encouraging news. You come back to that couple 25 years later, “Hey, how’s your love life?” What you discover is there’s this new kind of depth and maturity to their love life. Their level of satisfaction is on the rise. In the second half of marriage, a couple’s love life and these three ingredients increase significantly. Now, of course, some couples don’t make it that far and they’re missing out on the very best part of married life but on the second half of married life, the level of satisfaction literally begins to feel off the scale. Social scientists no longer have instruments to measure how happy these couples are. It’s incredible.
By the way, I don’t want our listeners to get discouraged saying, “Oh, man, so you have to go through this big, huge inverted bell curve and get disappointed.” No. The point of that, that big sociological trend, the point of that is to say if you know the secret, what are the three essential ingredients to love, passion, intimacy and commitment, if you know this, you have the key to unlock lifelong love at its fullest because you’re going to work on those three things. That’s enough to keep some couples going. We can sometimes think, “Oh, there’s another shiny object over here, or whatever.” Just focus on passion, intimacy and commitment and you do the hard work of cultivating those three things and you’re going to love the life you live together.
Brett McKay: One thing, I think it’s useful to understand for people because the passion is going to be there for … I guess they say the shelf life or the half-life of romantic love is three years and then, it starts petering out. That’s natural but there’s things you can do so just to expect that. If you don’t feel the fireworks like you felt when you first met your wife, that’s okay. It’s natural but there’s things you can do to cultivate more passion in your marriage.
Les Parrott: That’s absolutely right. In fact, let me give you one practical thing you can do because this research has been incredible. Leslie and I, we’ve been married for 32 years. We discovered this a number of years ago and it is so true in our relationship and lots of other couples. We sometimes talk about date night after you get married. So much emphasis is put on dating before you get married but after you get married, it’s just as important to continue dating your whole life together. What happens is we get stuck in a rut. We go to our favorite restaurant because, “Oh, I love the lasagna there. Then, let’s go catch the latest movie.”
We do that. Then, we come home. It’s kind of a dinner and a movie and that’s it. Nothing wrong with that. That’s great but here’s what the research shows. When a couple, especially a married couple that’s been married for a while, will do a date that is novel. In other words, they’re doing some activity that they’ve never done or they haven’t done in a long time together. What happens is they have this chemical brain shower of all these, in fact all these emotions that they haven’t had since they fell in love and were dating in the early stages of their relationship.
That experience of doing new and exciting things together, it doesn’t have to be elaborate. It doesn’t have to be expensive. I’m not talking about that. In fact, the study had these couples Velcro their wrists and their ankles together and they had to go through this obstacle course. They compared what happened at the end of that date versus a couple that went out to a romantic dinner and a movie. Who do you think is talking the most after that? Who do you think was the most energized after that? They’re going, “Oh, I can’t believe we beat that in a couple and we made it over that one thing. I can’t believe we went to that tunnel. That was crazy.” It brings about all this new, dormant chemical of falling in love that hasn’t been around for a while. Be innovative in your dating world.
Brett McKay: I love that. It’s great practical advice. Focus on these three aspects of the love triangle, intimacy, passion, commitment but even if you’re focusing on those things, there might be what you call saboteurs that will pop up even in a happy marriage. What are these saboteurs and what can you do before marriage to reduce the chances of them popping up?
Les Parrott: Once again, at our SYMBIS assessment, we have a page dedicated to this. I got to tell you, this is the most neglected area of marital preparation today. The research shows it should be on the top three. It’s really fundamental and it can be summed up in a single sentence and that is to adjust to things beyond your control. If you don’t get a lock on this early on in your relationship, you’re setting yourself up for serious heartache.
I can remember Leslie and I were speaking in San Juan Islands off of the coast of Seattle here. We had to get to another engagement and so we took this little four-seater Cessna. This pilot picked us up on this little island and took us back into Seattle. As we’re landing, I asked the pilot. I said, “Hey, what’s the secret to a good landing?” He said the secret is to find the right attitude in spite of atmospheric conditions. I thought he meant to say altitude but he corrected me. He said, “No, attitude.”
That was the first I’ve ever learned that pilots talk about an airplane having an attitude as it lands. It has to do with the tail and the nose in relationship to the ground. When I got off that airplane, I remember I turned to my wife, Leslie, and I just said, “I got to write that down, finding the right attitude in spite of atmospheric conditions.” I wish we could give it as a wedding gift to everybody that gets married in the world because it would solve so many problems.
The saboteurs that we face … Every good marriage eventually bumps into something bad. It’s just inevitable. Put your seatbelt on because it’s coming. For us, we had a child that had incredible health challenges. For others, it might be something like bankruptcy or infertility or infidelity or just go down the list. Every good marriage eventually bumps into something bad. How you adjust to that, as well as all the little bumps in the road along the way, will determine whether or not your marriage sinks or swims.
It all comes back around to adjusting to things beyond your control, finding the right attitude in spite of atmospheric conditions because saboteurs are things like blame and resentment and self-pity. I remember when we first got married, we’re living in Los Angeles, going to graduate school and I think actually, one of the biggest self-pity parties Los Angeles has ever seen. Self-pity is very contagious. Things just weren’t going my way. As you complain about that in your marriage, your spouse will begin to join the party and before you know it, you’re digging yourself into this big pit that serves no purpose whatsoever. The saboteurs of happiness in marriage, the list goes on and on but the remedy is the most important thing and that is finding the right attitude in spite of atmospheric condition.
Brett McKay: That’s fantastic. I love that. We’re the Art of Manliness podcast. Most of our listeners are men. There have been a lot written about men are from Mars, women are from Venus. They communicate differently. They have different needs. Is that really true? Do men and women communicate differently? If so, what can men do to better communicate with their wives or their future wife?
Les Parrott: There’s definitely a gender gap that we all need to be conscious of but when it comes to your question about do men and women communicate differently, in a sense but more important to me than a gender gap, which I want to come back to in a moment, more important is the personality that we bring into this relationship because that will determine more about how we communicate, how we like to be communicated to by our spouse than anything else. Once again, that’s why we built this assessment, so, that you can really dig into your two personalities. What that does, it not only displays itself self-awareness, one of the hallmarks of well-being and health, but it also opens the door for empathy. You begin to bridge that gender gap more easily because you’re focused not just on, “Oh, men are this way and women are that way,” which there’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s also because you’re going, “I want to understand you as a person.”
When we do that, we crack the code of each other’s talk styles because we’re understanding our personalities. On the SYMBIS assessment, for example, we have this paragraph. There’s a whole page on communication. We uncover your personal talk style, just how you are hardwired in your personality for communication. Everybody is different so you got to understand that about yourself and about each other. When it comes to those bridging the gender gap, two things I’ll mention. There’s lots in our book, Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. We mentioned three things that every husband needs to know about his wife and vice versa.
Let me list out one especially for men. That is that every man needs to understand that his wife needs to be cherished. That word cherished is a really feminine word because most men, in fact, some studies, you’ll think I’m making this up, but some studies have actually shown, you ask women to list the top 10 things they want in their spouse and inevitably, a woman will say, “Well, I want him to cherish me.” You ask men to list the top 100 things they want from their wife and you’ll be hard pressed to find a guy that says, “Well, I know one thing. She’d better cherish me.”
Guys just don’t think about that. It’s not in our nature. That’s one suggestion, to cherish your woman. Now, what does that mean? I always love it. Les and I do these events around North America called Fight Night. They’re basically just a fun date night for couples. You can laugh while you learn. They’ll sometimes ask the guy, “Hey, men. What does it mean to cherish a woman?” You can hear crickets in the room because we just don’t know. Cherish a woman, to love her? Let’s get a little more refined than that.
This silly example, silly to some men, very serious for a woman but let’s say you show up at your wife’s work when you know she’s going to have a really challenging meeting or something like that and you deliver her favorite coffee drink from her favorite barista. You write a little note on the lid and you just leave it on her desk. You may not even see her. You do that. That’s cherishing a woman. That’s saying, “I’m thinking about you. I really care about how your day is going.” That’s what we mean by cherishing a woman. The book is filled with all kinds of tips like that on how you can do those things and both many others to bridge the gender gap but I’m glad you asked the question because it’s a big one.
Brett McKay: This idea of communication is something that’s going to happen up in marriage every now, what’s it’s going to happen inevitably is arguments. You’re going to have disagreements. I think a lot of people have this idea that a happy marriage is a marriage where they never argue, you never raise your voice at each other but is fighting really bad for a marriage or can it actually be good for a marriage?
Les Parrott: I appreciate that question too because as I just mentioned, we did this event called Fight Night and it’s all about conflict. The reason we do that and the reason that’s so popular, we’ll have several thousand couples each time we’d go to to view one of these things, the reason is all of us have conflict. Nobody’s immune. The question is, how do you use it to your advantage? Here’s what we tell people on those live events that we do. When you master the skill of a good fight, conflict becomes the price we pay for deeper intimacy. In other words, conflict can actually bring the two of you closer together if you know how to manage it successfully.
To answer your question straight on, conflict is not bad for a marriage. What matters is how you manage that conflict. The goal is not to steer clear. It’s just to know how to handle it. Of course, we have bad fights that draw us apart and we have dumb fights that are just a complete waste of time. I had a couple that told me just this last week that they were fighting because when they went to bed, the last person in bed didn’t turn off the lights. The light switch is by the door. They both just have this pride fight about, “You get up. I did it last time. You get up.” They just fell asleep with their lights on, woke up at 3:00 in the morning. The light was still as bright as day. That’s just a dumb fight. That’s pride.
When you learn to manage those little tiffs, as well as the bigger things like, “Are we going to move to St. Louis for your job when our family is here in Portland, Oregon,” or whatever it might be, when you can learn to manage and navigate the tumultuous water, you learn to bring your spirits together and rise above. You’ll be in the top 10% of couples that enjoy success because so few couples know how to fight a good fight, as we like to say.
Brett McKay: Those dumb fights, those happen. I’ve had those with my wife. Whenever they happen, it’s like, “Why are we fighting?” One of us will those moments like, “I can’t even remember why we were fighting.” We laugh it off. That’s our way of diffusing the situation because usually, we forget what set it off and it’s usually dumb.
Les Parrott: We had a couple a little while ago. They’re fighting about whether their cat was Zach or not. That’s a dumb fight.
Brett McKay: That’s a dumb fight.
Les Parrott: It’s just like, “Why are we having this fight?”
Brett McKay: I think the key for us is just laughing about it, realizing, okay, we just … We’re human and we just wasted five minutes of our lives. We’ve been focusing on what to do to prepare for marriage but a lot of folks who are listening to this, they’re in a marriage. It’s not so great. It could be better. They’re having problems. Do these tips apply to them? If they do these things, that they can help strengthen and possibly save their marriage?
Les Parrott: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, this assessment that I’ve been talking about, we designed it for pre-marriage and pre-engagement, those couples on the edge of commitment. What we discovered is it’s applicable to any age or stage. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been married for 30 years or three years or you’ve just been dating for three years and you’re thinking about getting married. We all deal with these same issues and those issues are love and communication and conflict and bridging the gender gap and attitude and expectations and all that stuff that we’ve been talking about. We actually now use this SYMBIS assessment with any age or stage.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Dr. Parrott, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about your work? I think you mentioned, is it symbis.com they can go to?
Les Parrott: Symbisassessment.com. That’s why S-Y-M-B-I-S. That stands for Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. That’s the title of our book. By the way, theirs is, her workbooks that people can go through that together. There’s even a DVD if they want. They can find all of that on our website, our primary website which is lesandleslie.com. That’s L-E-S and then the word and, A-N-D, and then Leslie, L-E-S-L-I-E.com. Of course, there’s a link there to the SYMBIS assessment that we’ve been talking about too.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Dr. Les Parrott, thank you so much for your time. I’s been a pleasure.
Les Parrott: Hey, my honor to be with you. Thanks for having me on.
Brett McKay: My guess today was Les Parrott. He is a clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family. He’s the co-author of the book, Saving Your Marriage before It Starts. You can find more information about his work at lesandleslie.com or like I said, in the podcast, you can take his Saving Your First Marriage Before It Starts assessment at symbisassessment.com. Be sure to check out the book on amazon.com, Saving Your First Marriage Before It Starts. Also check out the show notes at aom.is/parrott.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the show and have gotten something out of it, I’d really appreciate if you give us review on iTunes or Stitcher. It really helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.