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Passion, People and Principles

The Secret of a Great Marriage Is

post # 190 — September 15, 2006 — a General post

To give your love without conditions, but to work every day to deserve the love you receive in return.


Your thoughts?


Carl A. Singer said:

My dear wife and I have been married 58 years (29 each :)

I believe there are no secrets IN a great marriage.

And yes, the unconditional love and working at it is also key.

Not forgetting anniversaries doesn’t hurt either.

You should have posted this on Valentines day.

posted on September 15, 2006

Ken Hedberg said:

Your phrasing is a variation of the ‘golden rule’, isn’t it? (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”) I certainly agree with the sentiment, and also see it applying to relationships much more broadly, including work relationships.

Further, I see the golden rule as just one condition of a broader truth in human relationships. To use the vernacular, you get what you give, and you give what you get. Relationships are deeply reflexive, aren’t they?

I.e., I have found in my own relationships, and in my coaching practice, that great insights emerge when the following realization takes place:

The nature of any relationship creates a recurring pattern that both parties to the relationship can only break with great insight and effort. E.g., if mutual respect and affection characterize the relationship, many positive things can result; if mistrust and doubt are central, then those beliefs infect every interaction; if broad power differences are in play, simple role changes won’t alter the dynamic; and so on.

When I’ve been able to help executives see the underlying patterns in their relationships, the insight often has led to constructive steps to change and improve them.

posted on September 15, 2006

Michelle Golden said:

Very smart advice.

I heard a similar suggestion from a very wise, elderly marriage counselor (my former marriage that she astutely observed made no emotional sense). I asked her: “how does one know there is enough of the right kind of love for it to work well?”

She thought about it and said: “When you love the other person so much that you are willing and able focus on their needs instead of worrying about your own, and you trust they are doing the very same thing so you don’t even have to worry about your own, you have what it takes.”

I think that is a fantastic answer.

posted on September 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I’m with you, Ken, that understanding relationships in one arena, goes along way to helping us understand relationships in others. But I’d like to believe that my mantra about marriage goes beyond the golden rule – as I have experienced it, it’s a LOT more intense and serious.

Love WITHOUT CONDITIONS is a heck of a leap (but it is what it takes); and note that i am advocating something assymetrical – even if you are receiving love without condition, continuing to work to deserve it is mandatory but not always done.

How about this as a hypothesis, Ken? In the long run, it ends up being mutual and symmetrical (mutual respect and love) but at least one party has to be prepared to behave asymmetrically – to work at the realtionship even when it is not yet reciprocated – in order to get to symmetry.

posted on September 15, 2006

Ted Harro said:


I have personal interest in this question. I’m married to a marriage therapist (!) and have spent more than ten years (with her) working with scores of engaged and newly married couples at our local church.

Here’s how I phrase your “secret”: the only legitimate competition in a marriage is to see who can out-serve and out-love the other partner. It’s the one time where constantly trying to best your partner pays off for everyone.

posted on September 15, 2006

Lance Dunkin said:

I couldn’t agree more Ted.

Marriage is the ultimate “team sport.”

Always be on the same team for any significant issue. Plan and prepare for those issues together. Agreeing to disagree may work on a small level, but you have to agree on major issues.

Never say “I” unless it is “I feel…” followed by something that will help the team grow stronger, to take blame, or to appologize.

Never question unless it is truly in a spirit to understand.

Mistakes your spouse makes are “ours” not “yours,” and if you forget this, always give opportunity to save face.

If you do become annoyed with your spouse, realize it is a small cost compared to the great benefit of being together. In the long run, however, realize that if you are annoyed, it is most likely your fault.

If you want something to last forever, you must treat it differently than something you want to last 50, 40 30, etc years. (But why would you not want it to last forever? What is happier than a great marriage?)

posted on September 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

OK, let’s start the list. The things that build deep, mutually beneficial, mutually supportive relationships are:

a) Express appreciation frequently.

b) Spend time together especially when there is absolutely nothing to be discussed, decided or done.

c) Don’t give advice unless it has been explcitly asked for – three times.

d) Be on their side – against the world if necessary

e) Keep it fresh – do unexpected, surpising little things

f) Focus on what the other persosn is feeling, not what they’re saying

What else?

posted on September 15, 2006

ann michael said:

I would add that you should never speak or act when you’re angry. Find a spot to reflect, divert, and cool down. Tackle issues when you can be rational about them.

Oh…and if you see your spouse “retreat” to do the same thing – leave him or her alone until they’re ready to deal with the issue.

posted on September 15, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Annn, this applies to management and dealing with clients and suppliers as well, right? “Never speak or act when you’re angry.” A pretty good rule for life, Ann.

posted on September 15, 2006

ann michael said:

Of course! I kind of figured that was your angle from the beginning. :-)

posted on September 16, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Whatever my strengths, subtely is not one of them, as my clients will readily tell you. But I’m working on it.

posted on September 16, 2006

Deborah Quinn said:

I once heard from a wise older family friend that the secret to a good marriage is “a short memory and a good sense of humour”. This comment has always stuck with me.

I guess the sentiments behind it really come down to being able to forgive easily and laugh readily, two characteristics of a generous spirit.

I feel very blessed to be married to a very generous spirit!

posted on September 17, 2006

Bill Peper said:

The best marital advice I have ever received comes from St. Paul: “Husbands love your wives, as Christ loved the Church …” (Ephesians 5:25)

On a secular level, the best advice I have hear about marriage comes from Susan Page, noted author on relationships. She advises that a spouse needs to give up the “booby prize of life,” being right, even if the spouse is correct in the belief that he/she is right on a particular issue. Page explains in her wonderful book, How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together:

“The problem with being right about the way you you analyze your problem is that that’s all you get. That is it. You get to be right. You don’t get to solve the problem. You don’t get to be closer to your spouse. You don’t get to reduce the conflict in your relationship. You don’t get to stop feeling angry. You don’t get the changes you long for.

Being right is a dead end. Life just stops there. Nothing else happens. People all around you are actively striving for the gold medal in their relationships, while you sit clinging as if for life to the booby prize in yours, possibly for years.” (p. 30)

Susan Page’s advice also applies well to our work relationships. Her basic message is to figure out what you can do to improve the relationship on your own, and do it. That alone has the power to change relationships for the better.

posted on September 18, 2006

Todd Defren said:

My secret… it is easy to remember cuz it rhymes:


This simple phrase helps me to keep things in perspective, and to pick my battles wisely.

Married, with 2 kids, for 14 years – and since age 22.

posted on September 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Yes, Todd, but what’s the rule for women?

posted on September 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Really, really, REALLY helpful, Bill.

Boy, I wish I hadd the presence of mind and self-control to act on that wisdom at all times.

posted on September 18, 2006

ann michael said:

David – I can’t get Bill’s comment out of my head – and your response. It’s such wonderful advice – but as you point out we all lack the “self-control to act on that wisdom at all times.” I suppose the goal is to raise our average!

In some ways I think we’re trained to be skeptical and to protect ourselves and the higher the stakes the more likely we’ll revert to that pattern (if not initially – then in time).

It’s so hard to determine when you’re being properly engaged, supportive, and empathetic and when you’re a fool that’s being taken advantage of. I believe that it’s that fear that causes us to act in a way contrary to what we know is the best way to act.

This really has been a neat post to reflect upon!

posted on September 20, 2006

Erich Peters said:

Very good information, I wish I would have read it before my own marraige turned painful.

I have a question for the experts:

What do you say to a wife that says there was never any passion, and for the last six years she has been lying to herself as well as her husband and family?

Other than go to counseling, of course.

posted on October 17, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Erich, you can say nothing to your spopuse.

You have to ask YOURSELF something: is this relationship salvagable?

If not, then there’s no point arguing, pointing fingers, proving who is and isn’t right or wrong. There certainly is no point trying to recreate history and both agree on what happened.

Just work hard to either be kind to each other and get out of each other’s lives ASAP, or be kind to eachother and move forward together. There are, in my view, no other choices (and, yes, I’ve been there.)

posted on October 22, 2006