Look for those real marriages

What makes a successful marriage?

If you could find a fool-proof answer to that, you’d be famous.

This week is National Marriage Week, ending on Sunday Feb. 14, World Marriage Day. This year’s worldwide celebration auspiciously falls on Valentine’s Day.

All of us, whether married or not, have been involved in marriage: our parents’, grandparents’, friends’, cousins’, siblings’, co-workers’. (Yes, co-workers’ marriages affect you. Just feel the energy in a team meeting when someone’s had a tiff with their spouse.)

“The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human,” Pope Francis said of marriage in an Aug. 5, 2015, general audience. “It is a demanding journey, at times difficult and, at times turbulent, but such is life! … It is normal for husband and wife to argue: It’s normal. It always happens. But my advice is this: Never let the day end without having first made peace. Never! A small gesture is sufficient.”

OK, so the pope has never been married. But I’d say he’s been listening to married people. And his advice meshes with advice I’ve heard from couples. For example, I once interviewed a couple married for 60 years. “What makes your marriage successful?” I asked.

“I think positive thinking has a lot to do with it,” the husband said. “It’s easier to think negative than positive. If you think positive about your wife, your life, your house, everything falls into place. If you keep thinking negative, everything is negative. You can find something wrong with everything in life.”

“And we never, ever go to bed without a kiss and we never get up without a kiss,” his wife added.

Their advice is not singular. The U.S. bishops’ website devoted to marriage and family life, foryourmarriage.org, regularly posts readers’ advice. The Feb. 1 post was: “When you and your spouse have an argument, remember that the goal is not to ‘win.’ The two of you are on the same team, fighting for your marriage, not one another.” (Good advice in many situations.)

Marriage is never easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is (as my parents used to tell me). The best example is the Holy Family. Nothing easy there. A solid marriage takes solid work.

In 2011, Dr. John Gottman, a marriage therapist of 35 years’ experience, published, “The Science of Trust.” In it, he found that only 31% of couples’ disagreements were solvable. These involved things like house cleaning and child discipline. The rest Gottman called “perpetual problems.” These have very basic foundations in each spouse and, therefore, cannot often be changed. But perpetual problems can be “lived with,” Gottman added, if a couple decides to work together and develop in healthy ways. These include turning toward each other and not away, being aware of each other’s sensitive spots, and being non-defensive in disagreements.

This aligns with the foryourmarriage.org tip for Jan 27: “Every night, we ask each other forgiveness for the things we didn’t appreciate or for the things we did wrong or if we’ve offended each other.”

Think about the successful marriages you’ve known — not the “perfect ones” because they probably aren’t. Look at the real, true marriages, the ones that have conflict and stress, but still endure; the marriages that radiate love, not only for each other, but which enfolds everyone around them; and the marriages that show faith in God and each other.

As Pope Francis said, “Marriage is a symbol of life, real life: it is not ‘fiction!’ … There will be crosses! But the Lord is always there to help us move forward.”

This Valentine’s Day — and World Marriage Day — give thanks for those “real” marriages in your life. Their reality has helped make you who you are. And their ongoing reality will continue to make you — and them — exactly who God’s grace wants you to become.