If having a highly happy marriage is the goal, then that means a “good” or “happy” marriage isn’t enough. So how do you get there? What’s the secret? Today, we’re speaking with author and researcher Shaunti Feldhahn about her new book, “The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages.” The results of her research are, well, surprising and also encouraging. The good news- you can have a highly happy marriage!
4word: There are thousands of marriage books out there. What inspired you to write “The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages,” and how is it different?
Shaunti: The difference is what I do compared to the rest of the marriage arena; I’m a social researcher. Over the last 12 years, I have been applying analytical and research background to discovering surprising and life-changing truths that people don’t know. Once they know these truths, it changes things. I come at it as a researcher; I’m not a counselor.
What I can do is narrowly look at what’s the stuff you don’t get, and once you know it, it changes everything. For example, for the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the things that men and women simply don’t understand about each other and the things they do wrong because they just don’t know these differences – the topics in my books For Women Only and For Men Only. It’s all research-based, which allows me to focus on the main issues that seem to be pretty universal to each sex.
For this book, my goal was to answer: “What is the process that makes great relationships? What separates great marriages from struggling ones and even good ones?” In trying to have a better marriage, we try to figure out what the problems are so we can fix them. Surprising Secrets focuses on the “little” things that couples do right that create fantastic marriages. If we only focus on what’s wrong, then we only focus on the problem. If you want to be like Jesus, you don’t just study the Pharisees. Same thing in marriage.
There is a place for figuring out what the problems are and how to fix them, but in order to have a strong marriage, we need to look at good examples. I asked questions like “What is it that’s the secret? What are these people doing differently that they may not even realize that they are doing differently, that others can replicate?” I discovered that these things are a bunch of little things on a day to day basis.
4word: How did you identify the couples to study?
Shaunti: In the surveys, I asked, “Are you generally happy in your marriage and enjoying being married?” I gave couples a 5-point range, with “Yes!” being the top, followed by “Yes, most of the time.”
Husbands and wives took the survey independently in separate rooms. They did not know what the other person said. If both answered “Yes!” then those were the highly happy married couples I wanted to study. There is a big difference in a marriage where one person answers “Yes!” and another answers “Yes, most of the time.”
I was trying to study and identify the things that are unique to the highly happy married couples.
4word: Your research reveals 12 things that make a big difference in marriages. Was there one that came as a surprise to you?
Shaunti: All were a bit surprising, but I was surprised at how central one secret, in particular, was. The happiest couples choose to believe the best about each other’s intentions even when the other person said or did something hurtful. It seemed to be so integral to happiest marriages that without this one thing, I’m not sure that having a highly happy marriage is even possible!
When we’re hurt, most of us tend to think something along the lines of “He knew that would upset me and he said/did it anyway.” It’s a subconscious thought, and you don’t realize it, but you’re choosing to believe he doesn’t care.
The reality is, the happy couples refuse to let themselves believe that. They change “he said it anyway” to “That hurt. He must not have realized it, or he wouldn’t have said it. I know he would not intentionally hurt me.”
I think that one thing, based on my interviews, is a prerequisite. The thought of believing the best of intentions is not wishful thinking. The vast majority of couples care about each other, even in struggling marriages. When we’re hurt, the easy thing is to stop believing that. The degree to which we believe that is the degree to which we’re unhappy.
4word: How did the results of your research change your opinion about what makes a happy marriage?
Shaunti: I used to think it was the big things that made a difference. I used to think marriage was ultra-complicated. Fixing a troubled marriage was like rocket science. When I started seeing the results of my research, I was so encouraged. The stuff that makes the biggest differences in marriage is the little things.
There was another surprise. I was concerned the research would show a discouraging relationship between happy marriages and temperament or other factors outside our control, such as childhood environment. I was pleasantly surprised that none of that mattered.
The highly happy couples were not all “glass is half full” people. Not all highly happy couples were made up of optimists, either. They were just as likely to have Eeyores! The couples we surveyed really ran the gamut – good backgrounds, challenging backgrounds, positive role models, negative ones, you name it. The level of happiness in their marriages was dependent upon who they decided they wanted to be and what kind of relationships they wanted to have, not on their pasts.
4word: Was there an underlying theme revealed throughout your research?
Shaunti: Couples in happy marriages were so happy because they chose to be. They didn’t let their circumstances – past or present – dictate where they are now.
For example: one of the secrets that was encouraging to me, was that highly happy couples were just as likely to argue, get hurt, and hurt each other as anyone else. However, I noticed that they had learned the trick of changing their feelings, refusing to let their feelings control them, and they didn’t even realize they were doing this.
I asked one man to take me through his last argument with his wife. He was angry at his wife because even though he volunteered to clean out the garage, she insisted on doing it. But things didn’t go as planned that day, and he wound up doing it. While he was working, he thought to himself: “Ugh, she always does this and it’s so frustrating. I told her I could do it, but she insisted and then she didn’t. But you know, it sounds like she did have a hard day. One kid was sick, and then this happened and she does so much around the house. Why am I mad at her?”
He talked himself out of being mad! He made a biblical choice and probably didn’t even realize it! This is what Philippians 4:8 is referring to: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” That’s what I have found that highly happy couples do.
4word: How can busy, professional women incorporate the 12 secrets into their marriages?
Shaunti: This, to me, is one of the most important things whether you’re married, dating, or want to be dating. These secrets have enormous implications no matter what phase of life you’re in. Things like choosing to believe the best about the other’s intentions, is almost always true in marriage. In dating, it may not be because you are still learning whether or not their intentions and motives as a person in general, and toward you specifically, really are good, but the principle is important.
I was talking to a 30-year-old professional woman who was very confident and friendly. She was never married and had never come very close to tying the knot. Most recently, she had lost a relationship with an amazing man because she couldn’t get past her suspicions of his intentions.
For example, they had been dating for two years when he took her out to dinner for her birthday and gave her a sweater. She explained in detail about how he obviously didn’t care about her because he gave her a sweater, rather than a “fancier” present. She was assuming the worst about his intentions, even though he was putting forth an honest effort. If only she had known the importance of believing the best about your other half!
Recognize that these secrets, such as believe the best about their intentions, will make a significant difference in your life daily, without having to devote hours to it every day. Little changes of mind, little changes of attitude will build your foundation. They even carry over into the workplace relationships as well. As followers of Jesus, if anyone is founded on the rock and has the ability to remain calm in the storm, it should be us. That will make us far more the type of people others want to work with. It will glorify God and it will be in our self-interest as well.
Do you view your spouse as being on the same team as you? How would assuming the best about your spouse change your relationship?
Shaunti received her graduate degree from Harvard University and was an analyst on Wall Street before unexpectedly becoming a social researcher and best-selling author. Today, she applies her analytical skills to investigating eye-opening, life-changing truths about relationships, both at home and in the workplace.