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Princess Bride PriestA few years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop not far from a 30-something friend of mine.

“Hey Bruce, how long have you and your wife been married?”

“Forty years.”

“Wow. That’s a long time.”

The brief conversation ended, and I went back to what I was doing. But not without reflecting on what had made it possible to live with the same person for that long. And now in the year of our upcoming 45th anniversary I’d like to suggest 5 of the secrets to that longevity.

We have never believed that failure is an option. This will not apply to someone who is married to a sloth or an abuser or who doesn’t care about the welfare of his/her partner. Sometimes there is no control over circumstances, and failure is inevitable. When possible, however, thinking of marriage as a commitment to a relationship, changes the appearance of problems and causes them to seen as challenges that can be overcome, talked-out, or solved.

Marriages require assembly. That is the second secret. Marriages are not purchased fully assembled. They come in a thousand pieces and require the creativity and ingenuity of the partners to put together in a meaningful way. Sometimes that requires the advice of others. Sometimes the help of friends. Sometimes just common sense and perseverance. Part of the wonder of marriage is that new pieces are constantly being added to the construction for the life of the marriage.

A very important and ironic third principle is that marriage is not for personal fulfillment. Often people measure the success of a marriage by what they personally get out of it. Benefits listed may be financial, social, educational, sexual, or recreational. But at some point, there is not enough money or sex or education to bond the couple. Healthy marriages are created when the partners, respectively, give generously to the well being of the other. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t genuinely care about your partner, turn out the lights; the party’s over.

Strangely enough, autonomy must also be a part of a healthy marriage. Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, said that marriage should be like the strings on a lute. “Even as the strings of a lute are alone…they quiver with the same music.”  In other words, two individuals make a marriage. Human individuality is part of the magnetism of strong marriages, as long as individuality is respected and not resented. Trying to turn the other person into a junior YOU will destroy the marriage.

My fifth secret is the importance of shared faith.  This adds a depth layer to marriage. I’m not talking about religiosity or churchianity. Just faith. Faith in a God at work in our lives. Faith in a God that designed us with a need for community and relationship. Faith that supplies often unspoken understandings about the wisdom of life. Faith that lends character, nobility, and respect to all that we do. Faith that makes one optimistic and hopeful.

That’s it. My top five ingredients for a healthy marriage. I could turn the list into ten or fifteen factors, but with these five you have a very good start.