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What Is the Secret to a Happy Marriage? A New Film Offers Unusual Answers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Kate and Matt cut the cake at their wedding reception

Filmmaker Kate Schermerhorn cuts the cake with her second husband. The couple started filming "After Happily Ever After" together on their honeymoon. Courtesy of Claudia Lanzoni.

In the U.S., 90 percent of us get married—and usually without a whole lot of thought. We may do it for love, which is fine, but arguably a dubious reason to tie the knot. You can love someone perfectly well without marrying him, after all. We get married because, that’s what people do. For women in particular, getting officially attached to a man is what society expects; if you buck that tradition, some people will wonder about you…if just a little.

And so it is unseemly to question marriage. When people become engaged, you are supposed to be happy for the couple—not to second-guess their decision. Reconsider marriage as an institution? That is unlikely to make you very popular either. And even though half of marriages in this country end in divorce, people too rarely take a hard look at the practice to determine what makes a marriage flourish—or fizzle.

Yet these unfashionable topics are just what Kate Schermerhorn broaches in a delightfully quirky new documentary called “After Happily Every After” to be released on DVD and Video-On-Demand on November 1. A critical examination of marriage is long overdue, because as one of the film’s speakers points out, a success rate of 50 percent would not be considered acceptable in any business context, so why do we think it’s okay for marriage?

Couple in matching clothes

Donald and Nancy Featherstone have dressed alike every day for more than 30 years. Courtesy of Kate Schermerhorn.

As if to underscore that point, Schermerhorn’s second marriage did not outlast the making of the film. Her own story of love, and love lost, neatly and entertainingly frames the experts and couples from whom she seeks advice and perspective. Here are seven slivers of wisdom I gleaned from this insightful look at matrimony.

1. Sixty-nine percent of problems in marriages are perpetual; only 31 percent are solvable. So select someone who makes you miserable in ways you can live with.

2. Fill a saltshaker with all ways you can say “yes.” Pour in “Good point.” Add “I never thought of it that way” and “Oh, if that’s important to you, let’s do that.” Sprinkle those statements on your sweetheart throughout the day. That is apparently what the “masters” of relationships do.

3. Define a soul mate as something you make out of a relationship, not as the person who is perfect for you from the start.

4. Don’t be selfish. Look out for the other person’s needs first, because if you’ve done it right, that person is doing the same for you—so you are taken care of.

Schermerhorn and her second husband work together on the film. Courtesy of Steve Anderson.

5. Keep expectations reasonable. Most of the time, marriage is not going to be “bliss.” “You can’t wish for more,” one member of a long-married couple advised. Pass on this perspective. Instead of pretending your relationship is perfect, tell your kids that marriage is difficult, so they come to it later with realistic hopes. (Some kids don’t seem to need you to tell them this, however. When I tried to give my 10-year-old son this piece of crucial information, he feigned shock—having thought until that moment, he said, that marriage was “a dream come true,” sarcasm oozing. I don’t know what his response reflects more, though: his insight or the transparency of his parents’ squabbles.)

6. Ask yourself: Are you the marrying type? Not everyone is. If you want secrecy, don’t want to say “no” to other sexual opportunities, and are not willing to take responsibility for your partner’s problems or meet his or her needs, then marriage is not for you. (Bear in mind that monogamy is rare in nature and does not come naturally to humans. People have to work at it. Some people may just not want to.)

7. Don’t go into the arrangement unprepared. Read books on marriage to boost your chances of making yours succeed.

Female couple sit on a couch

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were the first same-sex couple ever to marry in California. They had been together for 50 years at the time of their union. Courtesy of Kate Schermerhorn.

Rather than working so hard for the sake of marriage—we could, of course, make marriage work better for us. Experts in the film forecast a future in which matrimony in its current form would relinquish its monopoly over people’s sexual, parenting and economic arrangements. In a future iteration, “`til death do us part” would no longer be part of the deal. Instead, couples might sign a more realistic 15-or 20-year contract during which they would agree to create and sustain a family. Or something else a little less binding than hanging out until someone dies.

Alternatively, child rearing could occur outside of marriage. If you find someone you think would make a good father (or mother) you could decide to raise a kid together. Period. Divorced parents raise kids in separate households. Why can’t that happen with two parents who planned it that way? Obviously, there are economic advantages—and likely advantages for the children—of having two parents in the same house. But that ideal may often be unattainable, at least in the long run. In the end, not aiming for perfection might truly take the pressure off couples and families, too. That way, marriage might bounce back as an institution so that those who choose to pursue it are more likely to meet with success.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. apgoldst 2:40 pm 10/24/2011

    A minor point– technically, the state of not wanting to “say ‘no’ to other sexual opportunities” doesn’t exclude a person from marriage. See Dan Savage’s philosophy on being openly “monogamish”.

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  2. 2. poihths 5:37 pm 10/24/2011

    Yes, 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce. That means, of course, that the other 50 percent don’t end in divorce. Which means that there are a lot of us who do figure out how to make a long-term relationship work. When the logic starts with “50 percent” and winds up with “inevitable breakup,” somebody’s being very, very, very intellectually dishonest.

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  3. 3. lbyron 2:58 am 10/25/2011

    It should also be pointed out that while somewhere around 50% of marriages may end in divorce, that doesn’t mean that 50% of first-time marriages end in divorce. Many people are serial divorcers, divorcing 2, 3, 4 or even more times, so the failure rate of first-time marriages is quite a bit lower. It is also true that while not all problems can be resolved, many can learn to cope with them. Finally, I have also seen statistics that when unhappy couples are surveyed, and followed through time, most of those who stayed together after 5 years report being happy, while many perhaps most of those who divorced are both still single and unhappy 5 years later.

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  4. 4. Postulator 4:13 am 10/25/2011

    “…a success rate of 50 percent would not be considered acceptable in any business context”.

    I was going to quote some statistics, but couldn’t find any that agree. Regardless, small businesses fail at a rate greater than 50%.

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  5. 5. notslic 12:48 pm 10/25/2011

    Another key to a happy marriage is keeping the money separate. It gives both spouses self esteem and ambition to be successful. The only argument my wife and I have about money is “whose turn is it to pay for dinner?”, which is argued with a smile. Inequality and dependence are poison.

    “Read books about marriage” REALLY? REALLY???? Stupid advice doesn’t even work for stupid people. Trying to change yourself or your partner to fit into someone’s idea of what would be successful is a recipe for divorce. Most people know what they are getting into and choose to ignore the facts or believe that they can affect a change. Good luck with that one.

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  6. 6. davetrindle 8:40 pm 10/25/2011

    This 50% “failure rate” does not mean what most people think. In fact, only 20% of FIRST marriages fail, and that figure is declining. It’s a phenomenal success rate when you consider what’s involved–lifetime commitment, etc. The ones who run up the OVERALL (first, second, third, fourth, etc) rate to an apparent (but misleading) 50% are that small 20% minority who, on the average get divorced 2.5 times. If you exclude these outliers, the true prevailing divorce rate for the vast majority of us is only 20%. I wish more people knew that because I suspect THE BELIEF ITSELF in the 50% is probably one of the causative factors. Also, if you look more closely at the 20% divorce rate and consider that probably more than half that figure involves alcoholism, addictions, and spousal abuse (which I believe is probably a genetically driven compulsion), the first marriage divorce rate of sober, mentally healthy people is probably single digits. There is so much marriage-bashing in our culture and media, and speculation that marriage is untenable. That’s nonsense. The figures show it. Next time you want to blame your unhappiness on your marriage, take a closer look. It may be arising from you as an individual because of perhaps your stressful lifestyle, loss of connection with nature, workaholism, any number of things. But of course it manifests in our marriage, and it is so convenient to have something “out there” causing our woes rather than looking inside.

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  7. 7. davetrindle 8:47 pm 10/25/2011


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  8. 8. davetrindle 8:48 pm 10/25/2011

    Ingrid, is it possible to fix that on your end? Thanks

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  9. 9. iwickelgren 12:01 pm 10/26/2011

    Hi Dave: Yes, I made that fix. Thanks for your comments. Agreed that problems with the individuals play a role. Not sure about the belief in failure, though. I think people usually go into marriage feeling pretty optimistic, whatever the statistics are overall. I like optimism, but do believe a little realism mixed in would help.

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  10. 10. chubbee 12:01 pm 10/26/2011

    lbyron hits the nail right on the head. I would also like to point out the dubiousness(made up word) of taking marital advice from someone who has divorced, multiple times. would you take driving advice from someone who has crashed every vehicle they’ve driven?

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  11. 11. iwickelgren 12:08 pm 10/26/2011

    notslic: Thanks for the idea. Keeping money separate does work for some people. Agreed not all marriage advice is useful or even palatable, but I did like the suggestion that people engage in some thought and study before jumping in. They may need to find the advice that rings true for them. I think that whole approach is emotionally difficult for many, though, because the whole idea of creating this public, stable bond with someone you love is such a thrill. Practicalities seem to run counter to that.
    In this way, making a decision to get married might be useful in the sense that it marks a point at which people say–okay, time to really think about how to make this work.
    To state the obvious, I don’t have the answers, but think the discussion is useful. Thanks to everybody for their ideas.

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  12. 12. iwickelgren 12:09 pm 10/26/2011

    Postulator: ah, yes, “satisfaction” rate might have been a better term.

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  13. 13. srednabs 4:29 pm 10/26/2011

    It’s good that this article is inspiring some debate. Seems that there are a lot of assumptions about marriage that should be questioned even if there aren’t any clear answers…

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  14. 14. hanmeng 7:14 pm 10/26/2011

    It may be a fine idea to “Look out for the other person’s needs first” but it doesn’t follow that “because if you’ve done it right, that person is doing the same for you.” In some cases, even if you satisfy a person’s every need, they may not look out for yours. That doesn’t mean that you didn’t “do it right”, it means they are just selfish.

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  15. 15. Xardox 4:55 pm 10/27/2011

    Indeed an interesting debate. That there is one concerning what marriage is supposed to be indicates some ambivalence about meeting expectations.
    #4 in the article is codependent wishful thinking. Thinking that taking care of the other’s needs first leads to an expectation of reciprocity, often broadcast telepathically, leading to disappointment and resentment. Spouses tend to want whole persons as mates, and not either caretakers or needy, hoping codependents.

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  16. 16. iwickelgren 11:47 am 10/28/2011

    chubbee: To clarify: the filmmaker is not giving the advice. She needs the advice so she travels around seeking it from people who have been more successful at marriage than she has. She also interviews people who study the institution of marriage or who have become known for providing solid advice. (We do not know the relationship status of all of the experts.) The film is her way of sharing what she has found with the rest of us.

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  17. 17. notslic 10:51 pm 10/28/2011

    Thank you, Ingrid, for taking the time to interact with your readers. Hey!! I just stumbled on another secret to a happy marriage!! Appreciation. My wife comes home and says “Wow! You pruned all the apple trees. Thanks.” And when she makes dinner I say “Thanks for the delicious dinner” and I do the dishes in the morning.

    You must express appreciation for what you have. If you don’t, you don’t deserve to have it.

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  18. 18. chemosmoker 8:06 am 10/29/2011

    This entire article completely discounts the emotional well-being of the children that will continue to be destroyed as many are today in standard “two-parent” homes (quotes used due to the divorce rate making this an oxymoron anyway) and that their futures and the continuation of our dysfunctional system of marriage, family, child-rearing and destruction of their lives as there us NO emotional education in our country. HELP your children. Stay married, or DON’T have children. If you are so blindly selfish that you cannot learn to compromise and give and take for the benefit of the supposed LOVE you have for the lives you have brought into this world and are now responsible for for th rest of your lives, then DON’T have sex and do not procreate. THAT would be a sign of intelligence. A first for many of you, too. I welcome your comments. If you can write.

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  19. 19. Mr. Natural 5:02 pm 01/7/2012

    Really?!?! Is Scientific American also going to perpetuate the sloppy math behind this myth that 50% of American marriages end in divorce?

    Half of all marriages DO NOT end in divorce. This story, which began its viral life in the late 1970s, came about from a misreading of statistics at the time when the divorce rate peaked in this country.

    Yes, in a given year you could count up the number of weddings and the number of divorce proceedings and find that there were twice as many marriages as divorces. In 1981, for example, there were 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. A 50% divorce rate, right?


    Almost none of those divorces were the same people who got married in 1981, but rather, were filed by people from the vast pool of Americans who were married in previous years, a number much larger than 2.4 million (around 54 million).

    The actual divorce rate is much harder to determine because it is a prediction. The numbers given by groups trying to make this prediction varies from 12% to 35%, much lower than the 50% figure commonly bandied about.

    I have no doubt this myth won’t go away any time soon, but a magazine dedicated to science should at least make an effort to set the record straight.

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  20. 20. W. Ying 8:03 am 07/19/2012

    “6. Marriage (Primary Symbiosis)
    Marriage is one of the most important parts of human primary symbiosis.
    A. Origin
    Marriage was originated after biological evolution progressed from asexual propagation to sexual one. It is so because the sexual propagation can cope with all kinds of difficulties much easier than the asexual one.
    B. Definition
    Biologically speaking, marriage is one whole bio-entity or co-body consisting of a couple of husband and wife.
    This couple is integrated spiritually in order to keep both their DNA alive in their offspring’s body —- a better new carrier for keeping their DNA alive than both old individuals of the husband and wife.
    That is why a marriage couple sleeps in a bed and works as close together as possible.
    Also, this is where the kiss, embrace, and etc. come from.
    C. Properties
    Once married, any person of the couple ought never to cut the whole bio-entity or co-body into two parts with great suffering, that is, to divorce.
    Divorce is caused by various kinds of invalid happiness, including extra-marital affair, invalid comparison, and etc.
    Divorce not only hurts the couple individually, but also harms their offspring and even the society they live in. Hence, it is not only personal matter but also a social event close to crime to some degree.
    D. Mechanism
    Marriage woks just as one whole spiritually inseparable biological machine made of two halves-parts.
    a. Husband
    The husband half is biologically assigned in charge of food-seeking, habitat constructing, defending, donating all kinds of co-body-safety messages ceaselessly to his wife (kissing, embracing, and so on) .
    His ability and smartness come mainly from the ceaseless intimate encouragement of the other half of the marriage —- the wife.
    b. Wife
    The wife is biologically assigned in charge of the child bearing, child bring up, house hold, and etc.
    She transfers all the physical substantial materials from her own body into the baby’s. Also, she exhausts all her spiritual energy to bring up the baby or child —- the DNA-carrier of both the husband and wife.
    That is where her mother-greatness and beauty come from.
    Her beauty and virtue are support-enhanced by the ceaseless intimate co-body message from the other half of the marriage —- the husband.
    This is the right way that the husband and wife of a marriage work; and the right way that happy life of the couple comes from.
    Then, there will be no issue of gender equality at all.
    E. Caution
    Never a marriage should be misled by any kind of invalid happiness into invalid sufferings, including the most serious one —- the divorce mentioned above.
    To keep all kinds of the invalid happiness away is easy if a person just understands and believes in the life goal is to keep our DNA alive rather than anything else.
    Strictly speaking, this way or mechanism of marriage should be legislated formally. That is, to legislate against treating spouse not as the other half of the whole bio-entity or co-body, nothing to say about divorce which is very close to crime injuring our society.

    Life Goal
    Set my life goal,
    Far from the innate code,
    So I can never reach the goal,
    It gives me a nervous soul,
    My immune index gets low,
    My health down goes,
    How can I live old?

    Set my life goal,
    Close to the innate code,
    I easily reach the goal,
    It gives me a peaceful soul,
    My immune index is no low,
    My health up goes,
    I briskly live centuries old.

    For better keeping DNA alive,
    Symbiotic group is easy to survive.
    A couple of husband and wife,
    Make the strongest symbiotic life.
    The male leads food-seeking and defending,
    The female does propagation and educating.
    Anyone violates these biological rules,
    Must one’s self, offspring, and symbiotic group,
    Be in trouble for happy life to do.”

    (From “Be Happy Validly!” by W. Ying, page 19-24, CreateSpace, Amazon, 2012)

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  21. 21. W. Ying 8:35 pm 08/10/2012


    6. Marriage (Primary Symbiosis)
    Marriage is one of the most important parts of human primary symbiosis.
    A. Origin
    Marriage was originated after biological evolution progressed from asexual propagation to sexual one. It is so because the sexual propagation can cope with all kinds of difficulties much easier than the asexual one.
    B. Definition
    Biologically speaking, marriage is one whole bio-entity or co-body consisting of a couple of husband and wife.
    This couple is integrated spiritually in order to keep both their DNA alive in their offspring’s body —- a better new carrier for keeping their DNA alive than both old individuals of the husband and wife.
    That is why a marriage couple sleeps in a bed and works as close together as possible.
    Also, this is where the kiss, embrace, and etc. come from.
    C. Properties

    (From W. Ying: “Be Happy Validly!” p. 19, CreateSpace, Amazon, 2012)

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