Streams of Consciousness

Streams of Consciousness

The scoop on how we think, feel and act

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


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.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription
as low as $9.99

Subscribe Now! >


Email this Article