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Our “Secrets” to a Happy Marriage

1 Aug

By Cindy McMahon

In the limo right after the ceremony.
In the limo right after our wedding ceremony.

“So, what’s the secret?”

It was just a simple question from a virtual stranger in an email exchange. Mariana S., a hotel employee, was helping us arrange a few extras for our upcoming 25th wedding anniversary stay. She congratulated us on our marital longevity, explained that she was at year eight in her marriage, and asked us for “the secret.”

I could have been funny, or flippant, or politely brief. But she asked, right?

So without getting too heavy or long-winded, I replied:

The secret to a successful marriage? So many things come to mind — shared interests, shared faith, shared laughter, date nights, making each other a priority.  There’s a saying that sums it up perfectly: “The grass is always greener where you water it.”

Obviously, there’s more to it.  Like all couples, we have had some great times, some tenuous times, some fun and some sadness. There has been disappointment, failures, hilarity and joy. We’ve gotten on each other’s nerves, and we’ve yearned to see one another when we were apart.


So, why is it that our marriage has lasted – and flourished and gotten better through the years – when those of so many others who seemed just as well-suited to one another, have failed?

Only God knows that answer for sure, but after pondering the question for a few days, I’ve got some ideas on the subject (about 21 of them, as a matter of fact). I am certainly not here to judge your marriage, its potential for success or failure! We all work it out our own way and none of these are deal breakers, for sure.

So here they are, not in order of importance, but more in order chronologically:

The Top 21 Reasons I Think

Team Cindy & Joe are

25 years and still going strong

At a friends wedding, add decked out!
At a friends wedding last summer, all decked out!

1. We were friends before we were lovers. We worked for the same company, so we had an opportunity to hang out, occasionally work together, and get to know each other without any pretense or expectation. Over the course of many Red Onion Happy Hours with the crew from work, we found out about everyone’s past, lots of mistakes, and crazy stories that one might not tell a potential suitor.  The benefit of this start to our relationship was two-fold:

First, we had truly been transparent with each other – not necessarily the way things go when you’re getting to know someone through stilted first-date conversations.


Second, we knew what we were getting. No surprises!

2. We liked each other just the way we were.  This was huge, I believe. I didn’t expect to change the essence of who Joe was, nor he me. Sure, I made some wardrobe changes for him (goodbye Gilligan-style painter pants! He wasn’t a painter, ok?), and longed for him to write down appointments and events so that he didn’t double-book himself. He encouraged me to grow my hair long and to learn to snow ski, but those were just exterior things. If those things had never come about, they would not have been deal-breakers.

We ended up growing and changing together, but not because of expectations or pressure from one another. We matured together – with support from one another, but not with a push (occasionally there was a nudge though).

3. He was a good-hearted person who cherished me. Joe is and has always been kind – not just to me, but to strangers, old folks and children — even the crazy drunk homeless lady that wandered into our tailgate party at the Rose Bowl.

When we began dating, he doted on me. He bought me flowers and wrote me sweet notes. He took me out to dinner, and he gave me compliments. You can’t marry a mean, dismissive person and think you will change them into a nice, attentive person.

Ladies — if he doesn’t treat you right during the courting days, you’ll be in trouble once you are his wife.

Gentlemen — a demanding, belittling or drama-oriented girlfriend will not change into an accepting, encouraging non-dramatic wife once the ceremony is over.

Sadly, I have seen this misperception play out with some friends over the years. Were they perhaps so in love with the idea of being in love that they overlooked the personality flaws or red flags? Maybe they just wanted the ring, and the promise of a non-lonely future? Maybe they thought that marriage would “change everything.” It didn’t. I imagine, it rarely does.

4. We share a common faith.  Neither of us were living the poster-child Christian life at the time that we met. And, in fact, I might venture that despite early commitments to Christ when we were adolescents, our faith was unrecognizable from the outside. However, as our friendship and courtship intensified, we had a few heart to hearts on long drives and camping trips, and realized that despite our failure to practice our faith other than at Christmas and Easter, we held in common the belief that Jesus is the Christ, the only son of God, and that he died for us, was buried, and resurrected, and that we believed the Bible to be true.

Although that faith was indeed the “tiny acorn” of scripture, it became the mighty oak of the shelter for our marriage. We have both had some pretty profound spiritual experiences over the 23 or so years that we’ve been seeking a closer relationship with God. I can’t imagine how sad I would be NOT to be able to share those experiences with the one person I’ve committed to spend the rest of my natural life with, or to miss out on the blessing of praying, worshiping and serving together.

Our commitment to living a life that honors Christ has given us guidance in all matters of marital life, from honor to patience to commitment – especially in the moments where our human nature would have sent us in a different direction – away from one another. Shared faith has been huge.

5. We already had common interests, and created more on purpose.  Our first date was to a Raiders game (that is if you ask Joe…I didn’t know it was a date!) We both have always loved sports — especially baseball, football, and – a sport that Joe introduced me to – hockey.  He wanted to teach me about hockey and I wanted to learn since it was important to him. We still laugh about my first Kings game back in 1986 when I asked why some guys were wearing the “hats” and others weren’t. (Yeah, they’re called helmets, just like in football. Who knew?)

One of those common interests we've developed over the years: skiing/showboarding!
One of those common interests we’ve developed over the years: skiing/showboarding!

Nowadays we do the hockey fanatic thing together as a family. We enjoy water sports and snow skiing, fitness and movie-watching, and entertaining, even when one of us perhaps isn’t as interested as the other person (I semi-enthusiastically tent-camped for a number of years before I threw in the dusty towel on that one!).

While it is great to have your individual interests, my caution is that if your hobby consistently takes you away from your mate, and they have no clue what it’s about, it’s probably not helping your partnership at all. My husband wouldn’t set foot in my hip-hop class – and that’s okay. But I also don’t go out partying with the hip-hop class group. If I did, I’d bring Joe.

Check out your local parks and rec listings of classes. Is there anything you both might like to try? (Joe, take this as foreshadowing: I want us to do Stand-Up Paddleboarding!)

6. We were a couple before we were parents.  We were friends for about six months before we got romantic. Then we dated for almost two years before we got married. We were married four years before we became parents.

Add it all together and we had six years of double-income, no-kids fun, worked out some of the chaffing things we discovered about living in the same house, figured out how to handle friends and chores and responsibilities and family and bills and people dropping by with a 12-pack, etc. before we went into that four- or five-year survival mode that two little boys three-and-a-half years apart brings. In survival mode, it is quite difficult to work on anything except the daily to-do list.

7. We both wanted to raise a family – and we both wanted me to stay home with the kids. (Again with the shared values…see a trend?) We both came from very family-oriented crews, and so that one was easy. And when the time came, there was no doubt in my mind that I would stay home (which really makes no sense given my career-girl beginnings. I don’t know what happened, but I am so glad it did!)

With the blessing of being a stay-home mom all these years, I was further able to nurture our marriage by taking care of the myriad details and demands of family life during the day. When Joe returned from the office, we had family dinners, and down time, and then, when the kids went to bed, we could sit and be together. I know that’s a rare financial feat these days, and as I said, we know it was a blessing that not everyone can experience—or that everyone would find joy in. But I sure have – still do!

8. We sought outside help when things got prickly. When we married, we both brought life habits, coping mechanisms and ways of handling challenge culled from our families. There were good things, bad things and downright dysfunctional ways of handling strife that we had seen modeled through the years. We went through a patch where we needed a wise, trained third party to help us navigate those rough waters that involved extended family and personal history. We then began to forge our way of doing things, that held onto the functional legacy and, hopefully, jettisoned that dysfunction. (Of course, our kids will probably find something to seek counseling about our legacy someday!)

9. Date night: vital! When our first-born was about 10 months old, we were blessed to meet the best babysitter in the world! Tara was an education major at the local university, and had replied to a job ad for our church nursery. The day I interviewed her, she and my little guy fell in love. Nearly every Friday for the next 8 years, she babysat for us so that we could go out. Sometimes it was dinner and a movie. Other times to a pool hall. Once we even had a picnic on the beach. We stayed in touch with each other as a couple, not just as parents. (And now Tara is a wife and mom!)

10. We talk to each other – about everything – and we don’t have a “better” friend that gets more info. Communication is key to any relationship, but in a marriage, especially when kids come along, sometimes the verbal exchange amounts to a rundown of the calendar and a to-do list.

Often I would find myself too tired to recount a situation to him – some complicated challenge with a friend, or a concern about something at the kids’ school that I wasn’t even sure he cared about. It would have been much easier to vent to my girlfriends and let that be the end of it.  But I didn’t.

He could have done the same with work issues. But part of that connection was sharing the things that were important and that were dominating our thoughts. We are each other’s  number-one confidante. No co-worker or bestie gets more info or more input. Not even my mom or my sister.

11. We tell each other the truth, even when it is not a happy truth, and we don’t store it up. We are both non-confrontational people by nature, but we were given this advice early on in our marriage: If we’re mad at, disappointed with, or irritated by something the other person has done, is planning to do, or is doing, we say so. Get it out, talk it out, deal with it and move on. (A side note here: Bring up these issues at a time when you are both sober and have energy. Not after a bottle of wine; not when one spouse is about to doze off. Trust me on this!)

My folks always abided by the scripture from Ephesians 4:26-27: “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Good advice!

12. We don’t air the marital strife in social situations. Now, I’m all for being transparent, and not putting on some façade that leads others to wrongly believe that we are perfect, but being critical of a spouse to others (whether he or she is present or not) is not beneficial.

No fair making passive-aggressive or flippant comments at a couples’ dinner about something that’s been bugging me. Nope! It’s disrespectful and awkward for everyone.

No fair griping to my girlfriends about an issue we’re having in a way that damages my husband’s reputation or would make them look at him in a different light.

While having a trusted friend who is wise counsel and keeps you accountable is important – vital – care still needs to be taken when sharing about struggles in your marriage.

Are you truly seeking advice and help, or are you just bitchin’? In the case of the latter, I recommend that it stay within the family cone until it’s resolved. Then and only then, with the other person’s permission, share it if your experience can help someone else.

13. We – and our parents before us — were in it for the long haul. Divorce has never been an option in our minds. We promised God and everyone important in our lives that this was the real deal, ‘til death do us part. We meant it.

At the time of this photo (taken at our engagement party, our parents had about 60 years of combined marriage under their belts. Look how happy they were!
At the time of this photo (taken at our engagement party, our parents had about 60 years of combined marriage under their belts. Look how happy they were!

We are blessed with two sets of parents who stayed married. My hubby’s folks had been married over 40 years when my father-in-law passed away. My parents are on year 59. They are still having fun and sharing their common love for sports, socializing and card playing. What a rare legacy we have!

14. We were faithful to each other – and turned away from potential temptations. As my husband said when we were discussing some of these topics, “Who knew monogamy could be so great?” We were laughing, but we meant it. Adultery does not mean the absolute end of a marriage – and if you have worked through infidelity in your marriage and arrived at forgiveness and reconciliation, you are my hero! However, I would venture that most marriages do not survive it.

Although I don’t have first-hand info on this, my hunch is that most extra-marital affairs begin with a seemingly innocent flirtation, glance, comment or gesture at a point when someone can still walk away. There’s a scriptural promise that God always provides a way out of temptation (1Corinthians 10:13).

Everyone is tempted. Who hasn’t felt that rush of being noticed or flirted with, in person or online? It takes a strong, confident person, one who is being honest with him or herself, to recognize that temptation as potentially dangerous and to literally and figuratively walk away from it. If a marriage is in trouble already, the ability to do that is superhuman. God help you. Seriously.

15. We assume the best about each other. If Joe says something, or does something that bugs me or downright pisses me off, I first assume that he didn’t do it to purposely hurt me. Whether it’s an off-the-cuff comment, or a bathroom left in a state of nasty, I remind myself that he loves me, and that really, does any husband purposely want an angry wife?

16. We express gratitude and encouragement to one another. Whether it’s, “Thanks for making the coffee,” or “Thanks for putting out the trash,” – even if we do it almost every single day, we verbally thank one another. And, we speak words of encouragement often, whether it’s a comment on appearance, “You look handsome in that shirt,” or a nod for our effort toward a thankless endeavor:  “I know you’re working you butt off for XXX volunteer project – keep up the good work.” It’s sincere appreciation (no BS-ing!).

17. Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?  I would say that Joe is better at this – he doesn’t sweat the small details. If he wants to go to a movie, and I really want to stay home and watch a video, he’s more likely to shrug than dig his heels in. I try to be that way, but I often realize after the fact that I missed an opportunity to shrug and acquiesce. See, we always have room for improvement!

18. We didn’t blame problems on circumstances. If you fight about money when you’re poor, you will most likely fight about money when you’re rich. If you blame marital woes on your finances, your bad neighborhood, or anything else that you cannot personally control, chances are, your woes will tag along even if all those things are miraculously fixed.

It’s not the problems and challenges that will get you. It’s how you handle them. We did our best to take responsibility for our actions, make changes when we could, and communicate with each other. That’s where a good therapist will help greatly – to help you see what the core of the problem is.

There are really happy couples who have very little wealth, and really miserable couples who have treasure troves of money (watched any reality TV lately????)

19. We are intentional about intimacy (and not just that kind of intimacy). There are ebbs and flows in the physical part of a marriage. Generally women who are chubby from childbirth, and exhausted from nursing and being up in the night, aren’t thinking about the bedroom (unless it’s daydreaming about taking a nap, right?). That would be what you’d label an ebb!

As marriages “season,” male and female hormonal levels shift and change. During the “ebbs” it’s important to remember that intimacy isn’t just physical. It’s about connecting on a level where you share your innermost thoughts, your hopes, fears and dreams – being vulnerable with one another. As I mentioned before, you should be sharing this type of intimacy with your spouse, not with your co-worker (especially one who is the opposite sex. Danger zone, and I mean it!)

And on the physical front (no pun intended, really), sometimes you have to trust your hubby’s lead, or he yours if one of you is not feelin’, ahem, “romantical.” And if things really go desert-like in the bedroom, get thee to a counselor! Sex is God-given, fun and free, husbands and wives! Just do it!

20. We divided the responsibilities of marriage, but Joe is the head honcho. I know this will seem weird to some people. Honestly, it would have to me about 30 years ago. Some would call it old-fashioned or outdated, or an affront to women’s rights. But much like a movie production needs a producer, a director, a screenwriter and actors – all of whom are vital to the finished product – marriage and running a family requires that couples take on many vital roles to bring it to success and fruition.

However, someone needs to be ultimately in charge if unresolvable issues arise. Otherwise, production stops.

It is not always easy – I would characterize myself as a strong, opinionated woman. However, I am married to a reasonable, smart, strong man whose opinion I trust and value. We both have our areas of “expertise,” but should a huge disagreement on a family decision occur, I would acquiesce. Thankfully, we have only had minor challenges in this area along the way. That, I believe, comes with compatibility!

21. I am a wife first and a mom second. And I’m not just talking chronology. Maybe you can cross out the period of time when each of our boys were born — first six moths or so – but we tried to put each other ahead of the kids.

It is really easy to get so wrapped up in your children that you hardly speak to one another about anything else. But the truth is – and here it comes, running toward us at an alarming pace – that kids grow up and move on, and you’re left back where you started – only you’re 20 or so years older and wiser, chubbier and more wrinkly.

With intentionality – the intimacy, date nights, etc. – we have maintained our identity as a couple. This certainly makes the prospect of an empty nest (in about 13 months – yikes!) seem less scary.

Nothing says happy like a fancy dinner and gourmet dessert!
Nothing says happy like a fancy dinner and gourmet dessert! Thanks to the Ritz-Carlton @ LA Live staff!

What will my days look like without the demands of Booster Club business and laundry baskets full of track clothes? What will our nights look like with dinner for two as the norm again? That will be a new journey. Thankfully, I will not travel it alone, but with the love of my life, my best friend, my confidante, my lover: my husband.

Here’s to the next 25!