The Meaning of Happy
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What does it take to be happily married? Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn shares encouraging data about what makes the best marriages thrive.
The Meaning of Happy
Michelle: When it comes to satisfaction in marriage, there’s reality; and there’s myth. Author and researcher Shaunti Feldhahn says it’s important for us to know, and be able to see, the difference.
Shaunti: Every demographer knows that most marriages are happy, in general, much of the time—not perfect; right?—there’s often issues back and forth—but in general, like I said, most people enjoy being married much of the time. The myth is that: “It’s a slog,” and “It’s hard.”
Michelle: Yes! We’re going to debunk the myth that marriage is a slog on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. We’re going to talk about the topic of happy marriages and how it relates to singleness—and maybe, it doesn’t—but we’re going to find out.
Joining me in the studio today is Shaunti Feldhahn. Shaunti, thank you so much for coming in and chatting with me a bit. I appreciate it greatly.
Shaunti: Oh, I’m delighted! Delighted to be here!
Michelle: I’m excited to have you here. Shaunti is a good friend of FamilyLife®. She is a bestselling author and speaker. You have been part of some of our events over the past few years.
Michelle: You’ve also been on FamilyLife Today® many times with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine.
Shaunti: Awesome. [Laughter]
Michelle: Today you’re on FamilyLife This Week!
Shaunti: I know; so excited! This is great! [Laughter]
Michelle: This is the pinnacle of things! Maybe not; don’t tell Bob and Dennis I said that. [Laughter]
Shaunti: No; hey, it’s girl talk. I never get a chance to do this; this is great.
Michelle: Exactly. Oh, I love that: “girl talk.”
I want to go back a couple of years when you did your research and wrote the book on happy marriages. In fact, the title of the book is The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. First of all, can you define “happy” for us?
Shaunti: Yes; here is—essentially, people always say—“When you were studying this, how on earth did you choose who had the happy marriages?” What we were trying to do, really, was compare/to say: “What are the happiest marriages doing that everybody else isn’t?”—including people who have good marriages; right?
Shaunti: Here’s basically what we did—is we gave everybody a survey—we always do these big nationally-representative surveys. We kind of snuck a question in there that was the key filter question, but they didn’t know it. The question was: “Are you generally happy in your marriage these days and enjoying being married?”—so basic question.
We were surveying both the husbands and the wives. There was this whole, long expensive way that we compared their answers. We gave people sort of 1 to 5 answer choices. The first answer was: “Yes!”—like—“Yes! I’m very happy.” If both the husband and the wife—independent of each other, never knowing what the other person said—both said, “Yes!” I wanted to talk to them. I really wanted to compare what they said to everybody else.
Michelle: Yes; how many of those “Yes’s” matched up in your findings?
Shaunti: Here is the thing that was awesome; because we have this idea in our culture today that most marriages are just kind of: “Eh,” “Meh,”—like just kind of hanging on or just kind of enduring. Actually, statistically—not just my studies, but every other study that has been done—has found out that there is a far higher proportion of happy marriages than we think.
Shaunti: Yes! Different studies found different things. What we found is that it is something like—I’d have to look it up—but it was something like 32 percent of marriages were in that highly happy category. And another 37 percent-ish said that they were generally happy. It turns out it ended up being 71 percent of marriages actually said that they were, in general, happy. And these were comparing the husbands and the wives. This was not—you know, sometimes one spouse might say, “Yes! We’re really happy!”; and the other is like, “Eh,”—that’s not necessarily a terrible marriage, but you wouldn’t call it a happy one.
Michelle: Right; right.
Shaunti: It was really encouraging to find that, in our study, it was 71 percent of marriages. In many other studies, that have compared husbands and wives, it’s been even around 80/85 percent.
Shaunti: Yes; not saying that those are perfect; but those aren’t just roommates, either. Most people just enjoy being married.
Michelle: That’s really cool to hear.
Shaunti: It is!
Michelle: That is such neat research.
What/when you talked with these couples, what makes a happy marriage? What did they tell you about their marriage?
Shaunti: Here is the thing we found/I found really fascinating—as I was looking through the numbers, as they were coming back on the surveys—is that it turns out that one of the most crucial things that you can do to create happiness in your marriage is to believe the best of your spouse’s intentions towards you, even when you’re legitimately hurt. Everybody gets hurt, even in great marriages. We can hurt each other’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.
It turns out, though, once you start allowing yourself to believe: “They don’t care,” that’s the problem; because (A) usually, it’s not true. We found, statistically, most of the time we do care. And (B) what you’re doing is you’re starting to look for the negative, and you’re starting to assume the negative. It starts a downhill spiral that the other person can never come back from or not easily come back from.
Michelle: What are some of the other—I’m thinking through personality types or personal relationship with God—what are some of the other characteristics of “happy”?
Shaunti: Yes; it turns out actually/it was interesting to look at some of the other things that really were those secrets/those habits of the happy marriages—including, by the way, most of the time, these happily-married couples didn’t even realize they were doing some of these things—they didn’t even know that they mattered! [Laughter] It turns out, statistically, they actually really matter.
One of them, which was amazing for me, as a follower of Jesus, was to see that putting God first in their relationship, was statistically correlated with more happiness in marriage. It was amazing for me the number of times that I would do random interviews—this is something I do as a social researcher—it’s not just the big nationally-representative studies, and it’s not just focus groups with people that we’ve pulled together. I mean, I’ll stop people on the subway; [Laughter] or I’ll stop people in airports.
Michelle: Do they kind of look at you a little weird?
Shaunti: I actually learned, really quickly, I had to start carrying a copy of my book with me [Laughter]: So that I’m like, “Really, this is legit; I am truly a social researcher. This is not some weird person.” I mean, I might be; [Laughter] but this is, hopefully, legitimate.
It was actually really funny. There were times that I’m literally sitting next to a couple in an airport somewhere, and they’re having hot dogs. They’re talking to each other, and they’re laughing. They’re having so much fun. I always have this little way, when I introduce myself, and ask them a couple questions to try to see where they are/in which category of marriage; right?
If they were the “highly happy” marriage, I would often ask, “What’s your take on why you’re so happy?” And they would look at each other—this happened over and over—they would look at each other, and then they’d look at me; and then they’d go, “It’s because of Jesus Christ.” You could tell that they were like, “Oh, this is a chance to witness to a social researcher!” [Laughter]
Shaunti: But it was awesome how often that happened.
Michelle: Now, the other less than 30 percent—I’m trying to do math really fast, and I’m not good at that—
Shaunti: Twenty-nine percent. [Laughter]
Michelle: Yes—the rest/the 29 percent—did you talk to them at all?
Shaunti: Oh, sure.
Michelle: What did you see, between the 29 percent and then the 71 percent? How can you take a so-so marriage, or an unhappy marriage, and make it great?
Shaunti: Well, actually, part of our study group—we had more than 1,000 people in the study group—and one of the sub-groups that I was most interested in were those people who were, today, in a highly-happy marriage that started out not in one—that started out with their marriage being very difficult—or almost, to some degree, on the verge of divorce.
We actually had, in the interviews and in the surveys, we actually had—I can’t remember the number—it was five or six couples, who had actually divorced from each other and got remarried to each other.
Michelle: Wow! [Laughter] I always thought that was like extremely rare, like—
Shaunti: Well, I’m sure it is. [Laughter]
Michelle: That’s true; that’s true.
Shaunti: I’m sure it is, statistically. However, it was really valuable for the study group. It was very valuable input—not just those, which were unusual cases—but the many cases, where people were happily married today, but that hadn’t always been the case. I was very interested and very attuned to: “What were those things that made the biggest difference?”
One of them—okay, you’re going to think this is super simple—but one of them actually was, it turns out, that they realized the reason that they didn’t like each other was that they weren’t spending any time together. It turns out that one of the secrets of the happiest couples is they treat each other and their marriage as mostly a best friendship/that they’re best friends.
There was as study done a number of years ago on/I guess the way they put it is: “What are the primary predictors of friendship?” If I were to ask you that, what would you say?—“…the primary predictors of friendship?”
Michelle: “Spending time together.”
Shaunti: Yes; and we think it’s funny, because you think of it as friendship is based on things like shared temperaments, or shared values, or whatever. All those are important; but yes, it turns out—actually, to be/put more fine point on it—the primary predictor of friendship is actually geographic proximity. You’re the best friends with the people you see the most often so that you can spend time together! That is one thing in today’s world that often gets pushed aside.
Michelle: —in our busy schedules and our running everyplace.
Shaunti: —and me being the taxi for my kids, the uncompensated Uber driver; you know? [Laughter] My husband and I—we love each other—and he understands: “I’ve got to stay late at my daughter’s volleyball game again.” My husband understands, of course he does; but it doesn’t compensate for the fact that we’re growing further apart, because we just don’t see each other.
One couple that really stood out to me—they were in the sub-group of the study group, where they had been in a very, very difficult place in their marriage—this one woman told me that everything changed when she looked at their schedule. They had three little kids. She looked at their schedule one day, and she was not liking her husband at all. She said, “How often do we actually spend together, just being together?”—you know, not comparing schedules about kids, but literally just being together as friends—she added it up, and it was basically 15 minutes a week.
She said they had very little that they could change in their schedule; but she did look, and she said, “There was one thing that she could change, starting then.” That was that her husband—apparently every week on Tuesday and Thursday—he came home from work a little bit early to take their oldest child, who was seven or eight, to take him to T-ball practice. She said, “Look; there is no reason in the world that I have to load up my three-year-old and my baby, and get in the car, and drive across town twice a week, except for the fact that that’s 20 minutes in the car on the way there and 20 minutes back twice a week.”
Michelle: That’s time that she’s spending with him.
Shaunti: Exactly! It sounds so simple; but she said, “Honestly, that was the turning point.” They would catch up; they would talk. It wouldn’t be about anything technical; it wouldn’t be about the schedule for the week ahead. It would just be catching up on things they didn’t know were going on at work, or home, or whatever.
She said, “You know, you start to like each other again; and if you like each other, then you can deal with all these other issues. It’s really hard to deal with the issues if you don’t like each other.”
Michelle: I can even, in some ways, equate this to a roommate situation. I mean, it’s just true in all relationships,—
Shaunti: Great point; yes.
Michelle: —even in roommate situations. I’ve had several roommates throughout the years. If you are not having those touchpoints during the week, the roommate relationship goes downhill. You do not want to be near them, because they have not done their dishes; [Laughter] they have not cleaned the living room; they’ve not picked up any of their stuff. You’re like, “Done; don’t want to be around you.”
Whereas, when you’re spending time, you’re realizing what else is going on in their life—not only are you coming and going, “Okay; I like you again,”—but you’re like, “Okay; you have a lot of stress.
Michelle: “That helps me understand what is going on and why you have dropped the ball on this.”
Shaunti: Also, you can give them the benefit of the doubt—like we were talking about—like you’re believing the best. But also, truly, if there’s a problem—like it is their dishes and they never do them—that would get annoying, just like in a family situation. But you can deal with those annoyances when you’re friends! When you like each other, you can have the conversation. As I used to have to do with my roommates, and they used to have to do with me. [Laughter]
Michelle: Well, speaking of roommates, I want to turn the conversation a little bit towards singleness. We have to take a break; and when we come back, we’re going to talk about happiness and singleness. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. I'm Michelle Hill. I’m talking today with Shaunti Feldhahn. Shaunti, I want to turn the conversation a little bit. On the flip side of marriage is singleness. I mean, it’s where everyone starts, and it’s where many still are. We are seeing fewer and fewer people getting married; and yet, from what I’m hearing, marriage is great! Seventy-one percent say, “I’m happy in my marriage.” In your research, did you see any discrepancies as to why we are seeing fewer and fewer [marriages]?
Shaunti: Here’s one of the things that we have found over the years. This is one of the things that I am so passionate about combatting; because there is a myth in our culture that: “Oh, gosh, marriage is just so hard,” and “Everybody gets divorced,” and “Why bother? It’s just a piece of paper,” and “...” and “…” and “…” And it is the biggest lie!
Every demographer knows—because these studies have been done for years; it’s not just me—every demographer knows that most marriages are happy, in general, much of the time—not perfect; right?—there’s often issues back and forth—but in general, like I said, most people enjoy being married much of the time. And yet, the myth is that: “It’s a slog,” and “It’s hard,” “You just have to endure.”
Michelle: Yes! “It’s so hard,” “You just/it’s so much”—I’ve heard—“It’s so much easier just to stay single. Don’t get caught up; it’s so complex, and you don’t have that now.”
Shaunti: You know what? There certainly are people and there certainly are cases—we know this biblically; we know this psychologically; we know this statistically—there are people that are called to singleness; right? There just are. I know many young women, and older women, who would love to be married; but they really also kind of feel like: “You know what? I feel like this is a calling for me.” They can do things that married people can’t do. They can drop things at the drop of a hat and go off and do a mission trip somewhere. Okay; great.
But most of—especially, I know a lot of 38-, 39-, 40-year-old women, who are awesome women and really would love to be married—I always tell them, “Keep praying for that! Because that heart longing has a reason behind it.” It’s just the hard answer—as from what I can tell, not being single now—the hard answer is that, sometimes, we’re called to relinquish that.
And yet, statistically, most people who want to be married will be married someday. The answer to me is not to downplay: “Oh, it’s so hard; you don’t even want to bother,” because there is a reason their heart is longing for that. God created marriage to be, truly in most cases, a blessing to us.
Michelle: So what is a single supposed to do, when they are talking with a married couple; and the married couple says, “Oh, you don’t want to do that”? How can a single react to that, and what is appropriate to say?
Shaunti: It’s interesting—I guess, if it’s someone you don’t know very well—you smile; you nod, “Hmm, hmm, hmm,” the same way you react when a well-meaning older woman, who doesn’t know you, tells you how to handle the way that you’re/for me, as a parent, how I’m parenting. I just go, “Oh, thanks so much”; and I just ignore it, basically. I set it aside, take what’s worthwhile, and say, “She’s well-meaning, but…” for the rest of it.
If you’re in relationship with them, as I’m thinking this through, I would challenge it. I would say, “Do you really believe that? Do you not enjoy being married?” If you’re in relationship with them, and you’re friends, you can say legitimately, “This is something my heart is longing for.”
I had several friends, who got divorced a number of years ago; because their husbands left them for other women. It was a horrible period—I had a bunch of friends that this happened to: three good female friends—all in the same two-year period. Walking through that with them, I was a little bit upset by the number of people/one of them in particular, the number of people who told this woman, “You know what? You are better off just not even bothering, because who knows? The next guy might cheat on you again.”
Michelle: Oooooooh; dagger to the heart.
Shaunti: I’m thinking, “Oh, my goodness!” Finally, she actually—to her credit—she started challenging that. She’s like, “No! I’m praying that, if God wants me to be married, that God is going to bring me an amazing husband. I tried my best to honor God in this last relationship; and in the end, there was nothing I could do. He made this decision. There was literally nothing I could do to change it.”
But that doesn’t mean all men are like that. Most men really want someone to love, just like we do. [Laughter] I’m really glad that she pushed back on that. She is now remarried, and he is a wonderful man! She finds out she has breast cancer, a year into their marriage/not even a year into their marriage; and this guy dropped everything to care for her. I mean, it was a great picture of really God redeeming the time.
This is an example of—just because one of you is remarried—you were single, but he was married before; and he’s getting married again to you—as an option, as you get older, that’s more likely, statistically, to happen; it doesn’t mean it’s any less beautiful.
Michelle: Right; that’s true.
When your friend was going through the despair—let’s just call it despair or the loss of hope of wondering if she would find someone again—or for the other gals, who are 38, 39, or 40, and sitting there, going, “I have these longings,” what kind of advice do you give them?
Shaunti: Oh, man, Michelle. The thing I always say, back to the foundation of this, is I really just want to acknowledge and affirm the longing as legitimate, and not to have this feeling that, “I’m supposed to stuff this.” I feel like, as long as we’re turning over our feelings to the Lord—if He keeps bringing that longing back up—there’s probably a reason for that; it’s something you’re supposed to be praying for.
It’s just like I mentioned, everything that we long for, we have to relinquish; we just have to. I didn’t have children for six years; I was really longing for a child.
Michelle: That had to have hurt.
Shaunti: Oh, man! When Jeff and I were married—and I was already a little bit older—and I really wanted a child. It was six years later; and I felt really strongly that the Lord was saying, “You have to relinquish this.” That means, literally, like: “It’s okay; God, You’re enough.” He did eventually give me two children. I had several miscarriages, and it was hard; but I have two children.
There are some women and men, who will never come to that marriage on this earth; right? We just know that; however, I do feel like God gives grace in those cases. I also know, statistically, that most of the time—most people who really are longing to be married—that that will statistically happen at some point. It may be to somebody who’s been remarried—who had a first marriage and their spouse died, or their spouse left them, or whatever—but like I mentioned, that doesn’t mean that it’s not just as beautiful of a relationship.
Michelle: There’s just the waiting and the being patient.
Shaunti: Yes! [Laughter]
Michelle: And the going through and saying, “Okay; so when?”
Shaunti: I know. And the thing is: I hate it! Because I have friends, who have been in that situation; I hate it when people downplay that. And that that’s painful! No! Of course, that’s painful. Again, the longing is there; because this is something that God has placed in us.
Michelle: That was a recent conversation that I had with Shaunti Feldhahn. Some exciting news! Shaunti has been in our offices a little bit more than we’ve seen her in the past. That’s because she’s been helping us out with a brand-new podcast called Questions Every Wife Is Asking. Actually, that podcast isn’t quite out in the open yet; but I want to give you a sneak peek. Go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com—that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com—there will be a link so that you can get in on the conversation from the very beginning.
Shaunti and I have been having some conversations lately about marriage and singleness. We’ve also had what I would consider an important conversation around the #MeToo movement. I want you to keep checking back for that. Go to FamilyLifeThisWeek.com; that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
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Coming up next weekend, we’re going to talk with Ron Deal. He’s going to join the conversation to share some ways that blended families can truly and peacefully celebrate Christmas together. As always, that’s going to be an encouraging time. Whenever Ron joins us, it’s a great time. I hope you can join us for that.
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