In an interview with Dr. Billy Kidd, author Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill explained what it takes to make your marriage exciting and meaningful.
BK: In your book, you said a couple has to have a sense of a team spirit to have a great marriage. How can a couple discover that? Or is team spirit something that comes instinctively?
SO: Team spirit is something that develops as a couple comes together–though talking, dating, or living together. Without it, couples shouldn’t get married. There are, of course, different levels of a team spirit, and it can be crushed or shut down. When couples come to me, we have to get it up and going. It’s behind the reason they got married.
BK: You talk about how important it is for a couple to find an activity that both partners can do together. I mentioned this to Bruce Cadle, the Date Night Chef, and he said that a weekly shared meal, which becomes a ritual, adds meaning to a marriage.
SO: Right. But it’s not about trying to capture what you did before marriage. Rather, it’s something you share together. It doesn’t have to be a meal. It could be bowling. But if you know that even during the busiest week you are going to come together and do whatever it is that you do–that’s what adds meaning to a marriage.
BK: Do partners have to be great friends to have a great marriage?
SO: You should hope that you are able to treat your spouse nicer than anyone else in the world. And your spouse should be someone you share everything with, and should keep your secrets.
BK: Right, and as your best friend, there are things that only your husband knows.
BK: You talk about couples having their own time and method of making a daily connection. Do you work with young adults who connect daily by text messages, and how does that work for them?
SO: I’m seeing more and more of that. And my concern is what does it do to you if you feel you can never get away, never be on your own? I also see young women who say they are in love, or dating, or feel that they will marry someone, but they are annoyed that this person is staying in touch mostly by text messages. The women feel they are losing–or simply don’t have–a special connection to the man.
BK: Right, the out-of-touch-feeling. You also say in your book that it is important for a couple to celebrate their successes. Why is that?
SO: In my work with couples, I have come to see it as a highly motivating behavior. It really keeps things going in the relationship.
BK: You also said that “A good marriage is about new dreams. Things cannot stay the same; you must be able to change.” Do people understand that when they get married?
SO: When you’re young and get married, and you have all your dreams and hopes in front of you, you don’t see the bigger picture. But you learn, hopefully, to do a lot of creative brainstorming together as things in your relationship change. That’s because you can get stuck in a marriage. You might come into it thinking, “I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom,” and ten years down the road see that it isn’t good for you.
BK: So you teach creative brainstorming?
SO: Yes, how to put everything on the table. Not shutting down each other’s ideas. And also knowing that the one thing we can count on in life is that things will change.
BK: You talk about the toughest time is when your partner hates you, but if you hang in there you’ll work through it. How do people work though hating each other?
SO: I know that hate is a strong word, but I think it happens in many relationships. You just can’t live with someone for a long time without going through something like that. So what I was thinking when I used the word hate in my book was that people need to acknowledge that something could happen. Things don’t stay the same. When couples come into my office, I try to get them off that hate-each-other track. I say, “Let’s forget that you hate each other. We all hate our spouses, at times. That’s fine. But have some faith, and let’s look at some of the things going on in your relationship.”
BK: You also mentioned that touching is an aphrodisiac. I’m curious how you figured that out. The research shows it, but I haven’t seen any popular writers put it that way.
SO: Yes, but touching is different than having sex. It’s not an aphrodisiac everyday, of course, but it can lead to it. If you can count on it happening every day, a certain type of hug, or sitting on the couch together, by the end of that week, you might be more up for sex.
BK: What is interesting about this is that we have this stereotype that was handed to us by other generations that women want to cuddle and men don’t. But–this is unreal what the research shows–cuddling increases testosterone levels in both men and women, and raising testosterones increases the ability to get sexually aroused and have orgasm for everybody. Just cuddling!
BK: You’re welcome. On another subject, the age of first marriage is advancing, almost up to age 28 for men. And more people are not getting married despite the fact that they believe in it. They say they cannot afford it, so they are putting it off later and later. Do you see the effects of this new economy, this recession–how it is affecting marriage?
SO: The biggest trend that I have seen–and I did an interview on it for an article in the New York Times last year–is that people are coming to me who would have gotten divorced because they are ready to leave. But because their finances are difficult, they haven’t even been able to figure out a way for one of them to move out and have a separation. So they come to me saying, “How can we learn to live together in the same house when we cannot afford to live separately?”
BK: Right, I’ve heard that. I wanted to sum up be asking, what is your short take on how to create a great marriage? You know, for somebody just starting out.
SO: First of all you need to be honest with each other, so you can get to know each other better. And your goal would be to come together in your marriage with simple daily behaviors that you can count on from each other. These will give you a shoulder to lean on when things get tough. Part of the theme of my book is that the feeling of the trust, the feeling of security, of having this person you can count on–all of these things that do not seem important in themselves–if you figure out how to do a few of these behaviors, day in and day out, you can’t go wrong.
BK: That’s great. I’ll stay in touch. Thanks for your ideas on having a great marriage.
SO: You most welcome. It was great to be interviewed with someone like yourself. Keep up all your good work.
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, Ed.S., is the author of A Short Guide To A Happy Marriage. This transcript was edited for brevity.