How to Have a Successful Marriage: 3 Areas to Improve On

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Second Mountain" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What role does blame play in a marriage? How can you get through the tough times? When should you “recommit”?

David Brooks argues that you should embrace relationalism—the worldview that prioritizes selflessness and service to others—to lead a deeply fulfilling life. That includes enjoying a satisfying marriage. In The Second Mountain, he offers recommendations for how to have a successful marriage.

Read on to learn how to keep a marriage commitment strong, based on the relationalist approach to life.

How to Have a Successful Marriage

Brooks shares his advice on how to have a successful marriage, arguing that you must grow in three areas: You must become more empathetic; you must learn to communicate more effectively; and you must practice recommitting to your spouse.

First, Brooks observes that all marriages occasionally go through periods of tension, in which both parties believe their needs aren’t being met. In unhappy marriages, these periods lead to reciprocal blame, with neither party accepting responsibility for their role in the strife. 

To have a successful marriage, however, you’ll have to learn empathy through these tense periods. For example, you’ll have to learn how your spouse reacts when they feel frustrated, and how to tend to their needs in these moments. Consequently, rather than blaming your spouse for their shortcomings, you’ll learn to step back and understand your role in the conflict. This helps you avoid perpetuating cycles of frustration that cause marriages to deteriorate.

(Shortform note: Although Brooks argues that developing empathy is essential for a healthy marriage, he doesn’t offer actionable advice for doing so. To that end, experts offer various strategies for becoming more empathetic. For instance, allow yourself to embrace your own emotions first since this increases the emotional tolerance you need to be empathetic toward others. Moreover, rather than attempting to “solve” the negative emotions that your spouse tells you about, simply offer them an open ear.)

In a similar vein, Brooks argues that healthy marriages require learning how best to communicate with your spouse. To show as much, Brooks cites John and Julie Gottman’s research on communication within relationships. As Brooks relates, the Gottmans found that successful marriages require at least five conversational attempts for connection—what they call “toward bids”—for every one attempt to squash connection—what they call “against bids.” So, more generally, Brooks concludes that spouses must learn to communicate lovingly with each other.

(Shortform note: One reason healthy marriages need a disproportionately large ratio of toward bids to against bids is negativity bias—our tendency to weigh negative information far more heavily than positive information. Because negativity bias leads us to overemphasize against bids, it’s not enough to just have slightly more toward bids; rather, toward bids must constitute the majority of communication.)

Finally, Brooks argues that a happy marriage requires learning how to recommit to your spouse. According to Brooks, recommitment is necessary during two crises that most marriages experience. First, when you have children, you’ll be tempted to focus on the simple, rapturous love that you have for your children and downplay your more complex relationship with your spouse. And second, when you reach middle age, you’ll be tempted to blame your spouse for the general feeling of dissatisfaction and loneliness that many people experience.

Brooks claims that, to weather these crises, you must buckle down and practice acts of commitment once more. For example, you’ll have to commit to listening to your spouse when they’re feeling hurt and to admit your own shortcomings in the marriage. In so doing, Brooks argues that this recommitment creates a second, more permanent love that can’t be shaken.

Additional Steps to Create a Thriving Marriage

In addition to Brooks’s suggestions, relationship experts John Gottman and Nan Silver list various principles for creating a thriving marriage in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. For instance, Gottman and Silver claim that a successful marriage requires you to:

Continue getting to know your spouse, which stimulates further connection.

Communicate affection for your spouse, which reminds them that you still love and care for them.

Be receptive to your spouse’s concerns and requests, which conveys respect and shows that you value their opinions.

According to Gottman and Silver, each of these principles is crucial for cultivating your friendship with your spouse—and that, they argue, is the most important factor for having a happy marriage.
How to Have a Successful Marriage: 3 Areas to Improve On

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Brooks's "The Second Mountain" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Second Mountain summary:

  • The negative consequences of the West's focus on individualism
  • Why you should embrace relationalism to lead a fulfilling life
  • The four commitments that constitute relationalist living

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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