- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

Lara and John Larsen of Arlington were joined in holy matrimony more than a decade ago. Theirs was a traditional church wedding complete with white gown and long train, taffeta- and velvet-draped bridesmaids and a reception with a disc jockey.

That was the fairy tale. Today, the Larsens’ real-life story includes three young children, a demanding career and a mortgage — and a marriage the couple sustains through hard work, dedication and commitment.

Those who reach their 10-year anniversary have cleared many hurdles. Statisticians, therapists and students of marital life say such couples have remained engaged in each other — investing a good deal of time and effort — and concentrate on leaning inward in times of stress.

“The marriages that work and are doing well at that 10-year mark tend to contain interest in each other with frequent inquiries, turning toward one another regarding each other’s needs, and also frequent expressions of fondness and appreciation,” says Julie Gottman, a clinical psychologist and director of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, which provides marriage therapy for couples and training for clinicians.

“Conflict is resolved through gentleness, bringing up problems without what we call ‘The Four Horsemen’: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling,” she says.

Marriage is a skill-based relationship, and proficiency is within the grasp of everyone, Ms. Gottman and other clinicians say.

Mrs. Larsen, 36, a stay-at-home mother, says she has learned two valuable lessons during the past decade.

“First, being happy is a choice,” she says. “You really have to learn to be content with what you have and make that work. Two, in any relationship, especially marriage, you really have to work hard, think about the other person, be willing to see things from their perspective and give a little bit more.”

In sickness and in health?

Staying married is not so easy, apparently, if both anecdotal evidence and statistics are to be believed.

The honeymoon period blows by in 1 to two years, “when all the illusions drop away into the abyss of reality,” Ms. Gottman says. Following that jolt, she says, “marital satisfaction drops in about 70 percent of all couples and doesn’t return.”

That dissatisfaction seems well-indicated by the feeble staying power of American couples: Nearly half of first marriages end in divorce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Actually, “younger generations are experiencing greater problems of divorce,” says Martin O’Connell, chief of the Fertility and Family Statistics branch of the Census Bureau.

Whereas 90 percent of people married during the years 1945 to 1949 tended to make it to their 10-year anniversary, barely 70 percent of those married during 1985 to 1989 celebrated a decade of wedded bliss.

Hardship can occur at nearly any point, but there are several key tumbling blocks, Ms. Gottman says.

During the first five or so years of marriage, the transition to parenthood frequently occurs, which can rock a marriage to its foundation, she says.

“It’s one period when the marriage is vulnerable. The children are small, there’s lots of stress, less emphasis on creating a good marriage. So people can grow very distant and, with the stress, they can grow very conflicted and angry,” Ms. Gottman says.

The next high-pressure point in a marriage is around the 15-year or 16-year mark, she says. At that time, the children are growing into adolescents, which is a time of high family stress as children are challenging the limits placed on them.

“As children begin to individuate at that time, lots of conflict surfaces in parents in terms of broader sets of values,” Ms. Gottman says. “The kids may be throwing the values in the faces of parents, and there may be disagreements with parents about the values themselves.”

Although divorce never can be predicted with any certainty, several problems — even if weathered for the first five years of marriage — can ratchet up to deliver a fatal blow later in the marriage, she says.

“If a couple become gridlocked on problems whereby they cannot talk about those problems without very, very intense and horrible feelings arising and without shows of criticism and contempt, this predicts problems,” Ms. Gottman says.

“If they’ve not taken time to inquire about each others’ internal world or everyday experiences or thoughts, they feel like their partner isn’t interested in them.

“And three, if they don’t turn toward each other in little moments where their partner is asking them for help of some kind, they feel like their partner doesn’t care about them,” she says.

These factors all erode the friendship on which the marriage is based, Ms. Gottman says.

Mrs. Larsen calls husband John, 36, who’s an international trade specialist, “my best friend,” but she readily concedes that marriage isn’t for the fainthearted.

“Couples who just got married or are going to get married — the focus is on the wedding and the honeymoon,” she says. “At the 10-year mark, you’re both really working hard at the marriage. It’s not that it’s unpleasant … it’s hard work. My kids are really young and very high-maintenance, so my day is physically demanding. My husband is … stressed out, and he’s the only one working, so that puts a lot of pressure on him.”

Marriage is challenging, Mrs. Larsen says, “because you have to learn to control yourself. I get really tired and worn out, so by the end of the day, when he comes home, the tendency is to lash out at the first grown-up you see because you want to get all your stress out. I have to remember that he was working hard all day and that I’m just tired. You kind of have to force yourself.”

Mrs. Larsen says she often spends 100 percent of her energy on the children — ages 5, 2 and 6 months — during the week. “I can be elbows-deep in some dirty diaper when he leaves for work, and I go to bed when my kids go to bed,” she says.

On weekends, however, the tempo changes. That is when the Larsens take time to concentrate on each other — “to really look at each other’s faces because we’ve missed each other,” Mrs. Larsen says.

“We talk,” she says. “That’s what we enjoy doing. The kids will go to bed, and we’ll just sit down and open up about anything that comes to mind. Maybe we’ll start out negative — start out talking about money — and end up dreaming about a new house. That’s kind of our thing.”

Forget the glitz and glamour

Relationships are living entities, and if left alone, they’ll atrophy, warns Renee Colclough Hinson, a clinical psychologist and executive director of the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME), based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Marriage is never a finished product,” she says. “It requires attention and a time commitment. You have to find time somewhere that is devoted to the relationship … so you don’t gradually drift apart and graduate to living separate lives. Those who can go the distance are intentional about the relationship and make the commitment not to let it deteriorate.”

People today, she says, are ” ‘be all you can be,’ and that includes in their relationships. So if they see that not happening, they automatically assume they’re not getting their fair share and something is wrong with the relationship, so let’s get a new one. You don’t reach that potential for meaning and fulfillment without an intentional effort.”

Effort has been key in the enduring partnership of Marlon and Terri Crutchfield, high school sweethearts who married young and celebrate their 10-year anniversary this month. The couple lives in Lorton Station with their two children, ages 6 and 8.

They pay attention to their marriage, says Mr. Crutchfield, 30, a photographer. “I’ll wash her car. I cook. Terri doesn’t cook as much. Every once in a while, I’ll make a special dinner for us after the kids are in bed or we’ve dropped them off at my sister’s house. On average, we’ll go out to the movies or dinner once a month. We make decisions together. It’s a 50-50 split as far as deciding anything — furniture, bills. We compromise, too. Terri and I are growing old together and having fun with it.”

Mr. Crutchfield calls their marriage a “roller-coaster ride” but says it has seen more good days than bad.

“We just love each other, and that’s basically it,” he says. “We really, genuinely love each other, and we love our kids, and we work together on everything to ensure they are happy and we are happy. I can’t imagine being with someone else.”

Mr. Crutchfield says he and his wife, a 30-year-old legal assistant, have managed to succeed as a couple without the assistance of marriage counseling — “although there was a point when we definitely needed it.”

Ms. Hinson says she is pleased to report that she is seeing a new or renewed interest on the part of many couples to improve their relationship.

“Thirty years ago, [ACME] was the only game in town,” she says. “Now there are hundreds of organizations and professionals devoting their full practice to assisting couples in reaching their marriage potential. … It gives me faith and a vision that we may get to the point where divorce is not as common, because couples stick it out and realize they can learn and grow together.”

Staying power

Sticking it out is a key theme in Iris Krasnow’s 2002 best seller “Surrendering to Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and Other Imperfections.”

The author, a longtime American University journalism professor and the married mother of four sons, says she researched her book by asking “hundreds of people nosy and embarrassing questions about their private thoughts.”

She can encapsulate her findings with a three-pronged assertion, which she provides one morning during a call from her Maryland home.

“Marriage can be hell; the grass is not greener on the other side, and no one is perfect — even you — so you may as well work your hardest on loving the one you’re with, especially if you have children,” she says.

A little unsentimental, perhaps, but Ms. Krasnow is unabashed.

“Look, 300 people dumped into my tape recorder — and I can tell you that there’s no [other] marriage I’d want,” she says. “It made me appreciate my own imperfect marriage more — nobody has it perfect. Also, the people who told me their marriages are blissful are either the ones who never see their spouses or are lying through their teeth.”

Most failed unions result from unreal expectations, she says. The romance fades from the marriage, the new becomes old, the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

“And then the person you have an affair with in cliffside restaurants — once you start living with him, he begins to snore,” Ms. Krasnow says. “Why not go the distance with the person you committed to and make it a great source of joy and fulfillment? I call it being conscious. When you’re unconscious and you think your marriage is going to run by itself, you’re deluding yourself. What you find is that your marriage runs out of gas. You gotta refuel it.”

That is a responsibility well understood by Cathy and David Rysak, a Bethesda couple who are parents of two girls, ages 4 and 7. A decade has passed since the Rysaks said “I do,” and the couple is “always working at it,” Mrs. Rysak says.

“Call it what you want — some days it’s work, and other days it’s effortless,” she says. “Once you start to pull the family dynamics into that — once you have kids — it can be much more work because you’re operating with twice as many distractions, which leaves less time to give attention to your relationship.”

Forgiveness is an important tool in their home.

“Every relationship has this huge potential for the buildup of grudges and resentment,” says Mrs. Rysak, 37, a registered nurse. “Over the years, that can magnify. Being willing to forgive those misdemeanors and being able to move on is redeeming to the relationship.”

She says she and Mr. Rysak, 43, a cameraman for WTTG Fox TV, recharge in many ways — they garden together, join other couples for dinner parties and regularly schedule one-on-one dates out.

They also share a strong Christian faith and set aside time each day to reflect on a Bible verse or pray together. Faithful church attendance plays a role in keeping their marriage on track as well, Mrs. Rysak says.

“The church has this great potential to keep the family unified, and I think that weekly, every Sunday, getting up together as a family … is really very unifying — as much for the two of us as for the four of us,” she says.

Mrs. Rysak credits the church with giving her and her husband a firm footing when they started down the path of marriage. Ten years ago, the engaged couple participated in Marriage Savers, a premarital program offered at the church that uses mentor couples to help participants avoid bad unions and enrich existing relationships.

“I think that helped us tremendously,” Mrs. Rysak says. “We entered into marriage with the perception that it’s not a cakewalk but will mean conflict and sacrifice. It sort of prepared me that it was going to take work, that it wasn’t always going to be 50-50 and that forgiveness is a big part, too. I’m going to be disappointed sometimes, and so is he. There can be turmoil, but there can also be bliss.”

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