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Healthy marriages need kindness, not pre-nups


A lovely story being passed around by smug marrieds on social media at the moment concerns a young American man, Nate Bagley, who spent a year interviewing happy couples to try to figure out what successful relationships are made of.

Mr Bagley spoke to new couples and 70-years-strong ones; to straight and gay couples; to rich, poor, atheist and religious couples, including some polygamous groups, and others who were in arranged marriages. He has now identified four attributes that seem common to strong relationships: “self-love” (each person being emotionally healthy as an individual); “commitment” (to taking the “worse” as well as the “better”); “intentionality” (mindfully doing nice, coupley things together); and “trust”. Bagley’s commentary on Reddit is well worth reading in full, but in essence, all his research seems to boil down to one important piece of advice: be kind.

Last week, the Law Commission suggested that the Government should change the law to make pre-nuptial agreements legally binding. And, while I understand the need to protect couples in the case of a split, I’m not sure that a pre-nup is really the right sort of document with which to launch a relationship based on trust, commitment, and being kind to each other. A spokesman from the Marriage Foundation, responding to the Law Commission’s advice, said: “If you think about divorce you’re more likely to do it.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I do like the sound of his other assertion, that “marriage preparation courses … have demonstrably been shown to reduce your risk of divorce and improve your chances of staying together.” I suspect that there is some blurring of cause and effect here: for a start, people who take pre-marriage courses are unlikely to be diving into marriage without thinking, and so may be less likely to divorce anyway. I suspect this because I took such a course, run by Relate, before my marriage last year. It was a valuable learning resource, which offered lots to think about, but I can reveal here that it essentially boils down to this: be kind.

February was a month which naturally saw lots of experts offer a lot of advice about how to find, have, or revive a happy relationship – some pieces more reassuring than others. For instance, Professor Eli Finkel of Northwestern University, Illinois, reviewed previous research into marriage, and found that successful marriage is harder to achieve than at any time in history, but more fulfilling for those who do achieve it. That’s because people no longer look on marriage just as a way to share a home and raise children, but as a space in which to “find themselves” and “facilitate the expression of their core self”. Crikey. I would have advised definitely not marrying someone who couldn’t find himself already, but that just shows what I know.

I suppose I am lucky in needing neither to find myself, nor to protect a large personal fortune … but I don’t want to come across as too smug. I’ll work on expressing my core self, then. But I’ll try to do it kindly.