Keys to a Healthy Marriage
It takes two to tango
‘Till death do us part’ demands lots of patience and plenty of unconditional love. Decades ago, staying happily married wasn’t uncommon. Though, that doesn’t necessarily mean it can stand the test of time.
Marriages, a lesser-known casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic, suffered greatly, particularly with non-Muslim couples. According to the Marriage and Divorce Statistics Malaysia 2022 report, the number of non-Muslim divorces for the whole of Malaysia rose by 30.4 percent from 9,419 cases in 2020 to 12,284 cases in 2021.
In a world where appearances are heavily critiqued and one’s bank balance speaks louder than one’s personality, sometimes it’s tough to see eye to eye especially during storms.
What more when it comes to building a heart to heart connection?
We spoke to Jean Selvam, a marriage and family therapist at Rekindle Therapy, to understand more about healthy marriages and how partners can deepen their love.
How do you define a healthy marriage?
Jean Selvam:I believe a healthy marriage should, among many other aspects, encompass respect, trust and love. A healthy marriage should also embrace open communication and emotional connection.
Emotional connection comes alive when couples spend quality time together and put effort into remembering certain likes or dislikes their partner has. When your partner has had a rough day, listening to them and giving them their space shows care and appreciation.
I believe a healthy marriage should, among many other aspects, encompass respect, trust and love.
What are some of the factors that can get in between a married couple?
Jean:There are plenty of factors that can get in between a married couple. The extended family is one factor. Living with or being surrounded by family members who don’t have the couple’s best intentions at heart, can sometimes lead to rifts in the marriage. A classic case would be elderly figures asking a younger couple about having children, which can be a sensitive topic for some.
Besides that, some couples may experience difficulties in their marriage due to their commitments in life. I have couples who come to me with their daily schedule, which consists of juggling work, children, and the household. At the end of the day, couples don’t have time for each other. So that can lead to cracks in the marriage.
There are other contributing factors too, like infidelity. An extramarital affair can lead to broken trust and a loss of emotional connection. Couples who cannot stand being around each other, cannot possibly have open communication. Over time, this can lead to the build-up of negative perceptions towards the other person.
Why did marriages last longer than they do now?
Jean:Many reasons, some good and some unhealthy. I say this because I believe it is important to understand the context of time and the settings of that generation.
It’s easy to say that a long time ago, marriages were easy, which on paper they were. Life was less expensive, less stressful, and maybe even happier. In reality, however, each generation had its fair share of economic and societal pressures.
The current world is becoming much smaller. We have so many options when it comes to having a relationship. Some are looking for long-term relationships, while the rest prefer casual flings. But having so many options might often leave us with none.
I meet young adults in their 20s and 30s who are ready to put themselves out there. In an era where priorities have shifted to coveting financial gains, assets and the freedom to explore life, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet a better half who shares the same ambitions. Thus, the fear of commitment and meeting the right person is too much of a risk to take.
Aside from that, some people may have grown up watching the cruel side of an unhappy marriage. This can leave a traumatic void that ultimately shapes their perception of people. As a result, they may have trust issues, unresolved abandonment issues and more.
Can couples set boundaries for themselves in a marriage?
Jean:Yes, setting boundaries is an integral part of healthy relationships because it helps to maintain a balance between each partner. A marriage may bring two people together, but two people cannot become one person.
Couples need healthy outlets to recuperate outside of the home environment. In a way, it’s part of self-care. Couples can reconnect with old friends and take a few days away on vacation.
This is important to maintain a healthy balance with those in and out of a couple’s immediate social circle. They’ll be re-energised which can actually bring them closer to each other because they are set through open communication. Hence, it’s critical to be honest and respectful when talking about each other’s need for space and time.
Why do some members of the younger generation have a negative stereotype of marriage?
Jean:The younger generation appears to be afraid of being ‘tied down’. They are terrified of committing to a relationship and eventually getting married because they prefer ease and straightforwardness over tolerance and compromise.
If they’re married, they may be unable to visit all the countries on their bucket list. If there’s a rough patch in a marriage, one cannot simply walk out the door. In short, when you’re in a relationship with another person, you don’t have control over the outcome. Not having that control can be frightening and a significant emotional risk that few are ready to face.
Couples who are parents may forget to be spouses. What can they do to rekindle their love life and why is it important?
Jean:Couples with children can easily forget another huge role they play, as spouses. A close and intimate loving relationship between spouses is essential for a healthy family. Parents must be able to rely on and communicate with one another for support.
First and foremost, there must be the awareness and realisation that effort needs to be put into creating and preserving a relationship. With this comes the time that needs to be spent together, date nights and pillow talks. It is critical to keep the relationship going because parenting can be stressful and draining. In addition, children will also need to see that their parents are in a healthy relationship.
What are the important keys to a healthy marriage?
Jean:I would say that the keys to a healthy marriage are open communication and emotional connection.
What advice would you give to those who are going to tie the knot?
Jean:Ask yourself these questions, “Why am I doing this?”, “What do I gain from being in a relationship?” and “Am I getting married because I want to, or because it’s the next step in life?”.
As humans, we require emotional connections. It may appear smooth on the surface, however, marriage is a vow to love unconditionally. It can only survive if you’re wholeheartedly committed.
If marriage isn’t for you, then that’s okay too. Some people are actually better off on their own because they enjoy their own company. Where does companionship rank on your priority list?
Marital problems are a stigma in the country. Is it vital for couples to go for counselling?
Jean:I don’t believe it is vital for couples to seek counselling. Therapy is an option to consider, but it’s not a cure-all.
Before going to counselling, couples must decide if it is something that both partners want. This is because in therapy, both spouses must contribute equally. Counselling will not progress unless both parties are motivated.
Some couples feel that they can sort their conflicts out and resolve their issues on their own. Some resort to religious communities and support groups. Whatever path they choose, it is critical that couples learn to communicate openly, connect emotionally and love each other healthily.
What roles can friends, extended family, and the community play in a marriage?
Jean:Friends, family, and the community can all lend support to marriages. During difficult times, they can provide encouragement, compassion, and aid to the spouse and their family. Mostly, by encouraging the couple to seek help rather than stigmatising counselling.
Friends, family, and the community can all lend support to marriages.
Love Across Generations
We asked three married couples from three generations to tell us what keeps the boat sailing:
Ain Ashikin & Shabil (married for 2 years)
Shabil: A healthy marriage is built upon communication. We have to always appreciate and be mindful of each other.
Ain Ashikin:As a newlywed couple, we found it hard to tolerate each other’s lifestyle and behaviour. My husband used to bring home his work like he used to in his bachelor days, and I was the opposite. We would end up quarrelling about this. But we came to understand that communication is the key to a happy marriage. We talked, and now he leaves work at the doorstep. I’m a happy wife!
Christina & Andrew (married for 26 years)
Andrew: In our marriage, sometimes we struggle with understanding what the other person wants, and giving them the space to express it. I realised over time that taking a few moments before reacting to a situation saves us days of arguments. It helps to also recall romantic moments from our early days as a couple.
Christina: Challenges are not something new, in fact, they are part of our married life. Having to learn, adjust and respect each other’s opinions and thoughts took some time. Now that we are in our fifties, health is slowly becoming another challenge. Together, we are helping each other to age gracefully.
Jesamal & Amaladass (married for 46 years)
Amaladass: Our marriage survived rough patches too, but we always thought of each other. We worked together as a team, not against each other.
Jesamal: In the early days of our marriage, we were living apart. My husband was away working, and I took care of the household. What kept us strong and united was the promise of love that we held on to. It’s always important to think of ‘us’ and not ‘me’.
Jean Selvam is a licensed marriage & family therapist with a passion for helping people. Since joining Rekindle Therapy in 2014, she has counselled many individuals, couples and families from various walks of life. She strongly holds on to the words of the poet, Rumi, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Sources: Department of Statistics Malaysia, The Star