If the success of a marriage could be predicted from a couple’s wedding day, divorce rates would hover at nearly nothing.
But despite the joy, hope and love that flow as freely at weddings as Champagne, statistics still say that on average, close to half of all marriages will fail.
So what changes between “I do” and “sign here”? Why do most couples enter the institution with not only the best intentions but the highest expectations, only to have a nearly one-in-two chance that theirs will be one of the unions that end long before “death do us part”?
In the documentary film 112 Weddings, filmmaker Doug Block, who also works as a wedding videographer, revisits 10 couples whose joyous, celebratory weddings he’s filmed, anywhere from five to 20 years into their marriages. The results are as sobering as the bills that arrive weeks after the gifts are opened and the bride’s dress is stored away.
What becomes clear in Block’s film is that the giddy flush of love and hope of a wedding is far different from the reality of creating a partnership with another person day after day, year after year, amid the struggles, challenges and crises of life. Like Block, I wondered what newlyweds don’t know that those who have experience at marriage do, and I approached relationship experts and therapists, and people both married and divorced, happy and unhappy, as well as Block himself, with this question:
What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve learned about being married, as opposed to getting married?
Here’s what they said about what happens beyond the vows.
Love, honor and cherish
“Love is the foundation, but treating each other with honor and respect (privately and publicly) is the key to a healthy relationship and a great marriage.” Joel Quevillon, married 13 years
“Marry your best friend. Life’s just easier that way. You’re a team. You know you’re on the same team. And you know you can laugh about the stupid stuff. Laughter is the only way to get through some really tough stuff too.” Jennifer Lovett Herbranson, married six years
“Both partners need to consistently try. Have regular conversations about what each partner needs to be happy, then make consistent effort on both sides to make it happen. More simply put: Choose each other every day.” M.K. Meredith, author, married 12 years
“Mutual respect. Oh, and a sense of humor. No need to be so serious.” Rebecca Glesener Davis, married 30 years
“Take one day at a time, and make that day the best you can for each other. Life is very short, so [create] lots of laughter and a partnership that is strong.” Marlene Dugger, widowed after 17 years
“Compromise, love, laugh, have fun and try not to sweat the small stuff.” Jenifer Bond, married 18 years
For better or for worse…
“Understand there are going to be tough times. Always have each other’s back.” Kait Carson, married seven years
“Learn how to fight well. Calmly, without yelling or screaming, for one thing. And don’t dredge up your whole history of complaints and grievances; keep it to the point at hand. I think the hardest thing in a fight is to shut up and listen without being defensive. And be quick to apologize, which in my case is easy, since I’m in the wrong disturbingly often.” Doug Block, filmmaker of 112 Weddings, married 30 years
“Be polite. It’s a mark of respect and can get you through times when you want to say something really, really nasty.” Kay, widowed after 16 years
“Know when to shut up and walk away.” Carol Brakefield Bibb, married 24 years
“Grace and forgiveness. No one ever wins a fight. One person must lay down their position for the sake of the relationship. Put your spouse first. Be open and vulnerable, and talk about your struggles. This will be tough but worth it.” Meg Kelly Errickson, married 21 years
“You’re not always going to get your way. You can take turns, as I once heard a couple say they do. Or what we do is just figure out who cares the most about the issue and let that person win… for that day.” Kelly Harrell, married 25 years
“The fine art of compromise. I think many people believe that means you have to give in but that’s not it. You’re a team now and working toward goals together, whatever that takes. Add to that a great sense of humor and you can’t lose.” Stacy, married 26 years
For richer or poorer…
“Figure out the money stuff right away. Whether you merge your accounts or keep them separate; get a will as soon as possible, etc. That was advice our minister gave us prior to our wedding. He spent a significant amount of time telling us this was the source of many marital problems.” Tracy Parker, married 25 years
“Too many marriages fall apart due to financial stress. My advice is make your partner your partner. Share your material dreams with one another and be transparent about money, living within your means together and growing wealth. It may seem superficial, but avoiding the spiritual and emotional damage financial distress can cause a couple is one of the smartest moves two people in a marriage can make.” David Silverman, married seven years
In sickness and in health…
“Before you marry, go to a cancer treatment center waiting room with your fiancé. Observe those with their baldness and withered bodies and ask yourself, ‘Could I support my spouse and constantly remain by his/her side for weeks/months/years?’ If not, walk away… quickly.” Patricia Clopton, widowed after 30 years
“People change and forget to tell each other. Not really advice, just a warning of a bump in the road. Or a sinkhole.” Denise Webb, married 30 years
“The best marriages have growth as a built-in inevitable road to be traveled together. The worst of them come together with separate dreams that they have either hoodwinked each other into buying or themselves into owning. Ultimately even the best marriages (I considered mine wonderful) can be tested by a crisis that changes the trajectory beyond repair.” A.J., divorcing after 13 years
“When both parties are happy, it can all work out. Where it can go terribly wrong is when one person is unhappy and thinks happiness comes only from one’s partner or marriage; not oneself.” Jennifer Warren Miller, married 24 years
Forsaking all others…
“Don’t try to change your spouse, even if he or she asks you to. He is the way he is, and you liked him when you met him. [But] don’t hope that your spouse will never change. Over the course of the years, one thing is certain: He/she will change but probably not because you want him to… Know your own limits. Know your spouse’s limits.” Ana Cecelia Carvalho, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, married six years
“You want your spouse to be one of the most important parts of your life, but don’t make them your life or put them on a pedestal. We are all human and will mess up at times. Making someone your life can put a lot of pressure on one person. Have hobbies you can share together, but have hobbies you enjoy doing on your own too.” Lauri Zachry Truong, married five years
“Above all I place flexibility and adaptability, that quality that causes us to be curious about what we do not know or see, seeks growth opportunities and relishes relationship as a personal growth incubator… We all change as we age and as we grow, so there’s not one relationship per se; there are many with different facets over faces of life together.” John Howard, couples therapist and founder and CEO of Ready Set Love
So long as you both shall live…
“Don’t think of divorce as an option. In every marriage there will be a time when divorce seems like an easier/better/more appealing path than working it out. But if divorce is not mentally an option, you’ll be more likely to work hard enough to work things out (except of course in situations where divorce is necessary for mental/emotional/physical health and safety; my advice assumes a healthy relationship to begin with). Chris Mandeville, married 26 years
“I’d say the key to make it last is to shelve your expectations, make the most of what life throws at you instead and for the love of God, do not ever grow up. That’s when things get boring.” Camille, married six years
For more, 112 Weddings is currently available on iTunes, on DVD and other digital platforms on July 14.
About the author: Phoebe Fox is the author of The Breakup Doctor and Bedside Manners, part of the Breakup Doctor series (from Henery Press). You can find her at and have news and relationship advice delivered right to your inbox here. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.