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What Are They Waiting For?

For all the grumbling people do about inflation or the state of our schools or climate change or whatever … the truth is, Americans are reasonably happy. The General Social Survey has been asking us about happiness since 1972. And the results are surprisingly consistent.

Something else that might surprise you? Being married is the most important differentiator between the contented and the miserable. That University of Chicago study found the married among us are happier than the unmarried, with a gap of 30-percentage points.

At the University of Virginia, Sociologist Brad Wilcox told the New York Times marital quality is by far the most reliable predictor of life satisfaction. “Specifically, the odds that men and women say they are ‘very happy’ with their lives are a staggering 545 percent higher for those who are very happily married, compared with peers who are not married or who are less than very happy in their marriages.”

And yet …

Don’t you know young people who are postponing marriage, or even declaring themselves single forever? They’re focused on their careers, many of them. Or maybe travel and adventure. Or they’re just having too much fun to get tied down.

Most of those young adults tell researchers it’s more important to make a good living than to have a good marriage. And a big majority of their parents agree!

Those people playing the field (or sitting out the game) have plenty of company.

The average age of a first marriage has been going up for decades now.  In 1980, six percent of 40-year-olds had never been married. Today? That number is 25%. Some of those single 40-year-olds are living with a romantic partner, but a good three quarters of them are on their own, waiting for … it’s not clear what, exactly.

The NYT’s David Brooks suggests they might want to get on with finding a life partner. And that seems like sound advice.

Back to UVA’s Wilcox: “When it comes to predicting overall happiness, a good marriage is far more important than how much education you get, how much money you make, how often you have sex, and, yes, even how satisfied you are with your work.”

It’s not an accident that Dr. Wilcox has a book coming out next year. His title: Get Married.

A bit of anecdotal evidence …

My own career history has been what you might call checkered. I had a decent run in radio … 25 years is nothing to sneeze at. And when it was over, it was really over. Not by my choice.

Learning and Development seemed like a good next move. And it was, in many ways. After two jobs caved in, in fairly short order, I decided to move on.

Launched a business, in partnership with a friend … and lost it in the recession that followed.

Noticing a pattern here? So, then I started all over with speaking and coaching as an independent professional. As much as I love it, there’ve been some lean times.

What has remained constant through all those professional ups and downs? My relationship with Frank. We celebrate our 32nd anniversary this week and while I wouldn’t claim 32 years of uninterrupted bliss, we’ve mostly been happy together. And we support each other.

He backed me up during those professional setbacks. What would I have done if I had to rely only on my own income? Now, I’m caring for him with help from home hospice professionals. What would he do if he lived all alone?

Maybe Dr. Wilcox is right that marriages will save civilization, I don’t know about that. I do know it’s a lot easier to go through life with a partner than without.

In light of all this, maybe you and I should.

We talk about business communication all the time. How to have more influence with clients and colleagues. How to sell more of a product or a service or ourselves. How to survive corporate life…and when to hang it up and go solo. And so much more! There’s a lot to say about how we communicate in our professional lives.

David Brooks’s piece made me think about how we communicate in our personal lives. Sounds like maybe many of us could use some work in that area too.

As much as I’ve studied communication, spoken about it, written about it, lived and breathed it … it’s a little daunting to consider writing about it in the context of marriage and other intimate relationships.

Here’s where I’d start though.

If I had to offer my best advice for a happy relationship, it would be to listen at least as much as you talk. More is even better.

That’s good advice for professional relationships too. You’ve heard me offer it many times over the years, and I continue to find that it can be the highest hurdle for clients. It’s not easy, knowing when they’ve said enough, and putting a period on it.

It’s not easy at home, either, as you may be thinking already. It’s worth doing, though. I invite you to try that with your spouse, partner, even with a friend. And to add a comment about your own suggestions for richer personal relationships.