By Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW
What does a great marriage look like to you? A couple living in harmony for a lifetime of romance, intimacy, and friendship? Or does “happily married” sound to you like an impossible dream?
Cynicism about marriage is common these days. Fairytales that finish with “and they lived happily ever after” don’t mention a key ingredient in marriage. Nor do novels and movies give credence to the importance of this element: Teamwork.
Roles of Spouses No Longer Fixed
Until recent decades, role expectations for husbands and wives were clearly defined. He was the breadwinner. She kept the home fires burning. Or their roles were complementary in another way in which teamwork occurred more or less automatically. Today working wives are the norm and about third of them earn more than their husband. It’s no wonder that many spouses feel stressed about how to deal with daily chores and other business aspects of marriage in a way that feels fair to both. Yet by applying principles of good teamwork, spouses can create lasting harmony and happiness together.
Boys in the Boat– it’s about teamwork
Not long after I read the spellbinding book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, my eyes were drawn to a picture on a waiting room wall. It showed an eight-man crew rushing their boat through the water, oars perfectly synchronized. Under its title, “Working Together,” was written:
Coming Together is a Beginning
Keeping Together is Progress
Working Together is Success. 
Immediately, I thought: Marriage. Coming together is the wedding; significant, but basically a beginning. Keeping together means the couple stays together, which can be viewed as progress. But many of us want to do more than hang in there. We crave coordination, mutual respect, and love.
The “ragtag” working class boys on the University of Washington’s crew, whose story is told in The Boys in the Boat, excelled at teamwork. They defeated higher ranked Ivy League teams and consequently represented the USA in the 1936 Olympic Games in Munich. There, they achieved a stunning victory over the heavily favored German and Italian teams– despite serious obstacles, like having a sick key crew member on their team and having been assigned the worst spot for the race, which forced them into the roughest waters.
How did they succeed against all odds? With amazing teamwork!
Teamwork shines in successful marriages
Good teamwork is also a hallmark of a successful marriage. Marriage partners who have it cooperate well and graciously. They value each other’s strengths and play to them. They fill in as best they can where the other is less strong. Keeping the relationship respectful and healthy is more important than besting their spouse in an argument or striving to prove a point in a way that feels like “beating a dead horse.”
Good Relationship Trumps Being Right
When I was still single, I learned by example how this worked in the marriage of two dear friends and colleagues, Stuart and Rebecca. All three of us were working at San Francisco’s Child Welfare Department back then. Occasionally, I was invited for dinner at their home. Once I witnessed a minor disagreement between the two of them in the kitchen, and was impressed by how Stuart backed off from arguing his point. When Rebecca was out of earshot, he told me, “I’d rather stay married than be right.” Which sounds a bit like the “Yes, dear” approach to marital harmony. But that’s really for agreeing with your spouse about really small things. Why chip away at a relationship by bickering over minor matters?
There will be times we care too much about something to let it go. This is when we want to say what’s important to us clearly and in ways that respect both our self and our partner– including when it comes to deciding together who will be responsible for handling specific chores or responsibilities. The boys in the boat had a fabulous coach who put together the winning team. He communicated strategies that worked for them. Couples, too, benefit from expert advice. We’re not generally taught in school how succeed in marriage.
Mentors, role models exist for teamwork in marriage
If we didn’t grow up experiencing a great role model for marriage, we can learn to create a good relationship without it being a matter of trial and error. We can hone our skills by learning from mentors, educators, and counselors. Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, tells step by step how to hold a short, gentle conversation on a regular basis, with a loosely structured, simple agenda that fosters intimacy, romance, and teamwork.
Getting back to the message under the photo on the waiting room wall:
Coming Together is a Beginning. Yes, you had a lovely wedding.
Keeping Together is Progress. The two of you are hanging in through life’s the ups and downs.
Working Together is Success. By learning to communicate in a way that fosters great teamwork, and with practice, practice, and more practice—you and your partner will create together a lifelong winning team.
1. © 1994 Montage Publishers, San Diego, CA