Beyond functional stability, a marriage needs intimacy to survive the years meaningfully.

Pretty much everyone I meet, whether they express it not, want from me a magic formula that would guarantee them marital happiness. When I got married, I too was looking for one such. And now, almost 25 years later, a young man whom I know well, asked me on the eve of his wedding, whether I could distil my personal and professional knowledge and give him a formula for a happy marriage. He loved his fiancée very much, he told me, but with wisdom beyond his years, he felt that this alone was not enough. He was absolutely right. While love is very important in a relationship, it can't make for a successful marriage on its own. Also, he didn't want a marriage like that of his parents which he felt was not particularly bad in that they didn't fight very much, but not particularly good either since they were not really close to each other.

So, after some thought, I gave him my formula for a happy marriage: I = C3.

Permit me to explain.

Key to happiness

Sustained marital happiness is experienced primarily on account of Intimacy (I). In turn, Intimacy is a function of three Cs — Commitment, Connectedness and Companionship (the C3 in the equation). Of course, there are many couples who believe their marriages are doing fine because they have successfully negotiated marital minefields and have achieved a degree of solidity. And I have no quarrel with them on this, for, their marriages are obviously functionally stable. However, if we are looking for marital happiness, then the absence of unhappiness can at best be seen as a beginning and not the end point.

As a nation, we are not too hot on the idea of intimacy, since we shoot more for marital comfort rather than for marital happiness. If the couple doesn't fight too much, everybody thinks of them as being ‘the ideal couple'. But marriage can actually be configured to offer us much more than this. Often when I ask couples how good the intimacy is in their marriage, the response I usually get has to do with their sex lives. However, intimacy is not just about sex. It is basically about emotional closeness which can only enter the marriage when both partners mutually experience feelings of commitment, connectedness and companionship.

Merely hanging on in a marriage is not, as is commonly believed, a sign of commitment. As is well known, thousands of couples in our country live together even if they're not particularly happy with each other simply because they don't know what else to do, or because social norms dictate that they must, or they cannot find good enough reasons to part ways. As I see it, the term commitment refers to both partners determinedly seeking and finding solutions to issues that bedevil them and their marriages. As any couple therapist will tell you, solutions to marital problems are based more on common sense than any scientific principles, and that, closely connected couples will usually find very creative ways out of their bottlenecks. Not because they have to, but because they want to. As a result, most couple therapists work not towards finding solutions for couples' problems but towards helping increase their commitment to and connectedness with each other. When two people are committed to each other, they build a bond of connectedness and may actually have fun finding ways and means around their problems, particularly when they realise that two heads and two hearts work better than one. And when they do this often enough, they experience a feeling of companionship that ensures they enjoy the time they spend with each other, even if they have widely varying interests.

Necessary conditions

However, for this formula to work, two preliminary conditions need to be fulfilled. The first of these is the recognition that bonding is not, as many people fear, bondage. The bond of connectedness is based purely on a voluntary desire to connect, and not because the partner demands it. The second condition is that it takes two to bond. Of course, both partners may express their need for connectedness differently, since men and women are quite different when it comes to expressing and responding to intimacy needs. However, once both partners start the process, believe me, they will find the wherewithal to not only deal with their issues, but to forge a resilient bond that holds them together even during storms, and is flexible enough to accommodate their respective requirement for personal space.

The consequences of low-intimacy marriages, even those where the partners love each other, may or may not be disastrous. Some couples may just hang in there, but others may feel unstimulated or unsupported and lead parallel lives. Some others may find their marriages visited by what American relationship researcher John Gottman refers to as “the four horsemen of the Marital Apocalypse” — criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling — which can together make for an extremely distressing marital experience. However, if couples conceive of marriage as a space they can jointly configure in any way they choose and put the I = C3 equation to work, then words like ‘apocalypse' can remain where they belong — in dictionaries.

Email the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com