The secret to happy relationships

Local couples talk about their happiness and successes — and the challenges they just couldn’t overcome

By Denise Waldron

Dawn Thexton, right, and Valerie Mihailiuk, left, have been a couple for more than 17 years.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

— Carl Jung

“Play soccer and love.”

Sage advice on how to have a happy marriage, according to three-year-old Leo Wagner. If that was the answer, there would be fewer divorces and we would all be in great physical shape. For soccer-loving Leo’s parents, Stephanie and Kyle, he and his one-year-old brother Spencer provide lots of laughs, comic relief and quality to their happy marriage.

The couple met in 2014 while working at Carma Industries in Lindsay and began dating. They tied the knot in 2018 and decided to make Cambray their home as they started their journey toward parenthood.

Despite the challenges and time commitment that come with parenting, Stephanie believes that it’s crucial for couples to make time for each other. Once the kids are in bed, the couple, in their early 30s, often enjoy watching a favourite TV show together, playing video games, or even going out on the occasional date without the kids.

Stephanie and Kyle Wagner with Leo and Spencer.

Wagner feels it is important to be honest with each other and that communication is key. “Working together helps out a lot, especially when we want to talk about it after work.”

Karyn Dowdall is a registered psychotherapist practising in Lindsay. She says communication with your spouse involves practising compassionate listening, which entails focusing on how you can assist them instead of giving advice, complaining, or telling them what to do. It’s crucial to assume that your partner is a capable adult and to offer your help, trust, and admiration. Instead of criticizing, “look for the good in them,” she says.

In Canada, depending on what statistics are used, between 40 and 60 per cent of marriages end in divorce, and many unmarried relationships also come to an end. To make love both fabulous and lasting, experts say we need to delve deeper into the complexities of human relationships and explore strategies for building strong and enduring connections. Knowing when to end them is just as important.

Dowdall says that therapists working with couples can adopt two distinct perspectives. The first is focused on building and fostering happiness within the relationship by promoting healing and recovery. The second perspective involves preventing the relationship from breaking down and addressing potential issues before they escalate.

Typically, what she’s noticed is, if couples come in to see her and they’re both sort of motivated, and they both have the desire to build a long happy marriage — that’s a good start. If one comes in unmotivated, she says, “it’s tough to build a long, happy marriage when one person’s not engaged.”

According to Dowdall, it is crucial to establish an interdependent relationship, rather than a codependent or dependent one. She defines interdependence as a dynamic where two individuals have a strong sense of self and independent lives, yet also engage in shared activities as a couple. In this way, both partners can bring their own unique identities to the relationship and interact with each other in a compassionate and respectful manner that assumes positive intentions.

Dawn Thexton and Valerie Mihailiuk have been a couple for more than 17 years. Six years ago, they exchanged vows in an intimate ceremony at their home in Lindsay. Thexton’s mother walked up the aisle between them, arm-in-arm, and Mihailiuk’s elderly parents were waiting at the front. What made the occasion more special was, unbeknownst to the parents and guests, the officiant was there to renew Mihailiuk’s parent’s vows before the official ceremony. It was an emotional occasion that left many misty-eyed.

Thexton and Mihailiuk first crossed dating paths at ages 39 and 44, respectively, after having been both married previously. Thexton believes there are distinct advantages to meeting a partner later in life. Having already gone through past relationships, individuals are more likely to have a deeper understanding of their own preferences and values, which allows them to be more authentic in their search for a compatible partner.

According to Thexton, meeting someone in one’s teens or 20s can be challenging. “You’re still figuring yourself out a lot. So you don’t really know how to navigate some of those life things.” By contrast, she said meeting a partner in one’s late 30s or 40s can provide greater clarity and focus on identifying the specific traits and qualities one seeks in a partner.

According to Mihailiuk, she and her partner prioritize thoughtfulness and consideration towards each other. As someone who is semi-retired and spends more time at home, Mihailiuk takes it upon herself to ease her spouse’s stress levels by taking care of regular tasks such as meal preparation and extras like setting up tea for the next morning and clearing snow from her partner’s car. She notes that her spouse has a demanding job, and so she aims to make their home life as stress-free as possible upon her return from work.

Karyn Dowdall is a registered psychotherapist practising in Lindsay.

Dowdall emphasizes the importance of understanding the so-called “love languages” when it comes to fostering happy partnerships. These love languages were first outlined in Gary Chapman’s 1992 book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. According to Chapman, there are five key ways in which romantic partners express and receive love, including acts of service, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation. Mihailiuk’s love language of “acts of service” to her spouse, can strengthen their emotional connections and build a more fulfilling relationship, according to the experts.

Both women’s parents had long marriages. Mihailiuk says they learned what they liked and disliked from them and that you don’t just throw in the towel easily. “Any relationship takes a tremendous amount of work and I think any couple that tells you they don’t go through a rough patch is not being very honest with themselves.” She added both of their parents laughed a lot and that is something they continue to do themselves.

Dowdall highlights the importance of good relationships in keeping us happier and healthier, as supported by a 75-year happiness study. However, she acknowledges that maintaining healthy relationships can be difficult at times. To help overcome this, she uses and recommends a tool called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which was developed by renowned relationship researchers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman.

According to the Gottman’s, four communication styles — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling — can predict the downfall of relationships and divorce. By identifying these communication patterns, individuals can take proactive steps to improve satisfaction in their relationships. Dowdall emphasizes the value of this exercise, as it provides practical antidotes to these harmful communication styles and romance killers.

For Sandra Zellers of Kawartha Lakes (who was granted anonymity to protect some family members) all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not save her marriage. At 50, she received a trifecta punch. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Her husband of 30-years intimated he would not care for her as her health declined and told her he had a girlfriend.

She thought they had a happy marriage with fond memories, especially when their children were young. Marrying at 20 and not having had other serious relationships, perhaps blinded her to the red flags, saying she came to know her husband was a narcissist.

“Everything was all about him and what he wanted,” noting when she wanted to do something he didn’t, she was told, as the breadwinner, he got to make all the decisions. “I knew there was something wrong with my husband. But I lived with it and I made excuses for it.”

Zellers said she soon settled into single bliss after the divorce. “I was incredibly happy, because I found myself again. I found who I really was and when I wanted to do something, I did it.”

About 10 years later, she bumped into a man while walking in her Fenelon Falls neighbourhood. They soon started a long-term, caring relationship but never married or cohabitated. She recalls both the man and the relationship as wonderful. Ten-years into the romance, Zellers was diagnosed with cancer. Her partner lovingly cared for and drove her to all the treatments out-of-town, sometimes daily.

About two-years later, Zellers noticed a change in her partner’s behaviour. He began accusing her of being unfaithful and became increasingly unpleasant. Although the old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” may ring true for some, in this situation, living apart also kept Zellers from discovering the truth. Unbeknownst to her, her partner had a drinking problem and had fallen off the wagon. It wasn’t until she spoke to a relative that she learned the truth about his alcoholism, as she had never seen him drink heavy liquor before. Zellers decided she did not want to continue the relationship with her partner.

Now in her senior years, Zellers is satisfied with life and being single. She and her ex-partner are still friends and play cribbage.

Dowdall says in these types of situations, happiness is not dependent on the spouse’s behaviour; rather the partner can be independently content. Therefore, she was strong enough to connect with her spouses (while she was with them) with an attitude of confidence and appreciation. Likely, her health benefited from her relationships. That includes enjoying the connection perks while she was married, but when it was over, she benefited from the solitude, too.

Happy relationships are based on mutual respect, trust, and communication — and maybe even a bit of soccer. However, ultimately not all relationships work, and sometimes staying in a bad one can do more harm than good to your health.

1 Comment

  1. Jeannie Plenderleith says:

    Nice to see the range of relationships. Very interesting piece.

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