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Transcript: Wed., Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. ET

On Love: Making your relationship work

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Ellen McCarthy and Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz
Washington Post Staff Writer and authors, "Building a Love That Lasts"
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 1:00 PM

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, relationship experts and authors of "Building a Love That Lasts," join Style's Ellen McCarthy to answer your questions and offer relationship advice.

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The Post's Ellen McCarthy writes about weddings and relationships in Sunday's Arts & Style OnLove section.

Charles Schmitz received his Ph.D. from the Univ. of Missouri-Columbia and is Dean Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of counseling and family therapy at the Univ. of Missouri-St. Louis. Elizabeth Schmitz received her doctoral degree from the Univ. of Missouri-Columbia and has lectured widely in the areas of counseling and marital relationships. She is also the president of Successful Marriage Reflections, LLC.

For more marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our On Love section.

The transcript follows.

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Ellen McCarthy: Happy Wednesday everyone. I'm so happy to have Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz joining us today. They've devoted their lives to figuring out what works in relationships and helping couples apply those strategies to develop stronger, happier unions. You've already sent a bunch of tough questions, so I'll let the Schmitz's get right to it!

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Washington, D.C.: I am in the early stages of a long distance relationship (a six hour drive). We rarely see each other since my partner visits his daughter two weekends out of the month, however, we talk on a daily basis. We have not seen each other since Sept. due to a variety of personal and work commitments. I have never been in a long distance relationship before and I am beginning to question whether this relationship can survive the distance. Both of us want to make this work but not seeing each other on a regular basis is taking its toll. What recommendations do you have?

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: Honestly, our research findings over the past three decades would suggest to us that the kind of relationship you are describing will ultimately fail. The seven pervasive characteristics of a successful marriage require together time, whether it is to touch, to kiss, to hold hands or just to embrace each other. Respect, togetherness, touching, and honesty in a relationship all require those in love to be in close proximity to each other far more often than not. We think you will have to change the conditions of your relationship or your relationship will fail.

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Washington, D.C.: I am in a great relationship with a man I love and hope to get engaged to in the next few months. However, I still have lingering questions in my head -- is he really the one? should I see if someone better is out there? what if I am making a mistake? I guess my questions are: Is it ok to get engaged even if you aren't 100 percent sure? How do you know if you've found the right person? How much am I letting pop culture ideas of love influence me and how dangerous is that?

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: Great question! If you have a glitch about your relationship, you should address it. We recommend based upon our years of research that you should address these issues before making your final decision:

1. You need to have an honest discussion of why you love each other.

Starter Questions: Why do you want to marry me? What don't I know about you? Are there things that bother you about me?

2. You need to share what you believe to be the "core values" of your loving relationship (i.e., what matters most to you in your relationship with each other?).

Starter Questions: What are your spiritual beliefs? How committed are you to treating each other with respect? How important is trustworthiness and integrity to each of you?

3. You need to discuss whether or not children are important to your marital relationship.

Starter Questions: Do you want to have children? What experiences have you had with children? Do you have a sexually transmitted disease that could effect having children?

4. You need to discuss how you see your relationship evolving down the road - what do you want it to be 5, 10, and 20+ years from now?

Starter Questions: Where do you see our marriage in five years?What are your hopes for our marriage? How will our marriage affect your relationship with your friends and family?

5. You need to articulate to each other how you will share decision-making in your marriage.

Starter Questions: How should we make decisions about important issues in our marriage? When we disagree, how can we resolve issues amicably? How will we collectively handle our financial resources?

6. You need to have an honest accounting of what you want most from your marriage.

Starter Questions: If our house was on fire what would be the first thing you would save?How important do you think sex will be to the success of our marriage? What interests do you feel passionate about?

7. You need to have a heartfelt conversation about the question - "Can you imagine life without each other?"

Starter Questions: What are your dreams for our lives together? What do you do to ensure your good health for a long life together?Can you imagine a day when we wouldn't be together?

The point of this should be clear--glitches and uncertainty must be addressed sooner rather than later!

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San Francisco, Calif.: My boyfriend and I got engaged this weekend and we are very excited. We've been together with a long time and have a very strong relationship, but we are also both from divorced families. We'd like to go to pre-marital counseling to improve our communication skills, etc. Can you provide any good sources to find counselors like this? Neither of us are religious and we aren't interested in using something church based.

Thanks very much!

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: While we are not trying to promote our book, included in our latest book, Building a Love that Lasts (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2010), we provide a seven week Sharing Exercise in the appendix of the book that you and the one you love will find most helpful. Reading a well researched marriage book like ours and engaging in these type of exercises is a really good place to start. The Sharing Program has been used extensively by the people we work with and they have found this exercise to be extremely helpful to building a love that lasts. There are of course a lot of pre-marriage counselors out there. The best place to start is direct recommendations from others who have benefited from their services. But frankly, reading a well research marriage book is the best place to start in our humble opinion.

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Owings Mills, Md.: Please share a bit more about what you see as the 'seven pervasive characteristics of a successful marriage.'

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: While we discuss the "Seven Secrets" extensively in our book, Building a Love that Lasts, here they are in a nutshell:

1. Togetherness: Two become one without losing the individual identities of each other. In successful marriage it is not you and me, it is WE!

2. Truthfulness: Couples talk about anything and everything. In successful marriage there are no sacred cows - no secrets.

3. Respect: Couples understand that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Successful love and marriage is about mutual love and respect.

4. Fitness: Successfully married couples understand that taking care of themselves in a health sense is not sufficient. You must also promote the good health of your spouse. To live until "death do us part" requires a mutual concern about good health.

5. Joint Finances: It is not YOUR money and MY money. In successful marriage it is OUR money.

6. Tactile Communication: Touching each other multiple times per day is the norm. In successful marriage touching says, "I love you so much I simply must touch you."

7. Surprise: Love is characterized by the notions of variety and spice. Successful marriage is exciting, never boring, and full of unpredictable things. Don't always do that which is predictable. Upend expectancies. Variety is the spice of life!

While these are easy to understand, they are difficult for many couples to put into practice. They are what defines a successful marriage. If you expect your marriage to work, these are the key ingredients that we have discovered from our thousands of interviews with successfully married couples on six continents of the world.

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D.C.: My long-term boyfriend comes from a family of lawyers & arguers. They all pride themselves on being "right." I've talked with him & said I find it condescending when he corrects me or says why his way of doing things is better. He is trying very hard to be better about it, but it is really grating on me. What else can I do?

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: This is a really important issue, principally because successful communication in a marriage requires mutual respect and understanding. When one person always thinks they are right, it is a tough hurdle to overcome. The question that we have for you is this, are you confident that he will change that behavior? If he does not, it will grate on your relationship or marriage like a fingernail on a chalkboard. We have heard from many women that they are seeking a divorce because they feel they can "Never do anything right." This is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug because it will only get worse if you do. You need to take the risk of having a very straight forward and honest conversation about this issue with your boyfriend. Your satisfaction with his answer will tell you a lot about the future of this relationship.

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Boston: I am a 30-year-old female and recently started dating a man in his late-30s. I've never dated anyone older than me and the age difference is causing me to hesitate as I try to decide whether or not to continue in the relationship. Otherwise, things are great but I just can't seem to get past it. He's never been married (the first question always asked whenever his age comes up). I've found that when talking about it with friends of mine, female friends tell me it's no big deal and male friends say the opposite. Any advice on how age differences can affect a relationship?

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: Over the years, we have been asked if the age differential between people contemplating marriage really matters. Our answer - it depends!

In our thousands of interviews, we have learned this - when you are truly in love, your age and the age of the one you love really doesn't matter for the most part. But there is a reality to this notion as well. There are circumstances when the difference in age does matter.

When you are 17, contemplating marriage to someone who is 47, marriage is probably not a good idea. The life experiences of a 17-year old are very, very different from a person who is 47!

The simple truth is this - there is no magic age differential when it comes to love and marriage. It really does depend on the maturity and experience level of those who are in love.

Our experience tells us that the closer in age two people in love are, the greater their chances of Building a Love That Lasts. Whether it is one year, five years, ten, or more, true love trumps everything else. The question really is more about "How do you know you are in love" versus "How old is the one you love?" Being IN love is far more important than an age difference between two people who purport to love each other.

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Washington, D.C.: How do I deal with a partner that wants to know every intimate detail of my relationships with my past partners? I should point out that he was a virgin coming into the relationship and I obviously was not.

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: The honest truth is this - - your past sex life with others is not any of his/her business! However, if there is a sexually transmitted disease involved, then it is her/his business.

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D.C.: Sex. Is it necessary for a marriage? We didn't have it before marrying, and we don't have it now. We're old -- in our late-30s -- so it's dubious that we'll learn new tricks at this age. We've found that we're no good at having sex, so we just don't. I sought counseling to see if this state of affairs is normal, and I was assured that it was, provided that it is acceptable to both spouses. We're fine with celibacy, but I admit that sometimes I think some intimacy would be nice. Thanks.

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: First of all, please understand, there are volumes of books on the shelves of your local bookstore about sex - sex in a marriage, sex in love, good sex, bad sex, kinky sex, styles of sex, positions in sex, how-to sex, intimate sex, erotic sex, healthy sex, pre-marital sex - sex, sex, sex!

Sex can save a marriage. Sex can cause a divorce. Sex should occur before marriage. Sex should occur only after marriage. Sex keeps you young. Senior sex. Healthy sex. Unhealthy sex. Sex, Sex, Sex!

You name it, there is a sex book written about it. Oh, for sure, most happily married couples we have interviewed over the last 30 years reported at least a reasonable degree of satisfaction with their sex life. But you know what, NOT ONE of the couples we interviewed who had been married 30-60 years reported that their sex life was central to the overall success of their relationship. Not one! Sure it was important, but if you think anybody's marriage is going to last 30 or more years just because they have good sex ---- well, forget it! It isn't going to happen.

Lasting marriages are characterized by frequent moments of intimacy and bliss. But you can capture those moments without engaging in sexual acts. Intimacy is far more than just having sex.

We could wax on and on about the role of sex in a marriage, but others have done that over and over. Those who write about sex all the time might have contributed to much of the dysfunctionality surrounding sex in relationships. Frankly, some of the popular books on the subject we have seen hold up a standard of sexual performance and gratification that hardly any couple could achieve. And worse yet, couples that can't live up to the "standard" think they've failed. Many times their relationship suffers.

We think the problem with many failed marriages we have observed is, in fact, the over-emphasis on sex. We know couples that have been married over 30 years who rarely ever have sex, yet, they report being happily and blissfully married because they excel at all the other things that make for a successful and lasting marriage.

Our message should be clear - in happy marriages sex can be fun, important, and a healthy way of being intimate with your partner. On the other hand, based on our research and first-hand experience, we think it is grossly overemphasized in terms of its centrality to successful and long-term marriages. So much more is present in those relationships that pass the test of time. Sex is only one of them and may not be the most important.

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Re: 7 key points for a successful marriage: Hi Ellen and Charles and Elizabeth.

I like your 7 ingredients to a successful and strong relationship. I'm wondering, though, if those are more business bullet points and configured from the "rational" side of the brain. What about the other side of the brain--what are key indicators that you are in love from the less rational, more chemical side of the brain?

Thanks

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz: Great question.

In our many interviews with people "in love" we ask them the most revealing question of the interview - "When did you know you were in love?" We have heard very consistent answers over our 30 years of interviews with couples in love. There are seven key indicators to know when you are really in love:

1. Physical: People who say they are in love report getting "goosebumps," "a palpating heart," "sweaty palms," "a tingling sensation all over my body." People in love have a positive physical reaction when they think about or see the one they love.

2. Emotional: When they think about or see the person they love most lovers report "an uncontrollable smile comes over my face whenever I see her," and "I miss him when he leaves the room." People in love feel emotions for the person they love that they do not routinely feel for others.

3. Positive worry: Over the years, we continue to be amazed about the consistency with which people in love report to us that they "worry about their lover" when they are not around. Thoughts about what we have come to call "positive worry" about the one they love begin to creep into their mind.

4. I-cannot-imagine-life-without-him: This is the point in love when you begin to think about the future - your future with the one you love. When you cannot imagine your life without her, you are in love!

5. Oneness of your relationship: You begin to realize that you truly want this other person in your life. In our book, we refer to the notion of "turning two into one." Everything changes from you and me, to WE!

6. Pre-occupied love: Simply stated, you think about the one you love most of the time. You can't get them out of your mind. You are in love with them!

7. Love itself and your ability to express that love: You finally have the courage to tell them you love them! You suddenly and out of nowhere are inspired to say I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! You shout it to the stars. You are in love!

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Ellen McCarthy: We'll have to have Charles and Elizabeth back to answer the rest of your weighty questions. Thanks, everyone, for joining us today.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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