The foundation stone of a building, also known as the cornerstone or setting stone, is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, and will thus determine the position of the entire structure. This metaphor can be used in searching for the foundation stone of marriage.
In my professional opinion, the foundation stone of marriage is TRUST. My three- and-a-half decades of counseling couples have shown me there are seven other essential stones that deserve a shout-out here as well. Let’s first examine those “second place” stones and then I will illuminate why I believe TRUST is the singular most important aspect of marital longevity.
I’d first like to begin by addressing eight terms that will not be described here in any detail. These are exhilarating and captivating aspects of marriage, to be sure. In my opinion, they have very little to do with relationship longevity and more to do with brain chemicals. They are: attraction, desire, love, infatuation, passion, romance, chemistry, and soul partner. Even though they are the main values glamorized by the film and television industry, these aspects are not the foundation upon which you should build your marital home.
Dr. Helen Fisher, a well-known anthropologist, researched brain functioning during infatuation using FMRI technology. The duration of romantic love from the moment infatuation hits to when a feeling of neutrality for one’s love object begins, is between eighteen months and three years. The end of infatuation is also grounded in brain physiology. It is theorized that the brain cannot eternally maintain the revved-up state of romantic bliss or tolerate the onslaught of these amphetamine-like substances.
The Seven Essential Cornerstones
Commitment is the starting motor of a marriage. It not only launches us when we marry, but we should crank it every day. We especially call on it when things are not going well. True commitment should not be confused with tentative commitment, wherein couples are committed as long as they make each other happy, as long as they get along, as long as their individual life goals line up, as long as they don’t fight too much, as long as the relationship meets their needs, and helps them grow as people. That would be labelled commitment-as-long-as. Permanent commitment is not tentative, it is a commitment-no-matter-what. This is the long view of marriage, in which you don’t balance the ledgers every month to see if you are getting an adequate return on your investment. You are here to stay (Dr. Bill Doherty).
Real Empathy comes from feeling your spouse’s pain in a genuine way and then doing something about it (Dr. John Gottman).
Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It can bring more love and happiness into your life and open the door to intimacy and connection. Forgiving others takes strength - particularly when you feel wronged - but the fortitude required to forgive pales in comparison to the energy necessary to maintain a sizable grudge. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it is a decision (Michele W. Davis).
Friendship: The quality of the marital friendship is infinitely more stabilizing for marriage than attraction, chemistry, infatuation, or romance. Work on building a good friendship before you even think about falling in love (Dr. Frank Pittman).
Respect: You don't need to share all of your spouse's beliefs, but you do need to respect them. Marital arguments are not about toilet seats being left up or toothpaste tubes left uncovered. They are about validation and respect. Remember Aretha Franklin’s lyric from the song Respect, “All I'm askin' is for a little respect when you get home.”
Safety: Dr. Scott Stanley, from the University of Denver, describes the four vital marital safeties: physical, emotional, commitment, and community.
Time Together: if you rearrange the words of the popular expression, you will get:
“There is no present like the TIME.”
Trust is the umbrella under which all seven essential cornerstones exist. I trust that my spouse will have real empathy for me and forgive me when I make a mistake. I trust that our friendship will be indestructible, that we will respect each other, and not just find time to be together but make time to be together. I trust that my spouse will make me feel safe at all times.
The Most Important Foundation Stone: Trust
How do you build trust? Trust is built in small moments which Gottman calls sliding-door moments. Each interaction with our spouse has two possibilities: connection or turning away. Gottman’s tale: one evening he was eager to get into bed and finish reading his superb mystery novel. As he rushed to bed he glanced at his wife, who was brushing her hair. He noticed that his wife had a sad expression on her face, which meant that at that moment, he had a choice. He could quickly sneak into bed choosing to read his novel and ignore her apparent low mood. Or he could choose path B. He put the novel on the night table and went over to his wife and asked, “What's the matter, honey?” That was a major trust-building moment for Gottman and his wife. He was there for her and connected to her, no longer thinking only of himself. An occasional moment like this is not crucial. But if one always chooses to turn away, trust will erode gradually.
Much worse, is what researcher Carol Russbult labelled the comparison level for alternatives. It is worse than turning away because it means one’s spouse thinks that they can do better. This thinking may evolve: I don't need this misery, I’m always dealing with her negativity, and I can definitely do better than having her as my wife. Once you begin to think that you can do better, you begin a cascade of not committing to your marriage. Sadly, you trash your spouse and build resentment instead of cherishing them. You invest less into your marriage and you begin to sacrifice less for the relationship. Unfortunately, this is when conflict escalates. If you can prevent yourself from turning away and go a step further by turning toward, you will master the art of preventing trust from eroding.
If you feel that trust has been weakened in your relationship, I strongly advise that you drop everything and focus on rebuilding it. As I described above, all of the other stones are set in reference to the foundation stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. So, too, are the seven other essential elements of marital longevity. Immediately begin to recalibrate and re-orient yourselves to that foundation stone, and from there your relationship journey should be one of growth and fulfillment.
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New Jersey and New York since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, is a Certified Discernment Counselor, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All sessions use ZOOM. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. firstname.lastname@example.org (732) 572-2707