Committed relationships can be mysterious things, acting almost as a third entity that grows and lives around two people. As an outside observer, it can be difficult to understand what makes a relationship thrive or struggle. Due to this mysteriousness, having the opportunity to analyze the relationship of an admired couple can bring a great deal of insight. Recently, I interviewed a couple that I respect and love dearly, my older brother, John Willis, and his wife, Shau Shau Lin Willis.
Whenever I question what type of relationship I want or whether a potential partner may be the right person for me, John and Shau Shau’s relationship is an important standard of comparison. This standard of comparison exists because their relationship has always demonstrated qualities I consider vital; commitment, respect, cohesiveness, and friendship. As I talked to them about what makes their marriage work, I found that the same qualities that I had observed were also quite important to them.
During the interview, three general areas emerged that appear to help create a strong marriage for Shau Shau and John: good mate selection based on similarity, strong communication and conflict resolution skills, and a foundation based on genuine love and friendship. Before delving into the inner workings of this relationship, it is important to highlight some background information. John and Shau Shau met through a mutual friend while they were both attending Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Ironically, the mutual friend had invited them both to a party and intended to set both John and Shau Shau up on dates with different people. Shau Shau told me that the first time she saw John, he was a bit drunk and singing for the video game Rock Band. But, he must have had a certain charm because they ended up going out together. John and Shau Shau have now been married for five years and have two children: Brantley, age 4, and Savanna, age 2. John recently became a fully licensed doctor of otolaryngology and Shau Shau has been a practicing anesthesiologist for several years.
They are both in their early thirties, heterosexual, highly educated, and upper-middle class. John was born and raised in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Shau Shau was born in Taipei, Taiwan but she and her family spent a large part of her childhood in the United States. Her parents and younger brother have since moved back to Taiwan and she and John have visited several times over the years. In July of 2015, John concluded approximately four years of medical residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The family has now moved back to Winston Salem where they are working full time.
After compiling a list of 16 questions, it was time to interview the happy couple. Due to the busy schedules of all involved, the interview was conducted via Skype. We selected a time over the weekend when neither John or Shau Shau were on call at their respective jobs the children were at the museum with their nanny, Brandy. During the approximately hour and a half long interview, the couple sat at their kitchen table, dressed in casual, comfortable clothes. Due to having to appear on web cam, they sat quite close together.
Because this was not really an organic choice of seating arrangements, I do not believe it necessarily reflects anything significant about their dynamic. The interview was a comfortable process and they seemed open to discussing most areas of their relationship. Both of them tended to discuss their relationship in a pragmatic, manner, focusing more on facts than vague emotional or psychological concepts. Generally speaking, John tended to guide the conversation more when it came to factual information while Shau Shau seemed to have greater insight on more emotional areas.
Also, John tended to be a bit sarcastic and dismissive about some of the questions, giving the impression that he views psychology and the social sciences as less valid compared to medical or biological sciences. Despite this, I still gained a great deal of insight into what has helped them create a strong and durable foundation for their marriage. Early in the interview process, it became clear that John and Shau Shau choose good partners based on their high levels of similarity in many areas.
According to Intimate Relationships, SIMILIARITY is an important factor in building a relationship that is validating, comfortable, and low in conflict (Miller, p. 344). Beginning with their early attraction, John and Shau Shau described many ways that they found each other appealingly similar. For instance, they shared demographic similarity, including age, occupation, and social standing. Of particular importance, having similar occupations within the medical field allowed both of them to understand the demanding and stressful life of a doctor.
The report that this was important because they both wanted someone who would understand their daily demands, decreasing the possibility that work would become a source of conflict. Early on, the couple also realized that they both enjoyed many of the same activities such as outdoor adventure, travel, trying new restaurants, and swimming. Sharing lifestyle factors such as these has made it easier for them to agree on what activities they will do in their precious free time and, again, reduce potential sources of conflict.
Of course, both of them also considered the other physically attractive. Both mentioned that they liked that the other appeared to be in good shape and seemed to take good care of themselves. John immediately thought Shau Shau was beautiful. Due to John’s somewhat intoxicated state at their meeting, Shau Shau described him as cute but in a “drunk frat boy’ kind of way. Overall, we can see how similarities such as demographics, physical attractiveness, and lifestyle were crucial to initial attraction and relationship formation.
Similarity in attitudes and values is also an important part of choosing a good partner and, as Shau Shau and John spent more time together, it became clear that they were also similar on these deeper levels. SOCIAL PENETRATION THEORY holds that, as relationships deepen, the breadth and depth of conversation topics increase, allowing each person to learn more about the other (Miller, p. 156). This process of selfdisclosure helped John and Shau Shau learn that both of them valued and sought many of the same things in a partner. They share overall attitudes on politics and religion with neither placing an excessive emphasis on either area.
Financial matters and management of money are also an area that they share similar attitudes about, preferring to be practical rather than extravagant. Of the values that John and Shau Shau share, commitment is the most important. From the beginning, neither of them were interested in dating someone casually and, as they grew closer, they felt that their relationship had the potential to be special. After less than a year, they decided to move in together and a shared intention to commit to the relationship and get married was clearly present at this time.
Miller explains in Intimate Relationships that, cohabitation can serve as a predictive factor for divorce, but is mitigated by a clear intention of commitment (p. 399). Undoubtedly, this strong sense of commitment has been invaluable as time has gone on. The first year of their marriage, John began his residency in Minneapolis while Shau Shau, had to remain in Winston Salem to finish a fellowship. Within six months of getting married, Shau Shau became pregnant with Brantley. So, the majority of the first year of their marriage was strained not only by distance but also by the intense joy and stress of pregnancy.
But, John and Shau Shau survived the difficult time period which, if anything, only strengthened their commitment. Overall, sharing values relating to politics, religion, finances, and, especially, commitment, has made life much easier and happier for John and Shau Shau. As important as similarity is for a relationship, no two people are identical. Differences can be positive, especially if they are complementary. COMPLMENTARITY occurs when couples behave in ways that are different but fit together well (Miller, p. 99). For instance, John and Shau Shau share similar attitudes about raising their two children. They both want a healthy,