Arguably, marriage owes more to art than to science, but the good news in our commitment-shy and divorce-prone nation is that there are proven formulas for marital success. We know a great deal about wedlock — how it works, how much satisfaction it can bring a couple, and how spouses can contribute to its failure.

Good marriages have common characteristics that are apparent to sociologists and demographers alike. There are divorce-resistant recipes for courageous couples who are determined to live happily ever after together.

These formulas are simple to state but demanding in practice. Happy marriages share these ingredients: mutual kindness, respect and reverence, plus the appreciation of one's spouse as an exciting and trustworthy person, and a sympathetic lover. Spouses in successful marriages are sensitive to their partner's emotional needs, share household tasks, and cooperate in raising their children. Sharing a common religious faith and investing in romance only improve the odds for happy wedlock.

Over the years, surveys by the National Marriage Project, George Gallup Jr., and the National Opinion Research Center have consistently reported that when a couple agrees on values, friendship, communication, sexual satisfaction, mutual respect and religious faith, they pronounce their marriage to be happy and permanent. If they had to do it all over again, these couples agree they would marry the same person.

In his analysis of major surveys, sociologist Andrew M. Greeley notes that,"sex and character combine to be the most powerful influences on marital happiness." But he cautions that, "it is not the frequency of sex that shapes marital happiness, but its quality and its openness."

Joint church attendance is actually less an indicator of marital happiness than wishing for the same things and agreeing on the same values. Some 90 percent of couples who pray together report "very great" sexual satisfaction. Couples who agree on both religious faith and family finances double their chances to live happily ever after.

The same surveys consistently reveal that marital unhappiness doesn't necessarily lead to infidelity or divorce. Moreover, most couples in unhappy marriages acknowledge that their conflicts are not of long standing but of relatively recent origin.

Discontented husbands and wives echo remarkably similar complaints, among them that their spouse is dull, unattractive, ill-mannered, has poor personal hygiene, or resists helping with domestic tasks. Clearly, none of these complaints is unfixable.

Although the glow may dim over time, love can survive.

Researchers report marital contentment to be cyclical. At any one moment fewer than one-fifth of American couples are in the "falling-in-love" phase, while more than half report themselves "settling down" into wedlock. Even more intriguing is that at any stage one in four married couples, young and old, report that they are "beginning again" — reviving the romance of their earliest years together.

David Yount's 14th book, Making a Success of Marriage, will appear this fall. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and [email protected].