What are the rules for a truly happy marriage? There aren’t any, really. More like guidelines. Why? Because what works for one couple might be laughed off by another. It all depends. One thing remains, however: couples must know what works for them and be intentional about weeding out the bad habits that can sink their relationship. Because the happiest marriages aren’t happy all the time. They require fluidity, communication, evolution, curiosity, and an agreement from both partners to constantly do the work to help it adapt and flourish. That said, there are things that all couples should pay attention to — guidelines about arguments, bad habits, staying flexible, and more that every couple should understand. Taking note of these 23 pieces of marriage advice — culled from therapists, relationship experts, and more professionals — is a good start.
Remember Your Commitment
(Jeff Goldblum voice) Life, uhhhh, finds a way…to burden partners with a lot of different obstacles. The busy and unpredictable nature of it all can obscure a very important fact: Partners are in this together. You both signed up to ride together during whatever comes your way. And the foundation you’ve built along the way needs to always be top of mind — and sustained. “When there is a foundation of caring and love, then you can trust at all times that you will get through whatever difficulties you are facing,” Janet Zinn, a New York-based LCSW and couples therapist told us. “Commitment means you can gently lay your head on your partner’s shoulder because you know he or she is there for you when you’re vulnerable or simply tired. It’s a basic shared intimacy, and a necessary ingredient to a healthy, happy marriage.”
Assume the Best of One Another
Whatever happens, it’s important to understand that your partner probably means the best. Even if they piss you off something awful, their intentions were likely pure. To assume makes an ass out of you and me, yes. But it’s necessary to maintain the assumption that your partner — however flawed and irritating they seem at times — had the best results in mind, despite the result. “If you assume your partner is doing their best, it is less likely there will be blaming and disappointment,” says Zinn. “And there will be an active engagement to resolve issues as they arise since you know you both have each other’s best interests in mind.” Remember “your best” doesn’t mean perfection – it means you’re giving the situation everything you can at that moment in time.
Don’t Ever Stop Trying
Happiness can be a kind of trap, because it comes in short bursts. It’s like watching a football game with non-stop scoring. It’s great for a quarter, then it becomes boring. You have to strive for contentedness, which is a continuous state of mind, and one that feels doable. “Being happy comes with pressure. It makes it sound like it’s the partner’s job,” Dr. Pat Love, relationship expert and co-author of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, told us. The unavoidable piece is just the commitment to trying. It’s doing things like being generous, showing appreciation, and saying thank you more than you probably are.
One of therapist John Gottman’s four horsemen of the apocalypse — i.e. the traits that doom a marriage — “stonewalling” is as common as it is incredibly corrosive. It’s the act of shutting down during an argument. The person stonewalling stops responding and maintains a calm exterior, which tells their partner that they don’t care at all about what they’re saying. “The stonewaller is right to try to calm things down but the way he’s doing it is very destructive,” Donald Cole, Clinical Director of The Gottman Institute, told us. What to do instead? Ask for a break. Tell your partner that you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed and go for a walk or otherwise put your brain on ice until you’ve cooled your jets. Then, return to the discussion — sooner rather than later — and continue the discourse.
Good communication is the backbone of any relationship, yes. No, you don’t have to act like that special breed of weirdo couples who never ever argue or get on one another’s nerves. Rather, couples need to argue and attack the issues at hand without getting defensive, digging up the past and throwing it in the other’s face, dismissing a partner’s experience, or any other such caustic habit. Does this take work? You bet your sweet khakis it does. But it’s worth it.
Always Be Flexible
Life throws a lot of haymakers our way. And it’s important for partners to understand and anticipate that, well, they can’t anticipate anything and must therefore react with flexibility. “Unexpected events, expenses, and situations come up in relationships,” says Zinn. “If we are too rigid, we resist facing the unexpected. A couple’s ability to ‘go with the flow’ – especially when it’s dramatically different from what they expected – gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and, more importantly, get to know each other in ways they might never have known before.”
Curiosity Saves Couples
There’s no way around it: Growth as a couple or an individual requires curiosity. Being curious together can result in tremendous learning experiences that strengthen your relationship. “In difficult or challenging situations, you can both learn from what makes those situations hard for you,” says Zinn. “And you’ll grow in the process. In this way you will both have pride for yourselves and each other in the ways you got to the other side.” She adds, “Keep in mind, too, that your partner will likely change over time, so a shared sense of curiosity — being open to the ways in which he or she changes — can allow you to identify the ways you’ve changed as well.”
Be Willing to Grow and Learn
Spoiler alert: Everyone screws up, says dumb things, gets stuff wrong. It’s all about how people react that defines a relationship. “If we are willing to learn from our mistakes as they relate to our partner’s needs and desires, we will thrive – personally, and in the relationship,” says Zinn. “The willingness to admit mistakes, and apologize sincerely, is an important key in creating a deeper bond with our partner.” So, swallow that pride and burp out an “I’m sorry” the next time you make a mistake.
Emotional invalidation is a frequent — and sinister — force in relationships. It occurs when someone discounts their partner’s feelings, implying that, for them to be saying or doing something, they must be either crazy, stupid, or some combination of the two. It can happen in a quick, almost casual manner (“That’s ridiculous”), or it can even be done passive-aggressively, telling a partner how they should react before you even speak (“Don’t freak out, but I have to tell you something…”). In the worst-case scenarios, the invalidation can devolve into situations that can be humiliating and degrading (“Don’t listen to him, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”). Needless to say, doled out over time, invalidation can be incredibly destructive to a relationship. Marriages thrive on mutual trust, respect, and security, and if a partner doesn’t feel as though his or her feelings are being treated with respect, then the relationship will eventually corrode.
Use a Special Code
A good rule to consider: think about a secret signal or code to share with your partner. Yes, this will make you feel like spies which is always cool. But it also helps if one person needs to ask for a time-out during an argument or needs to leave a party where they feel uncomfortable. When the word or phrase is said, it means “No questions, we have to stop — or leave.” The couple can figure out later if the time-out was warranted, or if one party was overreacting. But the agreement can give couples space to gain perspective. In the end, it’s about trust and being considerate.
Play Tennis, Not Catch
Many of us get defensive (Me? Defensive? How dare you!). It’s a learned behavior — and one that can be very difficult to fight. But it’s incredibly toxic and leads to a lot of resentment and communication issues in a marriage. According to Anthony Chambers, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer of The Family Institute and Director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern University, the way to think about defensiveness is you’re not being receptive to your partner’s feedback.
“It’s a combination of defending yourself and poking holes in the other person’s perspective so that when you’re trying to communicate, you’re constantly in this defensive pattern,” he says. So how can a couple reshape their thinking? “If you find yourself playing tennis, I always tell couples that’s the wrong game,” says Chambers. “You really want to be playing a catch because it’s a much slower game. You’re taking the ball and you’re trying to toss it so that your partner can easily receive it. They catch it. They look at the ball in their mitt and pick it up and toss it back to their partner. It’s a much more intentional form of communication in this game.”
Be Open About Your Finances
Talking about money is one of the most intimate conversations a couple can have. Whether you keep separate bank accounts or are a share-everything type of couple, talks about finances need to happen early and often. Because if you’re not talking openly about money, you’re not building a shared future. And, per financial advisor Jacquette Timmons, “Otherwise I think you leave the window open for a lot of distrust to seep in, and that’s never good for any relationship, whether it’s triggered by finances or anything else.”
How do parents keep their marriage strong when kids are in the picture? By setting boundaries. “This means keeping kids out of the bedroom most of the time, having regular dates (even if you don’t leave the house), going on adults-only vacations and deciding to limit extra-curricular activities,” Leslie Doares, a couples counsellor, told us. “Too many parents buy into the idea that children have to be involved in every activity open to them or they show interest in. This can be costly in terms of time and money. It’s okay to say ‘no’ to some things. It’s okay for your children to be disappointed sometimes. It prepares them for the real world.”
Melody Li, an Austin-based LMFT, often works with couples whose love lives have “simply disappeared” after they had kids. This is unfortunate. Fortunately, the solution is a pretty simple one: make time for sex. When you’re busy, this means putting it on a schedule and sticking to it. “Much like other self-care activities (e.g. going to the gym) if you don’t block time out in your schedule, it’s not going to happen. Couples tell me that when they schedule sex, they actually get a bit excited as they anticipate their alone time. They find themselves fantasizing about their partner and planning fun ways to pleasure each other. So in reality, it’s not as un-sexy as it sounds,” says Li.
Go on Date Nights
Speaking of regular sex appointments, here’s one way to kill two birds with one stone: regular date nights. “Going to the movies with your kids can be fun, but make sure to do a parents-only date night at least once a month,” says dating coach Andrea Amour. “It’s so important to have evenings where you don’t worry about diaper-changes, spilled popcorn, or public tantrums. Go have unencumbered fun.” Yes, costs factor in. But you can have a night on the couch or a neighborhood walk that is planned and intentionally date-ish. It’s the intention to spend undisturbed fun time together that matters.
Get on the Same Page
Being on the same page about everything from how and what involvement in-laws will have, how many activities the kids should participate in is so, so, so, so important in a marriage. When parents touch base regularly and are on the same page, stress is reduced and they can spend time functioning graciously and flexibly.
“In my experience, the most important thing parents should do to maintain a happy marriage while raising children is to schedule regular time to discuss issues, practicing effective communication techniques,” says parenting coach Elisabeth Stitt. “Of course parents need to work out logistics of who’s going to pick up whom when, but they also need time to discuss the bigger issues that can tear a couple apart like ‘What constitutes a discipline problem and how should discipline problems be dealt with?’ or ‘What is the right balance between warmth and connection and maintaining high expectations?’”
Learn How to Move On From Arguments
Disagreement is unavoidable in any marriage — as are spats, snipes, and all-out fights. One of the defining aspects of a strong, happy marriage, however, is the ability to get past a fight. “It doesn’t matter if you argue, because all couples do, it’s about coming back to the table afterwards and talking about what happened and owning your part,” says marriage and family therapist Melissa Davis Thompson. “It’s important so issues don’t get stored away. It allows a couple to share deeply how they feel without being angry or frustrated during an argument.”
Laugh it Up
Staying in good humor requires, well, a bit of humor. “The best thing parents can do to maintain a happy marriage is laugh together every day,” says marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind. “I’ve worked with couples and families in all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, cultures, genders, and personalities. If parents can laugh together, even when they may want to cry of frustration, they can get through anything.”
Always Be Validating
Validation is one of the most important things couples can do for each other. Having your partner hear what you’re saying, appreciate you, and understand you speaks to a basic need for connection. It’s okay to disagree, as long as you can respect where each other is coming from. “Healthy couples know that feelings aren’t right or wrong or true or false,” says Thomas Gagliano, a social worker, speaker and the author of The Problem Was Me. “This is a very important message to give to your children as well. It helps resolve conflict instead of doing a destructive dance feeling that we don’t matter to each other.”
Stop Obsessing Over Who Wins
The compulsive need to be right can be incredibly destructive in a relationship, with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle describing it almost as a form of violence. The need creates fear and resentment between couples and will eventually wear the relationship down over time. When couples respect each other, they can accept not being right in favor of maintaining a healthy balance. “Successful couples know how to choose their battles knowing that closeness means more than being right at times,” Gagliano says.
Stay in Tune With Self-Care
“Successful couples know that they need to take actions of self-care,” says Gagliano. “This affirms that it’s important to work on the relationship you have with yourself.” In other words: It’s not enough to take care of your spouse. You also have to look after yourself. That means exercising regularly, eating well, getting enough sleep. Even making regular doctor and dentist appointments is important. By investing in yourself and your own well-being, it shows your partner that you want to be at your best for them.
Pay Attention to the Little Things
Small gestures carry a lot of weight, and for couples who have mutual respect, those small gestures are second-nature. A simple love note, a slightly longer hug or kiss goodbye can make your partner feel validated and appreciated. “One short and sweet text or email per day can make your lover’s heart pitter-patter — without causing his or her head to spin from electronic overload,” says family psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish “Be sure to include an intimate and heartfelt detail in your notes as a key way to boost your bond.”
Give One Another Space
It’s important to be supportive and engaged with your spouse. But you also can’t hover over them and try and solve all their problems for them. Couples who have mutual respect believe in each other’s strengths and have enough faith in each other to know when to step back and let them handle something on their own. “They realize they can’t fix their partner’s problems more than their partner wants to,” says Gagliano. “They know when they need to let go of control and let their partner figure things out for themselves.”