Happy marriages aren’t happy by accident. Both members of the marriage play active roles in making sure that their relationship is in a good place. They carve out time for it. They think before they react during an argument. They come up with ways to protect it from their kids. In short, they do the work. It’s as simple as that. Part of that work entails keeping in mind good advice such as the tips below. All of them have been provided by various counsellors, therapists, and people who know how relationships work, and all offer some damn good things to keep in mind during the every day — and when the going gets tough.
Always Remember to Stay Curious
Growth (as a couple or an individual) requires risk. And risk requires curiosity. Being curious together can result in tremendous learning experiences that will strengthen your relationship. “In difficult or challenging situations, you can both learn from what makes those situations hard for you,” says Janet Zinn, a New York-based LCSW, and Couples Therapist. “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.”
Use “I” and Not “You”
When outlining an issue to your partner, frame it in a way that illustrates how it’s making you feel as opposed to what it is they’ve done wrong. If you’re too focused on assigning blame, you can come across as accusatory, leading your partner to close themselves off from hearing what you want them to hear. “The reason why that’s important is because beginning things with ‘you’ tends be experienced as criticism and elicit defensiveness in your partner,” says Dr. Tanisha M. Ranger, a licensed clinical psychologist in Nevada, “leading to a complete breakdown in communication.”
Draw a Hard Line Between Your Marriage and Your Kids
Kids are incredible. They’re also — and let’s be honest — little monsters that will tear your relationship to shreds if you’re not careful. Its essential then, to establish boundaries and set routines that help you prioritize your marriage. “Intentionally setting boundaries around the marriage is what will keep it happy through the child-rearing years,” couples counsellor Lesli Doares explained. “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.” Too many parents, Doares says, buy into the idea that children have to be involved in every activity open to them or they show interest in, which can be costly in terms of time and money. “It’s okay to say ‘no’ to some things,” she says. “It’s okay for your children to be disappointed sometimes. It actually prepares them for the real world.”
Be Mindful of the Invisible Work That Goes Into a Marriage
Emotional labor is known as the invisible work necessary to manage households. In a comic about emotional work among new parents that went viral last year, it’s described accurately as the mental load of “always having to remember”. This constant management of their entire families’ needs often falls on the wife or mother’s shoulders who often grow exhausted and resentful if their partners ignore the invisible burden. If a husband finds himself asking his beleaguered wife “what can I do to help?” chances are the question came too late. This also enforces outdated gender stereotypes.
One of the best ways to avoid the resentment that can build in such situations is to simply come up with — and stick to — a plan that represents both partners. This can just be a plan of what both people want to get out of their relationship and what matters to each of them. If both partner’s goals are clearly outlined, it can be much harder for things to fall by the wayside. “As far as lessening emotional labor on a wife,” says Phillip Young, who founded Better Together Breakthroughs with his wife Brittney, “a husband can always refer back to this — hopefully in a weekly family meeting — to check-in with his wife on how they are living this shared creation.”
Embrace the Journal
Everyone gets angry. And there are many ways to deal with the emotion. Not all of them, however, are created equal. While some, like playing a quick game on your phone, serve to let your anger dissipate, others, like screaming into a pillow, sometimes only compound the emotion. Productive anger management takes work — perhaps even years of it. One of the best methods is also the simplest: journaling. The practice of writing down your thoughts whenever you feel the steam coming from your ears not only helps ease your anger — but allows you to organize your own thoughts before you engage in an argument.” When we are angry, poor responses often happen impulsively,” says Jim Seibold, a marriage and family therapist based in Arlington, Texas. “Journaling can help slow down our reactivity and help avoid impulsive behaviors that would be hurtful or offensive. If we are taking the time to write down our thoughts, we are likely to interrupt the fast, impulsive behaviors.”
Brushing Off Your Partner’s Feelings
Marriages thrive on trust, mutual respect, and security. If one partner doesn’t feel as though his or her feelings are being treated with respect, then the relationship will eventually corrode. One way in which many people accidentally disrespect their husband or wife is by emotional invalidation. This is simply the act of discounting someone’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 occur in a quickly and casually (“C’mon that’s ridiculous” or “You’re so sensitive”), passive aggressively (“Don’t freak out, but…”), or, in the worst-case scenario, humiliating and degrading (“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about”). “When a person expresses a feeling about something to their partner, that partner gets to make a choice about how to interact back,” family therapist Hanalei Vierra explained. “That choice is to either connect with their partner or to push their partner away.” The key is to be aware of these moments and, as often as you can, make the right choice.
Embrace the Power of the Time Out
In every marriage, there are arguments and there are capital “A” Arguments. To prevent the former from ratcheting up and becoming the latter, it’s important to understand when you need a a few minutes to cool down, collect your thoughts, and avoid saying something dumb/hurtful/mean. Walking away from an argument doesn’t mean you’re walking away from the issue, it just means you’re taking a necessary breather to avoid saying or doing something that could make a bad situation worse. “When we are triggered into emotionally reactive states, we are not able to take in new information or have empathy for the other person,” says Mallika Bush, a Bay Area license marriage and family therapist. “Thus, trying to work through an argument with someone who is flooded with emotion will only lead to further hurts and upsets.”
Don’t Try to Solve Every Problem
When a spouse is venting about their day, the immediate reaction might be to provide solutions to their problems. This is a mistake. Often, most people just want to be heard and empathized with. Most people feel they are capable of solving their own problems and simply want a sounding board or a person by their side. Instead of immediately jumping into ways to fix the problem, partners should take a beat and empathize with their spouses. Jonathan Robinson, a couple’s therapist and author, recommends that when your partner has a problem, you should respond: “I can see that you’re upset, because…” It shows your spouse you are listening, you empathize with their feelings, and that you trust them to handle their shit on their own. That’s the stuff of good relationships.
Make Time For Sex
Because life (and kids and jobs) gets in the way of your marriage, and sometimes, especially with kids in the picture, unless plans are written in pen, those plans don’t happen. It might sound ridiculously antithetical to the spontaneous sex you had as a young married couple before kids — but the thing is, scheduling time to spend on each other is helpful in any context, not least of which is sexual. Calling a babysitter and getting to ‘work’ is one of the best ways to perform a relationship tune-up. “Scheduled can also be spontaneous,” says Piper S. Grant, founder of Numi Psychology. “Maybe one partner sets up candles, or takes the effort to buy a good smelling massage oil. Surprise each other with something new, fun, and playful.”