Greg Behrendt knows a thing or two about marriage and relationships. Before he was an acclaimed author of self-help books like He’s Just Not That Into You, he worked as a script consultant for Sex and the City, one of the defining cultural documents on love and romance in the 21st century. It was there, in the course of giving advice to a coworker, that he stumbled into the phrase that became a New York Times bestseller (co-written with Liz Tucillo) and a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore.
Behrendt, who also works as a stand-up comedian and guitarist in a punk band, has since written three books of relationship advice with his wife, Amiira Ruotuola-Behrendt. Their latest, the bluntly titled How to Keep Your Marriage From Sucking, out on July 17th is a how to book that explains through anecdotes of their own stumblings and shortcomings, how to do it right. We asked Bedhrendt about the book and what he’s learned from his own marriage. He offered up these seven pieces of advice to keep
1. Think of Marriage as a Daily Practice
“I’m a sober guy, so I look at my life at a day at a time as opposed to forever,” Behrendt says. That means thinking of each day as a chance to tune out the world and reaffirm your bond with your partner. “If you as a couple kind of remind yourself that on a daily basis you sort of started your own — maybe religion is not the right word—but in a way, your particular relationship is unique and it needs to be honored as such,” he advises. “At a minimum, [spend] five minutes a day holding hands or talking or whatever you decide that intimacy is, so that you’ve checked in with each other and checked out of everything else that’s going on.” And while Behrendt acknowledges that it’ll be tougher to make the time on some days than others, thinking of marriage as a daily practice can alleviate the daunting feelings that come with a lifetime commitment. “I only have to stay married to midnight. I get married again [and] re-approach it the next day.”
2. Make Sure You’re Both on the Same Page
Behrendt and his wife rushed into their engagement without making sure both parties were on the same page. That led to a very rocky start of their marriage. “In a microcosm, it’s all the same problems that we crossed in our marriage later on,” he recalls. “Being okay with something you’re not okay with; not speaking; doing things too quickly because you think the other person expects it; not knowing what the other person expects because you never asked them; writing a monologue about them in your head that is based on things that aren’t true; not fact-checking, but reacting.” All the more reason to check in with your partner every day.
3. Remember that Only You Control Your Own Happiness
As much as you and your partner love each other, there’s only one person in charge of your own happiness—and to pretend otherwise is to impose an unfair burden on the person you love.
“You’re just a person, and you’re ultimately the only person who’s responsible for your own happiness,” Behrendt says. “When you get together, you somehow feel like that person has now participated in your life and now is responsible for your own happiness. That’s not something they can do; I can’t make anybody happy.”
4. Find the Balance Between Partner and Parent
Raising kids is a full-time job; so is being a spouse. And just as it’s essential to nurture your children, it’s equally essential to nurture your marriage, too. “I find that a lot of guys I know feel like, ‘I just thought it was going to be a little bit different, I spend no time with my wife,’” Behrendt says. “It’s really important to make the marriage super important, because that’s all you have keeping it together. And even your kids want that—at a certain point I’m sure they’re going to be like, ‘Don’t you guys have something to do?’ So for me, that’s the best example you can show your kids: while they’re super important, you know, I married your mom and she’s my person.”
5. Sometimes Divorce Is the Best Answer…
Few people want to admit that in some circumstances, splitting up is what’s best for everyone. Behrendt learned this difficult lesson from his father, after his mother passed away in 2004. “My father said, ‘I’ll tell you what I wish I’d done differently,’” he recalls. “‘I wish I would’ve asked her for divorce, because that might’ve made a difference in everybody’s life. There was no reason for everybody to be unhappy.’” Sometimes, he says, the most unselfish decision you can make is to “extract yourself from something where everybody’s unhappy, because sometimes that’s what gets everybody moving to the other place.”
6. …But Sometimes It Isn’t
On the other hand, Behrendt cautions against using divorce as a way to avoid confronting difficult, but ultimately solvable problems. “Sometimes people get divorced for the wrong reasons,” he says. “I actually know some people that are like, ‘I think if I had just waited out, or talked about this one thing, I’d still be with the same person, I don’t really want anybody else.’ But it got too tough, too much stuff got piled on top.” So, you know, probably don’t make any life-changing without doing everything you can to make that pile a little bit shorter.
7. When in Doubt, Ask
One of the most important habits you can develop, according to Behrendt, is asking your partner a simple question: how can I help? “That’s the question that will save you most at the time,” he says. “If somebody tells you this whole big thing about what happened at work, a lot of times they didn’t even put a question on the end and you start giving them an answer. That’s not what they want.” Defaulting to an offer of support—rather than giving it unasked—reinforces the strength of the partnership, even if your partner doesn’t end up needing it.
“Nobody wants to be carried,” he concludes, “but everybody wants to know that there’s a possibility they could get help.”