Whether you're just a few years into a marriage or possibly considering getting married, you're trying to figure out how to make it work. Contrary to what our society leads us to believe in our fairy tales and Disney movies, marriage isn't the "happy every after" end of the journey. We don't just ride off into the sunset after the wedding and everything is blissfully happy. Which, of course, is why there are so many sources of marriage advice online and why you're reading this post right now.
Over the years, I've laughed to myself about the places and people we go to for marriage advice: People who've never been married. People who were married multiple times and never could make it work out. People who met their soulmates and never had a single argument in all their time together (or so they claim).
I'm here to tell you the truth.
Marriage isn't a happily ever after. It's not the end of the journey. Marriage is the beginning of an often bumpy journey where you have two human beings, each with a boatload of baggage, who are daily forcing each other out of their comfort zones. They dumb their baggage on the floor of their new home and start sorting through it, figuring out where everything goes, and hoping nothing bites.
Some people can go through this process together respectfully and with minimal drama -- or they're really good at keeping their drama private. In either case, as you're scrolling through the internet looking for advice, dreaming about your future, don't put too much stock in all the perfect wedding day, "met my soulmate," never-had-a-single-fight posts. Every single couple I know have had their difficult times. Some of the strongest couples I know have been on the brink of divorce. If you want to keep your marriage from falling over the ledge, consider this advice.
Secrets to a Long-Lasting Marriage
You have to be able to trust each other. You both need to realized that you're playing on the same team, to use a football metaphor. One common mistake I see couples make is that they act as if they are competing against each other. In truth, anything that builds up on member should also strengthen the couple. Whichever positions you decided to play in your metaphorical football game, remember that you're playing for the same team, not battling each other. And remember, it takes both of you on the same team.
Conversely, broken trust is very hard to mend. For example, if one of you gets caught up in looking at pornography online, this can damage your partners trust and make them feel like they aren't good enough for you. But with the right commitment and willingness to earn back that trust, a willingness to accept the consequences for your choices, a willingness to give your partner the space and time they need to heal, it can be done.
You have to respect each other as people, as parents, as whatever career people you are. This means you admire your partner -- their accomplishments, their commitment to what they're doing, they way they handle their lives. You have a feeling of admiration for them and you communicate that to them. This can be done verbally, or by little things such as noticing when they're stressed and taking some of the load for them.
Respect is often shown in little ways. For example, if you know something bothers your partner, you make a point not to do that, even if it seems silly to you. My husband has a printer in his home office and it bugs him when I print 50-page long research articles when he's in the middle of a meeting. This seems like a little thing. But that's not the point. To keep the peace, and to show my respect for my husband, I check in with him before I print something so he can take a break while I print, or I wait until he's not in his office.
I think it's imperative that I point out respect isn't just about the feeling of admiration. It's more about how you treat the other person. Remember, that your feelings will follow your actions. So even if you're not feeling very charitable towards your partner, you can still behave respectfully.
Surprisingly, a couple of roommates from my college days demonstrated how this works. I am very much a night owl and often spent late hours in the journalism lab at my university working on preparing the newspaper for publication that week. I would also wait until after midnight to do my laundry so I had all the washing machines and dryers to myself. At the beginning of the semester my junior year, these roommates would be all happy and chipper at 7 a.m., greeting me like I was actually awake or something. I may or may not have mumbled an attempt at a reply. After a few weeks though, I noticed that they stopped talking to me in the morning -- but would would greet me and engage me in conversations after my first class. It didn't seem like they were ostracizing me, since they still started conversations and didn't seem angry, but they were definitely not talking to me in the morning. So I carefully asked one of them what was going on. Here response has stayed with me to this day. "We noticed that you're not awake in the morning, so we decided not to bother you until after you'd had your first class and breakfast."
I was amazed. My roommates had noticed that I wasn't ready for human communication early in the morning. Instead of demanding that I change or assuming I was stuck up and unfriending me, they just changed their behavior. They respected how I was. I decided right then that this is how I wanted to be (and this helped me immensely as I was learning how to teach my students). If my roommates could be this respectful of who I was, then I can also be this respectful of the people I love. And I can expect this level of respect from the people who say they love me, too.
Yes, you have to actually like each other. More importantly, you have to act like you like each other. Even if you're not feeling the love for whatever reason. Affection is best shown through compassionate care in ways that are meaningful to each partner. What is meaningful can depend on each partners combination of love languages. For example, I feel most loved when my husband tells me that he loves how smart and beautiful I am -- and brings me a large Sonic water every day. My husband feels loved when I sit close to him or... we'll you can imagine what happens next. He also feels loved when I bring him thoughtful gifts.
Affection is about your attitude towards your partner and how that is shown in the way you behave towards them -- graciously and with compassion. Without that, you and your partner will be alone while lying in bed together. And that will absolutely dry up and kill a marriage.
To be clear, affection is not just physical. It includes mental and emotional intimacy. This means creating a safe space for each other to talk about your relationship, to share your secrets, to be who you are. You are creating an environment in which both of you feel secure, where both of you can be yourself without putting the relationship at risk.
I already mentioned being gracious above, but it bears repeating. Grace in marriage means giving each other the benefit of the doubt and loving each other unconditionally. It means believing in each other no matter what. This also means taking your focus off yourself and putting it on your partner. Who are they? What do they like? What do they need? What can you do for them?
Notice, that I'm talking to both partners. We'll talk about this in a minute, but grace can't be one-sided. You can't have one person who is always forgiving, always kind, always giving. Grace works both ways. It's about both people treating each other with kindness even when it's not deserved. This can be true in both big and little things.
For example, there have been times when my husband has asked me to pickup something from the store for him while I'm out running my own errands. Now, I am the kind of person who remembers what I see, but will quickly forget something I've heard. So if my husband calls and tells me to pickup milk on my way home, I guarantee, I will forget. Grace is him not getting mad at me for forgetting. It sometimes means him running to the Dollar Store to get the milk because he understands I've had a long day at school. Grace is also him remembering in the future to text me the milk request and maybe even sending a reminder because I will remember seeing the message.
Successful marriage requires communication. You and your partner may be soulmates. You may be able to express an idea with just one look across the room. But you really can't read each other's minds. And there will be many times when you're going to have to listen in difficult conversations and express what you're thinking in a respectful, gracious way that builds your bond with each other.
While communication is important in big issues like where you will live, whether or not you'll have a joint bank account, and your overall parenting philosophy, it's even more important in the little things. You have to be able to talk about what each other wants and needs on a daily basis, which can build a foundation of intimacy and affection -- or tear your relationship apart.
Communication is not a one-way street either. Both partners need to talk -- and both need to practice active listening. This means that you're listening to understand the speaker, not listening to reply. You're also displaying your interest with your body language. You're looking at your partner, you're validating what they're saying, even if you don't agree or if it's hard to hear. This means you're not rolling your eyes or engaging in other passive aggressive forms of nonverbal communication.
Believe what your partner tells you about how they feel and what they think. Ask them questions to help you better understand their experience and what they need from you. You may even need to spend some time thinking about the lens through which you're listening to your partner to ensure you're not interpreting their meaning through your own experience instead of by what they actually mean. Likewise, partners should do the same for you.
Listening is also not about being right. It's about discovering and accepting the other person. Again, this is a two way street. If one person is doing all the discovering and accepting, and the other person is emotionally unavailable, cruel, or contemptuous, then the marriage will sink. As a matter of fact, if any of those three things are a feature of the marriage, it will be very rocky, if not doomed.
When it's you're turn to talk, you need to be honest and open. Sometimes sharing how you're feeling or what you're thinking can be scary -- especially if you've had to deal with neglect or abandonment in your life.
Balance of Power
This is a big one. You can work on all of the other elements, but if one person has more power than the other, whether it's financial, emotional, physical, the imbalance can end the marriage.
Marriages are built on sharing and cooperation. But if one person wants this relationship less than the other, that person will have the power to upend the whole cart. The partner who is willing to demand their own way, the partner who is willing to walk away -- both are attempting to wield power in their own interests instead of that of the marriage.
Both partners need to be willing to set aside their own interests in favor of the marriage itself. In short, they must be aware of the power they hold and willing to share that power with their partner and work together to create a balanced, respectful balance of power based on each others needs. Failing that, and I hate to say this, but sometimes one partner may need to remind the other that they should not (and don't) have all the power. This is best done with the help of a professional who can guide you through this process.
Taking and Giving Constructive Criticism Feedback
One of the hardest aspects of a marriage is looking in the proverbial mirror and seeing all of your warts and baggage and failings. Marriage will highlight your insecurity, your selfishness -- and your response to criticism.
One of the first times I caught a glimpse of myself in that mirror was when my husband and I were dating. We had gone to Sonic for lunch and were discussing what we wanted to eat. He was sitting in the drivers seat. And I don't know what possessed me to do this, but after we'd decided what each of us wanted, I informed by 20-something-years-old husband that he needed to "push the little red button" to order. As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I knew it was ridiculous that I felt compelled to tell him this. Seriously, who doesn't know to push the little red button at the drive-in restaurant?!
Fortunately, he just rolled his eyes and we still laugh about it. But the mirror of our marriage forced me to look at how I treat other people. And to ponder why. As the oldest child in my family, I was always the one that knew more than and did things before my siblings. I'm naturally the type of person that wants things done the right way. While this can be good when I'm trying to teach my students how to write a complex argument or use new software, it's not so good when my husband is trying to order dinner. Especially since he does not appreciate being bossed around. I had to learn to keep my bossiness to myself, to find ways to communicate what I want and need without telling him what to do.
Of course, when these things happen and you've realized your partner is doing something that gets on your last nerve, or is maybe causing them issues in another area of their life, you have to be able to communicate that. This requires you to change your mindset. Instead of being critical, you have to find a way to provide constructive feedback. You're not just pointing out things that annoy you about your partner. You're not criticizing them. You're providing them with feedback to help them grow as a person a partner, to help them achieve what they need, as well as what you need.
Do you need to reThink Your Relationship?
Enter your name and email address below for more relationship advice from someone whose worked through 26 years of marriage.