The most useful marriage advice, the kind you can actually follow in a time of need, is rarely obvious. It’s not the kind of “never go to bed angry” life-in-a-nutshell stuff your uncle doles out at your wedding before attempting a Russian kick dance and taking out the cake table. No, the best advice is the kind that doesn’t occur to you right away—it’s the kind you have to earn through years of making mistakes and gritting your teeth. Let us save you some unpleasantness. Consider these seven counterintuitive tricks for building a stronger marriage—the kind of marriage you and your wife deserve. And once you’ve elevated your game as a husband, check out our 50 amazing tips for being a better leader, father, friend, athlete, and all-around guy.
Don’t be overly optimistic
The Norman Vincent Peale approach to relationships that a lot of men embark on—that is, positive expectations inspire positive outcomes—sets up a lot of marriages for failure.
Nothing about a successful marriage is automatic, say Judith Sherven, Ph.D., and James Sniechowski, Ph.D., a married couple who counsel other couples. “People fall into the trap of thinking that just because they are biologically attracted to each other at the beginning of a courtship, problems that come up in marriage will iron themselves out,” says Sherven. The authors of The New Intimacy, Sherven and Sniechowski say that couples need to develop a more realistic picture of the relationship and an understanding of the individual responsibility required to make a marriage work.
Consider this study of newly married couples at the University of Florida. Seventy-seven couples were recruited to undergo a battery of questions and interviews about marital happiness; they repeated the program at 6-month intervals for 4 years. Among participants with poor relationship skills, those who’d had high expectations for harmony showed dramatic declines in marital satisfaction over the first 4 years of marriage. Those who had entered marriage with lower expectations, however, were more likely to report being happy in their relationships. For more help in navigating a long-term romance, here are The Secrets of the Best Relationships.
Learn to fight
Maybe it’s the way she never makes the bed, the way she talks about you to her friends, or the close guy pal she has at work that sometimes irks you. But you are too sophisticated and understanding to lose your temper. Why get bent out of shape and ruin your night?
Actually, some researchers say that arguing is one of the healthiest things a couple can do. Research from the Center for Marital and Family Studies, at the University of Denver, suggests that couples who embrace arguing are more likely to be satisfied with their marriages than are couples who withdraw from conflict altogether.
“Conflict,” explains Sniechowski, “is generally understood to be either win or lose. And in that context, it’s unattractive and dangerous. But conflict is in fact a signal from the relationship saying, ‘Something has to change. Pay attention here.’ And once you understand this, conflict can become the doorway to more intimacy in all areas: emotional, sexual, spiritual, and intellectual.”
Sherven and Sniechowski routinely tell couples not to compromise, tolerate, or merely cope with one another. “There’s an insidious silence that goes with compromise,” Sniechowski says. “It’s really, in the long run, very debilitating. It takes the juice out of what’s possible for the relationship. And even worse, it only produces a false tranquility.”
But there are right and wrong ways to argue. (Throwing a can of soup through the kitchen window would be one wrong way.) “As soon as you recognize that you are upset, you should take a step back,” suggests relationship coach John Grey, Ph.D., who wrote Becoming Soulmates with his wife, Bonney. “You can’t work on a relationship when everything is urgent.” So postpone the discussion for an hour or a day. “Only once you’re calm, centered, and effective can you accomplish anything.”
And remember: here are the 5 Surefire Signs You’re Ready to Get Married in the First Place.
Admit it. Like most men, you’re selfish. It’s all about you, you, you, and you feel guilty about being so shallow.
Well, go ahead: Be selfish. “You absolutely should take care of yourself first,” says Sniechowski. “When we go to weddings and the clergy talk about the two ‘becoming as one,’ we always want to stand up and yell, ‘Well, which one of the two are they going to become?’” says Sherven. “Really, this sets up a losing situation for both parties. The submissive person is losing themselves, and the dominant one is losing the person he or she fell in love with. Our work promotes the idea of ‘twoness’ in marriage.”
Being selfish is mature, proactive behavior because it keeps you from becoming reliant on your partner for your happiness. Plus, it takes the guilt out of eating the last slice of pizza.
Three healthy ways to be selfish:
—Buy something you really want without consulting your wife. For inspiration, here’s our in-depth guide for How to Buy Anything.
—Find a passion that is yours alone.
—Spend time with friends who are not your wife’s friends’ husbands. Be religious about seeing buddies every week to play poker or basketball, coach a kids’ team, or just grab a beer. Remember: hanging with your buddies is one of the 100 Easiest Ways to be a Healthier Man Right Now.
Forget sex—for a Moment
Be honest, now: Has the sex ever not been pretty damn good? But if the bedroom is the only place you two are happy and connect on an intimate level, you have a major problem on your hands.
A University of Iowa study shows that the happiest couples are those with similar personality traits, even if they are negative traits like contentiousness or irresponsibility. Study couples reported that having similar personalities accounted for marital satisfaction 46 percent of the time.
But even if you are like oil and water, having a common interest that you can participate in together appears to be a key ingredient in a strong marriage, according to a study from the department of sociology at the University of Arizona. Other studies have shown that couples who exercise together at the gym end up getting more exercise in the bedroom. Still another study found that wives and husbands in long-term marriages considered sharing a sense of humor to be essential for marital bliss. However, if you’re not performing in the bedroom, don’t miss our Easy Ways to Make Sex Last (Much) Longer.
“I call it the ‘me, too’ response; it’s a huge roadblock to real communication,” explains Paul J. Donoghue, Ph.D., coauthor of the book Are You Really Listening? Keys to Successful Communication. “She says, ‘I had a horrible day at work today.’ And you say, ‘Me, too.’ Listen to what just happened. Now the person who was originally trying to communicate a problem has been shut down.”
Men do this all the time, and they think they are being empathetic and helpful. “We take her issue and make it all about ‘me,’” says Donoghue.
“The other common communication mistake men make is listening only for problems that need solutions,” says Donoghue’s coauthor, Mary E. Siegle, Ph.D. “Where women tend to be soothers, typically, guys are fixers. But what women really want is for you to make a commitment to sit down and listen.”
In other words, shut up, nod compassionately, and absorb what she’s saying. The perfect all-purpose response: “I understand. I’m on your side. What can I do to help you feel better?” To really connect with her, here are the 13 Sexiest Things You Can Ever Say to a Woman.
Remember when you were trying desperately to get into her pants? You showered her with flowers, candy, gifts, romantic getaways to the Mexican Riviera. So, what’s changed in 10 years of marriage?
Giving small, frequent tokens of your affection will maximize your marriage. “I often tell couples to exchange lists of six things their partner could do inless than 30 seconds that would make them happy,” says Grey.
These bribes need not be material to be effective. Try drying the dishes, folding the laundry, paying the bills, walking the dog. The smallest gestures can sometimes yield the greatest rewards. If you need some guidance, here are the 15 Best Luxury Gift Sites for Her.
Make her take out the trash
We all bring certain experiences to our relationships, and we all have certain expectations of how marriage is supposed to work. The problem is, they’re not necessarily the same experiences and expectations that our mates bring.
Here’s an example from Sherven: “Years ago, I was driving with an activist feminist friend in her 40s. She had been married for about 10 years. We were on our way to a meeting when she started complaining to me about how her husband wasn’t taking out the trash. I said, ‘Well, have you asked him to?’ And she whipped her head around and said, ‘No! I shouldn’t have to ask him. He should know!’ So I asked, ‘How should he know?’ And she said, ‘My father always took out the trash.’ Of course, the problem was, her husband didn’t grow up in her family. Too often, we expect our spouse to know what we are thinking or feeling automatically. It doesn’t work that way.”
Falling into patterns from the past can also spell trouble for couples who are looking to move beyond a relationship difficulty.
“The Chinese definition of insanity is doing something the same way and expecting a different result,” says Grey. “It’s critical for people to identify and break their patterns of reaction. You can’t advance and grow as a couple unless you try different approaches to a recurring problem. If you’re a person who wants more closeness with your partner, then give her more space. If you’re someone who’s always seeking more space, force yourself to stay close. Only by taking a different approach is there the potential for a different result.”