Your marriage vows, perhaps, didn’t anticipate piles of toenail clippings on the bedroom floor. Or Boeing levels of snoring. Or the fact that you have good reason to believe that a certain ex slid into your spouse’s DMs. Or the financial decision that has one of you wanting to save, one of you wanting to spend, and neither of you budging one bleeping penny. Before you start doubting your partner is marriage material, remember that every marriage goes through the gamut of relationship experiences.
Some of them are the highest of highs (the birth of your children, epic vacations, quiet pizza-wine-couch nights). And some are so difficult that they challenge even the best of marriages. The secret to sticking together? Not only making more of the great moments, but also knowing the best ways to handle the tougher ones. Here’s your step-by-step guide.
“Thank you” > “Love you”
Yes, you say “thanks” for the big things—a gift, a foot massage, a compliment. But how about for all the little things that provide the rhythm of life? Making sure you’re always stocked up on your favorite coffee? Making sure the laundry is done? A University of Georgia study found that the greatest predictor of marital quality: gratitude.
Financial stress means your marriage will have more cracks than a chiropractor’s office. Some data shows that couples with no assets are 70 percent more likely to divorce than those with at least $10,000 of assets.
Every fire needs to be stoked
Conflict isn’t the only buzzkill in a marriage. The other, according to a University of Michigan study: Boredom, which makes the case for peppering your routines with some moments of unpredictability. Surprise day trips, signing up to learn a skill together, new ways to initiate a romantic tango—remember that novelty builds excitement. Note: Tip-toeing home at 3:00 a.m. a few nights a month is not a “moment of unpredictability.”
Control this urge
One of the most common things that happens in relationships: One person tries to change the other into doing/being better at whatever is a central issue in the relationship. “It’s not that your partner will never change. It’s that you cannot change your partner. You may support your partner in an attempt to make a change, and you may change together. For example, you both go on a diet to support one another,” says Karl Pillemer, Ph.D, a Cornell University gerontologist, who has studied the long-term success of relationships. “But what’s misguided is the idea that you can push your husband or wife to change in the direction you have chosen for him or her. People who finally accept their mate for who and what they are, rather than seeing them as a do-it-yourself project, find the experience liberating—and are much more likely to have happy and satisfying relationships for decades.”
Men must vacuum
And dust. And cook. And scrape dried toothpaste out of the sink. And not place household responsibilities into traditional gender roles (as in: he changes the oil, she changes the sheets). Even in relationships where the couples view themselves as equal partners, married men are reported to do less housework than women, according to one recent study. For one couple I know, the husband refuses to let his wife take out the trash or clean the toilets. “He says he doesn’t want his wife doing those things,” she says.
Share the bottle
Walk before you talk
In a heated exchange because your spouse was in a third fender-bender in the last six months? Don’t knee-jerk into diatribe of what-the’s. Give yourself a chance to calm down—so you can talk maturely to resolve the conflict. Anger is natural, but giving yourself 30 minutes before engaging can morph your argument into a discussion, which is healthier in the long-term. A UCLA study found that those who argued angrily were more likely to be divorced 10 years later than those who hashed out conflict collegially.
Work out at least once a week together
You don’t have to make gym time couple time, but carving out one session a week where you do something physical together (weights, a hike, yoga) is, ahem, heart-healthy.
Censor yourself on your rare nights alone
When you have kids, it can be damn near impossible to get “couples time.” When you do make it out, use the BEWIK phrase to establish topics that are off-limits—bills, exes, work, in-laws, or kids, says Michael Bloomberg (no, not that one) , the “Romance CEO” whose program datenightology is designed to help couples connect or reconnect. “This helps couples remember why they fell in love in the first place,” he says.
You will save yourself much heartache if you resist the urge to publicly criticize your partner’s…
1) Driving 2) Grammar 3) Anything else.
Friendship is as important as love
The secret to a long and happy marriage, according to the elders who Pillemer interviewed: “I married my best friend.” Pillemer says we’re schooled early on to think of friendship and romantic love as different, but what makes friendships work are the same things that make a marriage work. “We look forward to being with friends, we relish their company, we relax with them, we share common interests, and we talk openly,” he says. One 87-year-old told Pillemer: “Think back to the playground when you were a child. Your spouse should be that other kid you would most like to play with!”
A kiss on the cheek.
A mid-day text just because.
The amount of money you will need to buy 18-plus years worth of kids’ shoes.
What it means when your ears are “listening” and your eyes are drilled down into your phone.
Tone of voice.
Use technology to your advantage
I have a friend who will sometimes use this strategy: In an argument, one party will call “truce,” which means they agree to discuss the issue via email. “If we’re frustrated or angry, writing out our thoughts takes some of the emotion out of the equation and gives clarity to our thoughts and feelings,” she says. “It makes us—mostly me—more logical and always helps resolve the dispute.”
It’s good to regularly remind yourself of that…
Sometimes the smallest weeds poking out of the ground have the longest roots.
Practice speaking skills
A study published in the Journal of Couples & Relationship Therapy showed that, while romantic texts were welcome in a relationship, apologies shouldn’t be sent by SMS, but by YODT (your own darn tongue).
Stories, desserts, T-shirts, occasional showers
Passwords, pillows, home office space, razor blades
Address issues early
The average couple waits six years after having a relationship problem to seek some help, Bloomberg says. A counselor can help couples communicate to better fix problems before it’s too late, but the key is you have to go when your relationship engine light goes on—not after you break down on the side of the road.
Schedule time away from each other
Respect and understand the need for time with friends. “My husband says I’m much happier after had a girls’ trip or lunch or dinner,” a friend says. Having hobbies and friends outside the marriage is one of the keys to having high satisfaction inside the marriage, according to research. Another friend takes separate vacations to spend time with friends, not because they want to get away from the other person but because they know that spending time with friends improves happiness. She says, “I think we have all had the friend who was the life of the party, but found a significant other and disappeared from the face of the earth only to surface years later in regret that they didn’t make time for their best friends.”
Put this quote on your cerebral bulletin board and look at now and then
“If I get married, I want to be very married.” – Audrey Hepburn
Hit the spot
Work makes you tense. Bills make you tense. Not-so-subtle subtweets from supposed friends make you tense. There’s no magic bullet to cure every stressor you have. But you know that spot in the upper back, right between the neck and shoulder? Gently press/massage/rub that spot—without being asked. And do so often.
All things being equal, she wins
A Rutgers University study showed that a woman’s happiness in a marriage is more important to the success of the marriage than the man’s.
Random Tip from Twitter
“If the wife wants to do chicken 2 days in a row, DON’T QUESTION HER.” — @stardust2187
Random Wisdom from Twitter
“The main perk of marriage is having a partner to help with excuses to get out of plans.” — @TheCatWhisperer
Random Warning from Twitter
“I almost re-thought the whole marriage thing when the husband used a fork & knife on nachos on our first anniversary.” — @BadBirdBabe
Create your handshake
Find some inspiration here.
Do not use this handshake in public
Unless it’s at a party, after midnight, and you’re among friends.
Don’t force the “couples” thing
One of my friends said his father passed along this wisdom: “Don’t expect your good friends’ spouses to necessarily be good friends with your spouse. And don’t expect that you’re going to be buddies with your spouse’s friends’ spouses. Sometimes it works out that way, and that’s great, but it’s okay that it normally doesn’t work that way.”
Pet some puppies
Looking for a Sunday outing? Hit the dog park, even if you don’t have one. A Florida State University study found that marriage quality improved when couples saw pictures of cute animals.
Warm, simmer, boil
It’s quality over quantity when it comes to sex. According to a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which looked at marital satisfaction, the frequency of sex was not as important as the quality of it.
Get more bang for your buck
In the same old routine? Use Bloomberg’s trick: Plug “date night” into the groupon.com search bar. A new idea for half the price.
It really comes down to simple math
Asking questions > pontificating answers
Stop digging in out of principle and work toward a solution
According to The Gottman Institute, 69 percent of conflict in a relationship is about perpetual problems. Gridlock is a main reason why couples can’t get past the issue.
Have pineapple pizza with lots of cheese
Or just move to Hawaii or Wisconsin, which have the lowest divorce rates, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.
Take the passion out of money fights
No matter your income level or assets, it’s important to have some kind of third-party financial planner or counselor, who can help you work on common goals, settle disagreements, and take the emotion out of an often highly charged issue—and one that’s one of the main causes of marital problems (one survey showed that 20 percent of people hide major transactions from their partners).
Google “sex positions”
According to a Chapman University study, sexually satisfied couples read sex advice online or in magazines—and then give it a whirl. For a place to start, check out the 60 Best Sex Positions For Enhancing Your Love Life.
Parenting decisions and sex have one thing in common: behind closed doors, always.
Take a hike
You can better face issues head-on by striding side-by-side.
Make it easy
Hey men: A mother with young children is faced with decisions all day every day at home, at work, or both. The last thing she wants to do is make another one. When you get a night to yourself, tell her two things: what to wear and when to be ready—and make every other decision about the evening. “Women aren’t as difficult as men think they are,” Bloomberg says. “Most people really don’t care where they want to go. They just know they don’t have to make a decision.”
Celebrate small victories
Research shows that when couples whoop it up a bit when one person has even minor successes, that’s good for the relationship.
Pray together, stay together
A Harvard study shows that married couples who attend religious services regularly are 47 percent less likely to get divorced.
Use the day date
Couples with families are used to running around, taking care of children, and having so many things to do. Sometimes, the last thing you may feel like doing on Saturday night (in the event you get one) is go out. Try the weekday date—by taking a sick, personal, or vacation day, Bloomberg says. “The best babysitter is the school system,” he says.
Movie quotes that men should never use in the context of the bedroom
“Here’s Johnny!” (The Shining)
“Wax on, wax off.” (Karate Kid)
“The Dude abides.” (The Big Lebowski)
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” (Wizard of Oz)
“Say hello to my little friend.” (Scarface)
Trust the data
Research from one study shows that if intercourse lasts more than 20 minutes, 72 percent of women report orgasms most of the time. (The bad news: other data shows that the average duration of intercourse is 7 minutes and 18 seconds.)
Limit your social media time
There’s nothing wrong with staying connected and using your various social media platforms (disclaimer: unless it’s in the Tinder genre). But if you’re constantly using your thumbs to click, like, and post at the expense of connecting with THE PERSON RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU WHOM YOU HAVE PLEDGED YOUR ETERNAL COMMITMENT, it can mean trouble. One survey found that couples who don’t use social media are 11 percent happier than those who do. (But feel free to share this story on your social networks.)
Ted Spiker (@ProfSpiker) is a professor and chair of the department of journalism at the University of Florida.
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