Yes, everyone, it is another marriage related post. After my wedding rant
and list of 3 + 1 questions
to ask before you get married, I thought it made sense to include a bit o' advice on how to have a happier marriage. Now, to be clear, I have no great insight into this. I’ve been married for a little less than 10 years to someone who is pretty easy to be married to most of the time. What works for us may not work for all of you, and vice versa. That said, I have picked up a few “best practices” along the way, so I figure I might as well share them and you can take what you will.
Without further ado...
Marriage isn’t always “easy” – a happy marriage isn’t just something that happens because you love someone. It takes work. Luckily, when you love someone enough it makes it a lot easier to do that work.
Don’t “keep score”, you’re on the same team.
Don't aim for 50/50. Aim higher. Long before I was around, my dad asked his sister, my Aunt Lucy, the secret to her happy marriage to my Uncle Ken. She said it was simple, she didn't aim for 50/50 effort. The idea that you should each try to do 50% of the work in a marriage, she said, was not a viable plan. It's not always going to be even, life happens and there will be times that you have to put in 90% or more, and there will be times when you'll be lucky if you can muster the 10%. This is actually the basis of my advice to not keep score because, really, figuring out points and percentages isn't going to help anyone and marriage isn't a competition. If there is a job to do, then the whole team has to do it. That's how you win games. If, however, you MUST decide on percentages, aim a lot higher than 50/50. If both of you try to do more, and do it joyfully, then you're going to be able to accomplish a lot more.
You aren’t “right” or “wrong” in an argument, and neither are they. You both could have done something better in one way or another. Take responsibility for your part, even if it seems minor. (Note: this advice does not apply to abusive relationships. If one or both partners is being abusive, then it needs to stop. Don’t worry about blame, worry about your health and safety.)
Pride in a box is worth the box. Apologize when you make mistakes, which we all do. In a marriage, as in most relationships, it’s more important to care about the other person than your own pride.
Go to bed angry. The advice to work out your differences before bedtime is generally a good one, but if you follow it to the letter there will be some nights where you don’t sleep at all. The more tired you are, the less able you are to think clearly, calmly, and rationally. Go to sleep, if it still bothers you in the morning you can work it out then.
Go to snack time angry. I don’t know about you, but I get “hangry”. I am more irritable if I haven’t eaten something in a while. This can lead to more arguments – especially if he is hangry as well. Have a snack, and then try to work it out.
Let them call you out on your bs. Learn to call them out (gently) on theirs. We’re all full of it sometimes. There are things that we consistently make mistakes on. There are times when we are not at our best, not thinking clearly, or just plain wrong. It is important to have someone who loves you to tell you these things in a constructive way. That way you can adapt your approach. Similarly, you need to figure out how to call them out on their bs because they need someone looking out for them as well. Note, however, that if you can’t do it in a loving and constructive way then you should probably wait until you can.
Avoid calling them out in front of others. Have the talk, sure, but don’t undermine your partner in front of other people. There are some exceptions to this, but they are VERY rare and should only be done gently. Again, you are a team – don’t undermine your teammate.
Don’t talk smack about your partner, and don’t pick at them in front of others (or at all, if possible). Remember, teammates.
Compliment often and openly. Criticize rarely and in private.There is always something positive to say about your partner. Doing so not only makes them feel more valued, it also helps you stay positive about them – which makes complimenting that much easier. Criticism is only valuable if it is constructive. If, for example, your partner is mispronouncing a word then don’t embarrass them by mentioning it in front of other people… but do let them know privately so they won’t make the mistake again – because that is embarrassing for them too.
If you must criticize, bookend it with love and appreciation. “Thank you for changing the baby’s diaper. As a head’s up, it is on backwards. Don’t worry about it, it still works. They’re so squirmy I’m lucky if I don’t end up putting their socks on their hands when I get them dressed… and I’m just really grateful you did that so I didn’t have to.”
You aren’t on stage, don’t fight as though you are. People don’t sympathize with you, they are pretty sure you’re crazy.
A couple is two people. Don’t add more. By this, I mean that the more people you talk about your relationship issues with, or the more additional people you’re trying to make happy with some aspect of your relationship, the more people are going to think they have a stake, and a say, in your relationship. The more people you add the more factors you have to consider. Just avoid that.
If you NEED to talk a relationship issue over with someone other than your partner, then choose someone who loves you both or someone who is neutral. Therapists and clergy members are happy to help.
Figure out what you want and ask for it directly. Keep a list of things that would make good gifts for you. Ask them if they can empty the dishwasher or stop at the store. Marriage is not an exercise in mind reading, so don’t expect someone to pick up on your “subtle hints”. The more you tell someone else what you want and need, the better they will get at knowing ahead of time and, even if they don’t, you’re still getting what you need.
Listen reflectively. Ask questions. Show interest.Reflective listening is when you seek to understand what the speaker is saying, and then you repeat what they said back to them so that you can both determine if the message is getting across accurately. Ask clarifying questions. Really take the time to show them that you are interested and paying attention. Too often we listen with the intent to reply, rather than the intent to understand. That isn’t nearly as useful and it often leads to empty interactions.
Don’t invalidate. If someone says that they think or feel something, don’t say things like, “That’s not true” or “That’s silly”. It’s their perspective, and they take it seriously. What they think and feel is valid, and so it what you think and feel. You can acknowledge where someone is coming from without agreeing with them or sharing their feelings. (Also, don’t invalidate them with gestures. Eye rolls are often used as a non-verbal invalidation.) Invalidation stops a conversation, but it doesn’t resolve anything.
Praise openly. Advocate for your partner. Like complimenting openly, praising and advocating includes talking about what’s great about the other person. This time, though, you’re talking to other people. It, again, shows your partner that you appreciate them, in makes you even more positively inclined to them, and it just generally spreads good feelings. (Just don’t let it turn in to bragging. The best clue to tell the difference is your intent – if your goal is to make it clear you value your partner then you’re probably doing okay, but if your goal is to make someone else look or feel bad then you are likely missing your mark.)
Learn to recognize when you are angry with your partner versus when you are just angry in general. Hey, we all have days where we are just grouchy. There are always going to be times when someone or something else has brought us down or made us irritable. Try very hard not to displace those feelings on to your partner (and avoid doing it with anyone else, too). If you need some way to decompress, let your partner know and then go do it. Come back when you are done and thank them for understanding.
Consider having an “attention song”. Early on in our relationship I made up a short and silly song to let John know that I wanted his attention. It’s not elaborate, it’s really just a silly short song. It got his attention, though… probably because it was different. It’s a lot more fun than getting grouchy or frustrated that he’s not listening to me, too… and worst case scenario, at least I get to be singing, which is kind of fun regardless of if it gets his attention or not.
Be silly, laugh often, look like a fool. Try to make your partner smile and laugh. When you are laughing together you’re not taking things too seriously. We should all try to have as much harmless fun as we can, and there are few things that will do that quicker than acting silly.
Aim to deescalate. When you’re having an argument, actively look for ways to deescalate the situation. Take a deep breath before responding. Let them know that you’re thinking about what they are saying before you respond. Do something funny out of the blue to break the tension. Refocus on what your real goal is – to come to an agreement that works for both of you.
Resist the urge to cause pain. When you are fighting, your feelings can get hurt. Anger and hurt often go together. When you are angry and hurt, you might sometimes want to make the other person hurt too. Don’t. Instead, slow down and tell them that you feel hurt. What you really want is not to cause pain, but to be understood and validated. Disagreements don’t have to be arguments, they can be opportunities to build the relationship through communication and compromise. Remember, you don’t “win” an argument with your partner, you can’t “win” when you play against your own teammate.
Use a disagreement as an opportunity to solve a problem and build a relationship.
Avoid accusations and all or nothing language. Don’t say things like, “You did X. You always do that.” Talk instead about your feelings and your concerns. If something was done that you don’t like, then say that you don’t like it and why. Try, “I didn’t like it when you… I don’t like it because when that happens I feel…” Offer an alternate solution, or make a request. “Could you please put the toilet seat down? The cats seem entirely too interested in the toilet and that makes me worry that they are going to do something gross.”
Don’t criticize their interests just because you don’t share them. If one of you likes online games and the other doesn’t, so be it. If one of you likes stamp collecting and the other doesn’t, it’s no big deal. If it makes them happy and it isn’t hurting anyone then why does it matter if you enjoy it or not? No one is forcing you to do it with them (though you probably could consider giving it a try before you decide for sure). Often times when someone is complaining about the other person’s hobby it is for another reason entirely – usually that they feel neglected in some way. If you’re upset that you feel like they are using a lot of the time that they could be spending with you on their hobby, then tell them that. Figure out how to spend quality time together… but remember, if their hobby recharges them then they are going to be a lot easier to be around than if they don’t have another mental outlet. If you find yourself with extra time, cultivate your own interests. Interests make you interesting.
Do things together. Experiences are memorable. Shared experiences build bonds.
Do things apart. Have other interests, it gives you something to talk about.
Make trust your default position, and strive to make that position easy for your partner to take with regards to you.
Do things for the other person often. Forgo “gold stars”.By that I mean do things because you want to help them out, not because you want a reaction. If, however, you really DO want a reaction, then ask for it directly. “I cleaned the kitchen today. I think it looks really nice and I would really appreciate it if you could come look at it and generally tell me that I am great for having done it.” Again, marriage isn’t an exercise in mind reading, if you want a reaction, ask for it… or understand that your partner may just not be as demonstrative as you.
Say thank you when they do something that benefits you or someone else. Show that you appreciate them and their efforts.
Remember that they aren’t their family (of origin)… or yours. We each learn things from our family, for better or worse. We often learn that x means y from one family member or another. Sometimes that is fine, other times it really isn’t something we think is cool. Their family, too, did things differently than you, and you might not like everything about their way either. When it most comes to be an issue, however, is usually when your partner does x, and you automatically assume that it means y. Sometimes a sigh really is just a sigh, not an attempt to indicate something else. Don’t get irritated with your partner for doing, or not doing, something a certain way just because you got used to your family (or theirs) doing it that way. If you don’t like something, tell them and explain why. If you prefer something, tell them and explain why. But don’t get angry at them because of something that your family member does, and don’t get upset if they don’t do something because they honestly didn’t know that when you did x, you expected them to do y.
Stand up for them. There will be times when other people are going to do or say something that hurts your partner. When they do, don’t just sit idly by. You don’t need to start a brawl, but it won’t kill you to say something like, “I would prefer it if you didn’t talk that way about my partner. If you continue to do so, I am leaving.”
Try to keep them from having to take sides. This comes up any time there are more than two people trying to get different outcomes – and it will happen fairly often with families and some friends. When at all possible, especially if there is a difficult person involved, try to keep them from being in a you-versus-them situation. If your partner’s parent wants to have a talk with them privately, go find something else to occupy your time. It doesn’t need to be a big deal. (If, however, it is a big deal, then explain how you feel about it and why.)
Do what you can to make it clear to other people that if they force an issue so that YOU have to pick sides, that you are going to pick the side of your partner. Not only is that better for your relationship, it greatly reduces the number of times people will try to force you to pick sides.
Put your stuff aside and give them your full attention. There are times when you are doing one thing but your partner wants your attention. Whenever possible, put what you are doing aside and give them that attention. When it isn’t possible to do that immediately, set up a time (preferably in the next few minutes) when you CAN shift your attention.
Know when to put your issues and arguments aside. There will be times when you are upset with your partner and you’ll want to address it – but then something else will happen in their lives where they need your full support. You can figure out your issues later, when those times happen, they are your priority.
Learn how they do things and accept that. We all do things differently. Your partner is going to have a different way of doing things much of the time. If it works, don’t worry about it – your way isn’t the only valid way. Just be grateful that they get things done.
Figure out what their big things are and focus your attention there. By that, I mean that many of us have things that really make us happy and really make us agitated. If you know that your partner feels most happy when their sock drawer is full of clean socks, then do what you can to make sure that they have a drawer full of clean socks. (This is a specific example because I have one friend who really feels better when he has a drawer full of socks, and his wife makes the effort to make sure that is always true. It ‘s actually really lovely when you think about it.)
Fight the fight in front of you. Don’t keep bringing up old things or piling new issues into a disagreement. If you have more than one issue, settle it separately – otherwise things can easily get all jumbled and it is much more difficult to sort things out and find solutions.
When in doubt, err on the side of kindness and love.
That’s it. That is what I have learned from my relationship about how to have a happier marriage. If I think of more, I’ll share them in forthcoming posts. I hope that some of this advice is useful to you… it was useful to me to write it all out.
What do you think? What is your advice for a happier marriage? Please share in the comments and/or on the Facebook Page
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Photo Credit goes to Emily Kubley of King Photography