We’re stressed. We’re overworked or looking for work. We’re worried about paying the bills, the mortgage, the kids’ college tuitions. We’re trying to do the best for our families, and in some cases, looking out for aging parents, too. All this takes a toll on the very thing that should provide strength and comfort: our marriages. Intimacy? Who has time? Who has energy? Communication? Sure, we talk. You pick up the kids and I’ll stop for groceries. Marriages are straining under the pressure. But the last thing we have time for is working on our relationships. Or is it?
Almost everyone has an opinion about marriage and relationships. Just ask Dear Abby or your mother-in-law. Much of the advice comes in sound bites, in reaction to the crises of the day: layoffs, health issues, infidelity or, ahem, diminished libido. Of those eager to render opinions on your marriage, few have done real research to gain an understanding of exactly how couples do succeed in building stronger, more intimate relationships. We spoke with such experts, who were happy to report a few surprises—pleasant ones—resulting from their research. Sorry, there’s no magic bullet, even in a little blue pill. But listen to this: By paying attention to the little things, you’ll strengthen your marriage. Another surprise: A happier marriage doesn’t necessarily require a long, difficult process. “This is amazing news for couples who want to make their marriages better, but who falsely believe the journey will be long, arduous, complicated and filled with land mines,” says Terri Orbuch, an author, radio host and director of a landmark government-funded long-term research study of 373 married couples. That said, don’t you think you have a little time to invest in improving your marriage? Then read on.
Do address the little things.
“I think the most surprising thing to me: The couples in my study said they sweat the small stuff. That’s opposite from what we’re hearing in the media,” says Orbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great and host of The Love Doctor weekly radio show. She advises couples to address small things that irk them. Example: One spouse throws socks on the floor or doesn’t put dishes in the dishwasher. If you don’t deal with small issues when they occur, minor annoyances can snowball. “Don’t let it fester inside you,” Orbuch says. “Don’t let it accumulate over time. What starts small becomes big.” Couples who have dealt with the little things are better able to handle bigger challenges outside the relationship, she says, such as job loss, financial difficulties, even the health of a parent. In fact, they grow closer during hardships.
Do or say small things every single day to show your partner is special.
To be happy in a relationship, you need to give “affective affirmation,” in Orbuch’s parlance. Translation: Turn on the coffee pot. Send a greeting card. Give a kiss on the cheek. Or do it with words: “I love you,” “You make me feel special,” “I would still choose you if I had to do it over again.” “Men crave and need affective affirmation from their wives more than wives need it,” Orbuch says. Women can get support from other people while men rarely ever hear anyone else say, “I love your suit!” So men really crave affirmation from wives. Significantly, when men don’t get it, they look elsewhere, Orbuch’s research found, and when that happens, a couple is two times more likely to be divorced.
Don’t overlook an expression of affection.
Men might fix the car or repair a kitchen cabinet to show they care, and they expect women to show they care in similar active ways, Orbuch says. But women are the opposite—they use words and phrases to show they care, and they expect their sweethearts to do the same. Moral: Recognize that men and women tend to operate differently when it comes to showing each other they’re special. Make sure you’re not missing what your mate sees as a loving gesture.
Practice the 10-minute rule.
Every single day, talk with your spouse for at least 10 minutes about something other than these four things—work, family, chores or your relationship, Orbuch suggests. Most people think they’re communicating all the time with their spouses, but what they’re really doing is maintaining the household by deciding who’s going to pick up the kids, who’s going to call mom, who’s going to get the groceries. They’re not really communicating. Communication is when you share intimate thoughts, goals and dreams. Topic ideas: What are you most proud of doing in the last year? If you had all the money in the world, what would you like to do and why? What do you regret doing? Who were you closest to when you were growing up—mom or dad? Those are the kinds of questions you asked when you were first dating. And that’s the level of intimacy you want to re-create to transform your relationship and to really create happiness as you begin to know what makes your partner tick, Orbuch says.
Get out of your rut.
Join a gym together for the first time, start a new dance class, get up early to take a nature hike. Upset the routine enough to make your partner sit up and take notice. Here’s why: All relationships have ruts, and couples who stay in those ruts see happiness erode over time. To Orbuch’s surprise, a lot of couples are bored with each other and have been for a long time. Just the mere fact of being bored leads to unhappiness—“and we forget that.” For a great, successful relationship, you need to implement change or knock your partner off-kilter just a little bit to get out of that boredom. Example: One wife took her husband around the city for a treasure hunt. She kept giving him clues about the next place to go on the search. That added a lot of excitement. Adrenalin-producing activities are good—go to an amusement park, watch a scary movie. Try something new that’s a little beyond both partners’ comfort zones; as long as you’re both game for the adventure, it’s likely to bring you closer.
Don’t believe in fairytales.
Stop buying into relationship myths. The biggest reason couples split up isn’t sex, conflict or lack of communication—instead, it’s frustration, Orbuch says. Specifically, frustration from unrealistic expectations about love, the opposite sex and relationships. Examples: Relationships should be full of passion. A perfect marriage has no conflict. You need to talk about challenges and problems often if you want to be happy. When you believe myths like these, “you get really frustrated. Frustration is one of the leading reasons why people are unhappy,” Orbuch says. Solution: Sit down with your partner and write down your top two expectations. Switch papers. Discuss what the deal-breakers are. What are yours? What’s realistic?
Money problems aren’t a predictor for divorce—it’s how you handle and manage conflict in general that is important. Find the right time to bring up a source of conflict—not as soon as your spouse walks in the door from work, but instead make an appointment to talk about things more formally. Address specific behaviors. Be ready to compromise. Apologize to each other, even if you didn’t start the argument. Don’t belittle. Orbuch’s research finds that couples who resolve conflicts in an unhealthy way are less likely to stay married.
Don’t focus on the negative.
It’s important to make time for positive activities—don’t just focus on eliminating the negative. “A mistake many couples make—as do many couples therapists, I might add—is that they focus on the negative. What’s wrong with the marriage, they ask? How can we fix it?” Orbuch writes in 5 Simple Steps. The most effective way to boost happiness in a basically sound marriage is to add new elements to the marriage and strengthen what’s already working pretty well. Plan time for fun, friendships and sensuality.
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