The art of building a strong, happy marriage is not a great secret; if you know where to look there are quite a few people who can help you with smart, systematized advice that can help you turn a struggling marriage into one that is full of shared joy, built on a foundation of trust and loyalty, and charged with sexual energy.
The biggest obstacle to using that good advice is often that its presentation is hard to get through. It can be clouded with religious language, confused with the complex jargon of Game, or hidden behind a wall of psychobabble.
I suspect that it is hard to be really specific, helpful, and provide actionable steps all at the same time without creating a lot of models and functional metaphors. Especially when dealing with something as delicate as human relationships.
While it is hard to do, it is also sometimes critical to do just that. If you lose sight of the basics, and get lost in the models you can lose your ability to help others.
Last night I was reviewing a client’s case in my head as I was preparing for bed. His marriage is in no great risk – it is not crumbling or anything, it just isn’t where he wants it to be. I have been moving him ahead pretty fast, but I feel like I could be serving him better. So I sat down for a minute and asked myself “what are the keys you need to have in order to build a happy marriage?”
Here’s what I came up with as I was working through my thought experiment.
1. Don’t strive for a perfectly equal relationship, instead try to be good partners.
Human beings by nature develop hierarchies – it is just how we are. Some of us will do lot of little things around the house, some of us will do one or two labour-intensive things, and some of us will try to do it all.
You are two different human beings with different interests and drives, not to mention different strengths and weaknesses. That is what makes a relationship worthwhile; nobody wants to live with their own clone.
One of you is going to be the one who settles important decisions. One of you is going to be the one to set the emotional tone. One of you is going to choose the way you parent your children by default. One of you is going to be the one to check out scary noises at night. That is a normal pattern of human behaviour.
If you are going to insist on turning everything into an accounting exercise, and demand equal numbers of dishes washed and diapers changed, you are only going to build resentment. If you are going to insist that you have complete consensus on every decision, you’ll never get a damn thing done. If you are going to take turns initiating sex, then you are going to find you have long dry spells or one of you is going to be very dissatisfied.
It is not important for you to be perfect equals. What is important is that you are both happy in the roles you have established for yourself, and that you treat each other with consideration, respect, and dignity.
2. Make sure you are giving your partner what they need.
Everyone has one or two things that another can do for them that helps them feel loved. Every person has one or two things that another can say or do that lets them know that they have been heard and their opinion respected. Everyone has a favourite couple’s activity. Everyone has a minimum amount of sex they need to feel satisfied.
You can’t make your partner feel loved, respected, heard, included… or even sexually satisfied for that matter. What you can do is make sure that you are giving them every chance to choose to feel those feelings.
That means figuring out what you do for them that lets them feel loved and doing it regularly. It means spending time with your spouse doing things that they love. It means listening to them in a manner that ensures that they know you listened. And it means getting to know their sexual fantasies and trying to fulfil them.
This isn’t hard to do once you know what your spouse likes. The problem is that many of us have no clue. When we first fall in love with another person we do so many things for them that we often help them feel loved and respected totally by accident. It takes being genuinely interested in your spouse, present when you are with them, and being willing to have frank conversations that make a good marriage possible.
3. Keep being your own person.
The great paradox of any marriage is that two people work best together when they work on being strong as individuals. In a healthy modern marriage, you should love, trust, and respect your spouse – but you shouldn’t need them.
When you put all of your emotional needs into another person, you lose your power to stand up for yourself and express what you need. You become so worried about how they will feel and respond that you will hesitate to express your needs, disagreements, and disappointments.
If you lean on just your spouse for emotional support, you will turn into a severe emotional burden. It is very hard to retain respect for a person when they lay every bad feeling at your feet – especially if you feel the need to do something about those feelings.
To be a worthwhile spouse, you have to retain your own interests. You have to keep friends and family close to you so that you can go to other people for support on at least some of your problems. You need to know how to express yourself clearly and assertively when you are not getting what you need or disagree with your spouse.
While your marriage may not be totally equal, it always needs to be a deal between two people who want to be there, and don’t feel like the have no choice… at least if you want a marriage that is happy.
For that matter, being your own person alone is not enough; if you want a really happy marriage, then you have to strive to keep growing as a person. Whether it is fitness, new skills, better time management, or better command of your own mood, if you are constantly working on yourself, you will keep the spark and interest in your marriage alive. A healthy marriage is one in which you never run out of reasons to keep pursuing one another; being a better person all the time makes that possible.
On the other hand, if you aren’t taking responsibility for becoming a better and happier person all the time, then you are going to stagnate, and slowly fall into depression or anxiety. It is easy to become an emotional burden in your relationship if you are not working on yourself.
Part of being your own person is also knowing what is really important to you, and what is just trivia. When you know your own mind, you will find that there is really very little worth arguing with your spouse over. Most fights in a marriage come from a place of insecurity, poor boundaries, bad communication, or unclear values.
4. Grow together, too.
The intense, passionate love that most relationships start with doesn’t last. It is a herculean feat to stay absolutely intoxicated by another human. Sometime between a year and two years the hormone-driven passionate love that we first feel wears off. One day we wake up and instead of the divine lover we’d fallen in love with there is a human being next to us with pimples, bad breath, and a few obnoxious habits we somehow never noticed before.
What we are left with is companionate love; a form of love based on comfort, familiarity, common interests, and shared experiences. The person in your bed may no longer be a mysterious love goddess or bronzed Adonis, but he or she is special to you. They’re the person who held your hair back that night you had way too much to drink, or the person who drove 50 miles to change your tires when you forgot to renew your Triple-A membership. They are the person you got lost on vacation with, and who plays a mean game of Cribbage with you.
Passionate love does come back from time to time. Especially when you wake up one day and notice your spouse has grown into a better, different, happier, more sophisticated person (which is why it is so important to keep on growing.) But it isn’t the default state of even the best marriages
And that means that you need to keep spending time doing things together as a couple. A good marriage is built on sharing the things you find exciting with your spouse. It is based on games, adventures, and shared fun. You will need to spend time just doing things together – both your favourite familiar things, and the occasional novel experience.
It helps if, in your time spent growing as a person, you learn some new things that you can share with your spouse, whether that is an artistic skill you can impress him or her with, a game you can play, a sport they can watch, or a cuisine they can sample – to name just a few examples.
5. Never forget that Marriage is a sexual relationship.
Sex isn’t optional in a marriage when you are both healthy and able-bodied. Your spouse pledged exclusive loyalty to you in getting one of their most primal needs met for their entire lives. That is an incredible trust. Letting sex fall out of your marriage is a betrayal of your vows on the same level as cheating.
Of course, it is pretty hard to stay true to your vows if neither of you are feeling attracted to your spouse or are not feeling desirable. And so it is up to both of you to keep a sexual charge in the marriage,
This is one of the hardest parts of a modern marriage – even harder work than ensuring constant personal growth. It requires that you have to learn to put away stresses and miseries of child-rearing, work, and outside conflicts so that you can totally focus on your spouse for a little time every day.
It requires you to work on flirting, innuendo, and play in the times when you can be alone and present with on another. You have to understand what turns your spouse on – what spicy innuendos work for them, and what goes into a good date.
Keeping the marriage sexual means making sure you steal time together for dates and romance, even when time is short. It means making sure you meet each others’ minimum needs – even if it means scheduling it in.
Of course, the biggest part of this is making sure that you are attractive. Just because you are married does not mean that you can slack off on makeup, clothing, diet and exercise. Maintaining both your fitness and an attractive attitude (positive, playful, respectful, and confident) is imperative to keeping your marriage strong. You have no right to expect you partner to want to have sex with you if you don’t maintain yourself. And if you have become unattractive, the responsibility for letting sex fall out of the marriage is as much yours as your spouse’s.
Learning your spouse’s turn-ons and fantasies is as important as knowing what helps them feel loved and respected. Just as it i critical in a marriage to give your spouse the opportunity to feel loved and respected, giving them the opportunity to feel sexually fulfilled is critical to ensuring a lasting, healthy relationship.
When sex isn’t possible, due to illness or injury, an element of good-natured play, innuendo, and other forms of touch are important to keep sexual tension from fading out of a relationship.
A good marriage is hard work, but it is not complicated. A huge portion of it is making sure that you pay attention to your spouse, spend time with him or her, and do your best to put the right kind of energy into the relationship… while keeping in mind that it is a relationship, and you need to bring value into it by being a person worth being married to.