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How to Have a Happy Marriage: 20 Practical Tips to Improve Your Union
Creating a Strong Marriage Takes Vision, Planning, and Execution
Many of us go into marriage without knowing a thing about how to make a relationship work. If we're lucky, we had parents who were good role models – showing us how to act lovingly, communicate openly, and work together effectively. If we weren't so lucky, we had parents who were poor role models – complaining about their relationship, exchanging insults, and battling each other. Their example left us with few interpersonal skills for marriage – just a strong wish to do things differently than they did. When we don't want to follow our mom and dad's lead, we need to seek sound advice for a happy marriage and create a strong action plan for success.
Now More Than Ever Couples Are Creating Marriages to Suit Their Unique Needs
If This Is What Marriage Is, I Want Out!
Tara and Keith are a busy couple in their thirties who live in the Bay Area. Tara is a stay-at-home mom to a 5-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. Keith commutes to his job in San Francisco's financial district. Arriving home from a long day, he's met by his equally frazzled and exhausted wife. She follows him to their bedroom while he changes out of his work clothes and gives him a blow-by-blow account of all her frustrations from the day: the kids fighting, the dog puking, the dishwasher overflowing, and the dinner burning. While growing up, Tara saw her mother do this with her father and so she does the same without giving it much thought.
Keith had a much different experience as a kid. His parents were divorced. When his mother came home from work, she'd usually take him and his younger brother out to eat and they'd relax and share the events of the day. Never in his worst nightmares could he have imagined marriage would be so harried and full of stress as this. He's overwhelmed. He thinks: If this is what marriage is, I want out!
If It's Not Working, Come Up With an Action Plan to Change the Situation
Fortunately, Tara and Keith – both at their breaking points -- sat down and came up with an action plan to change their situation. Tara hired a high school student to babysit their children three evenings a week from 6:30-8:30. Now she and Keith meet at a local gym on those days. Sometimes they take a spin class. Other times they walk on the treadmill, climb the stair-master, and lift weights. When they're done, they sit and talk at the gym's juice bar or go out for a quick bite to eat.
Their new plan totally changed the dynamic between them and lowered the stress they were both experiencing. They're now more upbeat and energized after exercising. Tara gets rejuvenated by having a much-needed break from the kids and Mark gets some "me-time" after being around people all day at work and on the train. They both feel good about doing something positive for themselves. They've lost weight and now have a friendly rivalry about achieving their personal fitness goals. They took a situation that wasn't working and made it a win-win. They're working together as a team to bring out the best in themselves.
It's Easy to Gain Weight in Marriage. Exercising Together Combats That!
Stop Listening to Those Old Tapes Playing in Your Head
Before she and Keith sat down and developed their action plan, Tara felt trapped -- blind to the options available to her. She needed to erase the old tapes playing in her head, messages that told her: A good mother shouldn't need a break from her kids. A loving family should eat dinner together every night. A decent husband should listen to his wife as she details the hardships of her day. A devoted mom doesn't have time for frivolous activities such as going to the gym. A dedicated wife makes her husband a home-cooked dinner every night.
Tara realized the voice on those tapes belonged to one person -- her mother. She came to appreciate that her mother had an unhealthy stake in how her daughter played the roles of wife and mother. An insecure woman with few friends and interests, Tara's mom needed the validation she got when her daughter made the same life choices as she had. When her daughter took a different course, Tara's mom felt threatened and insecure.
Looking back at her childhood, Tara saw a distinct pattern -- win mom's love and approval by thinking, believing, and living exactly the same as she did or risk losing her love and approval by doing anything differently. Now, as a wife and mom herself, Tara knew that pattern had to stop. She gradually started to pull away from her mom -- confiding less about her personal life and not seeking her blessing. Keith began to see her as more independent, confident, and sexy as she morphed into her own woman.
Be Self-Aware in Your Marriage and Don't Just Do What Your Parents Did
Advice for a Happy Marriage
Like Tara and Keith, couples need to design their own marriages by developing an action plan for success. However, it helps to get tips from others who've travelled a similar road, learning from their mistakes and gaining from their insight:
- Don't enter a marriage expecting to change your partner. The only person you can change is yourself.
- Don't ever underestimate the power of sex for creating intimacy and keeping you connected.
- Ask yourself: Is this the hill I want to die on? If not, let it go. Don't stress the small stuff. Life is too short.
- Fight fairly. Stay on the topic at hand. Don't bring up hurts from the past.
- Put your spouse first, not your kids. A solid marriage is at the core of a healthy, happy family life.
- Don't bitch about your spouse with your guy friends or girl friends. Negativity breeds negativity.
- Make your spouse feel special. It's a big, cold, impersonal world out there. Let her come home and be appreciated for who she is.
- Turn off the technology. Nothing is sadder than watching a married couple at a restaurant looking at their cell phones rather than talking to one another.
- Speak nicely to each other. Don't have better manners with a sales clerk than you do with your own spouse.
- Say "I love you" -- a whole lot!
- Don't come home from work in a foul mood. Walk around the block. Go to the gym. Take a yoga class. Read a book. Decompress and arrive home with a positive frame of mind.
- Praise your spouse in front of family and friends.
- Communicate what makes you happy and be specific: I love it when you bring me coffee in bed. I love when we cuddle and read the newspaper on Sunday mornings. I love when you make me my favorite dinner.
- Be purposeful in your relationship. Make sure you're taking concrete actions to make it thrive. Don't get complacent.
- Keep your sex life fun and innovative. Experiment with new positions, sex toys, and role playing.
- Show affection. Hold hands. Kiss. Hug. Caress.
- Turn toward each other during hard times, not away.
- Keep a good sense of humor. Laugh together.
- If you're having serious problems, talk with a marriage counselor. Don't go to your parents and badmouth your spouse.
- Challenge each other to become better people. Do things together that make you better: reading, exercising, discussing, doing charity work, eating healthy meals.
This Book Makes a Wonderful Gift for Newlyweds
My parents had a very traditional and very unhappy marriage. When I married my husband, I wanted to do it all differently but didn't know how. Luckily, my thoughtful aunt gave this book to me as a wedding present and it served as a guide. I learned from those in-the-know how to build a successful union while keeping my own identity and preparing to become a mom. Now, whenever I have friends who get engaged, I send them a copy and it's much appreciated.
What's the best marriage advice you've received?
The good news is you get to customize your marriage to fit your unique needs as a couple. Don't fall into the trap of imitating your parents' marriage because you have some naïve notions about how idyllic it was. Tara recently spoke with her father and reminisced about how he'd come home from work and let her mom sound off about the hardships of her day. Tara's dad felt compelled to set the record straight. That interaction between them was something he hated. He dreaded coming home to his wife's complaints. He longed for hugs and kisses after a long day slaying dragons for his family, not gripes. He wished his wife would have chosen a different time to discuss the challenges of her day, not as soon as he opened the door. While disillusioned that her parent's relationship wasn't as rosy as she had imagined, Tara felt proud that she and her husband were doing things differently -- designing a relationship in which both of them could thrive and staying open to advice for a happy marriage.