People often ask us, “What is the secret to a happy marriage.” You are likely particularly curious about this if you are a newlywed couple. Other than a minimal requirement for pre-marital counseling from some churches, there is little training available for how to make a marriage work long term. You may have few models for a good marriage and are then left with idealized images of what to strive for. When these ideals are not met, you may feel anxiety or despair.
Since we have been marriage counselors for more than forty years and happily married to each other just as long, this is a logical question to ask us. Fortunately, there are some basic principles and behaviors that are available that will help in making your marriage work–for newlyweds and all marriages!
What Is The Secret?
In our experience, the secret is to be proactive and intentional about focussing on your relationship as a team, not just meeting your own needs. It doesn’t have to be hard work or self-sacrifice. Giving attention to nourishing your marriage can be fun and supportive. It doesn’t need to take extra time out of your life, but be part of what you do every day like exercising or brushing your teeth. Since the romantic phase of a marriage typically lasts only 12-18 months (Wile, Couples Therapy, 1981 https://www.amazon.com/Couples-Therapy-Nontraditional-Daniel-Wile/dp/0471589896), it is important to start out on the right foot from the beginning.
Here are 10 Tips For Making Your Marriage Work right now:
- See Your Couple As An Entity Working Together As A Team
In our view, two people in a relationship create a third entity, what you can call “Couple” with a capital C. (Without the article in front of it.) A couple conveys a way of being together rather than a thing to achieve. Like a child you nurture and parent together, this third entity is created by each of you, but it also has a life of its own. Or like a company, it is made up of individual workers, but the goals to be achieved are the joint goals of the company.
This view of marriage is probably different than how you may have been thinking about what it means to be married. It requires working together as a team for the good of the whole, not just the individual. When you work together as a team in this way, you have access to “Couple Power.”
Couple Power, in this sense, is the combined energy of both partners directed toward the goals of Couple. This requires putting Couple first, rather than me first. It requires a commitment to staying together as a Couple, not just love for the other person. This is the first of the Four C’s of Couple Power.
If you are committed to making your marriage work, then you will tackle difficulties in your life together. Whether it be your child or a work project, “will take it on as a team,” supporting each other. A couple is then, not a place to get to or something to achieve; it is, rather, a place to come from that supports lifelong love.
- Create a Joint Vision for Your Relationship
Once you have created your couple as an entity working together as a team, you need to have something to work for. That is where creating a vision for your relationship comes in. A vision in dictionary terms is “the ability to imagine and prepare for the future, providing, as Scott Stanley says, “meaning, motivation, and inspiration for the tasks ahead.” It is important to come to an agreement about your vision early on in your relationship and keep checking in with each other about it.
One way to begin this is to do our “Creating a Joint Vision” from our Lifelong Love book. This exercise is one where you each delineate your vision for your relationship now, in one year, five years, ten years, or more, and then share your thoughts with each other.
3. Turn Your Vision Into a “Proclamation”
Just having or wanting a wonderful vision for your relationship isn’t enough. You need to give it a structure and a way to keep it present in your lives. A powerful and efficient way to do this is by considering this example. When our nation was merely an idea in the minds of some incredibly intelligent people, it was brought forward with a powerful declaration, The Declaration of Independence. Likewise, the vision of equality that we all hold so dear was generated with a proclamation, the Emancipation Proclamation. In doing so, the values, beliefs, and laws of our nation were established because people spoke them into existence.
You can do the same with your marriage. When you articulate the vision for your partnership in marriage with a brief statement, that statement reinforces the commitment you share. The statement generally starts with “We” and is constructed in the present tense, as if it is already happening.
For example, one couple who wanted to increase their physical intimacy created the proclamation “We are excited lovers!” Another couple who was facing a physical separation for one year created the proclamation, “We are home for each other”. These statements solidify the couple’s stated intention for their relationship and help in times of uncertainty, need, or worry to remind a couple of their heartfelt commitments to each other.
4. Take On A Project Together
Once you have a Couple Proclamation, you can use it to motivate your interactions. Like the mission statement of a business, it establishes a purpose and direction for working together as a team.
An important way to enhance your couple operating as a powerful team is to take on projects together. Plan something that motivates you both and cooperate on defining goals and roles. Everything doesn’t have to be equal. Like a sports team, define which tasks and skills work best for meeting your goal and divide them up while supporting each other. That kind of “team spirit” can help you accomplish things together that you might not achieve alone.
You might want to give your project a name, something positive that motivates you both. For example, we had much more success cleaning up our house when we changed the name of the project from House Cleaning to House Beautiful!
5. Practice Requesting and Offering
A vital part of successful cooperation is becoming comfortable with asking for what you need and being open to offering help as well. When you trust that you are both committed to the same goal, you can be free to make requests knowing that you will be heard and responded to honestly.
Just making a request doesn’t mean that you will get exactly what you want, but at least it will be clear, and you are less likely to be resentful. Think about turning your complaints into requests, and you will get much further.
Also, be generous and think about what you might offer to contribute to your partner and couple that will benefit you both. Be flexible and think “outside the box.” For example, if you want more intimacy with your partner, offer to give a back or foot rub without being asked to. The benefits may surprise you!
6. Set Aside Regular Times To Talk and Share
The main thing every couple says they need is communication. It is not that you don’t already communicate, it is how and when you do it that matters. What is necessary is what we call “responsible speaking and listening.” That means saying what you feel and think without judging or blaming your partner and listening with an open mind and full attention. It is not so easy to do.
Sometimes it helps to structure this kind of communication, like setting aside a specific time to share and sticking to it. We call this “Tea for Two.” You might also give each other five minutes each to speak without interrupting. Say your Couple Proclamation before doing these exercises. Afterward, you will notice that you both feel more relaxed and open to sharing more. If you have the time, get in the habit of sharing your dreams in the morning as well. It is a quick and intimate way to start your day.
7. Acknowledge Each Other
It’s never too soon in a relationship to take time to acknowledge each other for something you appreciate. This simple act of acknowledgment fosters intimacy during the high points of your relationship and strengthens your bond during the low points. It is easy and inexpensive.
Simple as it is, the practice of acknowledging is often overlooked. That is sad since it is what people need most, even more than expressions of love, to function well. Couples need acknowledgment to thrive, and it needs to go both ways. So, for example, when your wife acknowledges you for getting a raise, be sure to let her know how much you appreciate her support in taking care of the house and meals to make it possible.
Remember, what you reinforce is more likely to reoccur, and what you ignore is likely to disappear.
8. Don’t Be Afraid To Talk About Sex and Finances From The Beginning
Money and sex are notoriously the most problematic issues in a relationship. From the very beginning, these two issues seem to bring up the most intense feelings, both positive and negative, for newlyweds. This intensity may make it feel even more uncomfortable to talk about, but it is crucial to confront these issues early on in your marriage.
These issues don’t usually improve on their own over time. Once you have been married for many years, if you haven’t been sharing your sexual needs, your sex life is likely to wane or become routine.
In the realm of finances and sex, even talking about it can bring you closer together. In our experience, by showing the courage to be honest with your partner you are drawing more deeply on your Couple Proclamation and reinforcing your commitment to making your marriage work.
9. Make Friends With Other Couples, Old And Young
As newlyweds, you may be content to spend most of your time just being together. There is a pull to establish your own identity as a couple. That is important; at the same time, we are a social species, and we need and thrive on a community of support from people around us. In his landmark book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam points out the positive relationship between well-being and integration at the community level.
Communities may be vertical consisting of extended families, or horizontal involving connections we make with peers or organizations in our social network. In the first year of your relationship, parents can be quite helpful in giving support or recommendations for solving problems you may be facing in establishing your new household. When our kids were newly married to their partners, we received many phone calls from them asking for advice about what to purchase or how to fix things.
When you first get married, many of your friends may have been people who were in your lives separately before you became a couple. You will certainly keep many of these friends, but you may want to expand them into couple connections when possible. This gives you and them a supportive network and couple community to enjoy and rely on.
If you want help connecting with a community of couples, you may want to contact Couples Coaching Couples, a national network of couples that we started over 25 years ago with groups around the country providing support and peer coaching to each other.
10. Celebrate As Much As You Can!
One of the best things about being on a team is celebrating your victories together. That is what your couple team can do at every opportunity to reinforce your success. Too often, you may feel drawn to focus on the negative things and difficult challenges in your new relationship. You probably had many expectations when you got married, and some of them may not have been met. But many of them are being fulfilled, and when they are, take every opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate them, no matter how insignificant they may seem at the time.
When you finish painting your living room, go out for a special dinner. On your anniversaries (the first date, the first month married, one year), buy a present for yourselves together or throw a party. Have a “victory dance”–the victory over separateness and an expression of the power of Couple! Victories do not have to be big.
The first year of marriage is exciting, but it is also challenging. Follow these tips to make your marriage work for lasting happiness and success. For more on how we work with newlyweds and couples, please call us at 434-971-4701 to set up an appointment or send us a confidential email here.