Newly weds are often asked ‘how’s married life?’ As with everything in life, the answer depends on you. For some, marriage is another word for frustration and even misery. For others it is the bedrock of strength and support they build the rest of their lives around. What are the differences that lead such a fundamental part of daily life down two totally opposing avenues? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I can share with you the things that have helped me in my years of marriage to what I feel is a very strong and happy relationship.
1. Work on Your Marriage. Like most of us, I learnt what I know about marriage from my parents. When my father once said to me ‘marriage requires attention, the moment you stop working on your marriage is the moment it begins to falter’ I can remember thinking, this didn’t sound very much like the movies. After all a wedding is the culmination of a movie, that’s when everything is all sorted out and you don’t have to worry about anything any more, right? Alas, like in many other things, my father has proven correct.
As we’ll discuss in the proceeding paragraphs, maintaining a healthy marriage requires sacrifices, attention and care. It helps to think of your marriage as a living thing in itself. Like all living things, it needs nourishment and protection, healing when it is sick, and space to grow and flourish.
These are all nice words, but what does that mean on a practical level? It means you need to always think about your marriage and not take it for granted. It means you need to be vigilant against things that might threaten it, not just the obvious things like temptation, but the subtle things like imbalances in responsibility and duty, comparisons to others, jealousy and so on. It means you need to nourish your marriage with thoughtfulness for the other’s needs, find time together and sometimes even time apart. It means when things are going wrong you need to stop and think about how you can improve them and perhaps what sacrifices you need to make. It means that a marriage needs to go forward, to change as you both change and to grow stronger.
2. Don’t Leave Things Unsaid. I watched a movie once – I think it was one of those British romantic comedies – where a man is asked why his marriage failed and he replies “Because we left too many things unsaid” and though I don’t normally take advice from movies, this one I took to heart.
If you don’t voice your problems they have nowhere to go. Worse if you voice them to people not in your marriage – i.e. friends, coworkers, anyone else – then instead of airing your dirty laundry you let it fester.
No matter how long two people have known each other there will still be things that they don’t pick up when unspoken. Sure you may think your partner knows what you’re thinking, but what if they don’t? Which leads us to number 3…
3. Speak Plainly. The very worst thing you can do in a relationship is play games with each other. No, not the twister or monopoly varieties, I mean mind games. It’s tempting when you are in a bad mood or when you don’t want to be hurt to be passive aggressive, to not say what you mean, to make veiled hints in order to test the other person and so on. Tempting, but it doesn’t go anywhere except sour.
I think it’s fairly obvious why clear communication leads to a better marriage, and yet it can be difficult to do. But if you have something to say, whether it is to voice some upset, to show that you care or anything else, then you must speak plainly if you hope for the other person to understand. And if you weren’t hoping for them to understand, why are you talking?
Speaking indirectly usually begins during dating or courting. We do it because it avoids us opening up to being hurt. At this early stage if you were to tell someone how much you liked them and they shot you down it would be painful. So to compensate we move slowly and only hint at our feelings until we see enough back from the other person that we start to open up. This is OK.
The problem is when speaking indirectly continues on into the relationship. At that point you should be able to trust the person enough to express your feelings. If they abuse them then you leave. By keeping your guard up you only put huge barriers in the middle of your relationship.
Speaking indirectly is also a bad idea when one person just doesn’t get it. When you have one partner playing games and the other doesn’t really understand their behaviour at times they will begin to resent the other and inevitably this will lead to problems.
Passive aggression on the other hand is when a partner rather than voicing their upsets appears to be smiling, calm, and usually puts bite into words that shouldn’t have it. Over time passive aggression can become less and less veiled and turn into exasperation, distain even disgust.
Another bad habit is what is called stonewalling. This is when a partner simply shuts the other out, going silent, ignoring them or even leaving for a time. Stonewalling has obvious consequences of frustration and anger and quickly leads to cycles of increasing problems as one person stonewalls while the other becomes more and more frustrated, then becomes less and less reasonable leading to further stonewalling.
If you only take one thing away from my words, let it be to speak plainly, avoid passive aggression, avoid games and avoid speaking indirectly. When you say what you mean and communicate your feelings clearly the other person has a proper chance to respond.
4. Be Vulnerable. Too often we don’t want to put our feelings and thoughts out there. Particularly if we’ve had bad experiences when younger, or if simply taught to be that way by watching our parents and peers. Admitting that you are vulnerable – everyone is – is the corollary to speaking plainly.
It is important to remember that this is your partner and they love you and you love them. Between the two of you, if you both speak plainly and admit vulnerability, then you will be able to resolve problems. It may take time, you may have many hurdles to get over, but what other recourse is there than resolution? After all neither of you are out to get the other – remember you love each other!
The flipside to being vulnerable is you get hurt sometimes. Don’t let this close you off, remember this just means that wasn’t the right person, circumstances or perhaps even a little closer to home, there were other things going wrong. Whatever the case, you don’t need to hide away. Without being open to hurt, you won’t be open to the joys of marriage and relationships.
5. Accept your Partner. It is tempting to find a person and try to shape them into the partner you really want. Trying to change a person never works. People know when they are not accepted in their entirety and it hurts.
You shouldn’t go into a marriage or a relationship thinking to change someone. And if you do remember the most you can do is explain what it is, explain how it affects you or why it affects you and if it’s important, then they may change. And if they don’t, then think about all the things that they may wish changed in you.
Of course if there are too many things you want to change, it is important to face that this may not be the right person for you, or you may be expecting too much. People will be what they will be, spending your marriage life trying to shift habits and personalities is like trying to push boulders up a mountain, tiring and not very fun.
6. Spend Time Together. It’s obvious, but a relationship without any face time is going to have problems. I have met happy couples who spend months apart because of work commitments, but they are few and far between and more often than not, their happiness is more a testament to their character and emotional abilities than anything else.
Of course spending time together doesn’t simply mean being in the same room, it means actively finding time where you engage with each other. It may even take work and effort, but remember from above, a happy marriage takes work!
Spending time together, also often entails spending some time alone. Children, even pets can sometimes be barriers to engaging with one another. Even if you simply have a few moments while they run off, it’s important to be alone too.
7. Make Time for Both Your Ambitions and Goals. It is all too easy to focus on your own goals and ambitions and hope or even assume that your partner shares them. If you don’t know what your partner’s life goals are, ask them.
In my marriage, I have goals that are to do largely with working, whereas my wife wants to travel the world. If we did either and not the other, one of us would feel unfulfilled. The solution is of course balance. We try to do one then a little of the other, then switch.
8. Be Clear and Assertive. While it is important to be vulnerable, to make sure your partners goals are being looked after, that you accept your partner and all the other things we’ve talked about, it’s equally important not to be trampled over. You should always be clear and assertive about your own feelings, your own needs and your own goals. Remember that your own happiness is essential to a happy marriage.
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