Rules for a happy marriage
By Elly V. Darwin, M.Ed., NCC
I should start this off with a huge disclaimer: I’m talking about my marriage. I hold no guarantees for yours, but since mine has been terrific for 30 years, I thought I’d share some of what’s worked. (And by the way, I’m a woman married to a man, so I write “him” a lot, but I believe that however a committed relationship is constituted, these rules transcend the composition of the pair.)
I haven’t always led a charmed life in the relationship department. Like many, I’ve suffered through some failed, even ugly, stuff. After a particularly painful second divorce, and a doomed relationship after that, I decided that the relationship I really needed to seek out and understand was the one with myself. I put dating on hold and developed other aspects of my whole self in lieu of searching for Mr. Right.
Then--voila!—out of nowhere, without my looking, Mr. Right showed up. I won’t go into the story, but it was truly magical: it’s as if the universe said, “OK, now you’re ready, so I have just the guy for you.”
My darling Tony had a similar path prior to meeting me—and like me, came to a point in his life when he decided to invest in some intensive personal growth to better understand himself. After 30 years together as I write this, we are truly happy. More than happy, we are content. As in satisfied, comfortable, not feeling any lack or hunger or yearning for something else in each other (or, God forbid, in someone else). So, here goes, in no particular order, some of how I/we have made it work for us:
You get what you focus on (and whatever you focus on tends to increase).
Therefore, why not focus on positive things instead of what’s wrong? Why spend precious time fretting or arguing over little things that, in the long run, aren’t really all that important? Why not focus instead on what’s right, what’s going well, the good things? That’s kind of a general philosophy of my life, and it works particularly well in marriage.
Engage in thank-you-thons.
You may think it’s unnecessary, or even silly, to thank your spouse for every little thing. Why thank him for putting a new roll of toilet paper in the holder? Well, why not? Was it thoughtful? Did you appreciate it? Then thank him! You don’t have to make a big deal out of it, but it never hurts to let him know you appreciate all those little things. In fact, Tony and I couch many of our thank-yous in humor. For example, our house has lots of fairies that do all kinds of little things, so one of us might mention, “Oh, if you happen to see the toilet paper fairy, tell him thanks for putting out a new roll.” It’s our way of saying, “I noticed it and I appreciate you.” And besides, “Thanks for taking out the trash” is so much nicer than “Well, it’s about time you took out the trash!” The opportunities are endless. However you say it, just be sure it’s genuine and not sarcastic. The more you thank him, the more he’ll feel appreciated, and the more he feels appreciated, the more he’ll want to keep doing those little things you keep thanking him for.
Give to each other.
In the morning Tony likes his coffee and I enjoy a blended “power juice” concoction. One of the things that Tony and I do for each other is he makes my power juices and puts them in the fridge for me, and I prepare his coffee at night so in the morning all he has to do is push the On button. We could easily make our own, right? But it’s kind of nice that each of us receives a little gift from the other each morning. And it gives us yet another opportunity to thank each other for a sweet little offering.
Brag about him.
I’m amazed at how many conversations I overhear in cafes between two friends complaining about their spouses. Good Lord, what a wasted opportunity! Sure, sometimes you just need to vent a little, and it’s good to have a friend who’ll lend a sympathetic ear. (I’m grateful for mine when they’ve been there for me.) But just think how it would be if instead of complaining about little foibles, people used that time to brag about the good things their spouses do!
Years ago, I had a job that required me to get up pretty early. I’m not a morning person, so Tony would come into our bedroom at wake-up time and say softly, “Elly, time to get up.” Then I’d (literally!) wake up and smell the cup of coffee, fixed just the way I like it, that he had set on the bedside table for me. OMG! Who does that?! Every morning!
OK, here’s the story: The first time he did it, I thanked him profusely, as in over and over and over again. I told him how sweet he was and how much I appreciated his thoughtfulness. At work I told my coworkers what a sweet thing he had done that morning. Well, guess what? The next morning he did it again—and the next and the next for as long as I had that job. At every opportunity I would tell a friend how sweet my husband is: Every morning when he wakes me up, he brings a cup of coffee and sets it on the bedside table. You can imagine their responses: “Awww!!” Sometime later, if they happened to meet him in person, they’d say, “Oh, you’re the guy who brings Elly her coffee in the morning. I wish my husband did that!” Tony would kind of pass it off or make a joke about me being a princess, but he couldn’t hide the fact that he was beaming.
There’s a pretty simple rule for maintaining desirable behavior with people: Catch ‘em being good. It works with spouses, kids, co-workers—anyone, really. When you notice something they’re doing that is helpful or thoughtful or kind, compliment them on it. Not rocket science. You don’t have to gush. Just a simple, “Hey, I appreciate that you…” or “You did a good job on…” will suffice.
Say goodbye lovingly.
I remember a kid in my high school whose father was killed in a car crash. What did he say over and over afterward? “I wish the last time we spoke, it hadn’t been an argument.” Each time we say goodbye, even if it’s just to run a quick errand, there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to say hi again. Wouldn’t it be nice if the last words said were “I love you”?
Welcome him home.
Years ago I read an advice column in which a wife complained that when her husband comes home from work, he gives her a quick hug and then goes straight to hugging and playing with the dog. She complained that he wasn’t interested in her problems, and she felt angry that he seemed far more excited to see the dog than her. I don’t recall which columnist it was, so I can’t give proper kudos for her wonderful answer, but I remember it to this day: “Try greeting him more like the dog does.” Be happy to see him, and he’ll be happy to see you. Who wants to work all day and come home to a grouch?
Choose your battles carefully.
‘Nuff said? I’d never advocate swallowing every issue or letting yourself be a doormat for another’s selfishness. But, seriously, not every issue is worth a fight, or even worth bringing up. If you’ve asked him a hundred times to turn off the light when he leaves a room, and he still leaves it on, just quietly turn it off yourself.
And speaking of “a hundred times,” here’s a really valuable rule I maintain for myself: Twice is suggesting, three times is nagging. If he doesn’t get it after two tries, more repetitions probably won’t work any magic.
Deal with it.
Do we get on each other’s nerves occasionally? Do we sometimes annoy each other? Do we screw up? Of course. You can’t live together, let alone for more than a quarter century, without some issues coming up. But deal with the issue, sooner rather than later. You don’t have to bring it up right this minute, in front of his buddies or his mother, but don’t let things linger and fester.
“Could you please [do / not do whatever]” works a lot better than “You’re [some form of degrading name-calling].”
Yeah, sometimes I’m wrong. Saying I’m sorry isn’t defeat. It isn’t shameful. It isn’t he-wins-I-lose. It’s just an admission of a mistake and a gesture of making amends. Period.
Get over it.
Once you’ve stated your case and your preference, be willing to move on. Dwelling and rehashing won’t help. Obviously though, if the issue is really serious, it will need more serious attention, including perhaps some couples counseling. I’m talking here about all those mild-to-moderate things that fester and, over time, suck the love out of a relationship.
Give him space.
It seems more and more house hunters are listing a man cave as a must-have. Not everyone can afford this luxury but try to allow him some space to call his own, where he can build his model planes and leave the toilet seat up if he wants. I believe the need for space applies socially as well. It’s OK if he doesn’t want to talk about every little thing or if he decides he doesn’t want to go to the potluck.
"You're not the boss of me!"
Remember when kids said that? Well, it’s true. Marriage is not a boss-worker or parent-child relationship. Maybe he didn’t pick out the greatest shirt to wear to that potluck he doesn’t really want to go to. So what? It’s his body and his decision. Save your scrutiny and criticism for more important things.
I was once in a conversation with a friend on a trip. She was lamenting that whenever she travels, she cooks and freezes meals for her husband ahead of time, only to discover after she gets home that he didn’t eat them. She turned to me and asked, “Do you have that same problem with Tony?” I replied, “He’s an adult, and I’m not the food cop.” She paused and repeated back, “He’s an adult, and I’m not the food cop.” Then she added, “I like that!”
Humor goes a long way.
Life is just better with humor. You don’t have to be a comedian, but viewing things in a fun, and funny, light brightens the mundane and softens the rough edges. That said, I’ll add this important stipulation: Humor that hurts isn’t funny. It’s not funny if it’s really anger or resentment in disguise. It’s not funny if both people don’t enjoy it. But when both can share a genuine laugh often, life is sweeter. Tony and I laugh every day, even when we hit an occasional rough patch. If we have a disagreement, we often end the discussion with a humorous remark or two. It’s our way of signaling to each other that it’s over and we’re moving on.
Never take him for granted.
Ever! I don’t get why it is with some couples that, once they’re married, some sort of privilege/servitude sets in: You no longer have to be nice. It’s OK to demand rather than politely ask. He’s not entitled to have his self-esteem stroked. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
Happy wife, happy life?
We’ve all heard that saying, but I like this one better: Happy spouse, happy house. It cuts both ways. If both parties in the relationship make a point of unselfishly taking the other person into consideration, if both are willing to look at things from the other’s point of view, if both truly try to make the marriage a joyful experience for the other, each and every day, the marriage stands a pretty good chance of being a happy one. Which leads me to my final point:
Treat your spouse like your best friend. Would you belittle your best friend for every little oversight? Would you expect your best friend to bend to your every wish and demand? Would you assume it’s OK to behave irresponsibly and expect your best friend to pick up the pieces? Would you deliberately embarrass your best friend in front of others? Would you expect your best friend to let you have your way every time?
I once asked a young woman how things were going with her boyfriend. She replied, “I think he might be the one, so I’m trying not to mess it up!” It made me wonder how many marriages might be more successful if everyone carried that attitude throughout the marriage, not just while dating. (They’ve been happily married for many years now. It brings me great joy to see how kindly they treat each other.)
Does all this take some work? Well, yeah. It takes being willing to be mindful, to correct mistakes, to not “mess it up.” If that’s work, consider the potential rewards. Consider it a labor of love. All I can say is, for more than a quarter century, I’ve been blessed to say that my best friend in the whole world is also my spouse.
Elly Darwin, M.Ed., NCC holds a master’s degree in counselor education and is a retired educator. She owns Clearheart Communications, LLC, and operates the website, ClearheartCommunity.com.
Images: Gold rings (title image): Callum Ramsay, Pixabay / Wedding cake topper: lumpi, Pixabay / Senior couple: Format ARW, Unsplash / Author: WestRidge Photography / Emojis, coffee cup: clipart
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