Whether you have a strong and happy marriage or a difficult one that seems to be falling apart--or anywhere in between--a marriage requires work. I could give you 10 tips to a happy marriage or 15 ways to improve your marriage, but I’d rather focus on a few strategies that are guaranteed to work if you implement them. I’ve done them, our readers recommend them and research supports them.
I met my husband in preschool and we started dating in high school.
We're both in the middle row with one little boy between us. Ken is wearing brown stripes (love the 70s!) and I'm wearing a blue dress (oh those pigtails!).
Right after college graduation we got married (21 years ago!) in the same church where we attended preschool. We have a wedding picture in our classroom with our preschool teacher who was a guest on our special day.
A fairy tale, right?
Nope. And it was mostly my fault.
The first time the word “love” was brought up when we were dating, I told Ken, “I don’t believe in love, so don’t bother saying it.” I was completely serious. My family dealt with a traumatic event several years before, and I had closed off most of the world. I still worked hard in school and was involved in just about everything, but inside I was a mess. Very few people knew it.
Fast forward a few years into our marriage, and I was convinced we weren’t going to make it. I had started counseling to try to process all that had happened in my family, but instead of turning toward Ken, I poured my energy into my work. I convinced myself that he wasn’t being supportive or interested in what I was doing, that he cared more about making sure things looked perfect on the outside than dealing with his broken wife. I isolated myself from him for a while, but thankfully, I had some good friends in my life who kept me from going down a destructive path.
I also prayed a lot. I didn’t have a reason to give up on my marriage, unless you count my own selfishness. Yes, we grew apart and spent a lot of time being critical and angry. But we had made a commitment to love each other for better and for worse. And we were not honoring that commitment.
So we made a decision. We chose love. And I don’t mean the mushy, romanticized, touchy-feely kind of love that comes and goes. I mean the kind of love that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians--you know, that verse that’s read at most weddings?
I found this beautiful sign on an Etsy shop called Rooted & Grounded
That kind of love? It’s hard. It takes work. It means we have to intentionally choose it. Every single day.
It will always be worth it.
But how can we get to a place in our marriage with that kind of love? I pulled together wisdom from men and women who have been married for 4 to 60 years, along with information from professionals who study marriage or counsel couples. Here are 3 keys to building or maintaining a strong marriage.
1. Make a conscious decision to prioritize your marriage.
After my faith, my marriage is the single most important thing in my life. Before our kids, before our careers, before our interests. We love spending time together, we laugh a lot, and I wouldn’t choose another soul to share my life with. I love Ken with my whole being.
Our culture seems to expect parents to put their kids first. We see helicopter parenting and lawnmower parenting--my husband has even talked about stealth bomber parenting when he worked in college student development. I’m baffled to see parents attending music lessons with their middle school kids or sitting on the sidelines during practice. Moms turn themselves inside out with guilt if they can’t volunteer at school or they forget to sign a permission slip.
Let’s be honest. When was the last time you were wracked with guilt because you couldn’t schedule a date night? How many times have you decided you’re way too exhausted to even stay up long enough to just watch tv together? Would you tell your kids you’re too tired to take them to practice or help them study? I hope this sounds familiar because otherwise I’m on an island here. Ken and I are guilty of letting our relationship slip every now and then, but one of us always takes notice because we know what it’s like to not pay attention. And we never, ever want to be there again.
Don’t get me wrong...I want to be the best mom to my kids that I can be. And you know what? That means loving their dad and putting my relationship with him first.
David Cole relies on neuroscience research and his own study of families over 25 years in his book To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First: "When a marriage drifts apart, spouses tend to drift toward their children, creating an emotional burden that causes children to act out. Making children the center of family lives seems child friendly but it creates demanding, entitled children and starves the marriage of intimacy."
Here’s what our readers have to say:
We definitely subscribe to the rule that a strong marriage is important to a family to create safety for the kids. Marriage first; kids under that. (Mindy, 18 years)
The best advice I received about marriage is from my grandmother. She said to keep my husband first. I have failed at this at times, but I can instantly tell a positive shift in our marriage when I do this intentionally. (Carla, 20 years)
Be marriage-centered not kid-centered. (Nancy, 35 years)
Regardless of the stage of life, that marriage relationship must be primary (more important than the kids) because it is the one that will always remain…. If it’s not pursued and prioritized, it will wither and die. Too many women prioritize their role as a parent above being a wife and then they are surprised when there is nothing else when the kids are gone. (Bonnie, 49 years)
How do I prioritize my marriage? What does that look like?
Here are a few suggestions from our readers:
Enjoy your independence from one another. You don’t have to share in everything. It’s fun to learn new things about your spouse! (Jessica, 4 years)
We laugh a lot. Laughter in a marriage is a critical component of success. (Annette, 13 years) That picture of us on the beach isn't our more beautiful smiles, but it's genuine laughter.
Spend time together. (Kathy, 20 years)
Go on planned dates always! (Amy, 20 years) Mary put together a master list of date night ideas for you--everything from staying at home to evenings that require more planning. Print it out and check them off as you go!
We have a 90/10 rule. When we EXPECT to do 90% of the work, we are never comparing or accusing or disappointed in each other. (Beth, 20 years)
My husband said for him it’s the little things. The daily attention to the things that will make the other’s day a little better or easier. Making a habit of noticing these things, then following through is key. (Dianna, 20 years)
Keep passion in your marriage. (Laurie, 42 years) It may not be the most comfortable thing to talk about, but sex is incredibly important in a strong marriage. These fact sheets from the National Marriage Project list it as one of the top five things happy wives and happy husbands do.
2. Be willing to adapt your communication style.
When two people get married, they bring a whole lot of baggage with them. It’s important to sort through all of that and figure out how it affects the way you communicate with your spouse. How we communicate is based on how our "original" families communicate--I talked about it in a previous blog post because I had developed some unhealthy communication habits. Did you grow up in a household where people argued all the time? Or family members never seemed to address conflict and just pretended it didn’t exist? Maybe family members expected you to figure out the hidden meaning in what they said? Or if you’re lucky, your parents were intentional about talking honestly and openly?
Whatever your answer, you bring it all into a marriage. So, once we recognize how our original families have shaped the way we communicate, and then do the same for our spouse, we make progress. We can spend the rest of our lives being frustrated because they don’t respond like we do, or we can own our failings and idiosyncrasies, and adapt to the person we’ve chosen.
Reread that last part. The person we’ve chosen. For a healthy and successful marriage, we need to choose that person again every day. Look for the things you love and look past the insignificant things that bother you. We still drive each other crazy--I lose things all over the house (we spend a lot of time calling my phone because I can never find it) and he doesn’t clean up the kitchen the way I want him to (“soaking” the crock pot does not count!). But we made a choice 20 years ago.
Communicate consistently and talk about your communication so it gets better. Have those hard conversations so you can grow together. Dr. John Gottman, who founded the Gottman Institute: A Research-Based Approach to Relationships, says, "the sure thing is that if you don’t work at communication, the relationship will deteriorate over time, just like a car that’s not taken care of will fall apart.”
Download a free app from the Gottman Insitute to help spark conversation and improve your relationship.
Here’s what our readers have to say:
Communication--keep the phones out of the bedroom--and set aside time to talk. (Kelsey, 7 years)
Communication is key. We listen to each other and put the other person’s needs first. We try to keep short accounts and not hold grudges. (Mindy, 18 years)
We were always brutally and openly honest with each other in all things. (Michael, 20 years)
Know the primary and secondary love language of your spouse and try to speak their language as often as possible! (Melissa, 20 years)
This book has sold over 11 million copies! It's a good one.
I feel like the parts of us that are so different have helped us develop a better perspective and changed us for the better. I don’t know how my 21-year-old self managed to choose someone who is the perfect partner for me but I am so grateful that we found each other and are sharing our forever. (Stephanie, 20 years)
Be wrong. Consider the other person’s point of view. (Cheryl, 23 years)
Always be respectful of each other. One misstep and it can be damaging and never get resolved or forgotten. Simply be kind and work toward a pleasant tone. (Nancy, 35 years)
Respect each other in action and words and deeds. (Marja, 40 years)
Communicate honestly. Don’t play games. (Laurie, 42 years)
Pray a lot. (Jamie, 48 years)
Talk, talk, talk things out!!! (Marge, 60 years)
3. Find a marriage counselor and surround yourself with people who will support your marriage.
I am so serious about this one! I don’t care if you have a great marriage or a marriage that’s struggling. Go to marriage counseling. Emily, one of our readers, says, “Marriage is a marathon. There will be moments you are tired, questioning if you can do it. But hold on for the next mile, because you will feel the energy and excitement again.” When you’re struggling to hold on, an outside perspective can be just what you need.
We started marriage counseling that lasted for several years, and we still go back when things start to feel a little off. It's a whole lot easier to maintain something than to fix it. There are so many things in our world vying for our attention, and unless we make a conscious decision to stay grounded, we can easily get swept up in the flow of life.
According to Dr. Gottman's research, married couples wait an average of 6 years before seeking help, and less than 5% of divorcing couples seek counseling. Don't wait that long! The benefits of marriage counseling are outlined in this article from Dartmouth College.
If marriage counseling sounds like too much or your spouse will never go for it (ask anyway!), then I hope you’ll surround yourself with people who support your marriage and encourage you. Be wary of who you vent to about your spouse--it should be people who know and love you both, and who will always turn you back toward your marriage instead of away from it.
We’ve moved around a lot, but we’ve always found other couples to connect with. Sometimes, these couples are part of a church group and sharing that common faith foundation helps us grow.
If you’re not part of a group like that, find a couple who is further along than you are and spend time with them, watch them with each other, ask them questions about what works. And if you’re happily married, mentor a younger couple with your spouse. We’ve done both and we’ve learned a lot!
I don’t have reader advice for this one because it wasn’t mentioned by any of them. But I know, without a doubt, that it has led to a stronger and healthier marriage for us. We have an easier time putting our marriage first and adapting to each other because we’ve gone through counseling. Go regardless of the shape of your relationship.
In my husband's words...
I’ll leave you with a few words from my husband. It’s not lost on me that I have an amazing man in my life who fought for our marriage and continues to put me first. (His dad has been an amazing example.) I will admit, the first thing he mentions below was an adjustment for me that took a long time. I want to be independent and do things on my own, and I'm often uncomfortable with traditional gender roles. But I’ve learned to set it aside sometimes because he loves me so well.
Choose a couple of household chores or errands you will always do for your wife. I've never seen my mom pump her own gas. Rumor has it she's done it once or twice, but since being married to my dad she's rarely if ever had to do it. I try to do the same for my wife, although I've been less successful than my dad. My wife doesn't scrape ice or snow off her car and she doesn't take out the trash. She's more than capable and willing, but I insist.
Commit to an activity together on a daily or weekly basis. Since we've been married, my wife and I have always made it a priority to take walks together. During different phases of our marriage (pre-kids), we've done this more consistently, but even now we try at least once a week to walk together. It does wonders for our relationship and individually for our mental and emotional well being. You could take a car ride together, read together, bike together, go shopping, whatever you both find enjoyable and stress-free.
Surprise her for no reason. Over the years, I have brought home fresh flowers for no reason or occasion. Just because. My boys got in the habit of doing this when we'd go grocery shopping. While home delivery has been a game changer for our home life, it has reduced the number of times my wife gets fresh flowers lately. I need to work on this one. It doesn't have to be flowers, it could candy or a card or whatever your wife would appreciate the most. Set a reminder on your phone at random times to bring her something home.
Disagree in private. It's never a good idea to disagree or argue publicly with your spouse, but especially not in front of your kids. Save it for later. Your kids, family, and friends should see you as your spouse's biggest champion. This won't happen if you're criticizing or arguing with her in front of others.