Well, here we are, celebrating our 56th wedding anniversary by sharing our thoughts with you about how to have a long and happy marriage. What we have to say, though, isn’t mostly based on our having been married for such a long time: that just means we’ve lived what we’re talking about. Our real expertise comes from forty years each helping couples do what you and I are trying to do, plus the research that’s gone into our 15 books.
Last time we talked about what you need to do to lay the foundation by choosing the right person. Now we want to talk about what you need to do to keep a good thing going.
There’s no shortage of advice on this! Literally every relationship book ever published is about this. So let’s come at this from a different angle, since, like, 8,972 pages of good advice isn’t going to be of much use to you.
What is important is an understanding of how marriage works. The essentials.
When we were first together we were kids. We knew nothing. And it’s not as if our parents, either set, had great relationships that could serve as a model. So the question is, what did we have that anyone could have?
Here’s one thing, for sure. It wasn’t just our commitment to each other. You know, the “I love you to the moon and back” stuff. It was a commitment to excellence. Think about it like this. Suppose on the same day you got married you also made a commitment to become a really good guitar player. You’d take lessons and practice every day, right? You wouldn’t spend a minute playing less well than you could, and you’d do everything you could to play better and better.
That’s how we approached being together. Not just being with someone we loved, but trying to have a relationship that needed, out of love, to be made better and better. That required both of us to
Try to answer two questions all the time:
What can I do to make this relationship better?
What can we do to make this relationship better?
If at this point you hate me because I sound too good to be true, back off! Believe me, I wasn’t, and am still not, super wonderful. I am not saying Oh, what a fabulous job I did of this. Or, Oh, how hard I worked at it. My deepest regrets are that I didn’t work harder and do better! My only claim, and what I’m urging you to do, is to put your energy in this direction: treat your relationship like a precious child you need to nurture from day 1.
Because if you want to have a long and happy marriage, it’s the best direction in which to put your energy. Infinitely better than the two most popular alternatives, which are, first, “I’m going to fight for getting my needs met until things come close to blowing up, then I’ll pull back a bit,” and, second, “I’m going to deny my needs as long as I can until I blow up.”
What other practices are essential?
I just alluded to one:
If a need of yours isn’t being met, or if you feel hurt about something, talk about it BEFORE you’re at the point of blowing up, because the more furious you are when you speak up, the less productive your conversation will be when you talk about your unmet need.
Here’s another really crucial practice:
No escalation. If one of you gets mad, the other shouldn’t get madder. If one of you says something mean, the other shouldn’t say something mean. If one of you does something destructive, the other shouldn’t do something destructive in return. Just don’t.
Which leads to the next vital practice:
One thing at a time. If your partner is upset, or is upset with you, then your partner has the floor. Listen to your partner. Make sure your partner feels heard. If your partner has needs that come out, deal with those needs. Focus on showing you care and understand, and on how you can be there for your partner. After all that is dealt with, then you can take the stage with your own needs or issues. This is what love looks like in action.
If you want to think of a mental exercise that’ll show what each of you can do to have a great relationship, each of you should...
Ask yourselves frequently, “What’s it like to be my partner living with me, dealing with me, coping with me, being affected by me?” If you don’t have good, accurate answers to these questions, then you’re married to a stranger, and your partner has the pain of knowing that and it’s killing your relationship.
And if you don’t know, that’s okay. Just ask. Always ask. For example, do you know what your partner thinks about before they fall asleep most nights? Ask. Do you know how they feel anticipating your coming home? Ask. Doing this vastly increases your chances of doing and saying the right thing, and of avoiding setting off landmines.
Okay, next. The keyword here: cherishing. You got together because, I hope!, you each thought the other was terrific. Not just in an objective way but in a way you personally cherished. There were many ways your partner gave you a wow in your heart. And you let each other know it! So to make a relationship have a long a happy life...
Add up all the ways you cherish each other and keep on letting each other know about them. Think of it like this. Every time you exchange a negative comment, you’re poisoning the relationship. Every time you exchange a neutral comment—“Do we need to call the plumber?”—you’re re-enforcing the roommate part of your relationship. It’s when you express what you cherish about the other that you are nourishing your relationship.
Then there’s the time issue. We’re all working hard these days, and then for many of us along comes kids. Here’s the truth: all of these are the enemies of lasting love. They are as toxic to your having a long and happy marriage as becoming a 400-pound chain smoker is to your health. Seriously!
But there is something you can do about it, and couples who survive the stressed-out, time-starved lifestyle do this:
Find significant, inviolable time for each other every week. No one, NO ONE, is too busy or has too many kids to do this. You just have to commit to it.
For example, there was a period in our lives when we were both working hard, often till 9 at night, and we had school-age kids. But somehow we arranged what we called Thursday mornings. Thursdays until noon was our time. No matter what. Sometimes it was costly to make that happen, but we did it, and it was worth its weight in gold to the long-term health of our relationship.
One last thing, and it’s essential.
Talk to each other about what you need to feel loved. Each of you writes down a list of about 10 things your partner could do or has done to make you feel loved. Specific, doable things. Then share your lists. Then do those things!
This is simplicity itself. Your partner is the world’s leading expert on what makes them feel loved. Once they tell you and you do those things, they will feel loved. If you can do those things, you’ll have a long and happy life together. If you can’t do those things, you don’t belong together and you’ll both be better off moving on to greener pastures.
Now you may notice something about the practices I’ve mentioned here. First of all, they’re things you do. Not ways you are. Let’s go back to learning the guitar. One person might turn out to be a great guitarist, and another...not so much. So what! If they both keep on taking lessons and keep practicing, they’ll both become really good! It’s the same with the practices I’ve listed here.
Second, they all have a personal, custom-tailored feature. They all have an aspect of who you are as an individual and who your partner is as an individual and how that all works together. None of this is about men versus women or about putting people into categories.
Okay, now, resources. Why Couples Fight is literally indispensable for almost every couple—even us, who wrote the damned book!—for figuring what to do when your needs are in conflict, which is exactly how so many couples get into trouble.
The Weekend Marriage is just what you need to figure out how to prevent your relationship from being strangled to death by your high-stress, no-time lifestyle.
If trust issues should raise their ugly heads in your relationship, I Love You but I Don’t Trust You is perfect for bringing yourselves out of danger and back to the loving place you once had.
Finally, Our Love Is Too Good to Feel So Bad will have everything you need if you feel things are going wrong and you want to figure out what’s wrong exactly and what to do about it.