Five Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Essential Marriage Tips from Real Therapists
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Five Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Essential Marriage Tips from Real Therapists

In Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage, the author of Ladies' Home Journal's "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" uses the stories of real-life couples to illustrate the essentials of every great relationship. Learn how to strengthen your marriage with tips, tricks and advice on housework, communication and sex from real marriage therapists.

A 30-Minute Marriage-Saver

To feel loved and nurtured, we must believe deep down that our partner is really there for us. That sounds simple, but it's far more complicated than most couples realize. Although Sally and Gary insisted that they were being attentive, they had difficulty being empathetic. That's significant: Marital researchers have found that couples who help each other weather stressful situations outside the marriage have stronger, happier relationships than those who can't.

The key is empathy. Empathy isn't the same as sympathy or pity. It means being able to put yourself in another's position, to feel what they feel and see what they see, without losing yourself in the process. And it means you do all that even though you may disagree with a partner's perception, opinions, or feelings. Take 30 minutes a day, at a time that works best for both of you, to empathize with the stresses and strains you are each experiencing in other areas of your life. It can make a difference between a marriage that succeeds and one that fails. Consider:

Empathy Don'ts

  • Don't stonewall (ignore what a partner is saying).
  • Don't minimize a spouse's concerns: "What's the big deal?" "You're always so sensitive!"
  • Don't rush to fix the problem: "Well, if I were you I'd..." or "You should have..." Many people mistakenly believe that downplaying worries or offering advice is helpful. In fact, pat reassurances often magnify negative feelings, since they force a person to try even harder to feel acknowledged. Women especially resent a partner's interruption with solutions, preferring instead to simply vent and know that someone is really listening.

Empathy Dos

  • Do pay attention. Set aside the newspaper or catalog and turn off the TV when your partner is talking. An occasional uh-huh or nod of the head indicates you haven't zoned out.
  • Do validate feelings. "He gave that special assignment to the new recruit? I can see why you're annoyed."
  • Do ask questions with genuine interest. Make sure your partner knows you heard what he or she has said. "So how did you respond to him?"
  • Do respond with affection, understanding, and support: "I'm really sorry you have to put up with that." "Oh, sweetheart, that could happen to anyone. Don't be so hard on yourself."
  • Do show support. Take your spouse's side. "I think your boss went a little overboard, too," is appropriate. "Well, you shouldn't have been late in the first place" isn't.

Excerpted from Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from the Annals of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

 

Rules for a Fair Fight

Before any couple can even begin to solve their problems, they have to learn how to use their anger constructively. How can anger be constructive? Use it to explore the underlying causes of your disagreements, and you'll find ways to address both of your needs.

If bickering punctuates your days; if arguments escalate quickly until you're both shouting things you later regret; or if you too often smile through gritted teeth while your stomach is roiling like an ocean in a hurricane, the following rules can help you defuse the rage and focus your energies on practical strategies for change. Make a promise to:

1. Remind yourself that it is okay to be angry, and don't feel guilty about having those angry feelings. Women, especially, grow up believing that it is unladylike and bitchy to express any negative feelings. Better to suppress anger, they're taught, than express it. But there are times when anger is legitimate and those occasions must be recognized and addressed. Once you do that, you'll be in a stronger position to say how you honestly feel and find a path for change.

2. Understand that although you disagree, you are not enemies. No matter how much people love each other, differences will eventually trigger conflict. Fighting fair means you will not attack each other -- physically or verbally. Name-calling, cursing, screaming, or blaming are verboten. So, is threatening separation or divorce.

3. Never use something that has been previously told to you in confidence as a weapon in an argument. When you do, you betray the trust your spouse has placed in you, and make it harder for your partner to feel emotionally safe in the marriage.

4. Never walk out of the room until you either both agree that an argument is over or have decided to table the problem and chosen a specific time to bring it up again.

5. Acknowledge each other's feelings and perceptions, without judgment or criticism. There's no "right" way to feel, and there will be times in every marriage that you simply will not agree. But you should always make the effort to unravel what is troubling your partner and show genuine caring for and awareness of his or her emotional experience. Phrases such as "I never thought of that" or "Tell me more about what you're thinking" will help you break out of an anger stalemate.

Excerpted from Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from the Annals of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

 

Getting Him to Open Up

Until the counselor pointed it out, Jamie and Ben didn't realize that the clash between her articulate, assertive style and his inability to give voice to his feelings was at the heart of many of their problems. She's certainly not the only wife to find herself in a conversational tango when trying to get her husband to communicate. To help him express his feelings:

Understand the silences. It can be hurtful and infuriating to try to talk to a man and feel as if you're talking to the wall. But while women often find silence uncomfortable, men find solace in it. What's more, we often read into a partner's silence our own desires, fears, and past experiences. If your parents endured long icy periods when they were angry and didn't speak, you may infer that your husband's lack of response means he's upset with you. His silence may simply mean he really has nothing particular on his mind. Similarly, a man whose father left the office behind when he walked in the door may believe it's inappropriate to talk about business issues or problems at home. Many men have reported that they don't tell their wives things because they don't want to worry them. That protectiveness, however, may be misinterpreted as lack of interest. Also, when he talks to others but not to you, it may be because he views having to make conversation and relay factual information as work. At home, he wants to relax. And that may mean sinking into his own thoughts or reverie.

Ask directly for what you need. Men and women have different definitions of the word "communication." Men problem-solve, often silently. They proceed directly from Step 1 ("Here's the issue") to Step 3 ("Do this"). Of course, you believe in Step 2: bouncing suggestions and possibilities around before coming to a solution. If your man is not the bouncing type, try presenting a specific agenda: "I'd like to talk about Jake's terrible behavior lately" or "We need to figure out how we're going to handle Amanda's ballet practices during the school week."

Phrase your questions to provoke responses. "How was your day?" won't jump-start a conversation. He may just say "fine" or "terrible." "Tell me about your presentation to that new client" might engage him more fully.

Learn to argue constructively. Many men are afraid to say anything because past experience has taught them that they'll be criticized or blamed for past crimes and misdemeanors.

Give him the floor. He may have learned to disengage as soon as you start talking, which makes you talk even more. Someone has to break the cycle; try counting to yourself if he's silent, or give him a friendly look to encourage him to respond.

Appreciate the silences. More likely than not, your spouse will never be as loquacious as your best friend. And you probably don't want him to be, either. So learn to listen to the silence. When he takes you in his arms for a long hug, shares in a joyful whoop with you when your son scores his first hockey goal, or reaches for your hand as you ride in the car, he may be saying a great deal.

Pick the right moment. You prefer talking when you get into bed because it's the first time all day you can relax; your husband falls asleep the minute his head hits the pillow. You like chatting over morning coffee, his brain doesn't get in gear until an hour later. Men often feel ambushed and tend to clam up unless they have a say in the timing of talks. They may also feel cornered when the whole agenda of your conversation is "the problem." If you try raising issues while doing an activity (playing backgammon, cooking a special dinner, or gardening), the talk will flow more easily. Another tactic: Ask him to come to you when he's ready to talk. You might try saying: "We don't have to discuss this right now, but I really want to understand what you're thinking about our moving to a bigger house. Talk to me when you're ready."

Excerpted from Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from the Annals of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

 

Secrets of Sexy Marriages

In every relationship, levels of sexual desire for both partners fluctuate. Some stages are predictable: when you first marry, after you have a child, when the kids leave home, when job pressures persist. These are all times when sexual moods and patterns of lovemaking may shift. Knowing this, and being confident enough to talk about it, strengthens intimacy. Couples with the sexiest marriages:

1. Remember that sex problems are sometimes red herrings. Understanding that impotence is a common problem at every stage of marriage is the first, and highest, hurdle most couples have to clear. Talking about the problem can be reassuring and often lessens the anxiety for both partners. In fact, the more both partners worry about the problem, the more intractable it becomes. However, wise couples recognize that impotence can also be a wake-up call, a signal of stress somewhere in the relationship. Instead of banishing feelings of frustration, unhappiness, or emotional overload -- at work, at home, with your kids or other family members -- ask yourselves if something is bothering one or both of you. Sit down and talk about issues in a nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental, and unhurried way. Once Cindy and Dan found the courage to talk, the episodes of sexual stage fright disappeared.

2. Don't save affection for the bedroom only. Couples whose sex lives bring them the most happiness eroticize their lives -- that is, they give affection physically and verbally through the day in different ways. They touch. Whether it's reassuring or frantically passionate, touch makes the difference between making love and having sex. Touch is a reflection of what you feel inside: You can convey desire, appreciation, delight, a sense of safety as well as boredom, resentment, or anger.

3. Make time for love. Sexy wives know that lovemaking is a habit: The more you do it, the more you like it, and the more you like it, the more you do it. They make lovemaking a top priority, and if that means scheduling sex, so be it. It won't be any less exciting just because it's planned. Sexual excitement feeds on itself. Just do it.

4. Talk every day. Even if it's just 10 minutes in the morning and 10 at night, voice your love. Call each other pet names, remember to say goodbye and good night. Be sure that you don't fall into the mind-reader trap of assuming your partner knows or should know what you're thinking and feeling simply "because he loves me." Those in a healthy, sexy marriage make a point of expressing their feelings and their attraction to each other on a regular basis.

5. Kiss often. We're not talking a perfunctory peck on the cheek but a deep, sensual, teasing kiss. Many longtime couples rarely kiss at all, going straight to intercourse when they have sex. Don't you remember the backseat? The cool, dark movie theater and the thrill of making out? Steal a kiss!

6. Have adventures. Instead of sex behind a locked bedroom door, these couples make love at the beach, in the car, in the shower, on the living room floor. They keep their eyes open during sex -- and sometimes leave the lights on -- because they know that watching their partner's eroticism makes sex easier.

7. Break the rules. Ask yourself: What ruts have we fallen into and how can we get out of them? Explore changes, even small ones, with which you both feel comfortable. Don't nix ideas automatically; instead, be willing to experiment with videos, sex toys, and magazines.

8. Learn what pleases. Know what you like and don't like in bed -- and make sure your partner knows, too.

Excerpted from Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from the Annals of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

 

Real Men Can Do Housework...

...But in the real world, they often don't. While studies from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan confirm that this generation of couples does half the amount of housework their parents did, most of those chores are still shouldered by women. Is there a way to prevent everyday skirmishes over home front responsibilities from escalating into full-scale wars -- and still get him to put the dishes in the dishwasher? Let's look at both sides of the problem.

Her side

  • "I'm tired of doing all of it all the time."
  • "It's the psychic energy that's so draining. I have to be responsible for things even if I'm not in charge of them."
  • "How come he can fix a car engine but can't figure out how to put the toilet paper on the roll?"

His side

  • "When I do the grocery shopping, she says I buy the wrong tomato sauce."
  • "She'll find one spot of food on a pot and yell, 'Is this what you call clean?'"
  • "The fact that I can't remember to put my socks in the hamper is not a personal attack against her. I just...forget."

Even the best counselors don't have a foolproof recipe for success on this one. But here are a few suggestions. Try them; you never know...

Figure out exactly what needs to be done and who's doing it. Keep a log of everything for a week down to the minute details: Who walked the dog, who did the laundry, who folded, who took the car in for repair, and so on. It could well be that a spouse is doing more than you gave him or her credit for. In that case, make a point of appreciating each other's efforts. By not taking the chores, large or small, for granted, you create a spiral of appreciation that, in time, can erase resentment.

Talk about how things were done when you were growing up and what role models you had for sharing the work at home. If Mom did all the cooking, you may both hold the expectation that planning and cooking meals is only a woman's job. Some women also feel that if their husbands earn more than they do, they don't have a right to ask for help at home, even if they work, too. But as gender roles shift, and more women as well as men move in and out of the workforce, those expectations must change, as well. Talking about what you each expect and want is essential to balancing the scales.

Consider various plans for a fair division of labor. Maybe you go with a scenario based on expertise: Who excelled in math? Put that person in charge of the checkbook. Depersonalize the process, as if you're tackling something with a colleague. What's one way to solve the problem? What are five other possibilities? Who else could help with this problem? Perhaps hiring a neighborhood teenager to handle some chores, errands, or childcare would lighten the load for both of you.

Let go. Sometimes, when it comes to housework and children, women are their own worst enemies. You asked Daddy to dress the baby and the kid comes out with a top and bottom that don't match? So what? You wanted him to do the shopping? Then let him do it his way. The principle here is simple: If you give up responsibility for a chore, you have to give up control over it, too. Besides, some things just aren't worth quibbling about.

When all else fails, go on strike. It has been duly noted that some women have simply stopped doing domestic duty to make a point. Laundry? Wash and dry only yours. Kids need something bought or signed? Tell them to ask their dad. As long as things keep getting done, he may not realize how much, and in what detail, you actually do. Only when you stop will he get the hint.

Train your kids. Instead of fostering helplessness in the next generation, make sure your children, boys as well as girls, grow up believing that sharing the physical as well as the emotional chores at home is just what considerate people do.

Excerpted from Seven Secrets of a Happy Marriage: Wisdom from the Annals of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

 
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