This Is What Keeps a Marriage Strong
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This Is What Keeps a Marriage Strong

Put the freakin' seat down. Learn how to do the laundry. Don't talk to me until I've had my coffee. The secret to a good relationship might just be agreeing to a few ground rules.

The Rule: Date Night Is Sacred

When I married my husband, Fred, two years ago, we promised to love, honor, and cherish each other. And then, to be on the safe side, we added a couple extra vows we think will help us through the next 60-plus years that we'll be together: When I use the last sheet of toilet paper, I have to replace it with a new roll. And on Saturday mornings, Fred makes breakfast.

I know these rules sound simple, perhaps even to the point of absurdity, but every time I get to the end of a roll of toilet paper, I laugh remembering when Fred (who rarely gets irked about anything) told me just how much it bothers him when I leave a new roll on the back of the toilet, rather than taking the extra two seconds to load it on the holder. And every Saturday morning, when I wake up to the smell of blueberry pancakes, I'm reminded of just how much he loves me.

Between hectic work schedules and keeping up with our 1-year-old son, it's these little gestures that help us keep our relationship a priority. "People often think having rules in a relationship is a way of one spouse controlling the other, but in reality when you agree on rules together, it protects both of you -- and your marriage," says Jane Greer, PhD, a marriage and family therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship. Like Fred and me, you and your husband probably have a few little rules of your own that help you get along -- everyone does. Meet six couples who have learned to take their marriage rules as seriously as they take their vows.

The Rule: Date Night Is Sacred

Linda Cohen, 43 \ Aaron Cohen, 49 \ Portland, Oregon \ Married 19 years

Linda says: "When we were new parents, we really needed time for ourselves and Aaron suggested date night once a week. We've been doing it now for 14 years. It's not always easy to find a babysitter, but it's always worth the effort. The best part is after the date. We always feel more connected, and it's helped keep our spark alive over the years."

Aaron says: "The rest of the week is so hectic and busy that Saturday night is one of the few times I have Linda's undivided attention. We know we need to keep our relationship a priority, so we don't lose sight of why we fell in love in the first place, and that means having time together as adults without our two kids. I think date night is crucial for any couple raising a family. It's definitely helped us stay connected -- and kept us sane."

The therapist says: "There's a difference between being together all the time and having quality time together," says Dr. Greer. "Linda and Aaron understand that to make a relationship work, they need to make quality time with each other a priority. Saturday night might not be the most viable time for every couple -- maybe it's a Tuesday night at home after the kids go to sleep -- but every couple needs to carve out time on their calendar that they can look forward to, if not every week, then every two weeks."

The Rule: We Keep Track of Everything We Spend

Carrie Rocha, 36 \ Marco Rocha, 46 \ Minneapolis \ Married 8 years

Carrie says: "About six years ago we were more than $50,000 in debt and we were always arguing about money. I remember one time Marco went on a business trip to Mexico and he came home with over $400 in gifts for me. It was hard for me to appreciate the thoughtfulness because I was so upset that he spent the money! So we started tracking all of our expenses as a way to get a handle on how much our life was costing us so we could make a budget. We made little changes -- for example, Marco gave up his slick-looking $50-a-month cell phone for an older model that cost $9 per month. I know he doesn't like his phone, but his willingness to switch spoke volumes to me about his love for and commitment to me and our family. Today we've completely paid off our credit card debt, and ever since we've started tracking our spending, we've not had a big argument about money."

Marco says: "I'm the type of person who will spend money without thinking about it. Now I know that those little purchases can add up. The spreadsheets have helped keep me accountable in our finances and our marriage. Now when I'm shopping, instead of buying on impulse, I think about the dreams Carrie and I have: to send our kids to college and maybe move to Brazil and retire one day. It's not worth giving up those things for an impulse purchase."

The therapist says: "Couples often get into trouble because they fight over what items they're buying and lose perspective of the bigger picture, which is: What is it that we really need? What's most important in our household?" says psychiatrist Scott Haltzman, MD, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Women. "Marco and Carrie made a decision about what was most important to them and then created a plan to achieve their goals. It helps them work as a team rather than against each other. A spreadsheet might not work for everyone, but the point is creating some financial accountability and getting on the same page about how to spend your money."

The Rule: We Divide Chores Fairly

Tracy Wright, 40 \ Nathan Wright, 45 \ Chicago \ Married 6 years

Tracy says: "Nathan and I were both in previous relationships with partners who were lazy. I always had to clean up after my ex and it was irritating. Nathan's experience was similar. So when we got married, we were excited that we shared the same view of chores -- that it should be a team effort. We were in the army together, so we're both kind of neat freaks. Nathan likes cleaning and doing laundry and I like to cook. It was a no-brainer to divide tasks that way. It's a relief because we both know that the chores will get done, no nagging involved. But I'm extra appreciative because I know what it's like to be married to someone who doesn't pitch in."

Nathan says: "Just like the military teaches, you're only as good as the soldier next to you. My wife is my best friend -- and we own a family business -- so it's pretty crucial that we are able to work together easily. Our chore system simplifies things by taking the guesswork out of that part of our marriage, but it's not set in stone. We do help each other. If she's swamped with work, there are times when I have to get dinner on the table. And if she sees the laundry piling up, she'll throw a load in. Unlike my first marriage, we always have each other's back."

The therapist says: "Tracy and Nathan do a great job capitalizing on each other's strengths," says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of A Happy You. "However, some couples will find that they both hate the same thing -- folding laundry or cleaning bathrooms, for example. In that instance, you can simply divvy up the chores by week -- 'you do laundry one week, I'll do it the next' -- or figure out which is the lesser 'evil' for each individual. The important thing is to discuss the issue, agree to a compromise, and always appreciate the other person's contribution."

The Rule: We Keep Our Issues to Ourselves

Libby Kreusel, 28 \ Larry Kreusel, 29 \ San Antonio \ Married 5 years

Libby says: "Sometimes my girlfriends tell me things about their husbands and I know there's no way in a million years they'd say that if their husbands were in the room. When that happens, it plants a seed of doubt in me -- it makes me feel like maybe my friends' husbands aren't such good guys. Of course, every couple has their issues. But I never, ever want my friends or relatives to look at Larry and think, even for a second, that he's a bad husband. So I don't talk about our marital issues with other people, not even my closest friends. This rule forces us to always talk with each other so we can work on our issues together. I think we have more trust and intimacy in our relationship because I know Larry will always come to me when he has a problem with me, and vice versa."

Larry says: "Part of being married is protecting each other. If I air our dirty laundry to others, I'd be hurting Libby and undermining our marriage. I also feel like Libby and I have an easier time being open and honest with each other when we're upset because we don't have the option of venting to other people."

The therapist says: "Trashing your partner to friends not only changes your friends' perception of who your partner is, it can actually change your own perception of your partner's qualities," says Dr. Haltzman. "It can make you question the strength of the relationship and what attracted you to the person in the first place. It's much healthier to focus on the positives of your relationship when talking to other people."

The Rule: No Getting Fat

Johanna Sawalha, 39 \ Ziad Sawalha, 41 \ San Antonio \ Married 4 years

Johanna says: "In my first marriage weight was a real sticking point. My husband wouldn't have sex with me if I gained three pounds. In Ziad's previous relationship, his wife gained weight after pregnancy and he just wasn't hot for her anymore. We both ended up resenting our partners and didn't want to repeat the same mistakes, so we decided on this rule. The idea is that if we both stay fit, then weight doesn't become a bargaining chip. We try to keep only healthy food in the house and we also go to the gym together three times a week and play squash -- it's like having healthy dates every week where we can reconnect. There's a certain level of honor and respect in wanting to be as attractive as we can be for each other -- and it certainly keeps our marriage spicy."

Ziad says: "Jo's always been in great shape, but I, on the other hand, could definitely be doing a better job of staying fit! When I see her working out in the gym, I'm motivated to keep my end of the bargain. I want her to be as physically attracted to me as I am to her. It's a two-way street. In the end, we're both watching out for each other to make sure we are proud of who we are and how we look. Our marriage is strong for many reasons, but at the very least, I know I'll always be attracted to my wife."

The therapist says: "While this rule might seem superficial to some, it's more than skin-deep," says Dr. Lombardo. "People who exercise are not only physically healthier but also happier. Research shows exercise helps combat depression and stress, boosts self-confidence, improves optimistic thinking, and even enhances libido -- all things that are vital for a strong, lasting relationship. And exercising together is a great way to bond."

The Rule: We Don't Discuss Anything Before 10 A.M.

Jeri Solomon, 46 \ Jim Brown, 49 \ Stoneham, Massachusetts \ Married 11 years

Jeri says: "We moved in together right after we got engaged, so we were trying to juggle the whole living together thing and planning a wedding. It was a pretty stressful time. Every morning I would wake up at 6 a.m. and start researching some aspect of the wedding and then when Jim woke up I would hit him with suggestions before he even had his coffee. He'd say, 'Honey, I don't know,' which I took to mean 'No, I hate it!' and -- boom! -- we'd have an argument. Similarly, Jim would try to talk to me about something important at night when I was in bed, ready to go to sleep, and I wouldn't really be able to take it in. It became clear that the bulk of our arguments were taking place in the early morning or late evening, when one of us was sleepy, not coherent, or just not at our best. I suggested that we adopt a rule -- no discussing anything before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m. -- and it has worked ever since to end stupid fights."

Jim says: "I like our rule because it's an effective way to cut off an argument that's about to happen. We both know we're not avoiding the subject. We're just tabling it until a better time when we know there will be a better outcome. We still have disagreements -- we're a normal couple! -- but with this rule there's a lot less miscommunication."

The therapist says: "In a lot of marriages, couples have opposite time clocks, and it can very often turn into a power struggle," says Dr. Greer. "This rule can help keep a discussion from blowing up into an unwanted argument. Any time one partner is cranky and tired and knows they're not up for a long, in-depth discussion they can say, 'We're not going to talk about this now, let's save it for another time and place.' The key is scheduling the time for the conversation right then, so that the issue isn't pushed off the table."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2012.