5 Suggestions For Staying Happily Married

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Mark Sherman, married (to the same woman!) for more than 43 years, shares some straightforward ways he and his wife avoid common marital problems.

We celebrate wedding anniversaries—and the bigger the number, the more we celebrate—because we recognize that staying married, even to someone you love very much, is not easy.

I have been married twice. My first marriage did not even last four years, though our brief partnership brought forth a boy who has become a fine young man. After my divorce, at the age of 24, there was no way I could even begin to suggest I knew anything at all about staying married, let alone happily so.  But today, after getting a PhD in psychology, teaching that subject for more than 25 years, and, most important, being married to the same woman for more than 43 years, I feel I do have something to say on the subject. My wife and I have a good marriage, and I can truthfully say I love her even more today than I did the day we wed.

In a marriage, almost any question can be perceived by one’s partner as a “loaded question”.

This is not to say that it’s all been roses. Like many long-term partnerships, ours has had its rough patches, for which I will accept most, if not all, of the blame. But while I would never be smug about marital permanence—mine or anyone else’s—I feel today that we have a really good marriage, one that I hope lasts as long as we do.

There’s an old hit song by Captain and Tenille called “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Great song, but as a guideline for a lasting marriage, I’m afraid it doesn’t cut it. Love will get you together, and it will surely help keep you together, but enjoying a marriage that lasts for decades requires something else. In a word I’d call it thoughtfulness.  Of course, a song titled “Thoughtfulness Will Keep Us Together” probably wouldn’t have made it to the charts.

Thoughtfulness is a big and kind of vague term. My background is in behavioral psychology, so I’d like to translate it into some rules that my wife and I have learned – and that I’d recommend to any other couple.

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1. Choose wisely

The first one is probably the most important, but it is only for people who haven’t yet committed to each other.

I know that sex and love, and more sex—great sex—can really get you feeling This is the one! But can you talk easily? Are you really comfortable with this person? Do you make each other laugh? Are you in general agreement about some basic issues around work, children, and money?

Or is there some nagging doubt? Nagging doubts are truly something to pay attention to.

2.  Periodically, see a good couples counselor

I would strongly recommend not waiting until your marriage is falling apart before you see one. Rather, see a counselor even when things are pretty good. My wife and I refer to this as our “tune up.” I hope none of you care more about your car than you do about your marriage (if you do, you’ve definitely got a problem), and you know that if you ignore auto maintenance, your car is not going to last.

So shouldn’t you do at least as much for your marriage? We first sought the help of a counselor when we were having some significant difficulties more than 25 years ago. To our delight, she said our marriage was strong; but she looked at me and said, “You, however, have some problems.”

So I started seeing a therapist on my own, someone who got me to see that the way I was living my life was not helping me or my marriage at all, and I began very hard work on myself.

Our marriage quickly strengthened and became what I would definitely call a good one. But every once in a while we may have a problem which, on our own, we can’t seem to solve. These are typically not big ones; we sometimes just reach an impasse. So we go to that same couples counselor, and she is very helpful. I’d say over the last 10 years, we’ve seen her on the average once, or perhaps sometimes twice, a year.

What should you do when you and your partner simply can’t solve something on your own? Why not talk to a third person, who is educated, experienced, and objective (and who may be married and experiencing similar things). The counselor might give you helpful suggestions that you can keep on using.

Sometimes when my wife and I are having a difficulty, one of us will say, “What would (name of our counselor) say?”

3.  Use the “two-reaction” rule

This one can be tough to stick with, but it is really helpful in preventing marital fights. My wife and I came up with this after we did have a fight, which could easily have been avoided, if we had used the two-reaction rule.

We were having Sunday breakfast at a local diner, and relaxing, when my wife said, “Let’s start planning what we’re going to be doing over the next few weeks – like when we’ll see the kids, see our friends, etc.”

For me, the relaxing was now over.

“Come on,” I said, my voice instantly louder than it had been. “I just wanted to relax. Couldn’t you have picked another time to discuss this stuff?!” (This is Reaction #1.)

My wife, not expecting my reaction, had an immediate reaction of her own. “Hey,” she said. “Don’t jump on me! I didn’t know this would get you angry. Yeah, sure, we can discuss it another time.” (This is Reaction #2.)

Now comes the critical point. I was still upset. And it would have been very easy to keep it going, and change our heretofore relaxing breakfast into a major fracas. In fact, we probably did do just that. But we realized later that if she had let me have my reaction and I had let her have hers, and then we dropped the discussion until another time, we’d be fine.

Ann Kansfield and Jennifer Aull, on their wedding day.

Ann Kansfield and Jennifer Aull, on their wedding day.

We have learned to do this. Not always, but much of the time.  And it works.

To summarize: You say something to your partner. He or she may react in a way that you didn’t expect and that upsets you. This is understandable. Now you react, not so happily, to his or her response. Also understandable.  So both of you, stop right there. You each are entitled to your reactions. Now, cool it until a quiet time when one of you can gently bring the matter up again.

 4. Use the expression “Point of information” when asking a genuinely innocent question.

Here’s another one that, as I recall, my wife and I thought up on our own.  It’s based on the fact that in a marriage, almost any question can be perceived by one’s partner as a “loaded question.” And, of course, that’s because many, if not most, are. For example, if you see that the ketchup bottle is not in its usual spot, and you say, “Honey, why is this here?” your partner knows that what you really mean is, “Hey, I like the ketchup bottle where it usually is! I don’t like the fact that you moved it.”

Is it any surprise that this can be the beginning of a marital squabble, if not an outright fight?

The problem here is that even the truly innocent query may also be interpreted as one with an edge. So what my wife and I now do is to preface the genuinely innocent question (that is, you are simply curious) with the words “Point of information”. This is an old parliamentary term, which means you are simply requesting information.

For example, you and your spouse are planning to go out to eat, but you have no particular preference for a restaurant. You’re perfectly happy for your partner to decide. Try this: “Point of information, honey…What restaurant do you prefer for tonight?”

The key to successfully using “point of information” is to be honest. Do not use it for any question where you really have even vaguely strong feelings. My wife and I now use this expression a lot, to the point where we abbreviate it with “P.O.I.”

Try it. It really works.

5. Try the 11:30 rule (or whatever time works for you).

My wife and I have decided (I can’t remember who thought of this) that from 11:30 at night until we go to sleep, which isn’t much later than that, neither of us can bring up some complaint or anything that might stir the pot. Why is it 11:30 for us? Because we watch the Daily Show, which ends at 11:30.  It’s so easy after the show ends for one of us to bring up some little complaint (or as Jewish people say, kvetch). And that will not let either of us go to sleep easily.

Do we both always remember it? No, so if one of starts to say, “You know I really wish I didn’t have to bring the car in tomorrow,” the other will quietly say, “It’s 11:30.” And that’s usually enough to get the kvetcher to stop.

If you go to sleep at 10 pm, hey, just make it the 9:30 rule.

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Lead photo: Flickr/Darrell Jesonis

Bottom photo by Robby Schultze

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About Mark Sherman

Mark Sherman is editor of the Boys Initiative blog (www.theboysinitiative.wordpress.com), and also writes one for Psychology Today (Real Men Don’t Write Blogs). He received his Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard, and has taught, researched, and written on gender issues since coauthoring Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy in 1979. Having three sons and four grandsons, he is especially interested in how boys and young men are doing both in and outside of school.

Comments

  1. Great advice Mark!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece.

    #1 is paramount. Choose wisely indeed.

  2. Tom Brechlin says:

    Good stuff Mark, being married for 39 years now, I can relate to a lot of what’s said. One area which really hit home was the bit about the wife bringing up planning when he wanted to relax. First thing that came to my mind was what I would have thought and that is, after so many years, how is it you don’t know what I’m gonna react to. But the key is not prolonging the issue. It’s stubbornness on both parts that push the issue to where it doesn’t need to go.

    Hope younger people read this stuff. So many are willing to throw in the towel. But if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a dozen times, “things are different now.”

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      I always want to plan out the weekend, and my husband wants to relax and not have me planning his weekend…

      To me, I think we can relax better if we have a plan, he feels differently. We’ve found it really helpful to use a number rating chart. If an event is a really important one and I want to plan around it, I say like, “This is an 8 out of 10 for me.” and he knows I’m serious about it… Otherwise I sort of make every little thing feel serious and he gets overwhelmed.

      Love this piece, Mark!! And I love you and your wife, you guys are awesome and you crack me up and inspire me!

  3. Gint Aras says:

    I wouldn’t mind a plan if I had any evidence that it had a chance of coming true. But when your plan includes the promises of two to four unreliable parties…come on.

    Also, why do I need to be in on the plan? Is my input necessary, or is the plan just a disguised set of demands? And why instruct me right now, this minute, when I’m trying to cook? When I have papers to grade? When I’m trying to unload photos from a camera?

    My answers are utterly predictable. No, I don’t want to go to a store. Why ask? I don’t want to go to the mall. I don’t like the beach. I’d rather write or read or cook or play with the kids or watch hockey or do yoga or meditate or have a good meal. The rest of life is bothersome and tedious, to the point of fury. I know when the sun sets and when the kids wake up. You can neither plan for nor around those events. I have clear, transparent responsibilities, obvious functions. Sometimes my bowel movements take 4 minutes, sometimes 24. I hate having to rush because there’s a plan to meet people who are unlikely to ever show up.

    • I’d have something to say, but Gint said most of it. My wife gets incredibly upset if we don’t have plans and if I’m not willing to listen to them. However what goes along with that is the anger and frustration when her plans inevitably don’t pan out. I tell her all the time, “why do you plan anything, when you know it rarely works out, and why do you even bother getting upset about it?” The amazing thing is this is a woman who’s idea of traveling is just showing up in a new city with no forethought or research at all.

    • Hi Gint,
      The planner vs. non-planner marriage is something I see a lot of in the guys I coach.
      When we discuss the ranking of their 6 basic emotional needs compared to their wives, there is often an inversion!

      Him:
      Growth
      Variety
      Contribution
      Significance
      Love/Connection
      Certainty/Safety

      Her:
      Certainty/Safety
      Love/Connection
      Significance
      Variety
      Contribution
      Growth

      Rankings vary and they don’t mean the ones at the bottom are not important. The trend I see is that many wives have a MUCH HIGHER need for feelings of certainty/safety in their lives than their husbands do. Husbands tend to rank their need for feelings of growth and significance higher. We work on what EACH partner should be doing to help support and “fill the cup” of the other….and HOW to do that. (Love languages)

      For example, being “in on the plan” is one way you can “fill her cup”. How does she try to fill yours?

      The wives I’m familiar with like to know what is on the list, the social plans for the weekend, what food must be purchased, what the kids will eat, and whether or not there will be enough coffee creamer for tomorrow morning. They can not understand why these things are not even on his radar and sometimes judge him harshly because of it. They show little respect for his need for relaxation and introspection. (variety) On a personal note, I’m also one of those guys who just doesn’t care about those things and can live with the consequences of not planning them. I’d rather use my mind on other stuff.

      She, on the other hand, is judged harshly for being a control freak and a busy body. He shows little respect for her needs for predictability and organization (certainty). On a personal note, I’ve been very guilty of making those accusations…and worse. ;^(

      Choosing to generate feelings of love and connection in each other can get difficult when each person feels like their other highly ranked emotional needs are unimportant in the eyes of their partner. This is when most fights start. And neither can verbalize the root cause of the bad feelings.

      If she has ranked a need of hers as an 8 out of 10 (love this, Joanna!), then a guy gets to choose whether or not he wants to demonstrate to her that it matters to him. I believe that the love/connection feelings will suffer each time a partner willingly shows that the needs of the other are not important.

      • I loved this reply, thank you so much, very well said. When I am involved with the man I’m going to marry, this is the post I would like to have a discussion around.

    • My Lady is a planner, i’m a sufferer of sever ADD so yeah planning? not so much… however… for Her planning provides structure, even if we veer off it ( one of our favorite saying around the house is an old military one… no plan survives impact). often she knows my input as well however what she DOESN’T know and needs my input on are my Goals, even if it is watch tv all day, she needs to know that to plan the day because she loves me and wants my goals covered too, ( we have 6 kids between us, watch tv is NEVER one of my goals). a lot of the planner vs non-planner is about having an IDEA of the day for us , not a rigid rule.

    • Joanne Q says:

      While I respect your opinion, I read your comments as “don’t bother me with plans, I’m busy doing something “really” important.
      Where is the acknowledgement that your partner has needs and wants as well? Do you ever stop your plans and simply listen? Perhaps you do, and your words are simply those of a man who hates planning and a spouse who is comfortable with spontaneity.
      Since this is a post about staying married, I am confused about your apparent insistence that your way is the right way. Perhaps it is for YOUR marriage, but in mine (27 years married and 33 total together) there is a certain amount of give and take. Sometimes I ask for planning, and sometimes I go with his need for the flow.

      • Joanne Q says:

        This was meant to be a direct reply to Gint Aras below. I’m not sure what happened to make it appear otherwise.

  4. Gint Aras says:

    All of this mechanical stuff is fine and good for a certain type of personality. But I can tell you without very much investigation that all of these demands for security yield, not actual security, but the delusion of it. I “know” that the train will come at 8:17. Why? Because the plan says so. In truth I know nothing.

    Certain plans make more sense than others. I think it’s very wise to have an investment strategy, to have a long term financial plan, to have some idea how you’re going to pay for your children to go to school, and to follow through. I don’t harass my wife with these things when she’s watching The Bachelor, or when she’s preparing for a violin concert. They are things I maintain an awareness of, but I don’t delude myself to think I’m more secure with this plan than I am without it, and I don’t demand that someone else share in my delusion in order to feel “connection”.

    I’ll venture to say that all this fuss over planning isn’t really about planning. It’s about a need to spend some time together. In order to do that, we dress up certain things as “important” and demand that they be discussed “right now” because “I’ll never talk to you otherwise.”

    In every action, check your motivations.

    • You brought up a good point about the REAL motive behind the actions.

      Spending time – or “Quality Time” is one of Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages.

      A woman who feels MOST LOVED by her husband when he does things to create “quality time” with her REALLY wants to see him plan a few things. (hmmm….4 days ago my GF emailed me a great deal for Cabo – $269 for 4 nights. Until just this minute, I’ve ignored recent hints that she really wants to plan a getaway. I know she likes it when I take the lead. I just bought the deal in the middle of this post. Damn you, Gint!)

      Many wives have to OWN the social agenda, vacation planning, even date planning to get their need for “quality time” met. This pisses them off. They feel most loved when they experience their guy taking the initiative to create quality time for the both of them. Not all the time – just some of the time. They don’t care that planning is not in your wheelhouse. They want to feel love the way they want to feel it and they want you to care.

      If a man feels most loved when he experiences “physical touch” from his wife, he really wants to see her take action to create that sometimes by initiating a hug, a passionate kiss or sex. He gets pissed off because he wants to experience his lady taking the initiative to create this with him.

      Most couples do not experience feelings of love and appreciation in exactly the same ways. Understanding this and choosing to selflessly act in ways to GIVE those feelings to the other is one way to make a marriage last 43 years. Of course, knowing when to keep our mouths shut is another good way. (my personal growth opportunity)

  5. Good list Mark although I totally disagree with #4. If you’re in a relationship where “almost any question can be perceived by one’s partner as a ‘loaded question.'” then you are in a bad relationship. I would never stay in a long term relationship, much less get married to a woman who felt any question I asked was “loaded”. I would get out of that pairing as quickly as possible and I’d advise anyone else to do the same.

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