How to Improve Your Marriage? – The highest quality marriages between any two people, are the ones that have the highest expectations of healthy practices. Ignoring your concerns isn’t fair to you or your partner, and can lead to the end of the marriage.
If your marriage isn’t where you want it to be, there’s good news: you can take steps to improve it. There’s a wealth of research on what makes good marriages. Improving your marriage will take work and time, but if you’re patient, kind, and persistent, you can reap the benefits.
I. Building a Solid Foundation
1. Build positive experiences together. On average, happy couples have a ratio of 20 positive instances for every one negative. Of course, during times of conflict — which all marriages will have — this ratio can be lower, but in general, the good should outweigh the bad.
- These positive experiences don’t have to be a grand vacation or huge romantic gesture. Communicating with your spouse on a variety of levels, from the big issues to the quick “I love you”s, will help let your partner feel appreciated and acknowledged. Not making these small “bids for connection” can put you on a path to ruin.
- Taking time to acknowledge moments together can also be helpful. Humans have a bad tendency to ignore the positive things in our lives and remember only the negative things. Practicing active gratitude for your time together will help you remember those positive experiences later.
- Leave little reminders of your love for the other person. Stick a note in your spouse’s wallet or send a sexy email. Offer to make her or him lunch for tomorrow, or surprise your spouse by doing a chore you know s/he hates. These little things may seem cheesy or too small to make a difference, but they’re vital ways of connecting the two of you.
2. Boost your knowledge of your spouse. Everyone wants to feel understood, but it can be easy when you’ve known someone a long time to believe that you know everything about him or her. It may feel like you have nothing left to discover. This is rarely true. Make an effort to share your thoughts, concerns, favorite memories, dreams, and goals with your spouse — and invite him or her to do the same with you.
- Ask open-ended questions. Dr. Arthur Aron’s famous list of 36 questions could be very helpful for you to explore your partner’s views on life, dreams, hopes, and fears. Questions like “What would constitute a perfect day for you?” or “What is your most treasured memory?” are specifically designed to promote intimacy and “interpersonal closeness.” Dr. John Gottman’s Relationship Research Institute also has many “conversation starter” tools available.
- Listen. Don’t just hear your spouse’s words. Listen to them. Paying attention as your spouse talks will help you remember important information later. For example, if your wife told you about the awful conversation she had with her sister the last time they spoke, you’ll have a better understanding of why she might not want to visit at the holidays. You’ll be able to offer better support if you really listen when your spouse talks with you.
3. Improve your sex life. It’s natural for the heady excitement of sex to wear off as you spend more of your lives together — your body can’t keep up that same chemical rush nonstop forever. However, exploring you and your spouse’s sexual needs and desires can reinvigorate your marriage and help you feel more connected.
- Be open and non-judgmental when you talk about sex with your spouse. It can be a frightening, guilt-inducing subject to discuss. Let your spouse know that you really are interested in knowing what his/her fantasies are and what turns him/her on.
- Studies show that couples have a more fulfilling sex life when they are interested in fulfilling their partner’s sexual needs — even if those needs aren’t things they need themselves. This is called “sexual communal strength,” and it’s a hallmark of couples who keep a healthy, active sex life.
- Explore together. Discuss your fantasies together. Try a new technique or sex toy. Watch pornography together or read erotic stories together. Focus on sex as a shared experience that brings both of you pleasure.
II. Taking Everyday Actions
1. Make time for the other person. If you or your spouse (or both of you) are constantly distracted, you won’t feel like a priority in the other person’s life. Not making time for your spouse, whether it’s time to share a fun evening at the movies together or time for sexual intimacy, can lead to feelings of disconnection and frustration.
- Sexual intimacy is often the first thing to go when you’re busy. If you’re finding that you don’t have the type of sexual connection that you used to have, try scheduling time for sex. It might seem like that’s a sure-fire way to kill the romance, but studies suggest just the opposite. 80% of married couples schedule time for sex, and it can actually help give you something to look forward to.
2. Create rituals together. A ritual can be a shared experience between you and your spouse. This type of shared experience is very important, as it fosters the sense that you have an intimate, familiar relationship with this particular person. Rituals don’t have to be elaborate, but they should be reliable and allow you and your spouse to connect. Be intentional about these rituals, and hold them sacred. Don’t skip out on them unless it’s really an emergency. Remember, your marriage is an investment: you’ll get out what you put in.
- Try giving your spouse a hug at the end of the workday and asking about his or her day. Convey something about how you value your spouse, such as “I really love it when you pick me up from work” or “It was so nice of you to grab dinner.”
- Think about all the rituals you probably went through when you were first dating. You had to arrange on a time to see each other, plan an activity, prepare to see each other, and interact with each other in ways that might not be routine. See if you can bring some of that back into your daily interactions.
- Start a “date night” tradition. This doesn’t have to be high-pressure. It’s just a time when you come together and spend time appreciating the other person.
3. Find a new hobby together. Finding something that you both enjoy doing together can give you a valuable way to spend time together and relax at the same time. Try activities that also have other benefits, like exercise, or activities which help you feel exciting and youthful, like gaming.
4. Introduce First-Date February. Once a year or so, you should take some time to fall in love with your spouse all over again. Review how you’ve changed as people and where you’re now wanting to go in your lives. Spend a few weeks acting like you’re dating each other for the first time all over again. You’ll be surprised how much it helps your marriage. Of course, it doesn’t have to happen during February. Do whatever works for you!
5. Play some games. Board games are seeing a comeback and they can be a great way to bond and have fun with your spouse. There are the classics of course (Scrabble, Monopoly, etc) but there are also some great newcomers. Try Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, or Once Upon a Time. You don’t have to play just the two of you either. Get your friends together for a weekly or monthly game night!
6. Create a hangout night. Make some mutual friends and then all get together for a game night, a dinner party, a movie, or other fun hang out. This will let you have fun together and feel social and renewed! You can also have separate hangout time with just your friends and (them with theirs).
7. Read a book together. Read a book together, either just at the same time or literally from the same book. This can give you something to talk about and open up conversations that you may not have had otherwise. You can read books on current events, parenting strategy, history books, or even just an exciting fiction! If you love TV or the movies, watch some of the other’s favorites. Go to see new movies or talk about what’s going on in your favorite show. You’ll have common ground to talk about something you’re passionate about.
8. Take up an art. Whether it’s taking a dance class together, learning how to play instruments, or learning to draw, this can give you not only a way to bond but a great creative outlet. Learning new skills such as these will make you proud of yourself and proud of each other.
9. Go places. Travel together if you can. It doesn’t even have to be out of the country; you’d be surprised what adventures you can find in your own backyard. Anything that gets you out of the house will do, really. This will create new experiences that you can share and bond over.
10. Cook each other meals. Take turns cooking a nice dinner for each other. If you’re both terrible cooks, take a cooking class together, or get some online help. This is a way for you to bond that also fits nicely into a hectic schedule (you have to eat, right?)
III. Communicating Helpfully
1. Learn to handle conflict. Conflict is normal within any relationship. Conflicts can even be a way to bring you closer together by encouraging you to collaborate on your relationship and get at something better in the end. It’s all in how you handle conflicts when they arise. Developing habits to help you manage conflict in a healthy, helpful way will definitely improve your marriage.
- Don’t talk when you’re angry. Despite the conventional wisdom that says you should never “go to bed angry,” trying to discuss something when one or both of you is upset can just make the situation worse. This is because when you’re upset, your body triggers a “fight or flight” response by flooding your body with adrenaline. This really puts the damper on your ability to think and speak calmly and rationally. Be aware of your body. If you notice that your heart rate is elevated, you’re having trouble breathing, or you’re “seeing red,” take a time-out.
- Take a break yourself, and respect your spouse’s needs. Either one of you can call for a break if you’re feeling too upset. It’s important to do this in a respectful way. Instead of saying something like “I can’t even talk to you when you’re like this,” talk about your own feelings and acknowledge that this issue is important and you will talk about it later. For example: “I am feeling very upset right now and I need a little time to collect my thoughts. I agree this is an important thing to discuss. Let’s talk in an hour when I’ve cooled off a little.” This way, your spouse knows you’re not trying to ignore the conversation. Similarly, if your spouse calls for a break, respect it. Don’t try to chase him or her down or talk over your partner.
2. Share your needs. It’s important not to sweep your concerns under the rug — they’ll trip you up eventually. Bring up what is bothering you or what you need in an open, kind way. Don’t expect your spouse to “just know” what you need. S/he isn’t a mind-reader, and neither are you!
- Don’t use sarcasm or guilt when you share your needs. Make a simple statement of the problem using “I”-statements when possible. For example, “Lately I have been feeling lonely because we’re not spending much time together. When we don’t have that connection, I feel like I’m not as important to you, and that makes me sad.”
- Once you’ve shared your need, invite your spouse to do the same. Don’t let this become a one-sided thing. Instead, ask your partner for his or her opinion. “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this?” are excellent questions to get you started. #* Look for “common concerns” that you may share with your partner. It’s possible that you actually share a need that you didn’t even know about. Or, you may each have a need that isn’t being fulfilled.
- Don’t “keep score.” Don’t hold whatever your spouse did last summer against them right now or keep a running catalogue of all the minor annoyances. Keeping score instantly turns your partner into your opponent. You’re on the same team! Never forget that.
- A weekly “conflict processing” conversation can be very helpful. It can be a place where you feel safe to present your concerns and you know you will be heard with respect and kindness. You can use this space as a place for both of you to collaborate to address these issues.
- Find the right time and place. You won’t always be able to find the ideal time and place to have a serious conversation, but try to avoid distractions as much as possible. Don’t try to have a deep conversation about a concern when one of you is exhausted or distracted by something else. Find a time when both of you can focus on listening and sharing.
3. Address each problem individually. If your partner brings up something that s/he has a problem with, don’t try to turn it around with a “Well, I might ____ but yesterday you ______ed…”. If you have a problem with your spouse, you can bring that problem up at another time. Unless one is directly related to the other, more than one problem should not be brought into an argument.
Similarly, if you want to share a concern, don’t overwhelm your spouse with a whole litany of complaints. Focus on one thing that’s got you concerned. This will help both of you feel like you can actually tackle the issue.
4. Avoid blaming. Blaming language puts your spouse on the defensive, and s/he’s not likely to hear even valid suggestions when s/he thinks s/he’s being attacked. When you bring up concerns, make sure you don’t resort to “guilting” or blaming your spouse.
For example, instead of saying “Why don’t you ever snuggle with me anymore?” say something like “I really enjoy snuggling with you. I’d like to do it more often. What do you think?” The first way blames your spouse and feels like an attack. The second way says that you enjoy something about your spouse so much that you want even more of it.
5. Repair conflicts immediately. It’s crucial that you be mindful of how your interactions evolve, especially when you’re discussing a sensitive or upsetting issue. If you notice that one or both of you is getting “flooded” by emotions, take a step back. Paying attention to your conflicts will help keep you from unproductive or hurtful fighting or avoidance.
- Pay attention to what works for you. Every couple is different, and what works to repair conflicts will also be different.
- Using humor is a common way to deflect anger. Be careful not to use sarcastic humor, though, which will generally make things worse.
- Validation is acknowledging that something about what your partner is saying makes sense. You don’t have to completely understand or agree with your spouse to let him or her know that you “get” why s/he feels a certain way. For example, you could say something like “It makes sense to me that when I didn’t kiss you goodnight because you felt unimportant to me.” Remember: you don’t have to agree that your spouse is “right” or that you meant to hurt him or her. You’re just acknowledging that s/he did feel a certain way. This simple gesture can help your spouse feel cared for even during conflict.
- Ask for a “redo.” If your spouse says something hurtful, ask him or her to rephrase it. Don’t get angry, just communicate your feelings: “That really hurt my feelings. Can you please say what you’re meaning in a different way?”
- Take responsibility. Problems and issues are almost never one-sided. Taking responsibility for even a small part of the problem you’re facing can go a long way toward helping your spouse feel acknowledged.
6. Accept that there are things you can’t change. If you and your spouse keep experiencing the same conflict, it could be due to things about your personalities that simply aren’t likely to change. For example, if you’re an extrovert who loves to go out with friends and your spouse is a deep introvert, you could end up having the same conflict about what to do every weekend. Some of these things are just the way things are, and you will both have to develop an accepting, flexible attitude to keep them from becoming sources of conflict.
Depersonalize. One reason our spouse’s actions can cause conflict is because we make them personal when they really aren’t. For example, if your spouse really doesn’t care about vacations and doesn’t seem to enjoy himself or herself when traveling, a personalization approach would make it about you: “If s/he really loved me s/he would have a better time on vacation.” This type of approach isn’t fair to either of you: it can lead to you feeling hurt by things that aren’t intended to hurt, and can encourage you to blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault.
7. Ask questions. Don’t assume that you “know” what your spouse is thinking or feeling. It can be very tempting to “mind read,” where we read into a situation our own interpretations and biases. This is extremely damaging to the relationship.
- Rather than attempting to be “right” or “defend” your position, be curious about your spouse’s thoughts and feelings. Recognize that almost all situations are subjective and you and your spouse may have very different interpretations. Neither of you is probably “right” or “wrong.” It’s important to listen to each other to avoid gridlock.
- Questions are also very useful as a form of active listening. When your spouse is sharing feelings or thoughts with you, take some time to reflect what you just heard back to him or her. Ask for clarification. For example, “I heard you say that you feel angry because I didn’t remember our date last night. Is that what you meant?”
8. Learn to compromise. Too often, people view compromise as a “they win, I lose” situation. In reality, compromise is a crucial element of a solid, happy marriage. Compromise is the search for common ground between the two of you, and it’s necessary to address problems. Compromising doesn’t mean you give up on things that are truly important to you — that would result in resentment and regret. It means finding out what you can live with and what are the “dealbreakers.”
- Dr. John Gottman recommends that each spouse draw two circles, one inside the other. In the smaller inside circle, write the things that you absolutely need. These are the things that your core values demand, that you just can’t live without. In the bigger circle, write things that you could live with.
- Share your circles with your spouse. Look for points where the big circles overlap. Those are places where you can probably find ground to compromise.
- Talk with your spouse about your negotiables and non-negotiables. Sharing with your partner may inspire you to grow your negotiable areas bigger, or may help your spouse understand why something is so crucial to you.
9. Consider an example. As a way to illustrate these communication techniques, consider the following example. You want to focus your free time on developing a nonprofit project that’s very important to you. Your spouse wants to spend free time going on vacation. This divergence in desires could cause conflict, but handled in a healthy way, it can help you work together to understand each other and find a solution.
- Begin by telling your partner that you’d like to have a conversation so that you can both understand where the other is coming from. Don’t make accusations or use blaming language. Instead, say something like, “It sounds like we have a difference of opinion here. Let’s talk about why we feel so strongly about these things.”
- Invite your partner to ask you questions about your views. For example, your partner could ask open-ended questions about why you want to work on this project, such as what it will accomplish for you, what it means to you, what worries you may have about it, etc. Your partner can practice active listening skills and describe to you what s/he heard, checking to make sure it was heard right. S/he can summarize what s/he took as the significance of this project to you, and you can offer your opinions on that.
- Next, ask your spouse about his/her views. Explore the position of wanting to take a vacation. Use questions and active listening skills to listen to his/her opinions, just as s/he listened to you.
- Once you have a good grasp of the other’s position and what it means, try to figure out a way for both of your needs to be met. This may mean you reach a compromise, or it may mean that one or the other of you decides to put your plans on hold for the other person. What matters is that you work together to discuss what you’ll do, and that your spouse knows you are always there to support him/her.
IV. Working as a Team
1. Work together to make rules. Having some ground rules can nip a lot of problems in the bud. Discuss together how you’d like to handle problems like choosing who to stay with for the holidays, who should be in charge of cleaning what, etc. Discussing hypotheticals before they happen (and maybe even writing them down) can help you know how your spouse will react to decisions and save you both the trouble of accidentally upsetting the other.
- Household responsibilities are a particularly sore spot. Many households have dual breadwinners, but strong social norms mean that women are usually still considered responsible for things like chores, cooking meals, child care, etc. Studies suggest that women in heterosexual couples perform 67% of chores and cook 91% of meals. Achieve a healthy balance by talking with your spouse about what each of you will do.
- Research has shown that couples who create a system to govern responsibilities are significantly happier than couples who don’t. This could be because both partners share responsibility so they feel more like a team.
- Approach this as collaboration, not one of you bossing the other. Decide what you’ll do based on your abilities, skills, and availability. You could also decide on a rotation, where you take turns doing chores that neither person likes. This will help either of you from feeling unfairly burdened.
2. Be a united front. This is especially important when you have kids. Talk things out and decide how you want to handle different situations, so that you can be united in the things you do. Feeling like your spouse openly overrules you can be embarrassing and cause tension.
Your parenting styles may not always be on the same page, and that’s to be expected. What’s important is that you coordinate your approach so that your child doesn’t feel confused by conflicting information or perceive you as not working together.
3. Have some alone time. It’s important for both of you to remember that you are still separate people with needs that you may only be able to fulfill on your own. Getting alone time to focus on yourself and your own needs is important. Make sure both of you get an opportunity to do so.
For parents, this probably means one of you will have to babysit so that the other can get some downtime.
4. Collaborate on finances. Money problems are one of the most commonly cited reasons for divorce. Work together to lay out some ground rules that everyone can agree on. Work to keep yourselves at a point where money is less of a concern and you’ll have fewer problems.
Arguments about money aren’t restricted to people of a certain income level. How much money you make or how much debt you have doesn’t predict your marriage’s success. How you approach collaborating on your finances and how you talk about money will determine whether it’s something that causes damage.
V. Dealing With Trouble
1. Seek professional marriage counseling. Sometimes, your marriage problems seem too big for you to deal with yourself. Fortunately, marriage counseling from a trained professional can help you learn how to handle conflict and disagreement, talk productively without fighting, and show your love and appreciation for your spouse. If you experience any of the following issues, you will likely benefit from professional counseling.
- Criticism. Criticism is a personal attack on someone’s character, such as “You always do this wrong” or “You never remember to do this.” Counseling can help you learn to express your needs with kindness.
- Defensiveness. Defensive tactics include indignation (“I can’t believe you’re saying that!”), counterattacks (“Well, you’re just as bad at X as I am at Y”), or whining (“It isn’t my fault!”). The antidote to defensiveness is validation, such as “I can see where you’re coming from” or “I could have done better at X.”
- Contempt. Contempt is abuse and has no place in happy relationships. Eye-rolling, sneering, insults, or condescension kill a relationship. Instead, express love and appreciation.
- Stonewalling. Stonewalling happens when the listener has stopped listening because s/he is flooded with adrenaline and can’t focus. Counseling can help you learn how to process conflict so that you’re able to listen and learn from each other.
- Several types of professionals can offer marriage or couple therapy. Common providers include psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, and licensed marriage and family therapists. Make sure that your provider is licensed and has experience in marriage counseling.
- Retreats and weekend workshops can be expensive, but they could be a helpful way to “jumpstart” some new habits. Just don’t rely on a weekend to fix all of your issues. You’ll need to continue to work and learn.
2. Get help dealing with trauma. Researchers are beginning to understand how much of a complication past trauma can be in a marriage. If one or both of you is carrying around trauma that you haven’t processed, it can trigger rage or anxiety and make communicating in a healthy way very difficult. Seek help from a mental health professional.
PTSD can cause particular difficulties for couples, especially those in the military. However, marriage and family therapy has been shown to be an effective treatment in helping couples and individuals deal with this trauma.
3. Get help for addictions. Addictions, including alcoholism, gambling, and substance abuse, do not mix well with marriage. Addictions are progressive diseases, and will get worse with time. Seek help from a medical professional and/or professional counselor.
- If your spouse’s addictive behavior puts you or your family in danger, you have the right to be safe. Take steps to protect your health and safety, and don’t allow your spouse to make you feel guilty for protecting yourself.
- There are several programs available for the family of loved ones suffering from addiction. If your loved one is refusing to get help, these organizations may help you. Al-Anon has “family groups.” The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has a range of services for family members
4. Recognize abuse. In some cases, it wouldn’t matter how well you implement the skills and tactics in this article. If your spouse is abusing you, it is not your fault. You did not “make” your spouse abuse you, and you cannot “fix” it by staying. Seek help. Abuse can be emotional, mental, and/or physical.