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My husband and I have been married since September 22, 1984. Suffice to say we’ve been through a lot. Two children, two major relocations, several jobs, and a reasonable number of vacations. We’ve moved 6 times, bought 3 homes, buried 3 parents and a sibling, and taken in a dozen stray cats. We’ve had times when we were flush with cash and times when we didn’t know where next month’s rent was coming from. We’ve done our share of arguing, laughing, and crying. Sometimes it’s a struggle from day to day — sometimes moment to moment — and sometimes we have pretty smooth sailing for a good stretch.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on what makes a marriage last. However, over the course of three decades, I’ve picked up an idea or two, the things that seem to connect the threads in the fabric of a marriage. Here they are:

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    DO: First and foremost, take your marriage vows seriously. If you are not yet married, don’t even consider exchanging wedding vows if you’re also thinking “I can get out of this if I want to.” Whether you write your own vows or recite the traditional “Til death do us part,” don’t say it if you don’t mean it. A vow is a solemn promise, not to be taken lightly and not to be broken when it’s not fun anymore. Trust me, there will be times when it’s not fun. The strength of a marriage lies in working through those times. You may come out better in the end or you may emerge feeling beaten down, but you don’t get to quit when it gets difficult. (Important note: The exception to this rule is if there is any kind of violence involved. The moment that happens, your marriage vows become null and void. If you stay together after violence, it means starting over and reconsidering everything.)

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  1. DON’T: Focus on the show. Your wedding and your marriage are two different things. Your wedding lasts a day. Your marriage (hopefully) lasts a lifetime. Put the focus on what matters. You don’t need a big splashy engagement either. How beautiful the ring is or how creative the proposal may be has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the quality of your marriage. Let me tell you  how we got engaged. It went something like this:
    Me: My mother wants to know when we’re going to get married.
    Him: You wanna get married?
    Me:  Sure.
    Him: Okay. When?
    We then looked around for a calendar. The only one we could find was the little one on the back of my checkbook register, and we settled on a date. Prang! Engaged.

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  2. DON’T: Lie. Lies will kill your marriage. Lying is the fastest way to erode trust, and without trust, you have no marriage.
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    DON’T: Keep secrets. I don’t mean just secrets about your past or a secret stash of cash in your underwear drawer. I mean don’t keep secrets for anyone else either. I’ve made sure all my friends know, if you don’t want Husband to know about this, don’t tell me.
  3. DO: Use good manners. Please and thank you aren’t just for wait staff and the cashier at Walmart.
  4. DON’T: Assume that marriage makes you one mind occupying two bodies. When you tie the knot, you don’t actually tie your brains together, shocking as that may sound. You are still two separate fully functional human beings with your own set of values, your own likes and dislikes, and your own interests. Presumably some of those overlap or you wouldn’t sign up to spend your lives together, but don’t expect that you’ll always be interested in the same things.
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    DO: Pick your battles. There may be 184 different things that drive you crazy about your spouse, but if you discuss/argue/fight about all of them, that’s all you will do and it will become meaningless. Discuss the things that are really important to you — as in, the ones you may still remember 5 minutes from now — and let the rest go.
  5. DON’T: Become a slob in your appearance or habits. You don’t have to dress up every day like you’re going on a first date, but trust me, your spouse appreciates it when you take a moment or two to try to look nice. They also appreciate it when you throw your underwear in the hamper instead of on the floor.
  6. DON’T: Apologize without also making changes in your behavior. Saying “I’m sorry is great.” It’s important. But it’s more important to be mindful of your behavior and hold yourself accountable before you say or do something for which you will have to apologize later. After a while, apologies begin to ring hollow if they’re not accompanied with an effort to do better.
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    DO: Share traditions and rituals. Each of you bring your own family traditions — e.g. for holidays — and rituals to your relationship. Some of them may become the traditions of the new family you form together, but also develop some traditions that are uniquely your own.
  7. DON’T: Be disrespectful. Basically, when it comes to showing respect, if you wouldn’t say it to your boss, don’t say it to your spouse.
  8. DON’T: Be critical in public. Criticizing your spouse in public can be especially hurtful. Not only is it embarrassing for your spouse, but it erodes trust and makes your spouse feel rejected. If there’s something you need to speak with your spouse about, do it in private.
  9. DO: Laugh. Often.
  10. DO: Take a break now and then. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you have to be joined at the hip every waking hour. It’s okay to have some alone time. It’s okay to have your own interests. As long as you keep things balanced, it’s good for your marriage to spend time alone.
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    DON’T: Text and talk. If you’re having a conversation with your spouse, give it your whole attention. Put down the phone or the tablet. Mute the sound on the TV. Your spouse should not have to compete for your attention.
  11. DO: Be kind. Your spouse is going to mess up sometimes, just as you will. People don’t stop being fallible human beings just because they exchange wedding vows. Ask yourself whether your response to a mistake or an error in judgement — or the fact that they are not looking their best on a particular day — is helpful before you say something that may come across as unkind.
  12. DON’T: Play by somebody else’s rule-book. I know what you’re thinking. What a minute! You just spent 1,000 words tell me what the rules are. Here’s what I mean. What works in one marriage doesn’t always work in someone else’s. For instance, some couples split up household chores along traditional lines. She does the cooking and cleaning; he takes care of the yard and the cars. If that works for you, great. But it’s okay if it doesn’t. It’s okay if you decide it works better to keep your finances separate and maintain individual checking accounts. It’s okay if he does the grocery shopping and she mows the lawn. Do what works for you.

Please leave a comment and tell me what has worked in your marriage. We are all made stronger by strong marriages and strong families. Share your secrets. Or ask your questions.

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