When I first got married, I really sucked at being a married person. I was young, selfish, and pretty difficult to communicate with. I entered marriage thinking that the fabled Prince Charming awaited, and instead, I found a regular guy with a good heart—who also really sucked at getting his dirty dishes from the living room to the kitchen. My husband and I recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary, and looking back, we both agree that year one was the absolute worst. He admits that he thought he was getting a wife/maid combo once he put a ring on it, and as I confessed, I thought I was entering a fairytale. Something good happened between that rough first year and now, though. A lot of good things happened, actually, and now we’re happy. We enjoy being married, and we genuinely like each other. And that’s saying a lot, considering how our life right after our wedding was pretty close to miserable. So, what did we start doing right? Well, more on that later. But in short, what matters most for us is that we’re trying; we’re living and learning; we’re choosing marriage. And those secrets are just a sampling of what we could list, but honestly, I’ve learned that the secrets to success vary from couple to couple. See, in an attempt to hear from other couples about their secrets of a happy marriage, I turned to social media. Lately, my feed has been full of breakups, divorce announcements, and single-life struggles, so I was a bit hesitant to crowdsource for happy husbands and wives…but to my amazement and joy, 70 individuals replied to my query. Seventy! If you thought happiness in marriage was a myth, you’re going to be persuaded otherwise. There are many, many happy couples out there, and they have some really surprising secrets to spill. Below are the overarching themes of what they shared paired with insight from relationship professionals.
If you need to, go to bed angry.
“We have all heard the saying ‘Don’t go to bed angry,’” says Stefani, who has been married for nine years, “but if it’s late and you’re both overtired, sometimes that’s the smartest thing to do. You can always continue the conversation in the morning. … Trying to solve … something while exhausted and you just can’t think clearly can lead to even more problems. Learning how your husband or wife processes [conflict] will be a huge help in communicating what you need and want from them.” On that note, Rochelle Peachey, a couples counselor, says, “If you do go to bed with the argument unsolved, be the first one to re-open it, but in a more reasonable way. If your partner is the one who re-visits last night’s disagreement, then you need to be willing to listen and talk it through.”
Don’t make your spouse your everything.
Should you lose yourself in marriage? Make your spouse your everything? Layla Lawrence, a contributor at mom.me who has been married for ten years, wrote a piece titled No, My Husband Is Not My Best Friend. It reads: “The number-one reason my husband is not my best friend: I don’t believe one person should carry the burden of my entire emotional life.” Isn’t that the truth? My husband loves me, this I know, but does he need to catch every tear I cry? I don’t think so. Lawrence continued: “I mean, let’s share that s***. Spread it out. I’m a lot to handle and he does a good job husbanding me, but no man deserves to be a girl’s literal everything. It’s just too much.” That mentality transfers just as easily to husbands. I need my man to have friends and hobbies outside of me. I don’t complete him. He’s his own person and our relationship, albeit an important one, is only a facet of who he is.
[Marriage] is meant to be interdependent, not codependent.
Michael DeMarco, PhD, a relationship counselor and sex therapist says, “I look at healthy relationships like a Venn diagram of overlapping circles. If you are a whole person, you’re going to, hopefully, attract and be in a relationship with another whole person—and where you overlap is your relationship. This also means that there will be areas in which you don’t overlap, and don’t have to!” Jim Seibold, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist, concurs: “[Marriage] is meant to be interdependent, not codependent. Interdependence means that couples share, live, and work together, but do not solely rely on each other.”
Communicate. Learn. Adapt.
Mickey Eckles, a pastor and marriage counselor of 25 years, stresses that there is one skill that couples must commit to learning if they want to be happy. That skill? Communication! “If we can learn to communicate openly and honestly with one another, we can express our desires and dislikes. More than that, we can navigate any issue that tries to rob our joy and unity. Marriage is work, and great marriages are working at it all the time.” “In all of life, we should continue to learn,” says Brian Taylor, an author and relationship coach. “Most certainly in our relationships. Most professions have Continuing Professional Development requirements. Why not, in our most important relationship, have Continuing Personal Development requirements?”
Put your spouse in your schedule.
Eckles introduced me to Willard F. Harley, Jr., PhD, who wrote the book Surviving An Affair. In it he wrote: “You have 168 hours every week (24×7) to schedule for something. I highly recommend 8 hours of sleep a night, so that leaves 112 waking hours. Getting ready for the day, and going to bed at night may require, say, 12 hours, and work plus commute may take another 50 hours. That leaves 50 more hours to spend doing what you value most, and 15 of those hours should be dedicated to maintaining a passionate and fulfilling marriage.” Kristy and her husband, Sean, have been married for 23 years, and she heartily agrees. “Make time—lots, weekly—to just be a couple. We were so poor starting out, we made dates of movies in, walks, coffee … we laugh together a lot. Now we still make the time, only we don’t need childcare anymore, so we can eat out more, which I love! Also, once or twice a year we get away together and have a little honeymoon.” If your job gets 40-plus hours a week from you, the secret to maintaining a happy marriage is to make sure your spouse is getting a nice chunk of the 168 hours you have to allot.
Know that being happy isn’t the goal.
You’re in a committed relationship that needs to weather many hardships— that’s just life! So, if you make it your sole goal to be happy, you’ll most likely be unhappy. “If the goal is to be happy, that means that any conflict would likely feel like failing,” Seibold says. This would lead to feelings of anxiety, even panic.” “In fact, arguments are a sign of health,” he continues. “It suggests that couples respect one another enough to bring issues to the table. It also communicates trust in each other and the relationship. It says ‘I trust you to hear me’ and ‘I trust our relationship can handle this.’ If you hear a couple suggest that they are great together because they never fight, that is a sign of trouble. That means they are not sharing enough.” I think we all need to ask ourselves, “What is the purpose of marriage?” Is your purpose to be happy, or is your purpose to partner with someone through life’s experiences? After connecting with so many happy couples and sharing their thoughts with experts, it seems that the vast majority agree that when you forget happiness and focus on other crucial elements of marriage, you wind up finding happiness. If it’s not the focus, it will surely come.
So, what worked for my husband and I?
My husband said it best: “I choose her over myself.” And I agree—finding happiness in our marriage has been more about making each other happy than seeking our own. To us, marriage is about entering a partnership where you’re both willing to give 100 percent. We fill in each other’s gaps, make decisions based on what is best for each other, and show up each and every day. From the little things like packing lunches (that’s one thing I do for my husband each day) to the big things like taking them on their dream vacation (my husband did that for me last spring). Eckles brings speaks of the concept of preferring one another. That’s a phrase not often heard in marriage talk, but it bodes true. Preferring your spouse gives them priority. It’s choosing them and holding space for them to choose you.