This article originally appeared on fatherly.com
What is the single most important piece of marriage advice you’d give someone? It’s a tough question because one, you don’t want to sound cliché, and two, well, there’s a lot of advice out there to sift through.
What’s the one thing to highlight? When we posed the question to a variety of therapists and relationship counsellors, they were up to the challenge. On their own, each piece of advice serves as a back-pocket tip to remember; collectively, the advice serves as a sort of road map to relationship health and happiness. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Be Vulnerable
“The best advice I offer is deceptively simple: be vulnerable. Whenever you are sad, angry, scared or lonely — share your feelings. Be specific about what you feel, why you think you feel that way. By doing so, you open a door for genuine connection. It gives your spouse an opportunity to step up, to be there for you, to get through something together. That makes for a true partnership.” — Susannah Ludwig, Relationship Coach.
2. Fix. Don’t Throw Away.
“‘When something’s not working, fix it. Don’t throw it away.’ One of the reasons why marriages break down and end up in divorce is that couples easily give up on their relationship. No marriage is perfect, and there will always be 101 reasons to give up. But if you want your marriage to work, always look for a way to fix things instead of just throwing them away.” — Andriy Bogdanov, CEO and Co-Founder of Online Divorce.
3. The Little Things Are Big Things
“Little things mean a lot: Remember the small things that make a big difference. Little things that you did at the beginning get gobbled up in living-together familiarity, even though they matter more in marriage. Say please, thankyou, excuse me. Smile at simple times, like when you’re driving someplace together, or when watching TV. Touch each other – like with a light touch of the hand at dinner, softly brushing the check. rubbing his/her back while doing a chore. — Annmarie Kelly, Relationship Expert and author of The Five-Year Marriage.
4. Maintain a Growth Mindset
“A successful and happy marriage is about growth. There are three layers to growth in a marriage.
The first is individual —each person in the relationship has to be growing as a person, pursuing their goals and becoming a better person every day. The healthier we are, the better we will be able to support others.
The second is mutual support. One of the most important roles we play in a marriage is supporting our partner in their growth. This means knowing our partners well and keeping up with where they are in their lives.
The third layer is the growth of the relationship itself. In a marriage, we need mutual goals and pursuits–we build mutual friendships, travel and enjoy hobbies together, and even build families with pets and/or children. These pursuits help bring us closer and allow the marriage to mature.” — Dr. Raymond Raad, Psychiatrist, co-founder at RIVIA Mind.
5. Resist Falling Into Set Roles
“If I had to pick one piece of marriage advice, it is that couples should continue to see and respect each other as individuals without falling into set roles. Even if you do divvy up some responsibilities, it is still important that both of you develop all of the domestic and business skills necessary to take care of your family and run a household, just as you would if you were single.
After you get married, the world sees you as one unit, making it easy to slip into traditional roles to optimize your time and skills or one person subverting their interests and goals to align with the other. This leads to both partners becoming an expert in one area and lacking in the other and to one party feeling like they are giving up something to be part of the couple. Relationships built on becoming one rather than becoming more together feel unbalanced because they often result in each party carrying the burden of particular responsibilities and feeling under-appreciated for their contributions.
You are individuals with overlapping interests, not a two-headed monster. Cheering each other on in your pursuits and interests is one of the great joys of being a couple, don’t give that up.” — Shari Foos, MA, MFT; MS, Marriage and Family Therapist, Founder, The Narrative Method.
6. Beat Back Resentment
“Don’t harbor resentment. Within the intimacy of marriage, your spouse will likely exhibit unpleasant personality traits and bad habits from time to time. Bitterness and resentment in marriage can fester and gets worse with time if left unattended. Of course, it also creates significant barriers to intimacy on all levels. In a marriage, you must do your best to be kind and accepting towards your partner, and of course, love them for who they are, even for their flaws.” — Megan Harrison, licensed marriage and family therapist.
7. Be Aware of Each Other’s Goals and Aspirations
“If I could give couples just one piece of marriage advice it would be to make life dreams come true. Research conducted by Dr. John Gottman revealed that there are various aspects of a relationship that are important in order to have a healthy, successful marriage including trust, commitment, friendship, conflict management and shared meaning. Making life dreams come true will help you succeed in all of these areas. What I mean by that is being aware of one another’s goals, dreams, aspirations and helping one another fulfill and achieve them. If you can succeed in this, you will both feel like your partner knows you, cares about you, respects what you want and need and supports you. — Kimberly Panganiban, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
8. Always Check in With Your Emotions
“Constantly check in with your feelings about your partner. It goes without saying that the nature of your relationship will change over time. As lovely as the initial butterflies are, they have to fade away to make room for a deeper, long-lasting connection. Sometimes, changing feelings can cause couples to panic as they believe it is a sign of incompatibility.
However, I would urge all people in relationships to look to older couples for advice, and you will soon realise that they experience negative emotions too. If you get into the habit of checking in with yourself, it will prevent you from panicking when your feelings change.
For example, if you notice that you have been more irritated by your partner lately, recognise that and try to understand why. If it’s the fault of your partner, communicate it to them. They will hopefully honour your feelings and change their behaviour, but you should also work on how you can manage your anger or resentment.” — Ray Sadoun, Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Specialist.
9. Protect Your Marriage From Outside Intrusions.
“During the initial stages of a relationship, couples typically devote a lot of time and attention to their partner. There seems to be a never-ending supply of external pressures and temptations to take focus away from the marriage. Over time, the relationship may be in competition with children, extended family, friends, church activities and careers to name just a few. These ‘competitors’ are meant to bless couples but the marriage will suffer if the blessings become idols. The antidote is for the spouses to unite in actively insulating the marriage from harmful encroachments. It is necessary to set boundaries by not giving in to demands that unduly steals time from the relationship. The cost of protecting one’s marriage is not easy but is a worthy endeavor that will pay great dividends.” — Dana Nygaard, Licensed Professional Counselor.
10. Learn the Art of Apologizing
“When you’ve said something rude or treated your partner badly, take notice and apologize genuinely as quickly as possible. It’s great to clarify the reasons for your behavior — ‘I hadn’t eaten,’ ‘I just read a depressing story,’ ‘I had a terrible meeting with my boss,’ — but not to excuse the behavior. For example, ‘Hey honey, I’m sorry I said that. I haven’t eaten and I’m worried about this meeting tomorrow. I was irritated and took it out on you… I’m sorry about that.’ Bonus points if you have children and model quick and genuine apologies in front of your children. Chances are you’re snarky or rude to your partner on occasion in front of your children, so why not be a role model for self-awareness and humility as often as possible, too?” — Amber Trueblood, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
11. Be Aware That Both of You Have to Take Initiative
“I try to instill in couples from the very beginning of therapy that the relationship is a living, breathing entity that requires both of them to individually as well as cooperatively care for, nurture and provide for the health of the relationship. If neglected, the relationship will die just like anything else that’s living. Each partner in a couple needs to individually consider if and what they are contributing to the health or harm of the relationship and what they each need to do to nurture the relationship to health and vitality. They can’t wait for the other person to do it. They each have to take initiative and do their part. This does one very important thing at the outset of therapy that helps with success… it aligns the couple together to work on the common goal of the health of the relationship. This is vital, especially in the beginning stages, because it will define almost everything that comes next in the therapy process. — Dr. Brandon Santan, Licensed Relationship Therapist.
12. Shift From “Me” to “We”
“At the essence of a healthy, lasting, intimate relationship is the ability to move from ‘Me’ thinking to ‘We’ thinking. Your relationship is your biosphere, and to keep it healthy it is essential that you take an ecological view. You are not above and dominant over the system, you are in the system.
This means you only have control over yourself and if you take honest, personal accountability for your actions, words, and deeds you can affect positive change in the system.
Things like yelling, proving you are “right”, retaliation, controlling your partner, withdrawal are all forms of pollution that choke the life out of the relationship. If you pollute your biosphere, you are inviting a polluted response from your partner. When you take an ecological view and move from ‘Me’ thinking to ‘We’ thinking the relationship can grow and thrive into a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts. — Risa Ganel, Licensed Counselor and Marriage Family Therapist.
13. Don’t Neglect Self Care
“Work on yourself instead of blaming your partner. Own your stuff, your defenses and blindspots, your hurts and traumas. Tending to your psyche and self in this way will enrich your relationship beyond measure. It will make you more empathetic to your partner’s hurts. When each spouse keeps their side of the street clean, we do much less acting out of unconscious old patterns and can get on with feeling safe, close and connected.” — Jenny Walters, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
14. Learn the Language of the Mind vs. Language of the Heart
“The language of the mind is analytical and tries to solve problems. The language of the heart is focused around being vulnerable and owning your truth. When couples learn to shift into the language of the heart, they don’t blame their partner for what they’re feeling. Instead, they acknowledge and share what they’re feeling. ‘I’m angry because I feel like I don’t have a voice.’ ‘I’m sad because I feel alone.’ The more you share your experiences, the more connected you’ll feel with your spouse.” — JF Benoist, Founder & Program Manager ofThe Exclusive Hawaii and author ofAddicted to the Monkey Mind.
15. Have a Shared Vision
“The first thing I tell couples when I start working with them is that in order to have a fulfilling marriage, it’s essential to have a shared vision for your relationship that can guide you through difficult times. Hard times are inevitable in long-term relationships, and when we don’t have a shared vision for what we want for our relationship, we often end up prioritizing our short-term goals over our long-term goals. This means that people will often avoid having difficult conversations to keep the peace, even when the problem continues to get worse. Or people will say something in the heat of anger that they regret later. When couples have a strong sense for how they want their relationship to be, and they use this vision to help them make choices about how to respond to challenges, they can respond to problems in ways that help them grow stronger as a couple.” — Angela Amias, Couples Therapist, Co-Founder of Alchemy of Love.
16. Learn How to Repair
Relationships are really just a long series of ruptures and repairs. People who love each other deeply still hurt each other in big and small ways. That may sound cynical, but it’s true and knowing that can help couples put protective practices in place. By learning early on how to repair, you will be well-prepared to handle the things life throws at you along the way.” — Kate Engler, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Owner, Three Points Relationships.
17. Remember: No Two Relationships Are the Same
“Your relationship is supposed to be unique to the two of you. You are building something that is meant to bring out the best in both of you, and meet the needs of each of you. That means that your relationship will look different than any other couple out there. You want to find solutions that you both feel good about, even if those agreements would not work for any other couple. Asking the question, ‘How could we live better together?’ is often the path to finding the solutions to problems so you have a truly great relationship. When you compare your relationship to others, think of it as doing research to spark your imagination and creativity so you can come up with new ideas. Then, think about how to tailor the new ideas to fit your relationship. There are no cookie-cutter relationships even if two couples use the same tools.” — Cheri Timko, Couples Relationship Coach.
18. Come From a Place of Love
“As long as you choose to love each other in words and action, the challenges will get walked through. The problem is we think that our partner stops liking or loving us and it is this belief that results in us changing accordingly. And then the ball starts rolling.” — Heather M. Browne, Psy.D., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
19. Identify the Feeling Behind Requests
“The most common deficit in communication between two people is a lack of understanding the feelings behind the requests of either side. We can be conditioned to feel as though discussions and compromise are set up as zero-sum experiences. Someone is winning, so someone else must be losing. We can improve the trajectory of the marital bond when we reposition our discussions from a competition to an understanding of the emotional reason behind our partner’s point of view.
This is important in general discussion and not only when there is conflict. We want emotions to become a regular subject matter for the partnership. When we know our feelings, we can more easily communicate with others. When we know our partner’s feelings, it can be easier to engage in a loving manner. When we feel that our partner understands our feelings, we have a greater opportunity to establish a foundation of trust, love, and respect.” — Jeremy Robinson, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.