I've seen quite a few clients lately who are unhappy in their marriages. Based on these sessions, I've noticed recurring themes and patterns in relationships. It made me think about what it takes to have a healthy, happy marriage. Here are five ideas.
1. Recognize that relationships take work. If you start with this premise, you are less likely to be disappointed in your marriage. We have an ideal that relationships should be pure bliss at all times. If you are with someone for the long haul, it is important to understand that there will be ups and downs based on a variety of factors that can be going on for either person in the relationship. Things like job stress, parenting issues, or loss of a loved one can change the dynamics of the relationship. Don't throw in the towel just because you are going through a rough patch. This is perfectly normal. Realize the influence that an event is having on your relationship and try to work with it, rather than against it.
2. Know your triggers. This one is so important that there is an entire chapter, "Trigger Happy", devoted to it in my book, Four Quadrant Living: Making Healthy Living Your New Way of Life. What baggage are you bringing into your current relationship that comes from your past? Yesterday, I was working with a client who got so upset any time her husband talked about wanting her to work on the family budget. It has been a point of contention in their relationship for years. As we talked more about it, she realized that she was being triggered when he brought it up because of how she was raised by her father. Growing up, she had to log every amount of money she got from her dad, even money to take the bus when she was 10. Once we identified that she was being triggered, we brainstormed ways for her to change her mindset around working on the family budget.
Triggers don't just happen in our marriages, they happen with our friends, too. Just the other day, I was triggered and almost ended a special relationship. As soon as I understood what was happening and discussed it with my friend, it cleared the way to a stronger friendship.
3. Seek out others. Understand that your spouse is not likely to meet all of your needs. We are all unique and we have our own interests and desires. I see many clients who are disappointed because their spouse doesn't _______ (fill in the blank). One client was frustrated because he loves to travel but his wife doesn't. Another client was upset because her husband couldn't provide the emotional support she needed. It is important to accept this and find other ways to have your needs met so that you don't bring resentment into the relationship.
I don't love to ski. My husband does. I encourage him every ski season to get some friends together and go on a ski weekend (or two or three) without me. It makes him happy and it makes me happy (because I don't have to be in the cold and because I see how happy it makes him). If your spouse isn't as emotionally supportive as you would like, rely on your close friends to give you the support you need. If your spouse doesn't like to travel, go on a trip without them. Your relationship will be stronger if you let go of the expectation that your spouse needs to be everything for you. Do what you need to do to get your needs met in other ways with (or without) other people. If you continue to hold out hope and wait for your spouse to change, you'll likely be waiting a very long time—with mounting frustration.
4. Be equals and have a voice. I see this one a lot in my client practice. Many stay-at-home moms feel that because they are not earning money, they are not an equal contributor to the household. They feel that their husbands have more power with how the money is spent. One client recently said that she feels like she has lost her voice in the relationship. I explained to her that it takes two people to lose your voice in a relationship. I asked her to think about the role that she played in allowing this to happen. Work out an agreement about the household tasks and budget so that both parties feel like equals. Both people need to have a voice for the relationship to thrive.
5. Focus on the good, not the bad. If you find yourself being frustrated by every little thing your spouse does, remember what drew you to that person in the beginning. What was it about him or her that created the spark between you? Sometimes we get in the downward spiral of noticing every thing our spouse isn't doing to meet our needs, but instead we can try to focus on what they are doing to meet our needs. For example, a client explained how he was hurt because his wife didn't ask about a recent doctor's appointment that she knew he had. I asked him to list the ways that his wife does show that she cares. He said that she makes him his favorite meals, encourages him to have his buddy poker nights, and so on. Changing our mindset by focusing on the good instead of the bad can go a long way for a healthier, happier marriage.
As a child of a divorced family (my parents divorced when I was 3), I never understood while I was growing up why people would get divorced. As an adult, I get it. Not all relationships can and should last. We grow and change with time. My husband and I met when I was 18. We have been together for 27 years. We have been able to grow together, but I can see how sometimes people grow in separate ways that is no longer fulfilling for either party. With more life experience, I now realize that my parents lived much happier and healthier lives because they got divorced.
There has to be a fundamental connection between two people for a relationship to work—and a healthy dose of communication. There has to be respect and love; a true desire for wanting that person to be happy. My relationship has worked all of these years because my husband lets me be me. He gives me the independence I need. He has always made me feel like a partner and an equal. I fully trust that he has my best interest at heart and loves me unconditionally.
I'd love to hear from you. What are your secrets to a successful relationship? Which of the above ideas resonates most with you? Share in the comments section below.
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