Make Your Relationship a Priority
After Greg and Priscilla Hunt said “I do” in 1976, Greg worked hard to master the grammar of an unfamiliar new language: marriage. “I remember consciously shifting the way I talked, going from I and me to us and we,” says Hunt, now senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. “I was constantly rephrasing as I moved from thinking in individualistic terms to thinking of us as a couple.”
Getting to “we” seems like a given for newlyweds: You’ve planned the wedding together, tied the knot in front of friends and family, earned the marriage license that proves the two of you are an official legal entity. Yet experts say it’s important to make a concerted effort to heighten and reinforce this new sense of oneness — and then to guard and protect it. “It’s so important that couples form their own new, separate union together,” says Claudia Arp, who with her husband, David, founded Marriage Alive International and co-authored marriage books including 10 Great Dates to Energize Your Marriage. “But we see a lot of husbands and wives who never, ever reprioritize their relationship after marriage. They’re still entwined with their family of origin, putting their parents and siblings first. Or they’ve been on their own for years and don’t realize that their friends or job or other interests no longer take precedence. You need to be able to say ‘My spouse comes first.’ Yes, you love and respect your parents. And you still get together with your friends. But this is your anchor relationship. If you establish this now, it will be easier to hold on to when life becomes more complicated later in your marriage.”
The mental shift from me to we can be startling: You can’t go home to your old apartment (or your childhood bedroom) anymore if you’re bored or angry or need quiet time. You can’t arrange a girls’ night out or a poker afternoon without factoring in your partner. You’re a team — and responsible to someone else in a new and profound way.
When University of Minnesota researcher David Olson, Ph.D., and his daughter Amy Olson-Sigg surveyed over 10,000 married couples, they found that togetherness was a top priority for 97 percent of happy couples but for only 28 percent of unhappy pairs. Enjoying free time together was important to 97 percent of the happy group but only 43 percent of unhappy husbands and wives. Nearly twice as many happy couples as unhappy twosomes made most decisions in their marriages jointly. And perhaps most telling of all: 81 percent of happy couples said their partners’ friends and family rarely interfered with the relationship, compared to just 38 percent of unhappy couples.
Establishing a healthy boundary around your union isn’t always easy: When University of California, Los Angeles, researchers interviewed 172 newlywed couples, problems with in-laws and other relatives ranked with communication, money management, and moodiness as top challenges.
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“You really are forming a new system when you get married, and it needs care and feeding,” says marriage and sex therapist, Pat Love, Ed.D. “In our culture, we don’t do ‘we’ very well. We’re better at autonomy: I can take care of myself, I can give to you. But being a real unit means taking another step: making the relationship itself a priority. Other cultures do this much better — the Japanese have a concept called amae, which loosely translated means the delicious experience of interdependence. It’s a goal worth striving for.”
The first step for newlyweds? Revel in your exclusivity. You want to be together, just the two of you, so give yourselves permission to cocoon. Then try these couple-building tips.
Create couples rituals. Do something regularly that bonds you, such as 10 minutes to chat before bed, always having morning coffee together, or saving Saturday for date night.
Institute a daily check-in. Marriage experts recommend couples do something that big business has employed for decades to keep workers happy, productive, and in the loop: hold regular team meetings. Luckily, yours will be more fun than listening to Bob from accounting go over the last month’s sales numbers. One version of the daily check-in helps couples keep communication flowing freely with an agenda.
- Start by appreciating something about each other.
- Offer up some new information from your day.
- Ask your spouse about something that has bothered or puzzled you (or something about yourself).
- Make a nonjudgmental, complaint-free request (“Please fold the towels when you do the laundry. I couldn’t find any this morning after my shower.”)
- And end with a hope that could be small (“I hope we can go see that new movie Friday night”) or lavish (“I’d love to retire at age 50 and sail the Mediterranean with you.”)
Ask: Is it good for our relationship? When you bump up against any important decision in your marriage, don’t just talk about whether it’s good for you and for your spouse. Make it a point to talk about and think about whether it’s good for your marriage. “You’ll know the answer almost intuitively if you stop and ponder it,” Dr. Love notes. This may come down to how much time something will take away from your time together, whether it will make things stressful between you, or if it involves people who in some way threaten your relationship (lunch with your ex, for example). If you don’t even want to ask the question, that’s a red flag that whatever it is — from working late to “surprising” your spouse with an expensive new living room sofa to making individual plans on your usual date night — isn’t going to be good for your marriage.
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