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.
“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.
Build healthy boundaries. Marriages need what experts call a semi-permeable boundary that allows friends and family to connect with you but that doesn’t interfere with your own desires and plans. This can be especially complicated when it comes to your families of origin.
The biggest challenge is often deciding how you’ll handle the holidays. Will it be his family’s house for Thanksgiving, yours for Christmas? Yours for Rosh Hashanah, his for the Passover Seder? Or will you start a new tradition in your own home? How often will you talk on the phone — and how much will you share about the details of your marriage? If in-laws are nearby, decide how often you’ll visit — and when you’ll be at home to receive family visitors. Some parents and siblings respect a new couple’s needs; others may need gentle reminders. “Parents can work with or against a new couple,” Claudia Arp says. “They need to be getting on with their own marriage, going from being child-focused to partner-focused. Your marriage can be a transition time for them as well. Don’t cut them off — you really need that love and support. Do communicate your decisions about your needs in a kind, calm way.”
Cheer each other on. “One of the most important things to me is that my wife, Rebecca, is for me and I’m for her,” says Lee Potts, a retired computer programmer from St. Louis, Missouri. “It sounds simplistic, but it’s really important. I’ve been married twice before, and I don’t think we had each other’s best interests at heart like this. We had our own agendas.” Arp suggests that encouraging your partner is one of the most important things you can do for your relationship. “If we don’t, who will? Our bosses and co-workers? Don’t count on it! Our children and teenagers? Ridiculous!” she says. “Our mates need our encouragement.” Three strategies she and her husband recommend in their workshops: Look for the positive in your new spouse; develop a sense of humor; and give honest, specific praise — describe what you appreciate about your spouse.
Schedule time for your marriage first. Don’t relegate your relationship to scraps of leftover time. “In mapping out your schedule for the next several weeks, why not start with writing in date times for you and your mate?” suggest Claudia and David Arp. “Then add discretionary things like golf, shopping, and community volunteer activities.”
No time? Wonder why? Do a calendar review. You’re overcommitted if friends, visits with your parents and extended family, hobbies, clocking overtime hours on the job, or volunteer and community commitments have crowded out the three kinds of time you need with your beloved: casual catching-up, scheduled dates, and intimate encounters. Same goes if your evenings are TV marathons or Internet extravaganzas. “Unless you’re willing to make your relationship a higher priority than other relationships and activities, you won’t have a growing marriage,” notes Claudia Arp.
Disconnect from the 24/7 office. Push the “off” button! Heavy use of cell phones and pagers, BlackBerry devices, and high-tech walkie-talkies — the little gizmos that keep us connected with family, friends, and the office 24/7 — can mute your happiness and dial up stress in your home, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers found recently. The study tracked the technology use and moods of 1,367 women and men for two years. Those who sent and received the most calls and messages were also most likely to say that this “work spillover” left them tired and distracted at home. “Technology is really blurring the lines between home and work,” says lead researcher Noelle Chesley, an assistant professor of sociology at the university. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may give you more flexibility. But your boss doesn’t tend to call you with the good news — you don’t hear that you’ve done a great job on the project; you do hear that suddenly there’s a deadline crisis.”
Setting limits could lift on-call stress: Talk with your boss or your company’s human resources department if work calls are burning you out. Check e-mail once in the evening. If a call’s not urgent, muster the courage to say, “I’ll look into it first thing in the morning.” And simply turn off your cell phone at a certain time in the evening (same goes for the laptop). Ahhh … quiet.
Create a code word for love. Remember the elementary school joke about “olive juice” — say this silly phrase, and your mouth automatically makes the same movements as when you say “I love you.” Find a secret way to express your love that only the two of you understand. It comes in handy if your spouse calls when the boss is standing beside your desk, and creates that “just us” feeling anytime you use it.
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