Is it possible for couples to grow more rather than less ‘in love’ or is ‘for better, for worse’ just the great lie that we all say but very few really mean? When my wife and I said those very words, I don’t think I quite knew what they meant. The ‘betters’ have been better than I could have hoped. But some of the ‘worse’ has been incredibly painful. Many tears and many laughs. many amazing days and many dark nights of the soul. Building a marriage that lasts, and thrives year on year, is not for the faint-hearted. But it is possible…
Henry Youngman, an American comedian, was once asked the secret of his long marriage: “Simple”, he replied, “We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays.”
I’ve talked to many couples over the years, particularly those that have decades under the hood, seeking to glean the things that help keep marriage and romance alive. Here’s the top seven things I’ve learned;
One. Understand love languages
Gary Chapman’s book ‘The five languages of love’ is probably the most helpful basis for understanding your partner and building a strong foundation of love that I’ve ever read. Chapman lists five ‘core’ ways that people give and receive love – quality time, physical touch, gifts, words of affirmation and acts of service – and helps you see that many people give love in the way that they want to receive it, rather than in the way their spouse wants them to give it. I wanted my wife to respond to physical touch because that’s how I receive love. But she receives love mostly through words of affirmation and acts of service. If I want a hot date night, nothing works better than finishing some long neglected DIY! It’s totally counter-intuitive but it works and I recommend this book to every newlywed I ever meet. One guy clearly understood his wife’s love language. He said “we always hold hands”. When asked why, he replied “if I let go, she shops!”
Two. Resolve conflict
In ‘So I married an axe murderer’, Mike Myers says “We both said, ‘I do!’ and we haven’t agreed on a single thing since.” Couples that stay together have learned the secret of resolving conflict in constructive ways. Instead of bottling or exploding, lasting marriages take time to listen, understand, discuss, compromise and resolve. Romance can’t flourish in the toxic soil of unresolved anger. Sometimes it involves getting help from others. We’ve never been to marriage counselling, but I wouldn’t hesitate if I thought we needed it. Instead, before it has reached that point we have sought help from other couples who are further down the tracks than us. There’s nothing better than some objective input to help you move past the big hurdles. Someone once said that there were two secrets to a happy marriage ‘whenever you’re wrong admit it. Whenever you’re right, shut up’ Sound advice!
Three. Play your part
A friend of ours said to my wife once that her husband usually ‘did nothing but complain and sit in the front of the TV all evening then after I’ve collapsed exhausted in bed, he comes up later and wants his way’. The sad reality is that many men think that the person they married is really not much more than a female servant. Strangely, women find this very unromantic. It’s hard at times to engage with the kids, help get the dinner on the table and avoid the swamping passivity when I’m tired after a long day at work. But working beside one another in the home makes for a ’team’ feel in a marriage and creates a togetherness upon which romance can build.
Four. Set a weekly ‘date’
One of the foundations of our marriage, and many other healthy ones that I’ve seen, is the husband facilitating a weekly date where there is time to talk, relax and enjoy one another. It’s critical at every stage, but even more so when kids come along. It doesn’t have to be expensive (we only go out once a month) but it has to be a protected time where your wife knows you won’t double book it with work or beers with the guys. Watching a movie can be part of it, but should be the exception rather than the rule – a quality relationship is rarely built on episodes of ’24’ or ‘West Wing’. At first such times used to freak me out – what would we talk about? I used to have to plan the evening, even down to some questions I might ask. But time has moved on and it almost comes naturally now. Someone once said ‘the best present a man can give a woman is undivided attention’
Five. Live with gratitude
In the movie Wimbledon, one character commenting on a marriage says “It’s sad. Everything they used to love in each other now seems to drive them crazy.” It’s certainly true. Before marriage we think “wow, we agree on everything” After it becomes “Don’t they have a mind of their own”. Before marriage, “is that all you’re having?” after “maybe you should just have the salad”. It seems that the things we dislike about our partner soon swamp the things we used to enjoy. I believe the secret to avoiding this is the practice of gratitude. Living with gratitude for who our spouse is, rather than who they are not, is the ideal foundation. Two people who are pouring life into a marriage by encouragement will outlast two people who are sucking the life out by criticism any day. Someone once said their key to a happy marriage is “encourage, encourage, encourage”. If we discovered that we had five minutes left to say all we wanted to say, every mobile phone would be in use by people calling other people, not to criticise but to stammer that they love them. Why wait until the last five minutes?
Six. Make sure sex is great for both of you
Woody Allen once said “I don’t know the question, but sex is definitely the answer.” Not the whole answer for a healthy marriage but it’s definitely part of it. The sad thing is that many men never learn to ensure that sex is great for both them and their spouse. In a recent survey, 52% of the participants admitted to faking an orgasm. The reasons for this are complex – sex is the most intimate part of a marriage and perhaps some marriages never make it to the level of intimacy where a lack of satisfaction can be discussed. It’s simply easier to fake it than face it. But if we want to build strong, romance filled marriages then doing everything we can to ensure we’re both getting satisfied is crucial. If it’s not happening then talking together and then even with another trusted couple or counsellor is the sort of courageous act that communicates love for your spouse in a way that lasts a lifetime.
Seven. Keep the element of surprise
Despite every other good habit you can have, even strong marriages can become dull marriages. “Your marriage is solid” is a great compliment but solid is a word best applied to concrete rather than marriages! Romance, by contrast, flourishes in the atmosphere of surprise. Surprise notes, hugs, kisses, cards, flowers, meals out, texts, phone calls and anniversary trips make the difference between something solid and something alive and exciting.
Keeping romance alive takes skill, hard work and commitment. But there’s nothing more rewarding than discovering the joy of love that has grown over time. We all go into marriage with certain hopes and dreams. Some are fulfilled, some are not. But the powerful thing about marriage is that the security of commitment enables us both to change, and to learn what true love is really about. As Steven Covey says, “Want to improve your relationships? See love as a verb rather than a feeling”