I was recently asked what the core principles are for building a strong marriage. It's an interesting question. Trying to identify the “core” or “basic” foundations of something requires drilling down below the froth and discovering those things that cannot, or should not, be ignored.
After having listened to the life stories of so many people over the past three decades, I found it pretty easy to come up with a short list of core truths every couple should keep in mind. (But there's also a long list!)
To be thoroughly candid, my list is not solely informed by my experience as a therapist. Each of the foundations I list below are also supported by research. But, as is often the case with psychology, research simply confirms what your grandparents already knew and took for granted.
So, here are five truths about marriage that every couple should keep in mind.
Number 1: Your spouse is not perfect. So what? Great marriages are not made by having the perfect spouse. If that were the case, there would be no great marriages.
Instead, great marriages are made when two people are reasonably compatible, when each looks for the good in the other, and when there is mutual support, forgiveness, and respect.
Sarah Jessica Parker (mom to three son James and twin daughters Marion and Tabitha): “As a working mother high heels don’t really fit into my life anymore - but in a totally wonderful way. I would much rather think about my son than myself.”
No one finds the perfect spouse. We all have our shortcomings. Dwelling on the imperfections of your spouse poisons the relationship. Learn to let the little things go. If you must focus on something, choose to focus on the good qualities of your husband or wife.
Number 2: Your spouse cannot make your life complete. Many young couples have the unrealistic expectation that the marital relationship will act to “fill in” or “mend” the broken parts of their life. To some extent, this does occur, but it is not complete.
If you enter marriage believing that this wonderful person you have married will be your best friend, counselor, motivational coach, substitute father/mother figure, etc., you will be disappointed. Resentment will eventually take root. When it does, great unhappiness is not far behind.
Instead of insisting that your spouse fill all of these functions, rely on friends, family, and yourself. By reaching out in this way you live a fuller life, and have a happier marriage.
After all, is it truly realistic to think that your spouse can meet all of your needs? Of course not. No one would even voice such an expectation. But many people unintentionally and subconsciously fall into the trap of having this mindset. Sadly, they may not come to realize this until after the pressure such demands create has resulted in a divorce.
Cheer the good stuff. When you notice your child doing something helpful or nice, let him know how you feel. It's a great way to reinforce good behavior so he's more likely to keep doing it.
Each of us (no matter the relationship—spouse, parent, child, friend) needs to take a sober look at our expectations. When they turn out to be unrealistic, let them go. You and your spouse will be happier, and paradoxically, your relationship will grow closer.
Number 3: As is true in life more generally, you get out of your marriage what you put into it. If you invest time, thought, and energy into growing a stronger and healthier relationship, you are likely to be rewarded with a terrific relationship.
That is not a guarantee, but a principle (just the same as if you exercise and eat right you are likely to be healthier and live longer than if you never exercise or eat properly).
The effort you put into your marriage can be made more effective by candidly talking with your spouse about what is going well in the relationship. You’ll then learn what can be focused upon even more to help your marriage flourish.
Also, take the time to patiently talk about what is not going so well. Honestly consider how each of you can take steps to shore up weak areas in the relationship. Have this talk once a month. It’s important: put it on your calendar.
Lastly, give one another grace. Let the little things go.
Talk about what it means to be a good person. Start early: When you read bedtime stories, for example, ask your toddler whether characters are being mean or nice and explore why.
Number 4: Marriage is somewhat like an investment account. The more you put into building a strong connection with your spouse—showing kindness, support, affection, and respect—the more the emotional bank account grows. Then, when you really miss the mark (forget an anniversary, or impulsively purchase that must-have item without your spouse’s approval), there will be sufficient "emotional funds" to cover the loss your relationship sustains. However, this approach must not be used as a ploy to allow for misbehavior—that just comes across as manipulative.
Be intentional about building intimacy, good memories, shared successes, and so forth. Be a proactive investor in building a strong emotional bank account.
Number 5: Love is a verb, not a noun. Most people report that one of the important reasons they chose to get married was that they were in love with their spouse. They had deep feelings of affection, admiration, and affection for each other.
Feelings, however, will wax and wane. There will be times in a marriage when these feelings are very weak, or altogether missing. Some men and women, faced with these weakened feelings, will then ask, “Why should I stay married if I don’t love my husband or wife any longer?”
Someone who has this view of love may very well end up with multiple marriages. Feelings are fickle things; do not base your marriage on the unstable foundation of feelings.
Recognize instead that love involves more than feelings. That at its heart, love is a commitment to do what is best for another, and that this commitment then needs to be expressed in daily actions that are supportive, affirming, and respectful.
Kiss and hug your spouse in front of the kids. Your marriage is the only example your child has of what an intimate relationship looks, feels, and sounds like. So it's your job to set a great standard.
When this approach is taken consistently, the feelings of love that may wane at times will eventually return, mature, and root more deeply in the relationship.