How to Help Strengthen Your Relationship Long Term
At some point you meet this guy, and all of a sudden crazy things start happening. Every time you see him your heart skips a beat, you get kind of giddy, and you feel like you could stay up all night talking. You even make excuses for and laugh at behavior you never would have laughed at before – because you are head over heels in love.
By Julie Baumgardner, MS, CFLE
Many of us have experienced that feeling. It is invigorating and exciting. It’s just like Diana Ross’s song says, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from getting to you!” No matter what you encounter or what people say to you, you are convinced this love will see you through, and the truth is – you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last to think this way.
Bursting the Bubble
Most people think there’s a 50/50 chance of making it in marriage and that luck and romantic love are the two things you need. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the truth is that love only carries you so far in a relationship. This is often why we see so many couples who are starry-eyed in love rush to the altar and say “I do” only to stare at each other months later thinking, “I really don’t.” It is a sad reality for far too many couples.
Research indicates we are the most marrying, divorcing and re-marrying country in the world. More than 90 percent of people in our country plan to marry at some point in their life. So what are we missing when it comes to love and marriage?
Believe it or not, there is plenty of research indicating that marrying well is not simply luck of the draw. There are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of having a healthy marriage.
Love is Blind
Dr. John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk, says people need to learn how to follow their hearts without losing their minds in the dating process. He says that your heart can mislead you, and you can suffer from the “love is blind” syndrome. People often become too attached and involved too quickly, overlooking problem areas in a relationship. Even when you know what to look for in the dating process you can still be blindsided when you allow your attachment to become too strong too soon.
One of the most important things you can do to ensure a healthy relationship is to take it slow. People are very willing to be on their best behavior for one year. After that, you tend to see much more of the real personality. This is not something you can fast forward by spending every waking minute together. A relationship needs time for things to normalize. Many people are very flexible in the infancy of a relationship, but as time goes on they become less flexible. By taking things slow and easy, you give the relationship time to grow up, and you get to see how the person will really treat you through the ebb and flow of life.
Key Components of a Healthy, Lasting Marriage
Dr. David H. Olson, founder of Life Innovations and one of the creators of the Prepare/Enrich and The Couple Check-Up marriage enrichment tools, has surveyed 21,501 married couples in the U.S. to identify the top ten strengths of happy marriages.
Olson says the research indicates that the strongest couples are those who have:
• strong communication skills
• a clear sense of closeness as a couple
• personal compatibility, and
• good conflict management/resolution skills.
People tend to believe that these skills come naturally and that love will carry them through in conflict, but ask any married couple and they will tell you differently – especially when two people have been raised in households that were dramatically different.
For example, if you were raised in a home where conflict was handled with the silent treatment but the person you are marrying was raised in a home where people were loud as they worked through conflict, how do you think things will go when you have conflict in your marriage? How a couple handles conflict is the number one determining factor for whether their marriage can go the distance.
Perhaps your mother handled the money in your home, but the father took care of the finances in your fiancé’s home. How will you decide who is responsible for taking care of money?
What about responsibilities around the house? If you and your fiancé both lived in homes where mom did the housework, exactly who will take care of all those chores when you marry?
If you want to increase your chances of having a healthy, lasting marriage, you need to focus on making sure you not only have the skills necessary for a healthy relationship, but that you talk about potential areas of conflict before you walk down the aisle.
Welcome to Reality
Great marriages don’t just magically happen. They are the result of intentional efforts by both people involved. It takes elbow grease, commitment, a lot of grit and perseverance to do something well. Marriage is no exception.
Michele Weiner-Davis, author of Divorcebusting, believes there are five stages of marriage. The first stage is where passion prevails, and you are perfectly willing to overlook each other’s flaws.
Stage two occurs when you both realize that marriage isn’t at all what you expected. This stage tends to be the most difficult because this is when couples experience the greatest fall.
In the third stage, most people believe there are two ways of looking at things, your spouse’s way and your way. Couples often battle to get their partner to admit they are wrong. Every point of disagreement is an opportunity to define the marriage. Over time, both partners dig their heels in deeper and deeper. This is when couples are convinced they’ve tried everything and when some give up, choosing to lead separate lives or divorce. Still others decide it’s time to investigate healthier and more satisfying ways of interacting. This requires a major leap of faith. Those who take it are the fortunate ones because the best of marriage is yet to come.
In stage four, couples come to terms with the fact that they are never going to see eye-to-eye about everything. They seek wise counsel.
Finally, couples reach stage five. Tragically, half of all couples who wed never get to this stage. No longer in a struggle to define who you are and what the marriage should be, there is more peace and harmony. You start “liking” your spouse again. While you both agree that marriage hasn’t been easy, you feel proud that you’ve weathered the storms. You appreciate your partner’s sense of commitment to making your marriage last.
Built to Last
While there are no absolute guarantees for a great marriage, there are definitely things you can do to significantly increase your chances of building a successful marriage. Couples who have been married 50 years or more will tell you that commitment to making the relationship work is foundational – along with forgiveness and a sense of humor. When asked if all the effort was really worth it, the consistent response was a resounding YES!
The benefits of a great marriage: friendship, mutual respect, building history together, healthier children, etc. far outweigh the alternatives of going it alone. Love is only the beginning. But if each spouse has a vested interest in building a lifelong relationship, the odds are definitely in your favor.
• How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk – Dr. John Van Epp
• Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married – Gary Chapman
• 12 Hours to a Great Marriage – Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, Susan Blumberg, Natalie Jenkins, Carol Whiteley
• Before you Plan Your Wedding, Plan Your Marriage – Greg and Erin Smalley
• Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work – John Gottman and Nan Silver
• Couplecheckup.com – An online relationship survey designed to help you strengthen your relationship, whether you are married, engaged, or dating. It will automatically tailor the process for your relationship.
Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.