How to Turn an Okay Marriage Into a Great One

Image 7-12-15 at 1.49 PM (1)How many people do you know who would wholeheartedly say that their marriage is great?

How many would say that they’re happier now than when they first got together, that their marriage is one of the most satisfying parts of their life?

Five? Ten? None?

It’s not all that hard to have an okay marriage. If you look around, many people’s marriages are just okay. They plod along, putting in little or no effort, feeling disgruntled or disappointed or just uninspired, wishing there was something more satisfying to be had.

Wondering if okay is as good as it gets.

I’ve heard couples say they’ve tried “everything,” when what they’ve done is simply complain a whole lot about the things that are wrong. Some say marriage is just too much work. Others admit that they’ve stopped trying at all.

It’s true, marriage takes effort. But not chain-gang-in-the-blazing-sun kind of effort. Just the right kind of effort with the right intent.

Marriage is like most things in life. The more care and attention we bring, the more of our heart and soul we invest, the better our marriage will be. And if we’re willing to challenge ourselves, to go against our instinct to be self-protective, it can be better still.

If your goal is to be one of the people who says their marriage is great, be prepared to do the following:

1. Quit playing it safe. 

Playing it safe isn’t nearly as “safe” as one might think. In our attempt to avoid discomfort, we often side-step important issues or remain silent about things that need to be spoken. When playing it safe, we avoid reaching out, being honest, letting down our guard. All of which are needed if we want to truly connect.

It is often said that marriage isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ll second that. Marriage asks us to step towards our difficulties, rather than away from them, to be courageous and resilient, to reach for what we want even when it scares us.

Remember: the risks that we take are the very things that give us our best shot at a satisfying marriage. We cannot stay in our comfort zone and expect to grow.

2. Stop seeking perfection.

It’s often said that perfect is the enemy of good. Perfect is a glittering star next to which all of life — including our spouse or our marriage — pales in comparison.

Perfect will fool us into thinking that we have a bad deal. It will distract us from the inescapable fact that every one of us will be disappointed by something in our marriage. Every one of us will, in some way or another, be the source of our partner’s disappointment, as well.

My suggestion: set high standards for yourself and strive to reach them. Recognize and accept that a great marriage is one that’s not great in every way.

3. Be willing to lose an argument.

When your find yourself in a tug-of-war with your spouse, why not drop your end of the rope?

Why go in circles when all that arguing does is erode your sense of good will?

Most arguments are ridiculous anyway: Who left porch light on. Who spoke in a snippy tone. Who promised to call the babysitter and did not follow through.

Being right is a short-lived pleasure; a win at your partner’s expense.

The real win is discovering that when losing, you, in fact, lose nothing at all! The real win is that by losing you set yourself free.

image4. Act like a kid.

No, I’m not suggesting that you pitch a fit when you don’t get your way. And, no, it’s not good to throw sand when you’re mad.

When I say act like a kid, I’m talking about being spontaneous, playful, knowing how to laugh, how to be silly, how to have fun.

In a great marriage, people can laugh at all sorts of things, including themselves. They can laugh at the ridiculous nonsense that they get caught up in as a couple. They can use laughter as a way to let go and forgive.

5. Fire the bean counter.

The most unhappy couples I know keep a ledger, tracking who does more, who’s slacking off, who’s got a better deal. They live in a climate of scarcity, fearful of being the one who gives more, fearful that they won’t get their fair share.

In a great marriage people aren’t worried about fairness or giving too much. They give because it feels good to be generous. They give because giving is an expression of love.

6. Be willing to leave the window open.

People say all the time that they want to be close and connected but they open themselves for barely a moment. The window is open; the window is closed.

Yes, vulnerability is risky. Nobody enjoys reaching out and not being met. Nobody leaps at the chance to go out on a limb and then… well… just hang out there for who knows how long.

Intimacy and connection require openness, vulnerability, a willingness to risk. Intimacy does not come with a guarantee that our bid for connection will be met with a smile or a kiss.

If you want a great marriage you need to be willing to open your window, to wait and see. You need to acknowledge the courage it takes to be open, come what may.

7. Have a keen eye for kindness.

Unhappy couples tend to take note of every slight and offense while being oblivious to most gestures of affection and kindness. It’s what’s known as a negativity bias: what positives there are end up being minimized or ignored, and the clearly visible and focused-upon negatives stand as “proof” of how truly dreadful things are.

No surprise, happy couples notice the good. They pause to appreciate it. They express thanks. Even (and especially) for the small, everyday acts.

It’s one of the first positive shifts troubled couples report:

“She was much more affectionate this week.”
“I’m really glad that he noticed!”

Yes, happy couples have their unhappy times, too. What they have going for them is they have plenty of “positives” to balance things out.

8. Know when to do a 180.

Potholes signMost of us will walk right into trouble never considering that we have an alternative. We’ll step right into the same crummy argument, give the same ineffective response, make the exact move that has set our partner off every time that we’ve made it.

The alternative: when you’re at the edge of your personal danger zone, why not step back? Why keep going in a direction that is guaranteed to come to no good?

In a great marriage, one spouse or another will have the good sense to say, Lets not keep going with this. Let’s turn around.

And on the off chance that the other is bound and determined to forge ahead anyway, the steadier spouse can be the guardian of the relationship and simply choose not to follow.

9. Be willing to make the first move.

In all instances, someone has to go first. Someone has to be the first one to initiate a difficult conversation, extend an olive branch, reach for a kiss.

Couples who wait, hoping the other will make the first move, expecting the other to meet them halfway, may wait a lifetime, with both partners ending up feeling disappointed or unloved.

In the best marriages, couples step out of the “it takes two” paradigm. In the best marriages partners have the courage and willingness to be the one who goes all out.

My question for you — Why wait? You can have an okay marriage or a great one. Go on. Be fearless. You have nothing to lose.


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How to be Happily Married in a World of Naysayers

imageWe’ve all heard the jokes: The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.

I married Ms. Right. I just didn’t know that her first name was Always.

Marriage is talked about as if it’s a jail sentence, a ball and chain, the mistake of a lifetime.

Some have said that marriage is irrelevant and outdated. Others have called it a failed experiment.

Failed? Really?

I’ll be the first to admit that marriage can be difficult. Marriage asks us to grow and to stretch; it calls for flexibility and fortitude and a capacity to love — even (and especially) during really hard times. And anyone who’s been married for more than a month knows that hard times do come.

But there are also sweet times and easy times, times of deep love and affection, times when we’re glad that we’re married to the wonderful, annoying person we picked.

The “marriage is broken” folks seem to be saying that because some marriages are truly miserable, and because, even under the best of circumstances, marriage can be hard, we need to change the rules.

They say we need to stop expecting marriage to last a lifetime, to meet our needs for intimacy, to bring satisfaction and joy.

The trouble with the naysayers is that they talk about marriage as if it’s an entity — as if marriage is some sort of troublemaker; as if there’s something inherent in marriage that sets us up to fail.

To further bolster their argument, they trot out the inaccurate, “bad news” statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce.

Here’s the good news: when it comes to first marriages, 60-70% of them will be marriages that last. And yes, a lasting marriage isn’t necessarily a happy one, but the happiness part — that’s in our hands.

Senior couple kiss situation in white isolated background

If you’re looking to prove the naysayers wrong:

1. Accept that marriage takes effort if we want to do it well. Many things in life are difficult, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. Why should marriage be any different?

2.  Relationships don’t just happen. They don’t succeed by magic and they don’t fail on their own. Marriage is something we build from the ground up. It requires care and attention. The more creative and committed we are, the better our marriage will be.

3. The best marriages are based on generosity. No, I’m not talking about over-giving and sacrifice. True generosity is a wholehearted desire to offer the best of what we have. Love, affection, not believing we need to have everything our way in order to be happy.

4. Some of the worst marriages I’ve seen have gotten as bad as they are because neither partner is willing to risk: to apologize, to reach out, to be vulnerable, to name what needs to be addressed. Remember, you have to step out of your comfort zone if you want your marriage to grow.

5. Pay less attention to what your partner is doing that gets in the way of having a satisfying relationship, and pay more attention to what you’re doing, which is the only thing you can control anyway.

6. Accept that sometimes you’re going to be disappointed by your partner, just as your partner will, at times, be disappointed by you. Disappointment is not a sign that something’s gone wrong. It’s simply a challenging fact of life that we, as partners, must learn to handle as gracefully as possible. Freaking out about your inevitable disappointments will make you unnecessarily unhappy, or discouraged, or both.

image7. Don’t expect  your spouse to be a mindreader. If something is important to you, it’s your job to speak up.

8. Accept that your partner won’t be thrilled about everything you do. Relationships are about being a twosome and about being two separate people who want different things. I don’t advocate behaving in ways that are harmful or inconsiderate, but there are times when we have to act alone — to confront something difficult, to make a bold move, to challenge the rules.

9. Don’t underestimate the importance of quality time. Show up. Make eye contact. Open your heart. And, for goodness sake, turn off your phone.

10. Never believe you’ve tried everything. Most of us do the same ineffective things over and over, and think we’ve given it our all. Yes, some relationship problems are complex and overwhelming, and we have no idea what to do to solve them. But before you think you’re out of options, ask yourself this: What one thing can I do that would make a significant, positive difference in my relationship? Before you give up, go ahead. Go all out.


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Looking to have a more satisfying marriage? Get my free bonus article:
75 Ways To Improve Your Relationship Starting Today — plus new blog posts delivered straight to your inbox!
(Use the Sign-up button on the right or below.)

For news and inspiring cool stuff about relationships, follow me on twitter: @winifredmreilly.

The Ultimate Garage Cleaner’s Guide to Marriage Repair

A few years ago a client gave me a refrigerator magnet that reads:


Yep. I agree.

Especially when one of the chores involves the word garage. That’s how our garage ended up looking like a scene from the reality show where they bring in five guys in hazmat suits while a team of kind social workers comforts the hoarder. Continue reading

10 Everyday Relationship Issues That Aren’t Worth Freaking Out About

One of the best parts of my job as a couples therapist is that I get to deliver good news.

Woman Biting On Her LipCouples come in fearing that their marriage is too far gone to fix, and I get to tell them it’s not.

Yes, some people are in serious trouble and if they keep going in the direction they’re headed, their worst fears will come true.

Still, most couples are simply facing normal and ordinary relationship challenges that they lack the tools to address. Continue reading

10 Reasons Not to Be a Valentine’s Day Grinch

wallpaper_20100115103718_16542854972It’s that time again — Valentine’s Day. The holiday of romantic love, chocolate hearts, and passionate feelings about whether Valentine’s Day should be celebrated, or banned.

Yes, a dozen red roses, plus dinner, will cost as much as your car payment. And yes, love is as sweet on February 15th and every day after that (and should, indeed, be expressed all year long.)

And it’s true, Valentine’s Day is a red ribbon sales day for Hallmark and Hershey and a host of others who peddle “romance” for profit, creating enough hype and hoopla to turn even the ultra-romantic among us into a Valentine’s Day Grinch.

Still there are those of us who like to make the most of the day. Continue reading

How to Become Your Spouse’s Best Friend

girl shares, gives or feeds boy with her ice cream in studio isoEvery day we hear yet another bit of advice about what it takes to have a marriage that lasts. The latest: Find a spouse who can be your best friend.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Kindness, companionship, a special someone to come home to…

For many of us, the friendship we have with our spouse is what we value the most in our relationship. And according to recent research, friendship plays a key role in what makes a good marriage even better.

Mind you, the researchers aren’t saying that you have to start out as best friends. Continue reading

How to Have a Happier Marriage — Without Changing a Thing

imageJanuary 1st. The day of fresh starts and new beginnings. The day we vow to eat more green vegetables, actually use our gym membership, and try, once again, to lose those hard to lose pounds.

As we look to the new year, we often focus on ways to be “better” — resolving to do more of what’s good for us and less of what’s not. To (at least most of the time) come from our best.

For a good many of us, finding ways to have a more satisfying marriage is high on our list.

But in our rush for improvement, we overlook this key fact: Continue reading