There are a hundred paths through the
world that are easier than loving…
But who needs easier?
— Mary Oliver
Raise your hand if you’ve heard this before:
Marriage is not a noun, it’s a verb.
It’s hard to dispute, isn’t it?
Anyone who’s been married longer than, say, a week, knows that marriage requires effort. Not back-breaking-drudgery kind of effort, but make-it-count, put-your-heart-into-it effort.
We build a marriage the way we build a house: day by day, brick by brick, from the ground up. We build it with love and respect, with gestures of kindness and generosity and expressions of gratitude — along with an unshakeable commitment to keep two feet in.
What happens, though, when that house is neglected, or it’s hit by a hurricane; when the foundation is crumbling; when the house is in such disrepair that it seems too far gone?
A reader recently asked, “What can I do to start every day on the right foot and then keep going in a positive direction? My husband and I set out with the best intentions,” she said, “then some little thing happens and we go downhill from there.”
As I considered her question, I realized that her goal is the same goal we all have in our marriages, whether we’re desperately struggling or doing well: to be happy and thrive.
Each day we have an opportunity to choose, in large and small ways, what we we want to invest in our marriage, how we want to respond to our spouse, how it is that we want to love.
And those daily choices make all the difference.
Starting today, make one, or two, or all ten of these choices and see what happens:
1. Resist the urge to super-size.
One of the quickest ways for things to go sideways is let every hint of trouble mean BIG trouble; to say, see…here we go again, the moment things go off track.
Yes, every couple has problems — some of them may be big ones that need to be addressed.
Still, the worst thing is to throw up your hands or tumble down into hopelessness or start thinking, let’s just call it quits.
When you keep trouble in perspective, you’ll be able let more of the little things pass and you’ll have more positive energy to bring to the big issues that require a collaborative effort.
2. Quit searching for bad news.
As with loving, there are, at least, one hundred paths that lead to unhappiness.
One of the most frequently traveled: focusing on the ways that your spouse has let you down.
Face it, that imperfect person you married isn’t always going to give you her undivided attention, won’t always remember to lock the back door, will sometimes wake up in a bad mood and have a hard time shaking it.
You can focus on that, or on the good laugh you shared when you learned that the President’s credit card was denied in a restaurant. Or you can note how your wife insisted you take the last square of chocolate even though she hoped you’d say no, or that your husband spent forty-five minutes trying to straighten out the cell phone bill — without raising his voice.
(In my book, that last one deserves an award!)
What we focus on heavily influences how we treat each other. If we’re searching for evidence that we have a bad deal in our spouse, we’re bound to find it.
Seeing the good in each other makes us more likely to treat each other well. There’s plenty of evidence that nice begets nice.
3. Redefine giving.
One of the most powerful choices we can can make is to be generous — to offer love and support, whether or not our partner responds in kind.
Too often, we withhold in response to a partner’s withholding, creating a climate of stinginess, which then feeds on itself.
I’m not suggesting you turn yourself inside out to say “yes” when you really, truly mean “no.” Nor would I advise that you gnash your teeth while extending your hand.
True generosity is not about over-giving, or resentfully giving to a partner who’s consistently unappreciative or selfish.
It’s about genuinely offering what we can, when we can. It’s about reaching out when we have something loving and good to give.
The happiest couples are those who give without keeping score.
4. Jump without a parachute.
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 resist 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.
5. Look through a telescope, not a microscope.
One of the most discouraging things is to think your difficulties are permanent, that what’s happening now will go on forever:
We’ll always fight about money.
We’ll never agree on a vacation.
We’ll never, EVER have sex again.
Why not take the long view, instead?
Think: How can I best maintain some perspective?
Think: What can I do to make things go better tomorrow, next week, six months from now?
Remember: change is not for the impatient. Some changes, especially big ones, take time.
6. Step out of your shoes.
Trouble comes when we get so caught up in our own stuff that we forget to consider what’s going on with our spouse. There may be a “good” reason for his or her unpleasant behavior.
A bad day at work? A lousy night’s sleep? A nagging concern about that aching tooth?
I believe most spouses have the best intentions, even though those intentions are sometimes poorly executed or hard to discern.
Before getting irritated or leaping to the worst possible conclusion about the person you married, consider a more generous and forgiving explanation.
7. Carry an olive branch.
One of the best ways to keep things moving in a positive direction is to have a good plan to address the inevitable hard times.
Though every couple needs to devise their own repair strategy, here are the key ingredients:
Repair begins with a readiness to lay down your swords. It calls for shifting from the offensive and defensive to the receptive. It means talking honestly about what happened, without blaming or reigniting the fight. It means being curious about the other person’s point of view, setting aside your grievance so that you can listen. And it means owning up to your part in the mess, whatever it was.
Solutions come from openness, not restating your position.
Though many fights that couples have do not resolve, successful couples find a way to be loving and accepting, even when they disagree.
8. Clean out the garage.
Why hang onto a lifetime of grudges and the misdeeds that preceded them?
Keeping track of every late credit card payment? Every nasty outburst? Every basket of unfolded laundry, or poorly-washed dish?
Got a filing cabinet full of unhappy memories?
Forget the garage sale. I say have a bonfire and let it all go up in smoke.
9. Mind your Ps and Qs.
This was one of my father’s favorite sayings, though as a kid, I had no idea what P and Q actually meant. While the saying’s origin is up for debate, most interpretations offer sound marriage advice.
Some say P and Q are a reference to good manners, as in minding your Pleases and thank-Qs, while others believe it’s a typesetter’s reminder to pay attention to small details — p and q being the same letter faced different ways. Both are wise things to keep in mind.
My point here is to suggest we pay attention to the way that we speak to each other — to choose our words carefully and speak thoughtfully. Especially when tensions run high.
It’s possible to be kind even when angry, though I’ll be the first to admit it isn’t easy to do.
The happiest couples care for their marriage one sentence at a time.
10. Carry some sunshine.
All the positive psychology research confirms that — no surprise here — positive feelings generate more positive feelings. During hard times, or anytime for that matter, it helps to remember what you love in your spouse.
What made you fall in love in the first place? Her smile? Her sharp mind? How he goes out of his way, with no second thoughts?
Think about what you appreciate and admire in your spouse, what you respect. And if you’re up for the challenge, what you’d miss if they were gone.
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