As I ponder this past year and look forward to new beginnings, one thing is top of mind: my relationships. A ritual I never miss at the beginning of each new year is taking stock of how well I have loved those most important to me the year before. One of the most precious people in my life, as you might guess, is my husband of nearly 40 years. Reflecting on what has supported our happiness and success, there are a few things that stand out, which occurred to me might be helpful to others.
Over the years, I’ve worked with scores of struggling couples. When I ask them if they reserve time for conversation as a couple, typical comments sound like this: “What’s that? We barely have time to exchange a kiss.” or “We haven’t had a meaningful conversation for months!” or “Who has time for conversation? We’re too busy raising a family.”
The first key action to building a happy marriage is to create a strong connection through meaningful conversation. Our lives are very full; I get it. However, how can we create a loving relationship with anyone without communicating? The answer is we can’t.
One of the lifelines of all love relationships is a connection through sharing one’s life, exchanging thoughts, and opening oneself to each other through understanding.
Related reading: "Love Is a Choice—the Best Marriage Advice!"
Make These Actions a Daily Habit!
1 Carve Time for Conversation.
Years ago, my husband and I found ourselves being tossed around by the hectic nature of our lives. One morning, we were dashing to our separate ways as usual when the realization hit us: we missed spending time together—especially those long conversations when we first met. Now many couples have a gut sense of what’s missing, but it’s so easy to neglect to change. This time was different for us. Instead of only noticing the rut we had dug, we committed to making regular time for meaningful conversation a priority.
We adapted everything in our schedule to spend an hour every morning together before the busyness of our day began. Sometimes we are more talkative than others. A few mornings sipping coffee is the only sound filling the void. At other times, we chat about our children or an upcoming trip. Occasionally we converse philosophically or talk about our plans for the future. Then there are those rare times when an unresolved issue bubbles to the surface and our talk takes a more serious tone, but the next morning, we are laughing like two giddy preschoolers.
No matter what unfolds, I’d say that reserving this time for one another is one of the single most important decisions we’ve made in our married life. Hands down, it’s the most delicious time of our whole day! Whether it’s an hour or two or sliced short due to circumstances, this time together has become sacred. Even when I travel out of town to conduct training, we keep this commitment by texting or talking on the phone.
Although understanding only comes through listening and respecting our partner's perspective, other comments I frequently hear go like this: “If only my partner would admit he/she was wrong.” Or "Why can’t she/he understand how their behavior affects me?” or “Why can’t we just get along?” The very thing we all long for—to be heard—doesn't happen as long as we expect our partner to do what we are unwilling to give. So the next habit to develop is accountability.
2 Take 100% Responsibility for Your Part of an Issue or Problem.
If I’ve learned anything in the past few decades of marriage, it’s that there are always two sides to every situation. Each person in a relationship contributes to either a problem’s resolution or throws fuel onto the fire of disagreements and arguments. Which one is more common for you?
We all live in entirely private and unique realities. Think of it for a moment. Each person has a different personality, temperament, past experiences, childhood upbringing, values, learning style, processing speeds, character strengths and weaknesses along with different interests, hobbies, goals, and dreams. Is it any wonder that communication is one of the most difficult of all skills? And did anyone teach you how to listen or resolve conflicts? Chances are you're shaking your head.
If you insist on taking 100% of the responsibility for the quality of your communication—or lack thereof—it’s incredible how much the relationship changes for the better.
One time, in particular, I recall seeing profoundly how lacking my listening skills were. My husband was sharing a dilemma he was facing and expressing the many facets of his considerations. However, not too far into the conversation, he impatiently remarked, “It always becomes about you, doesn’t it?”
That comment pierced my heart because I really did desire to be present to him and had hijacked the conversation. We weren’t able to continue then; my husband was too frustrated, and I was hurt and a bit shell-shocked. But that day his words haunted me, so I committed to change. Every time we talked, I practiced emptying my mind of my own agenda or any thoughts competing with truly listening to my husband. I trained myself to give him my undivided attention. It wasn’t easy at first. It’s amazing how often we are preparing what we want to say rather than listening. But I persevered and what happened next was incredible.
The better I got at being fully present, showing genuine interest and being attentive to where my husband wanted to take the conversation, the more he opened up. And the more he felt heard and valued, the more remarkable our conversations. Taking accountability for my bad habits created a bridge that became stronger every day, making our communication flow easier and conflicts dissolve much faster.
Take time to understand each other’s perspectives and opinions. And not just opinions, but how the ideas were formed. Explore what might be outdated, perhaps leftover from family lore. Allow yourself to be influenced, even profoundly impacted by your spouse. Reserve time and energy to work through conflicts and don’t stop until you both feel heard. The richness and beautiful connection is well worth the effort!
Related reading: “Can One Person Transform a Relationship?”
3 Look Beyond Your Partner’s Faults, yet Insist on Respect!
A place many couples get stuck is ruminating on their partner’s faults. The more we focus on what we dislike, the unhappier we become. Pretty soon, we feel like we're a mismatch.
Every person has shortcomings.
There are no perfect partners.
Perfection is an impossibility.
Even though these statements may true and I'm suggesting "looking beyond your partner's faults," it doesn’t mean that we let each other off the hook either. Love requires that we hold each other to be our best selves and connect even when it may be uncomfortable and difficult.
For instance, you and your partner are arguing about something small, but then your spouse starts bringing up past mistakes and piggybacking all kinds of complaints and misgivings. Soon it leads to insults. When you become a target of insults and anger, it’s NOT time to look beyond your partner’s faults—it's a time to interrupt this momentum and take a break. It’s time to draw a firm boundary and both of you self-calm. Then once you cool off, make sure to reconnect and work through the conflict.
A relationship is like dancing: sometimes it's light and fun; other times it's heated and fast; other times is like a slow waltz. Each couple and how they flow with the music of their lives create the quality of their trust and connection.
4 If you’re going to fight, fight with and for love.
It’s a fair assumption that most couples have at least a few arguments and disagreements. Conflicts are a part of every relationship no matter how congenial. We sometimes mistakenly think that having a happy marriage equates to never being upset with your partner. That’s a false premise. It's a good thing to speak our peace and express our ideas and emotions with each other, including the more intense feelings. Successful marriages fight with love and for love!—love of self and love for each other.
What do I mean by fighting with and for love? It means that even when you’re upset, you’re committed to upholding respect and love for yourself and for your partner. You fight to keep your love healthy and vibrant.
Making a commitment not to cross a line where your words and actions harm or wound each other is imperative. Couples who have long-term, happy relationships make a habit of self-restraint. And yes, I know that can be difficult at times, so support each other in this process and commitment.
5 Self-Calm before You Say Hurtful Comments You’ll Regret
Once the survival brain gets triggered, it’s a liar! Words are used both as armor and weapons when the brain feels threatened. When emotions run high so does the chance that hurtful things will be wielded.
Seasoned couples take time-outs when arguments get heated. This one habit can save a lot of pain and prevent fights before they ever start. Redirect yourself before it's too late and you head down that road ending in pain. (For a simple process that will help, read “The Stop, Drop, and Roll of Successful Communication.”)
Make closeness more important than being right. Make the quality of your marriage and your love far more vital than proving a point. Don’t let careless moments trample trust. Enhance greater closeness and connection with wise restraint, a practice of self-calming, and fighting on love's behalf.
Use the incredible gift of relationship as a way to grow into your best self. Then turn around and allow that best self to heal, bless, and enrich your partner and the world!
And if you'd like support for your relationship, call us at Heartmanity 406-577-2100 or reach out for a free Discovery Session to uncover more valuable keys for a successful marriage.