by William C. Gentry, Attorney at Law
As a divorce lawyer who has been married for almost 37 years, I’m often asked what the secret to a lasting marriage is. While I can’t promise I have the “secret sauce” for everyone, I do have a few tips from my years of experience in my family law practice and in my own marriage on what to do – and maybe more importantly what NOT to do – to build and maintain a healthy and long-lasting marriage.
Communicate well and often. In my experience, a significant proportion of marital issues arise from a simple failure to properly communicate. I’m not talking about just talking (or texting or emailing) or exchanging details about the kids’ soccer practice. I’m talking about engaging with the other person and really listening to what they have to say. Too many people talk past their spouses, spending time thinking about what they want to say, without really hearing each other. This is not communicating, and it’s not active listening.
In a perfect world, people would communicate in a quiet place, free from distractions, where the other can listen, process, and understand what their partner’s thoughts or concerns are. For example, “I think what I hear you saying is that we’re not fairly dividing [childcare, child transportation, dishes, laundry, you name it!].” That said, we live in the real world, where time is at a premium and distraction-free moments are hard to come by, which brings me to my second point.
Take time to connect. As difficult as it can be, it’s so important to create a quiet time and place to have alone time together. Too many couples start feeling like they’re nothing more than roommates or co-parents after a few years of marriage. This can lead to a slow but steady feeling of disconnection between you and your spouse.
Try to set up a date night at least once per month. At least once per quarter, see if you can take an overnight trip with your spouse without the kids, like a bed and breakfast in the mountains or at the beach. Whether you need to hire a babysitter to have a nice dinner out or take a quiet weekend away, create the space to connect with your partner, have a grown-up conversation, and remind yourselves what you love about each other.
Remember that taking shortcuts and trying to squeeze in this kind of valuable connection and communication late at night after the kids have gone to bed might well not work if both of you are exhausted from a tough day at work, running the children to their various after-school activities, and hustling them to bath and bed. When we’re tired, stressed, and overwhelmed, we don’t always show up as our best for our partners.
Show your partner some grace. By that, I mean as tired as you are and as upset as you may be, try to be understanding that your spouse may also be that tired (or more) and that upset (or more). Part of a successful marriage is developing a thicker skin. Your spouse may snap at you after a long day at work or running after a toddler. Not taking these moments personally and forgiving your partner in times of stress can be crucial to the longevity and strength of your partnership.
I want to stress, however, that this advice covers occasional arguments – not constant belittling. If you feel that your husband or wife shows a consistent lack of respect for you or frequently insults you, turning the other cheek can cause more harm than good.
Don’t take on challenges alone. When and if things get rocky in your marriage, consider going to a marriage counselor or therapist. There’s no shame in speaking with a professional to help you work through any and all issues you may be facing. These professionals are objective arbiters and work to help the two of you build the skills and communication needed to keep your marriage going.
While I can’t guarantee that every one of these tips can save a marriage, effective communication, strong connection, and being quick to show grace can go a long way in bolstering a relationship. Always remember that you two are partners facing your problems together – not adversaries. If both of you can work together towards strengthening your relationship, you’re already halfway there.