By Dr. Anne Brennan Malec
Marriage is a complex, ever-evolving relationship that challenges partners to remain active in their efforts to maintain the relationship.
While the components of a healthy relationship – passion, commitment and intimacy – may seem abstract, I have found specific actions through my practice as a clinical psychologist and marriage and family therapist that couples can do to prioritize their relationship and make it last.
• Continue or learn to communicate well. We all know to be polite to our bosses at work or strangers we meet, but it is often with those we are closest to that we slip into unhealthy habits of disrespect or inattentive listening. Most likely, at the point in your relationship when you plan to get married, you feel close and communicate well with your partner. It is over time that partners become busier, more distracted or simply make fewer efforts to communicate respectfully and openly with their spouses. But communication is a critical component to a healthy marriage.
Couples must schedule time to check in with each other weekly. This “weekly check-in” may seem less necessary in the early years of marriage, but you will appreciate the habit later when work hours become longer and kids enter the picture. Use this time to coordinate schedules, check in about any issues in the relationship, and take time for each other away from technological distractions (that means no phones or TV in the background).
• Create a budget agreement. One of the most common areas of newlywed conflict is managing a joint budget. Even if you cohabitate with your partner before marriage, it is unlikely that you pooled all of your resources, and there is a lack of education about shared budgets. But money is important for your personal and relational well-being. Talk with your partner about your financial goals and concerns. Your spouse should be an equal partner in financial decisions.
It is helpful for partners to regularly check in with each other about financial changes and decisions (you can easily incorporate this into your weekly check-ins). I advise couples to set a monthly personal budget – say $500 – that each partner can spend on individual expenses without consulting the other. If a partner wants to make a purchase that goes above the agreed-upon amount, he or she should wait until the other partner is consulted and agrees. By forming healthy spending habits and open communication about finances, partners can avoid one of the most common areas of marital conflict and feel closer as equals.
• Share responsibility for maintaining intimacy. In the early years of a relationship, intimacy seems to come naturally, so many partners take for granted the importance of actively maintaining a sense of emotional connection. This is not the responsibility of one partner, but a requirement that both spouses maintain an interest in fostering intimacy and keeping tabs on ways the other partner wishes to feel loved and cared for (because this does vary from person to person and over time).
Date nights are a simple way to establish time to reconnect during a busy week, and they are essential in the early years of marriage and beyond. Take turns planning an evening for each other, and do not get trapped in thinking it has to be extravagant. If your lives are incredibly busy that week, find a time to relax at home or try to cook a new meal together. Remember that human beings like novelty, so be willing to try new things together.
• Never be afraid to manage your differences. If I had to pick one major takeaway for couples considering marriage, it is to ensure that you are able to tell your partner when you are upset with him or her. That way your partner stands a chance of trying to fix the problem. Without this, resentment takes root and will continue to grow over time until it is addressed. This is so important because resentment often underlies any deficit in the previous points I made. It may sound basic, but it is often difficult for partners to place themselves in a vulnerable position where they can voice their concerns about the person closest to them. For couples to manage resentment, it is essential that partners create a safe conversational space where each can be heard and listen without feeling defensive or attacked.
It is inevitable that you will have a different perspective than your partner at some point – whether regarding the family budget, division of household labor, or even the right way to show intimacy. Use any and every opportunity in the early years of marriage to practice talking with each other when one partner is upset with the other. Skills such as empathy, active listening and managing anger and frustration can be learned and need to be regularly utilized in couple conversation.
About Dr. Anne Brennan Malec
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is the founder and managing partner of Symmetry Counseling, a group counseling, coaching and psychotherapy practice in Chicago. She also is author of the book “Marriage in the Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works.” Dr. Malec earned her Bachelor’s degree in Accountancy from Villanova University and holds two Master’s degrees: one in Liberal Studies from DePaul University, and one in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University. Dr. Malec earned her Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Photo by Kay English Photography
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