The 7 Habits of a Healthy Marriage
We’ve been working with couples for 4 years and working on our own marriage for the last 7 and there are certain critical things that happy, healthy couples do. They’re not behaviours but habits; activities, rituals, things they are barely aware of as they’ve become so ingrained into their marriage, but they work. Some of these things are small, some more difficult to implement, but we hope these spark some ideas for habits that can be introduced into your own marriage if you don’t already do them.
1 Happy couples talk, daily -- and not just small talk
Healthy, connected married couples have a ritual of talking every single day, a check in of how they’re doing and feeling. They talk about what they have coming up that day that might be scary or difficult. They talk about their excitement - or worry - of something they’re planning to do. They talk about what work they’re planning and what challenges they might be expecting. Some even talk about how they've treated one another in the last 24 hours - this is quite rare but those that do create a whole new level of honesty and closeness.
Often couples fall into the comfortable zone of sharing a few practical details without delving deeper into the emotions behind their activities for that day. Usually couples are happy with the small talk, the “how was your day?” questions, which is just fine. But if you’d like to strengthen your marriage, then go just a little further by asking instead: “Is there anything you’re nervous or excited about today?” You could go a step further with: "I was tired yesterday, how did that affect you and the kids? I would like to hear about it"
Explore one another deeper in those day to day conversations and watch your relationship deepen with them.
2 They’re honest -- at appropriate times
Being honest with your spouse isn’t always easy, in fact depending on your spouse it can feel impossible. But some couples; the strongest ones, have the courage to be honest -- and more importantly, the willingness to listen to their partners honesty.
What they don’t do is criticise -- and I’d like to add here that even making jokes or sarcastic comments towards your partner is a mild form of criticism. I know it might be fun, but having fun and having something sting or make you feel bad is a fine line in marriage and well worth looking at. Where was I? Yes, they don’t criticise...
A simple example: Criticising sounds like “you left your shoes by the door again, you know I hate that!” Being honest (and loving) sounds like “can we talk about where you leave your shoes when you come in? Do you think you could try harder at popping them in the shoe box, I feel really uncared for when you continue to leave them by the door - just letting you know”.
It's hard to stay calm when you've probably asked the same thing of your partner 100 times, but the healthiest of marriages have patience. The difference above is subtle but powerful. The first example is antagonistic, angry, spontaneous and critical. The second is gentle, thought through, brave and honest. Nothing says I love you more than the tone we use.
3 They listen intently even when they aren’t interested in the subject
This is hard sometimes, especially when your husband is passionate about snooker like my Dad was. But when they’re talking about something that lights them up, happy husbands and wives will listen as though they too are being lit up. Why is this important? Because when someone is sharing their interests with you, they’re inviting you into their world and into their hearts a little. It’s a wonderful invitation which is worthy of your attention. It does not matter if you don't like the subject, its irrelevant - the focus is your partner not the content of what's being shared.
Successful couples listen intently when their partner is talking, no matter how trivial (or boring) the subject might be to them. This is such a gift to one another; the gift of your presence, your undivided attention is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your spouse. Thich Nhat Hanh says it perfectly: “If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence”
Next time your spouse invites you into their head, heart or world -- do them and yourself a favour. Turn your phone over, pause your own thoughts and listen. Then watch them glow.
(N.B. If you can't completely engage at that time, give them a time when you will be fully present and make sure you show up.)
4 They spend at least some time apart
Lots of couples are good at this; finding activities outside of their marriage. Unfortunately some couples do this as a form of distraction from their relationship; they escape to socials, work, hobbies. But healthy couples seek activities outside of their marriage that fill them, and then they bring that fullness back home to their partner. How do you know if you’re escaping or fulfilling? Assess how you feel when you get home, are you excited about sharing your time out with your partner? Are you happy to be returning to your partner? If you had a great time, but the arrival home is deflating, then it’s likely you’re escaping. If on the other hand you feel great to be arriving home, then you can tick this box!
The reason it’s so important not only to asses how you feel, but to actually go and seek these extra-marital activities is because, if you don’t you are in danger of pinning too much attention, too much focus on your marriage and what you want/need from your partner. It's a big responsibility to be someones everything. You need a break, they need a break; it’s healthy and important. Find happiness and wellbeing outside of your marriage and you’ll be way happier on the inside of your marriage.
5 They are intimate
I’m not talking about sex, as this increases and decreases at different stages of life. Although sex is important in most marriages, intimacy is what’s at the heart of the healthiest of marriages. It might be holding hands, touching one another as you go about your day, having a deep non-interrupted conversation, a back or foot rub, cuddles, kisses, just stopping and reading a book together and not being attached to any outcome.
Healthy couples know what their partner likes and responds to as they’ve usually asked or spent time getting to know. They value this aspect and love how they feel when they give and receive intimate love. And they do not give for what they might receive in return - no trading here, this isn't the bank.
6 They’re able to think “us” not “me”
This is harder than it sounds. When making decisions, when starting new things, when planning their week or their day; healthily married couples make their decisions on what’s best for both, not just themselves. An example of this is: husband wants to start exercising in the mornings, wife agrees this is a worthwhile activity. Husband has the most motivation first thing, and knows his health is a priority. Healthy hubby considers his new plan, mornings are best for him but they are busy at home. Wife although supportive isn’t exactly a morning person. Hubby re-thinks his exercise schedule and decides to exercise only one morning a week and for the rest of the week work around family times and what works for everyone not just him.
So often in life, people gain new momentum for different things and fitness is a great example. It’s so easy to think of “me” when starting a new health routine, especially when a healthier me will also benefit “us”. But before couples commit to anything it’s really important to explore the consequences of each decision no matter how small.
7 They work together as a team
Teamwork makes the dreamwork, oh yeah.
Despite the era we live in, traditional views on marriage are prevalent. For some marriages this works just fine -- but it’s crucial you decide on this before getting married, and that you keep checking in; life and people change.
Healthy marriages work like a dream together. Each half of the couple have certain responsibilities but these are fluid not fixed, flexible not permanent. Teams look out for one another, if a team member is down, the rest of the team pick up the flack. And so it is with healthy marriages.
Let's look at this in action: You might decide whilst pregnant that you don’t wish to work until the baby is at pre-school. You decide this together ('us' not 'me'). You have the baby - woah it’s harder than you thought… You need some help. You speak to your partner about the struggles with honesty, your partner listens, understands and together you devise a plan to support one another in new ways which works well for both your happiness. This is teamwork; you make a plan, you try the plan, you evaluate the plan and if necessary you change the plan; together. Always together.
There are more healthy habits but these are the 7 that we’ve witnessed, learned and incorporated into our own marriage. Is our marriage perfect? No. But that wasn’t the title of this post: There is no perfect marriage. Is our marriage healthy? Absolutely. We hit sticky points and rough patches but when we do, our healthy habits pull us through. We talk about them; with honesty. We listen to one another; wholeheartedly. We face things as a team and remain close and intimate even when it’s difficult to be.
Healthy marriages are real. And unlike perfect marriages, they are accomplishable. So don’t spend any more time wanting your partner or marriage to be different. Instead focus your energy on the things that you can do. Things like listening better, asking better, touching more, considering more and doing more for yourself. You’re worth it -- and so is your marriage.