Repeat After Us: Arguing Is Healthy. (But You Have to Do It Right.)
So you think never fighting should be the goal? Think again. Arguments can actually be an important way of communicating (more on that next), and can keep problems from festering. “Fighting can bring greater intimacy,” Carrie Cole, a cofounder of the Center for Relationship Wellness in Houston, told Real Simple for an article on DIY Marriage Counseling (yup, that’s a thing!). The key is to be someone who fights fairly. Stay on the conflict at hand—don’t throw every argument you’ve ever had into this disagreement. And avoid saying things you don’t mean (like “I’m leaving you” in the heat of the moment). Finally, relationship experts say the biggest red flag for divorce is when contempt creeps into your communication and conflict resolution—if you catch yourself using disdainful language toward your partner, stop immediately.
You didn’t think you were going to get through a compilation of relationship advice without hearing about the importance of communication… did you? Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer interviewed more than 700 people on what it takes to make a marriage last, as part of the Cornell Marriage Advice Project. He compiled the results in his book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice From the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. When RealSimple.com editor Lori Leibovich interviewed him on her podcast, “The Labor of Love,” to find out what couples can learn from elderly people who have been together for decades, their best advice was, perhaps unsurprising: lots and lots of talking. “It’s not like you have to talk all the time and drive your partner crazy,” Pillemer said. “But you must be able to communicate on some core issues.” One test to try? See if you and your partner can enjoy a two-hour, device-free dinner alone together and be both interesting and interested in each other.
While communication was paramount, it wasn’t the only common theme to pop up in Pillemer’s research. Another important lesson from long-married people: Try to put your partner’s needs first whenever possible. As Pillemer explains it, couples began to see the benefit of having a focus “toward your partner’s enjoyment as then leading back toward your own enjoyment.” In other words: a happy spouse might really mean a happy life, but it needs to work both ways. “These long-married couples, often both people had the orientation of, ‘What can I do today to make my partner’s life a little easier or more enjoyable?’” he said. “There’s a little bit of other-centerdness that develops that really helps intimacy in these long-term relationships.” That might mean considering anything from what her sexual preferences are to what he wants for dinner. And that prioritization needs to extend to putting your marriage even above the kids, Pillemer argues: “No matter how much you love your children, in some existential way your marriage really has to come first because your childrearing isn’t going to be effective if you two aren’t getting along.”
Yes, it’s important to prioritize your partner. And yes, it’s important to spend time with your partner—and to enjoy it. But it’s also really important to prioritize and spend time with yourself. (Remember that old “put your own oxygen mask on before helping others” saying? It applies to the health of relationships, too.) University of Michigan research professor Terry Orbuch has been following the same 373 couples for close to three decades. And during that time she’s found that not making time for yourself as well as your spouse is a sneaky, but common, cause of divorce. “Many couples said that space or giving each other plenty of time for themselves is the single most important reason that their relationship survived,” she said on the “Labor of Love” podcast. While too much space or separateness is, of course, a bad thing, it’s important to maintain some “me time,” where you cultivate your own hobbies or interests or spend time with your friends. That can bring that excitement and positivity back into the relationship, according to Orbuch.
It’s a Cliché for a Reason: Make Time for Date Night
Research from the National Marriage Project shows that partners were about 3.5 times more likely to report being happy in their relationship if they participated in weekly “couple time” (a.k.a. “date night”). Indeed, research has consistently shown that quality time matters, and the experts back it up. “Studies have shown that the difference between couples who succeed and couples who fail is the ones who succeed have a much higher ratio of positive to negative interactions. In fact, the number is actually five to one,” sex therapist Ian Kerner said on the “Labor of Love” podcast. “I think date night is actually a big boost of positivity.” Of course, it might sound good in theory, but how, exactly, do you commit to a date with your spouse, without letting it turn into a download and planning session? We’ve got plenty of tips for that, too.
When you’re having that date night, you might want to implement a no-phone rule while you’re at it. Too much time on Facebook could be hurting your relationship. In fact, one 2015 British survey from a law firm found that one in seven people have gone as far as considering divorce because of their partner’s social media behavior. “It wasn’t just what their partner was doing on social media but also how long they spent on it that was likely to cause marital problems,” the firm’s head of family law, Andrew Newberry, said in a statement when the findings were released. What’s more, research shows that couples who post a lot about each other might actually be insecure about their relationships. So stop Instagramming your hard-earned couple time and just enjoy the moment already!
Happy couples do have regular sex. But “regular” doesn’t necessarily have to mean every single night. In fact, according to one study published late last year by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, the happiest couples seem to have sex about once a week. “Although more frequent sex is associated with greater happiness, this link was no longer significant at a frequency of more than once a week,” lead researcher Amy Muise said. But if you’ve found a cadence that fulfills both of your needs, don’t try to change it up just to hit some “magic” number.
So if sex is important to a relationship, does that mean if you’re not having good sex… your marriage is doomed? Not so fast. Sometimes kids, work, laundry, and life can get in the way of having sex the way you did at the beginning of your relationship. So you’ll have to work at it a bit. One of the best pieces of advice from the “Labor of Love” podcast devoted to this subject? Try to recreate vacation sex, which couples universally report as some of the best sex they have, according to Vanessa Marin, a psychotherapist, writer, and sex educator. “Make your home feel more like an oasis, especially focusing on your bedroom and your bathroom,” she said. “Clean the space out, get rid of clutter and distractions. Try to make the space feel really beautiful and luxurious and comfortable.”
Actually, we’re pretty sure there’s no such thing as a perfect one. In wedding vows, so often people promise to always be best friends or to never let each other down. But that’s just not realistic, journalist Ada Calhoun argued in her viral New York Times Modern Love article, “The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give.” She spoke on Real Simple’s “Labor of Love” podcast about how sometimes partners disappoint each other, make mistakes, or even think about what life would be like if the marriage were to end. She talked about a meditation from Zen Buddhism that a former professor had summed up as, “Life is suffering—and yet,” which she says has helped her to get through difficult moments of marriage. “I love this person, and yet she’s such a mess. And yet when I’m sick, he’s not very nurturing,” she wrote in the New York Times article. “But ‘and yet’ works the other way, too. Even during the darkest moments of my own marriage, I have had these nagging exceptions. And yet, we still make each other laugh. And yet, he is still my person. And yet, I still love him.” Sometimes marriage is about getting through the “and yets.”
“‘The way to stay married, my mother says, ‘is not to get divorced,’” Calhoun wrote in her Times piece. Of course, sometimes divorce is the only answer (in times of emotional or physical abuse, for instance, or when you have a problem that truly can’t be worked out). But when you’re committed to staying with your partner, sometimes things are going to get difficult. Calhoun shared on the "Labor of Love" that she received dozens of emails after publishing her essay. One of the common themes from people who had been married for a long time: “They had been through horrible, horrible times. They wouldn’t have been wrong to leave, but they just didn’t. And most of them were really happy they stayed,” she said. “What has been liberating for me and, in the emails I got what seems to be liberating for other people, is just because you mess up doesn’t mean you’re not married anymore or that you’re less married.”