Making marriage work takes work…period. It’s not easy and it’s not always blissful. You will have your high and low points. In fact, if there’s one thing you can count on for sure about marriage, it’s that you will have conflict. It may come from one another or from parenting challenges. It may come from outside your relationship, in the form of loss, change, or illness. It may come as a result of “normal” life transitions, but no matter how it comes, conflict will come.
It’s okay, though. That’s just the way long-lasting relationships, like marriage, work. Research shows the number one thing that makes marriage last isn’t that they don’t have any conflict. It isn’t that couples who make it never argue or have no life challenges. To the contrary, the ‘best’ couples have their fair share! The difference is they know how to handle conflict well. That’s the number one thing that makes marriage work–the ability to handle conflict.
Today, my husband, OJ, and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary!
Looking back, we’ve had all kinds of conflict–graduate school, dissertations, raising children, work and career plans; depression, diabetes, exhaustion, and major life stress; death, loss, grief, and emotional pain; having babies, inheriting children, raising teenagers; court battles, attacks against us as parents and people, and building a family while striving to keep our passions alive; and yes, times when, even though we loved each other, we didn’t feel like we liked each other very much. And these are only a few of the incredibly long list.
But through these challenges, we’ve had the chance to change. We’ve been pushed to learn, to overcome, and to choose each other, time and again. Yes, though conflict can break a couple apart, it can also bond them tighter than they ever imagined.
Recently, OJ joined me as my guest on “Motherhood Radio.” It’s my favorite episode so far, because it helped me see how much we’ve grown and how much we have to share with others on how to make marriage work, too. So, for all of you seeking to make a marriage that lasts–to make marriage not only work, but work for both of you, here are our 20 best bits of advice. I hope you’ll read these and then watch or listen to our episode on Motherhood radio! They can help you overcome the conflict. They can help you build the relationship you desire. We don’t have all the answers, and we’ve still got plenty to learn; but we do have a few answers, and we hope they help you as much as they’ve helped us these past 20 years!
Resolving Conflict to Make Marriage Work: 20 Years of Advice on our 20th Wedding Anniversary!
1) Actively build the positive side of your relationship, every day. It’s not just about overcoming the negative, or the challenges. It’s also about building the positive, and this happens with small acts of love, every day.
2) Keep your emotional bank account in the black. Just like your monetary bank
account, your emotional bank account can be easily overdrawn if you don’t save up in advance. When you have a huge positive balance, a small conflict won’t set you over the edge, but if you’re at zero balance or overdrawn, any little thing can wipe the whole thing out! Kind words, deeds, listening, understanding, helping, giving, receiving, acknowledging, gratitude, love, and tenderness are just a few forms of currency that will keep your balance strong.
3) Set up “rules for negotiation” to help you fight fairly. When you’re in a good place, take time to set up “rules” for how you will argue. For instance, “No bringing up the past. If one person gets too heated, s/he can call a time-out. We will resume the discussion only after both are calmed down…” Knowing what to expect when things get tough can make a world of difference and help you keep focused on the issue at hand and not extra, irrelevant conflicts.
4) Take a time-out. When you’re too upset, it’s good to call a time out. It’s helpful to set up rules for this, too, so both people know what to expect. Usually it’s best to have at least an hour to calm down, since that’s how long it takes for your body to fully restore and calm itself. Just make sure you have a plan for how you’ll get back together and finish the discussion.
5) Set a time cut-off to avoid late-night fights. So many couples fight at night, when both are exhausted and really need sleep instead. OJ and I have a rule that we won’t discuss anything heated after 10 pm. If it’s really important, it can wait until the next day. And often, a little sleep makes that “important” issue suddenly seem far less so.
6) It’s okay to go to bed angry! Sometimes, I believe, it’s the best thing you can do. If you’re going nowhere and things are getting more heated, and you’re way too tired, you’re far better off getting some sleep instead of continuing to drag things out. Again, you’ll likely find that your terrible fight isn’t so terrible once you’ve both gotten some rest.
7) Write a letter. Some arguments are too heated no matter what you do. Instead, try writing to each other. Writing has three important benefits: 1) It gives you time to really consider what you want to say, 2) it removes the heated emotion behind your words, and 3) it helps to be able to re-read what you’ve both written, to help you both better understand what you really mean.
8) Practice “bids for affection.” This is a term used by top marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, and it means that even when things are feeling heated, it’s important to do small things
to show you still love them. Making them laugh, giving a funny look or gesture, offering a hug, or kissing them goodnight even though you’re still not happy with them, is an important way to keep things from turning ugly.
9) Let love in. When your partner gives you a bid for affection, let it in. Accept the hug, the kiss, the kind act or gesture. Never block love. And if you do, apologize as soon as possible. (Read 10 Ways to Let Love In, here)
10) Apologize when you’re wrong. It’s good to admit when you’re wrong. Too often, we’re caught up in getting our partner to take their blame, but OJ and I have found that when we initiate the apology, the other person is much more likely to chime in and apologize for their part in things, too.
Watch this video of OJ and me recording our episode of “Making Marriage Work by Resolving Conflict” on Motherhood Radio! One of my favorite episodes yet–On my YouTube channel!
11) Know and practice their love languages. Learn to “speak” the language they need to hear to feel loved. Be it acts of service, verbal affirmations, physical touch, gifts, or spending time, when you show love the way they want it, you’re so much more likely to get through to one another. (More on Love Languages here.)
12) Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Many couples really struggle with this one. We so desperately want the other person to see our point of view! But, when we stop and listen and seek to see theirs, first, we often find the deeper understanding we really need to actually hear one another.
13) Talk to each other regularly and actively continue to get to know one another. Another important part of building the positives and putting deposits into the emotional bank account is simply continuing your courtship. Remember when you used to want to know everything about each other? Now, you may feel like you’ve heard it all. But you haven’t. Trust me, you haven’t. Make it a point to get to know each other, continually, your whole marriage long.
14) Watch out for the top conflict-causers and head them off. Sadly, “children” is the top-cited conflict-causer among married couples, with financial issues/work/career a close second. Others include chores, hobbies/personal interests, relaxation and “free” time, and of course, sex. Recognize which issues are hot-button ones for you and watch for the times when an argument is coming. Knowing something will cause a fight can often help, if you stop, calm down, and find another way to deal with it instead. A counselor or third party person can be very helpful in these cases! (Read, “My Kids are Driving Me Crazy!” (again) Why Parenting is so Darn Tough)
15) When it comes to intimacy and sex, OJ says, “Just do it,” and after careful consideration, I agree. Keeping your sexual relationship strong and healthy builds that positive closeness we were discussing above. It keeps the emotional bank account in the black. BUT, it’s not just about sex. It’s about cuddling and hugging and being with one another in healthy, positive ways. It’s important to make sure you’re BOTH getting your needs met. Find what works for both of you. Understanding the Love Languages can help. Schedule sex if needed (and usually, if you’re a parent, it will be needed!), but do it. Regular sexual intimacy not only keeps you mentally and physically healthier, it grows your relationship and wards off conflict, too. And if your conflicts revolve around sex, then seek to resolve those conflicts first. Find a way to help both of you get your needs met. (These articles, The 5 Love Languages, The Importance of Alone Time, and 9 Ways to Build Intimacy in Romantic Relationships, can help!
16) Repeat after me, “I’d rather be happy than right.” So many conflicts just aren’t worth it. Ask yourself, “Is it really worth the pain, conflict, and sacrifice of our happiness to ‘be right?’ right now? Or is it better to let things go and be happy, together?”
17) Don’t expect him/her to read your mind! You have to identify your own needs and then communicate them effectively if you ever want those needs met. I’ll say it again, “Don’t expect him/her to be a mind-reader.” It won’t work and will just leave you frustrated. (Read 4 Ways to Get Your Needs Met)
19) Do it your own way–as a couple. There is no one “right way” to make marriage work. Even these suggestions are based on what works for us, or for many people, but they won’t all work for you. Find what does work and do that!
20) Making marriage work takes work. Don’t forget it. Don’t expect it to be easy or breezy.
It’s not. You’re building a future here. A lifetime. A partnership. You’re growing love. Be willing to give it your all. Don’t give up. Don’t quit on each other. Roll up your sleeves and do what it takes. With two committed partners, you can, and will make it work, and work well, for both of you!
21) Bonus! Do your own work first and seek help as needed. Sometimes, the problem isn’t a lack of love in the relationship, but a lack of self-love or self-worth, mental or physical illness or something else. If you’re not well, your relationship will suffer. Seek help when you need it through counseling, trusted friends or family members, church or faith leaders, and community support. We all need outside help from time to time, especially when it comes to making marriage work. Do your individual work. Then, do your work as a couple. And start as early on in the problem as possible. Don’t wait. Your marriage, and your happiness, are too important! (Join my FREE webinar on “Women’s Emotions”–perfect for women of all ages and stages AND the men who love them! See below.)
What have you found to “make marriage work?” How do you resolve conflicts? Please leave a comment, below, and share your wisdom and insights, too!
Listen to my episode, with OJ, “Making Marriage Work by Resolving Conflict,” in honor of our 20th anniversary, on “Motherhood” radio! Listen on demand/download the episode at WebTalkRadio.net, and/or visit iTunes to subscribe to the show.
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