While I can’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on relationships, I do know that my wife and I have a very strong marriage, and have never been more in love.
I've failed at marriage before, but that’s helped me become better at it. I've learned the deadly sins of relationships, and how to recognize them and avoid them.
A reader, newly married, asked me to share my tips on how to make a marriage work. I wish I had a magic formula, but here’s a simple list of tips:
- spend time alone together
- appreciate each other
- be intimate often
- talk and share and give
But just as important as what you should do is what you shouldn't do — and I’m sure many of you have stepped into these pitfalls yourselves. I know I have. I've learned from my mistakes, and have learned to recognize when I’m making a fatal error, and how to correct it.
If you can avoid these seven things, and focus instead on doing the four things above, you should have a strong relationship. I’m not going to guarantee anything, but I’d give you good odds. :)
- Resentment. This is a poison that starts as something small (“He didn’t get a new roll of toilet paper” or “She doesn’t wash her dishes after she eats”) and builds up into something big. Resentment is dangerous because it often flies under our radar, so that we don’t even notice we have the resentment, and our partner doesn’t realize that there’s anything wrong. If you ever notice yourself having resentment, you need to address this immediately, before it gets worse. Cut it off while it’s small. There are two good ways to deal with resentment: 1) breathe, and just let it go — accept your partner for who she/he is, faults and all; none of us is perfect; or 2) talk to your partner about it if you cannot accept it, and try to come up with a solution that works for both of you (not just for you); try to talk to them in a non-confrontational way, but in a way that expresses how you feel without being accusatory.
- Jealousy. It’s hard to control jealousy if you feel it, I know. It seems to happen by itself, out of our control, unbidden and unwanted. However, jealousy, like resentment, is relationship poison. A little jealousy is fine, but when it gets to a certain level it turns into a need to control your partner, and turns into unnecessary fights, and makes both parties unhappy. If you have problems with jealousy (like I once did), instead of trying to control them it’s important that you examine and deal with the root issue, which is usually insecurity. That insecurity might be tied to your childhood (abandonment by a parent, for example), in a past relationship where you got hurt, or in an incident or incidents in the past of your current relationship.
- Unrealistic expectations. Often we have an idea of what our partner should be like. We might expect them to clean up after themselves, to be considerate, to always think of us first, to surprise us, to support us, to always have a smile, to work hard and not be lazy. Not necessarily these expectations, but almost always we have expectations of our partner. Having some expectations is fine — we should expect our partner to be faithful, for example. But sometimes, without realizing it ourselves, we have expectations that are too high to meet. Our partner isn't perfect — no one is. We can’t expect them to be cheerful and loving every minute of the day — everyone has their moods. We can’t expect them to always think of us, as they will obviously think of themselves or others sometimes too. We can’t expect them to be exactly as we are, as everyone is different. High expectations lead to disappointment and frustration, especially if we do not communicate these expectations. How can we expect our partner to meet these expectations if they don’t know about them? The remedy is to lower your expectations — allow your partner to be himself/herself, and accept and love them for that. What basic expectations we do have, we must communicate clearly.
- Not making time. This is a problem with couples who have kids, but also with other couples who get caught up in work or hobbies or friends and family or other passions. Couples who don’t spend time alone together will drift apart. And while spending time together when you’re with the kids or other friends and family is a good thing, it’s important that you have time alone together. Can’t find time with all the things you have going on — work and kids and all the other stuff? Make time. Seriously — make the time. It can be done. I do it — I just make sure that this time with my wife is a priority, and I’ll drop just about anything else to make the time. Get a babysitter, drop a couple commitments, put off work for a day, and go on a date. It doesn’t have to be an expensive date — some time in nature, or exercising together, or watching a DVD and having a home-cooked dinner, are all good options. And when you’re together, make an effort to connect, not just be together.
- Lack of communication. This sin affects all the others on this list — it’s been said many times before, but it’s true: good communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship. If you have resentment, you must talk it out rather than let the resentment grow. If you are jealous, you must communicate in an open and honest manner to address your insecurities. If you have expectations of your partner, you must communicate them. If there are any problems whatsoever, you must communicate them and work them out. Communication doesn’t just mean talking or arguing — good communication is honest without being attacking or blaming. Communicate your feelings — being hurt, frustrated, sorry, scared, sad, happy — rather than criticizing. Communicate a desire to work out a solution that works for you both, a compromise, rather than a need for the other person to change. And communicate more than just problems — communicate the good things too (see below for more).
Not showing gratitude. Sometimes there are no real problems in a relationship, such as resentment or jealousy or unrealistic expectations — but there is also no expression of the good things about your partner either. This lack of gratitude and appreciation is just as bad as the problems, because without it your partner will feel like he or she is being taken for granted. Every person wants to be appreciated for all they do. And while you might have some problems with what your partner does (see above), you should also realize that your partner does good things too. Does she wash your dishes or cook you something you like? Does he clean up after you or support you in your job? Take the time to say thank you, and give a hug and kiss. This little expression can go a long way.
Lack of affection. Similarly, everything else can be going right, including the expression of gratitude, but if there is no affection among partners then there is serious trouble. In effect, the relationship is drifting towards a platonic status. That might be better than many relationships that have serious problems, but it’s not a good thing. Affection is important –everyone needs some of it, especially from someone we love. Take the time, every single day, to give affection to your partner. Greet her when she comes home from work with a tight hug. Wake him up with a passionate kiss (who cares about morning breath!). Sneak up behind her and kiss her on the neck. Make out in the movie theater like teen-agers. Caress his back and neck while watching TV. Smile at her often.
Bonus sin: Stubbornness. This wasn’t on my original list but I just thought about it before publishing this post, and had to add it in. Every relationship will have problems and arguments — but it’s important that you learn to work out these problems after cooling down a bit. Unfortunately, many of us are too stubborn to even talk about things. Perhaps we always want to be right. Perhaps we never want to admit that we made a mistake. Perhaps we don’t like to say we’re sorry. Perhaps we don’t like to compromise. I’ve done all of these things — but I’ve learned over the years that this is just childish. When I find myself being stubborn these days, I try to get over this childishness and suck it up and put away my ego and say I’m sorry. Talk about the problem and work it out. Don’t be afraid to be the first one to apologize. Then move past it to better things.