By Mike DuBose with Debra DuBose
Like a garden, a marriage requires daily attention and care, as well as the right nourishment. In happy marriages, two people flourish in a climate of positivity, energy, and gratitude, bringing out the best in each other and themselves. Studies have shown that happy marriages not only make individuals happier, but also increase their life expectancy, decrease their chances of disease and disabilities, and improve their overall quality of life.
Unfortunately, despite these benefits, the divorce rate hovers around 50% for Americans (one of the highest rates in the world). Even worse, 60% of couples aged 60 and above are now divorcing (and the numbers are growing)! Failing marriages also negatively affect physical and mental health—according to stress researchers, divorce is second only to the death of a family member in terms of the stress it causes. Stress is a major contributor to heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses, not to mention the psychological damage and insecurities a divorce inflicts on the children.
More individuals are unhappy with their lives, marriages, and jobs than ever before. Even Debra and I have experienced ups and downs, but with the help of God and a lot of work, our marriage is now at its best yet! But as you read this, remember that Debra and I are imperfect people who struggle just like many of you.
Whether you are soon to be married, a newly wedded couple, someone who has been married a long time, or part of a marriage that is struggling to stay afloat, pursuing a happier marriage isalways possible. Based on a thorough review of research and relevant literature, as well as our own successes and failures as a married couple, Debra and I have compiled the following 67 strategies to promote happy, healthy marriages:
- Marry the right person: This is easier said than done! The human brain doesn’t mature until nearly 30 years old, and many people who get married young do so for the wrong reasons (called “immature love”). Gerontologist Karl Pillemer studied hundreds of couples who were married more than 50 years and concluded that you need to feel an indescribable feeling of love before getting married. It’s important to date a potential mate for a while, really getting to know him or her (and family) before you pop the question. To make sure they are truly compatible, couples should thoroughly discuss each other’s philosophies, views on children, hobbies, pleasures, spending habits, parental and other past relationships, religion, life and career goals, and expectations before settling down. If you have gone through a divorce, proceed with extra care, as you may harbor vulnerability, hurt, and rejection from your previous marriage that should be resolved before committing to matrimony again.
- Don’t expect your marriage to be perfect all of the time: Every union has its problems, but these are possible to overcome. Perfectionism, selfishness, and unrealistic expectations, however, sow the seeds of divorce!
- Know that a healthy marriage is a two-way street: Marriage requires reasonable “give and take” to work, like a dance. The partners should become a team that works together in sync to achieve common goals, needs, and wants.
- Treat each other as equals: Each spouse should have 50-50 voting power and try to seek compromises and “win-wins.” Sometimes, that may mean agreeing to disagree, with the motive of resolving differences in the future. A good rule of thumb is that if you don’t both agree to something, don’t do it.
- Respect your spouse in public and in private: You want to see your spouse as an equal who you depend on for guidance and decision-making. If you don’t respect your spouse, examine your standards (are they impossible?) or help him or her to learn how to gain your respect. Never criticize your spouse in public.
- When you communicate, “be there:” Marriage should not be part of multi-tasking. Make eye contact, turn electronics off, and be a quality listener when you are speaking to each other or working on the marriage. Taking a walk together every day can minimize distractions from others as you converse.
- Respect differences: Your spouse is an individual and might sometimes like different things than you do. For example, we are both avid readers, but Debra likes fiction and I only read non-fiction.
- Seek happiness from within: It’s not your spouse’s job to “make” you happy. While both partners should care about each other’s happiness, contentment comes mainly from within oneself, not another person. Sometimes, you may have to make a conscious effort to let go of unhappiness and move toward joy, but it is worth the effort! Being a happy person not only improves your life, but also that of your spouse. As Alexandra Stoddard wrote in her book Happiness for Two, “The more we love our own life, the more we inspire and strengthen our partner’s journey.” (We recommend that every couple read this excellent book!)
- Be positive and kind: Maintaining a positive but realistic perspective on life adds years to your lifespan, and boosts your job performance, and helps you to build stronger, longer-lasting relationships. Take a second to think: how many times do you smile each day? What about making others smile? Being positive is contagious, and a kind spirit improves every situation!
- Provide encouragement: You should be your spouse’s biggest cheerleader. Help him or her to succeed by saying things like “You can do it!” and “How can I help?” When you are asked for advice, don’t react negatively if your partner doesn’t follow your suggestions.
- Don’t take each other for granted: It’s easy to get into routines and expect your spouse to perform without any excitement. After a while, the marriage can drift into doing the same old things daily, with you and your spouse feeling like roommates. One of the ways to fight this change is to express appreciation for your spouse regularly. Do little things to show you care—it only takes a few minutes to make someone feel special, loved, and wanted. For example, sending a love note, text, or e-mail costs basically nothing, but lets your spouse know they’re in your thoughts.
- Express gratitude: Those two little words—“thank you”—go a long way. Don’t let one day go by without saying them to your spouse (and others) to show your sincere appreciation for their help.
- Do something to make you and your spouse happier daily: Look for the small and big things that put a smile on your partner’s face, like coffee and newspapers in bed or receiving fresh flowers. Then, make doing these things a regular occurrence.
- Seek balance: It can be difficult, but strive to balance the demands of your job, hobbies, pleasures, relatives, marriage, children, grandchildren, religion, and other things in life. Family psychologist Dr. John Rosemond recommends placing your marriage as the top priority!Every once in a while, remind yourself to slow down and smell the roses.Set aside quiet, peaceful moments just for you and your spouse in a relaxing environment without all the distractions.
- Take more “honeymoons:” Take regular vacations with just the two of you (rather than the whole family and friends) to have some “alone time” together.
- Stay healthy with—and for—each other: You don’t want death to part you prematurely! Exercise together and practice healthy eating and other habits. Seek annual medical physicals by experienced internists to help maintain good health.
- Reduce stress: While some stress is good for us since it pushes us to get things done, excessive stress promotes unhappiness, reduced lifespans, disease, and broken relationships. On a positive note, we often cause our own stress, which means that (with effort) we can also reduce it.
- Consider gender differences: Males and females are genetically and hormonally different, which causes us to respond to life’s issues in varying ways. Often, men want to solve problems quickly or internalize them, while women are more emotional and want to talk through them. Although this example is not true of all couples, partners do differ in how they react to stressful situations. It behooves us to know and appreciate the differences within our own relationships.
- Share in chores without being asked: Regardless of gender, everyone living in a house should help with household duties. Ask your spouse which chores they hate doing and volunteer to help with those. This is a great “little” way to show your appreciation!
- When you are wrong, admit it: Over the course of our lives, all of us will say or do things we should not have (or fail to say or do things we should). Think situations over carefully, admit it when you are wrong, and offer a sincere apology. Then, learn from the mistake and try not to repeat it.
- Don’t quibble over little things: If you always agree on everything, something is wrong!In fact, it’s healthy to have different opinions. When two people put their heads together to debate and dissect issues, they can come up with better solutions than one person alone. However, you don’t want to argue constantly. Pick your battles and find the right times to bring up constructive criticism, problems, issues, and serious concerns. Unless you experience harmful patterns that bother you, though, overlook most of the small stuff.
- Learn how to argue in a respectful, healthy way: When problems arise, focus on the root cause rather than the symptoms. Keep your tone and body language neutral, and if you can tell your spouse is trying to escalate the argument, avoid being drawn into a fight. If you feel anger coming on or are in a bad mood, agree to put the conversation aside for later.Over the course of your relationship, your spouse will have told you very private, confidential things about himself or herself. Whatever you do, don’t use this knowledge to hurt them during arguments! You will regret it later, and it will hurt the person you should care about most. Don’t call your spouse names or compare them to relatives and friends, and avoid bringing up past issues that may be unresolved “hot buttons.” Remember: once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it can’t be put back in!
- Nurture your spirituality together: Research has shown that couples who worship together weekly have a significantly lowered divorce rate. Practicing a faith—nearly all of which proclaim loving each other as one of the greatest commandments—promotes the values and morals that exemplify a good marriage.
- Never stop learning: It’s easier on our minds to take the path of least resistance, following the same routines, habits, and behaviors every day. However, without new experiences, challenges, and ideas, life would be boring! Expanding your mind with new knowledge can keep you and your marriage young, and may also help keep your mind sharp. As an extremely curious person, I thrive on learning how things work and exploring ways to help my family and others improve their lives!
- Have adventures together: Look for ways to spice up your life that both people enjoy. Go outside of your comfort zones together to tackle physical challenges, learn new skills, or travel to some fun, unique places. In addition to activities with your spouse, keep your individual life challenging and interesting as well.
- Get out of bed each day with a purpose: As a family and for our group of companies, our purpose is “to create opportunities to improve lives.” We execute that promise in many ways, including researching and writing articles to help others. Everyone needs a purpose (or hobby, or goal) to look forward to with passion and excitement. Always maintain 2-3 hobbies or goals so that if one is taken away, you have others to pursue.
- Celebrate: Life is a journey that constantly presents opportunities for celebration, sometimes just for the small but important blessings we have. We view every day as our anniversary, and that’s a reason to celebrate right there!
- Build your own traditions: Every couple should develop their own traditions around important events like anniversaries, birthdays, etc. When these events occur, go above and beyond to make your husband or wife feel special.
- Greet each other warmly after being separated: Start the day on a positive note by greeting your spouse with a smile, hug, or kiss when you arise. Welcome him or her home when you see each other after work or a trip. Smiles are free, but they can make a big impact on mood!
- Live by the “Golden Rule:” Treat your spouse as you want to be treated. Sometimes, that might mean modeling behaviors to your spouse that you would like applied to you.
- Be humble: Socrates once said, “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” It’s amazing how much you can learn, grow, and prosper when you acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers! Arrogance or a blame-it-on-the-spouse attitude may feed your ego, but it gets you nowhere and can destroy a marriage.
- Surround yourself with the right people: If you want your marriage to prosper, hang around withpositive, encouraging, and like-minded friends. We all have problems, but who wants to spend time with people who only talk about life’s difficulties? We prefer to have fun with people who “see the glass half full” and build us up.
- Guard intimate secrets about your spouse and relationship: While it is acceptable to express some joy about the good things that go on in your relationship, most of what happens between a couple should be sacred. Few people can keep a secret, and if you tell friends and relatives intimate details about your marriage without your spouse’s consent, it violates trust.
- Take pride in your appearance: When appropriate, dress up—it will make your spouse feel attracted to you, and you’ll feel good about yourself! Ask your spouse which clothes she or he likes and wear them regularly. Take care of your body, hair, teeth, and skin, not just for outward appearances, but also for your health.
- Make even mundane tasks a bonding experience: Many people find running errands tedious, but Debra and I see it as an opportunity to be together and help one another. For example, I hate to shop but love being with Debra, so I occasionally serve as chauffeur. I take a book with me while she shops, and both of us win. While we’re going from place to place, we share goals of what we want to do when we travel or which restaurants to frequent, movies to see, etc.
- Earn—and keep—your partner’s trust: White lies can lead to bigger ones, so it’s best to fess up you when you have done something wrong, even if it’s small. Being honest is a huge factor in building and maintaining trust.
- Forgive: When your partner makes a mistake, lets you down, or says something harmful, forgive him or her as soon as you are able to. Life is imperfect, and so is your spouse. Let go of past slights completely—don’t “keep score!”
- Avoid clutter: Messes in the home can be irritating to your spouse and stressful to the both of you. Clean out attics, cars, garages, and bedrooms to simplify and decrease clutter. A good rule of thumb is that if you have not used it in a year, donate it to help a needy person or discard it.
- Make each other laugh: Look for ways to put smiles on each other’s faces. Laughing releases endorphins (the “feel good” hormones) into the bloodstream, and it makes life more fun!
- Say—and mean—“I love you!” You don’t want to overdo it, but people crave love and affection. It’s important for your spouse to occasionally hear that you love him or her and know that you sincerely mean it.
- Be happy with what you have: Materialism, greed, and selfishness can ruin a marriage. When people focus all of their attention on obtaining “things” like money or luxury items, there’s little time and attention left over for the marriage. According to a recent study, it’s double trouble when both spouses fall into this unreachable materialistic desire to always have “just a little more.”
- Keep romance alive: This does not necessarily mean being intimate; rather, romance can take many forms: dinner by candlelight, soft music (Jim Gibson is great!), flowers at unexpected times, holding hands, giving massages, lit candles by the bed, opening the door, a smile, a loving note, a kiss and a hug, date nights, and going out to a special restaurant, to name a few. Think outside the box on an ongoing basis to build some loving magic!
- Focus on your partner’s strengths: No one is perfect, and we all have habits that irritate our partner. But the key is to look for what your spouse does right and compliment them on it. Praise makes people feel good. Build each other up with a sincere smile, rather than finding fault, and your spouse will love being around you
- Eat together: Dining together and talking about the day is an important tradition that strengthens the bond between you and your spouse. Sometimes, that might mean getting the kids fed first, then enjoying a quiet meal together afterward.
- Cultivate your friendship: It takes a long time to become best friends with your spouse and feel that you can tell him or her anything; share your deepest secrets and greatest weaknesses; and communicate past trauma or pain. This type of deep bond is based on a foundation of trust, and it grows stronger the more time that you spend together. Over the years, Debra and I have “become one,” to the point where we can communicate without ever saying a word to each other. We continue to help each other grow and be better people, and our friendship deepens every day.
- Give electronics a break:Television, Facebook, texting, e-mails, and telephone calls…all the forms of electronic communication available to us today can become an addiction, and they disrupt marriages when one or both spouses prioritize them above the union. Even Dr. Oz noted in a recent issue of his magazine that most arguments he and his wife have are over distracting electronics!
- Sleep in the same bed: Every couple should purchase a quality, comfortable bed and sleep together in it each night. (King-sized beds in particular provide intimacy but also some room to get away to your own area.) If your spouse snores every night, seek medical help from your physician—this may be a sign of potentially deadly sleep apnea, where a person periodically stops breathing throughout the night! If this is the case, he or she needs a sleep study to determine a treatment plan. If not, many dentists can provide you with a mouthpiece device that reduces snoring, and you should also see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) physician.
- Share important information: Both spouses should know all the details of the couple’s business and personal financial information, accounts and their locations, passwords, assets, liabilities, etc. I have made very detailed spreadsheets of every important bit of information that will help Debra in case I died today, and I update them quarterly. In case of disaster, everything we own has both of our names listed as owners or beneficiaries. Ensure you have a will and other legal documents in case something happens to either one of the spouses.
- Eliminate debt: According to marriage researchers, finances are typically the number one source of stress and arguments amongst couples. Problems often surface when spouses get used to spending a certain amount (which they can afford when both are employed), but then one loses a job or has health problems. They can no longer afford to live as they did before, and they either go into debt or have to adjust their lifestyles. Avoid these issues by living within your financial means; saving aggressively for retirement, starting at a young age; and creating an emergency fund with savings equivalent to six months’ worth of bills. Developing a budget incorporating all of these goals (and sticking to it) can go a long way toward building a healthy marriage. It’s also helpful to secure the advice of a professional, unbiased financial planner who charges by the hour.
- Plan for retirement: Those golden years can turn into a nightmareif a couple is not financially, mentally, and physically prepared for retirement. It is especially hard for people who lose the structure of a full-time job and its built-in social network and have not found another purpose and group of friends outside of work. You can read two articles we wrote on retirement planning in the Business Articles section of www.mikedubose.com to help you prepare.
- Don’t let your past drive your present: PsychiatristSigmundFreud was right when he said that our childhood experiences can alter our adult lives. Erikson, a psychologist, noted that one cannot move into the future until the past has been resolved. Forgiving others who have wronged you (including your parents) and cleansing yourself of resentment goes a long way to not only making you happier, but also improving your relationship with your spouse. I suffered from bitterness over my childhood for a long time, but after seeking the help of God and others, I now hold no anger or resentment toward anyone alive or dead. It is a wonderful feeling! Sometimes, you may need the help of a skilled professional counselor to guide you out of the darkness. Training your mind to remember the good times and not the bad is doable, but takes time and work.
- Be yourself: Many of us live our lives as defined by our spouse, past experiences, relatives, political and spiritual views, friends, society, and parents. Some of this guidance is good for us, but it’s also important to really accept yourself as you are, with all the warts and imperfections. Of course, it’s also a good idea to strive for continuous improvement throughout your life as well!
- Don’t allow relatives and friends to define your married life: While you want to be respectful of your elders and welcome constructive advice, don’t allow constant unsolicited comments from parents and others telling you how to run your marriage. This may mean having frank conversations with your relatives to establish reasonable ground rules about their interactions with you, your children, and your spouse.
- Don’t rush into having children: Recent research has shown that married couples are least happy when their children are young, and the stress of child rearing could be a factor in pushing couples toward divorce. Ideally, we recommend that a couple be married 4-5 years before having children to get to know each other, finish their educations, adjust to the marriage, and travel. Unfortunately, some parents try to push their adult children to produce grandchildren before they are ready. Stay strong and commit to doing what is best for your marriage, not what relatives and others want!
- Agree on child-rearing and time spent with grandchildren: Couples need to be on the same page regarding how to raise, discipline, and model for their children and grandchildren. (If you have grandchildren, look for our article on how to be a good grandparent here.)
- Work hard to build good relationships with in-laws: When you marry a person, their family comes along for the ride too, so building strong bonds with them also strengthens the marriage. This is another area that is sensitive and often difficult, but worthwhile. Even if your in-laws do and say some offensive things, try to overlook it and refrain from talking negatively about them so your partner doesn’t have to choose sides, which can create stress. However, if there are patterns of the in-laws harming your marriage or subjecting you to negative comments or actions, your spouse must have a candid talk with his or her parents.
- Watch your consumption of medicines, alcohol and other drugs, and caffeine: They can have side effects that may change your behavior, potentially harming your relationship with your spouse.
- Avoid compromising situations: Some people are neglected by their spouses and turn to others for the attention, love, physical affection, and caring attitude they don’t receive at home. Adultery is one of the most common reasons for divorce, and if you travel a good bit or are exposed to flirting behaviors in the workplace, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the “grass is greener” next door—when in reality, it’s just as hard to cut. Guard yourself from developing inappropriate relationships with friends and coworkers, and stay out of bars and other places where you may be exposed to temptation.
- Don’t allow thoughts of divorce to gain traction: Unless abuse of some kind is present, don’t consider divorce an option. Tell yourself that you have to work the problems out, and you will be grateful to yourself later: in one recent survey of divorcees, more than one-third wished they had worked harder on their marriage.
- Enjoy some “alone time:” Everyone needs some time just for themselves.Allocate time each to do the things that you (as an individual) want to do. Just as it’s harmful for couples to spend too much time apart, it’s also detrimental to the relationship to spend every waking moment together. This is a major factor for many retired couples who end up divorcing—the constant togetherness after so many years of a more balanced lifestyle is simply overwhelming.
- Find the right job: If you are unhappy in your job, you will most likely take your frustrations, resentments, feelings of failure, and anger home with you. You may not realize it, but you may be taking it out on your spouse or withdrawing love, attention, and caring. While you don’t want to quit a job before finding another one, search for employment where your passions come alive and you look forward to coming to work each day, even if you make less money or have a less prestigious title. Seek happiness over material possessions, and your improved mood will benefit your marriage.
- Assess the state of your marriage: If you want to improve your marriage, it’s important to know where you are now (called a “baseline”). From there, you can set annual goals and objectives to improve. We have created a complimentary marriage assessment you can use to determine the current state of your marriage. Another idea (depending on how sensitive you and your partner are) is to have each spouse make lists of things that they like about each other and areas for improvement. Then, with a humble mind, listen and take action!
- Start over: One strategy that Debra and I have used occasionally in keeping our marriage healthy is “starting over.” That means forgiving the past and focusing on the future, only remembering the good times and blocking out the bad times (and youwill have them!). When we changed the way we were acting and thinking, we were able to make progress.
- See a marriage therapist: If you find you are struggling and cannot seem to move forward in re-building your marriage (or are considering divorce), seek help from a skilled, experienced counselor. Look for a professional who emphasizes building skills, creating ground rules, talking more, having fun, arguing less, and rebuilding friendships. If one partner refuses to go, the other may still be able to model the right behavior and improve the dynamic. To find a good counselor, review your insurance company’s list of approved counselors and ask your friends or your physician if they have heard good things about anyone (you don’t have to tell them it’s for you and your spouse). If you hear the same name come up over and over, you’re on the right track. Schedule a preliminary appointment with the counselor to ensure that he or she is a good fit before committing. (As a former licensed counselor, I have seen many therapists who had degrees and academic knowledge but lacked the communication, experience, and unbiased mediation skills needed to help couples.) When you find the right one, proceed with counseling and apply the lessons you learn to improve your union. Don’t worry about societal stigma or “appearing weak”…it takes a strong, wise person to ask for help! In fact, I think nearly everyone needs professional counseling at some point in their lives.
- Be intimate: When we do not care for our relationship gardens with tender attention, our intimate life can fizzle. Medical issues, such as diabetes, and medications, and growing older can also impact our sexual health. According to numerous studies, happy couples have a healthy sexual relationship, even into their eighties and nineties. If you are having problems, first seek a thorough medical physical (preferably from an internist) to determine if there are underlying medical conditions. Urologists have many medications and tools for men who experience problems. While it may be embarrassing, be honest with your physicians. Some people also have psychological barriers to intimacy, which will need to be discussed with a trained marriage counselor.
- When you experience hardship, turn to your partner for comfort and strength: Disaster, tragedy, financial insecurity, the death of a loved one or a beloved animal, major health issues, and major emotional problems such as depression can zap the excitement and happiness from a marriage. It’s very difficult to have a happy marriage when things are falling apart around you, but turning to your partner for help will ultimately strengthen your bond. Seek out comfort and nurturing from your spouse when going through these difficult times, and provide support when he or she needs it.
- Pray: If God created the universe, He can help you and your marriage. Don’t expect overnight miracles, but there’s a lot of power up there! Debra and I thank God for helping us achieve a good marriage!
The bottom line: Healthy marriages require significant effort and a lifetime of commitment. Failure is part of being a human, and our imperfections extend into our relationships, including marriages. The key is to acknowledge our mistakes and failures, drill to the root causes, and learn from them. We all have bad days, say and do stupid stuff, or act selfishly at times. There is no one failsafe strategy to make a marriage work in the long run; rather, it’s a lot of small things that, when combined over time, can make magic happen! Happy marriages make happy people, and the happy partners serve as models to their children, who carry on the tradition.
No one can perform every strategy we have listed all of the time, but you can try to implement some new ones as you travel into the future and increase the number over time. We encourage you to send this article to everyone you know—you may just save the marriage of someone who needs a little encouragement. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to look into the mirror and give our marriages a tune-up. When considering your marriage (or a divorce), remember what Winston Churchill once said about life’s struggles: “Never, never, never give up!”
About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at [email protected]
Mike DuBose, a University of South Carolina graduate, is a former licensed counselor and the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.
Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for over 43 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds college and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University. She is a former elementary and middle school teacher.
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.
© Copyright 2015 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at [email protected] and briefly explain how the article will be used; we will respond promptly. Thank you for honoring our hard work!