10 Simple Steps to a Better Marriage

Have you heard that marriage is hard work? While that might be true, the work that needs to be done is simple, maybe not easy, but simple.

Most of what you need to know to fix your marriage problems, you learned in grade school - treat everyone with respect, don’t call each other names, and say nice things to each other.

The problem is that when we are hurting and feeling distant from our partner, doing these simple steps to improve our marriage is hard - and sometimes these steps are the last thing we want to try, especially when we are angry and feel wronged. 

If you are serious about having a better, happier marriage, then try at least one, if not all of the following steps.

FYI - these 10 steps are taken from my experience as a marriage counselor, and from the book Marriage Rules, by Harriet Lerner. If you are interested in 96 more simple and practical steps, check out her book.

A small change, in the right direction, can lead to big changes over time.


1. Respect Differences

Embrace differences, don’t eliminate them. Stop trying to change your partner. You don’t have to agree about everything. You don’t have to see things in exactly the same way.

Differences don’t necessarily mean that one person is right or wrong. Taking that view makes one person a winner and the other a loser. That competitive stance doesn’t do very much for helping you feel like you are on the same team. 

And that is one of the most common complaints that I hear from couples in my office - that they don’t feel like they are on the same team.

Think of a sports team with different positions - like a baseball team. Not everyone is the pitcher or outfielder. If everyone were the same position, then the team would be terrible and lose all of the games. But with each person having different strengths, the team works together to bring out the best in each player, so that they can be the best team they can be. 

Same goes for a couple in a marriage.

When you allow your partner to be who they are, you give your marriage a chance to work like a team - each person using their strengths and different ideas to make a better team together.

Differences bring different perspectives. Respecting each other’s differences also lays a foundation for mutual respect and love.


2. Warm your Partner’s Heart

You already know how to do this. It’s just that when we feel like we’ve been wronged, doing something nice for your partner is the last thing that we want to do.

Focus on the little things that will help your partner to feel loved, special, and valued. When you are able to do that, especially if you are upset with that person, the conversations you have will probably go better and be more productive. It is easier to work things out when the other person feels loved and valued.

An added benefit is that when you behave in a loving manner, even if you don’t feel like it in that moment, it can help change your negative emotions into more positive, loving feelings toward your partner.

If doing this step is hard, and I know that sometimes it really is difficult, try to do just one thing warm and loving for him or her. It might just help you to feel better in the moment. 


3. Keep the 5:1 ratio in mind

Aim for a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative things said. Meaning, that for every negative thing you say to your partner, such a criticism or nagging, you also say 5 positive things to your partner.

These things can be said with words, but can also be non-verbal positive gestures, such as a touch on the shoulder, a tussle of the hair, or a smile.

Marriage researcher John Gottman found that in couples that were less likely to divorce, they had this 5:1 ratio going for them. 

Remember, every person has some strength or goodness. Sometimes when we are in pain, we lose this perspective, which is why this ratio is so important. Keeping this ratio in mind helps to keep us more focused on the positive things in our partner, than to drown in our feelings of unhappiness.

If 5:1 is too difficult to do right now, start with a 2:1 ratio, and work up from there. 


4. Be the one to change first

Yes, you read that right.

For many of the couples who come to see me, they do not like this suggestion. Someone usually tells me that they’ve been doing all of the work so far and nothing is changing. Or that their partner is the one who is causing the marriage problems, so if their spouse would just change, everything would be just fine.

“Remember this: if you want a recipe for failure, wait for the other person to change first.” - Harriet Lerner in Marriage Rules

You should be the one to change first because:

  • You can only change you, not any one else.
  • You’ll feel better about yourself when you behave in line with your values and who you want to be as a person.
  • Marriage problems result from “stuck patterns” - you and your partner having the same argument over an over again, or behaving in the same unhelpful way over and over again. If you change your part of the pattern, then the pattern automatically changes. It can’t be the same if YOU change. And if you make a positive change, the stuck pattern will improve.
  • You are the dissatisfied partner, and are probably the most motivated to change. 

Try just one thing different - in a positive direction, and see what happens. You changing first might give your partner space and motivation to also make changes.


5. Lower your Intensity

When one spouse is upset, they usually pursue, nag, beg, or yell to get their point across to their partner. This pursuit causes the other partner to distance and withdrawal- which just makes the pursuer push harder. And now we are stuck in a downward spiral - again.

Sound familiar?

If you are the pursuer, it would be helpful to try lowering your intensity.

  • Talk more slowly and at a softer volume.
  • Refrain from interrupting and criticizing.
  • Leave more physical and mental space for your partner.

Lowering your intensity gives your partner space to stop distancing.

If doing this step is difficult, try it for only a few hot topics, or for a few days - as an experiment. See if it helps keep your conversations more calm.


6. Take the One-a-Day Challenge

One criticism a day. Can you do it?

Criticism is a marriage killer. People generally welcome some constructive criticism at the beginning of a relationship, but over time, your spouse will feel less and less valued and admired. It is hard to survive in a marriage if you feel constantly judged.

I could just tell you to criticize your partner less, but take the one-a-day challenge and only allow yourself to give criticism ONCE per day!

One time a day is sufficient.

And if you only allow yourself one criticism, you are going to be careful which critical remark is your one criticism for the day.


7. Do Sweat the Small Stuff

When you say that you are going to do something, do it. Plain and simple. It might not seem like a big deal, but it is.

When your partner makes a small request of you, and you fail to do it, you have communicated to him or her that their voice just doesn’t matter enough to you.

Over time, if you “forget” often enough and don’t do the small things, no matter how trivial you think they are, your partner learns that you don’t respect them enough to follow through on your commitments to them.

If you struggle with ADHD/ADD, then it is even more important for you to figure out a way to follow through on what you say that you will do. Don’t use Attention Deficit Disorder as an excuse. Your partner won’t see your struggle with ADD, and only remember how you let them down, again.

Get help for your ADHD if you have problems with this step.

Again, it might seem like a small thing that you don’t pick up after yourself when asked, or you forget to get the milk on the way home… But these little things add up and sow the seed of resentment and anger.


8. Stay Curious

I find myself saying this phrase to my clients almost more than any other.

Curiosity just might save your marriage.

First, let’s talk about the opposite of curiosity. Disinterest, or thinking you know exactly what your partner is thinking or feeling.

Let me give you a tip… You don’t know how they are feeling or what they are thinking.

Many people try to express empathy by saying things like “I know exactly how you are feeling” or “oh yeah, I felt that way too when such and such happened” and then they go on and tell their own story. And your partner is feeling run over by the side of the road. They don’t feel cared about, valued or validated.

When your partner is expressing something to you, whether it be how they are feeling about something, or they are upset by something, the most loving thing you can do is listen quietly, and then ask questions.

No, it isn’t a 3rd degree questioning. Ask them more about how they are feeling, or to help you understand what that experience was like for them.

If you aren’t sure how to be curious, especially if your partner is expressing anger or upsetness at you, just simply say - “Tell me more”. Say it in a genuine, soft and calm voice, and you’d be surprised at how powerful those three words can be for your relationship. 


9. Make rules for how to fight - and stick to them

All couples fight in a relationship. I worry when couples tell me they don’t fight at all. The problem with arguments is that people hit below the belt when they fight, either with insults, or bringing up old grievances, etc.

So, the first rule for fighting in marriage is to set up some rules on how you are going to treat each other in a fight.

Examples of rules you might try are:

  • no yelling,
  • no name calling,
  • or no fighting as we are trying to walk about the door in the morning.

You might even try writing these rules down where both of you will see it. When tempers are high, it can sometimes be difficult to remember these rules, so keeping them handy, in written form, can be helpful. 

When you are angry, you can stop yourself and behave better. If you can’t control you behavior when tempers flare, then it is important for you to seek professional help. 


10.  Imagine that you have a distinguished house guest

This might sound rather strange, but give it a chance. You have more control over your fighting than you think.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine that you have a very important houseguest staying with you - maybe even the President of the United States. Would you have a big, bad argument in front of the President? No? I imagine that you’d probably figure out a way to get along better - be more respectful and nice to each other. 



So, How do I get Started?

Most important thing to remember here: start small.

Choose just 1 step that speaks to you the most and work on doing that one thing - for a day, a couple of days, a week. Remember that you don't have to be perfect, just practice, practice, practice. 

Even doing just one thing different can have a big impact on your marriage. Don’t be a perfectionist and try to do all ten. You’ll just burn out and never make any changes. Start with one, and go from there. 

Which of these steps do you think would be the easiest step to try? The hardest? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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