By Betsy Kerekes
COVID has made a lot of people stuck at home together when they previously had more space and alone time. Tempers can run high under stressful circumstances. For all couples, married or otherwise, here are 10 of my favorite tips from my book “101 Tips for a Happier Marriage” (co-written with Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse).
1. Enjoy the warm fuzzy feelings, but don’t feel cheated if they go away. Feelings are fleeting. “I like the way I feel with this person” is not enough to sustain a marriage for a lifetime.
People often get divorced because they simply fall out of love with each other. “The chemistry is gone,” they say. It’s impossible to stay madly in love 24/7, but simple reminders of your feelings for each other (past and present) can help keep the flame alive. Read old journals from when you first met. Leave love notes for each other. Make up a scavenger hunt with a romantic prize at the end. The possibilities are endless, and falling in love with the same person can be just as exhilarating the second, third and 12th time around.
2. Take responsibility for meeting your own needs. You can take care of yourself. Know that you will be okay, no matter what your spouse chooses to do or not do.
Knock yourself out of the mindset that your spouse has often done this or that for you, and therefore should always do those things for you. Sometimes that just won’t be possible, and that’s okay, because you’re a big kid. You will survive, even if it means squishing the big spider yourself, pulling the chair over to reach the top shelf on your own, or cooking for yourself. It may mean listening to “Eye of the Tiger” several times in advance, but you can do it.
3. Make a decision to take care of household issues that really matter to you. You won’t need to nag your spouse about something truly important to you because you will be solving the problem yourself.
Believe it or not, social scientists have studied the question of housework: who does it, who complains about it, and what difference it makes. Study after study shows that women are happier when they feel appreciated for their contributions, and men are happier when they don’t feel nagged. So, if the housework is nagging at you, don’t nag at each other! Just take care of it! And if your spouse takes care of something, say thank you.
4. Practice giving to your spouse. “I’m getting up to get a cup of coffee. Can I get something for you?”
Anticipate your spouse’s needs. If you notice your spouse’s cup is half empty (or half full, if you prefer), get up for more before your spouse even notices he or she is running low. It will make him or her happy and even bring delight to your own heart when you know you’ve done a good deed. Remember, it’s those little unexpected things that carry the most weight.
5. Relinquish control of small issues. You will be building up the feeling of teamwork within your home. You will feel a lot less stressed yourself if you let go of the need to win on trivial issues. And you’ll be in a much stronger position to stand your ground when the two of you disagree over something really important.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff, or you’ll drown in it.” In a marriage, it’s critical to recognize the small stuff and to remember what is the biggest: your relationship. Don’t raise your blood pressure because she ate the last of the mint chocolate chip ice cream or because he squeezes the toothpaste from the middle instead of the end. But really, in the little debates, the one who feels less strongly on the matter should simply give in to the other. Keep the peace, and keep your spouse.
6. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt, even in your mind. If you find yourself mentally rehearsing your grudges, change the subject. Harboring negative thoughts will make you sour.
Have you ever taken a picture of someone right as they sneezed? Those pictures never turn out well. And sometimes when we talk, we say something we didn’t actually mean; it didn’t come out right. Sometimes, we’re just having an off day and speak or act more harshly than we normally would. If your spouse does something out of the ordinary, in a hurtful sort of way, he or she may just be having an off day. Give him or her some space and time, and think of that incident as the moment when he or she sneezed as the picture snapped. Throw the photo, and the incident, out of your mind.
7. Accept the fact that each of you is good at a different set of things and cares about a different set of things.
I hate football season. I absolutely dread it every year. To make things worse, it often begins on or around my birthday. For my husband, however, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Consequently, I must endure countless monologues about quarterbacks, linebackers, conferences, stats, and other information that filters loosely through my mind while I try to figure out what to make for dinner. As much as it pains me to endure this useless information, I know that he loves to talk football, and I’m the only person around, short of an imaginary friend, who will listen even remotely. With your loved ones, you make allowances. That’s just the way it is.
8. Plan another time to discuss the issue or solve the problem you’re fighting about.
Certain times just aren’t good for arguments. Late at night, right before dinner when you’re both hungry, or when company is over are obvious examples. “Don’t go to bed angry” is not the best advice. Chances are, you won’t be thinking clearly or rationally when you’re tired. Sometimes, it’s better to postpone the inevitable discussion so that each of you can have time to cool off and think out your position rationally. Just remember that when you do return to the war room, be honest, open, and willing to listen.
9. Sing. We often “get stuck” on a negative idea during a fight. Neuroscience has shown that singing helps us use both halves of the brain. Singing helps you get “unstuck.”
You may find yourself starting off with “These boots are made for walking” or “Any man of mine better walk the line,” but after a while, you’ll be able to move yourself on from the thwarted romance genre to a sappy love song, preferably a duet.
I have friends who sing their arguments or speak with an accent so they don’t take themselves, or each other, too seriously. It also helps them get over it sooner. Try it sometime.
10. Allow yourself to enjoy your spouse’s surprises. He or she contributes to your household in all sorts of ways that might never occur to you. “I didn’t think of playing games with the children. I was focused on chores, and you created some pleasure in our home. Thank you.”
It’s good every once in a while to do something spontaneous. It keeps the marriage fresh and lively. Be happy to receive such actions and open to doing them yourself. Pay attention, also, to the nonspontaneous but wonderful things your spouse does all the time that you may take for granted. The example in this tip also reminds us to occasionally take a break from the daily grind and to appreciate what really matters.
Betsy Kerekes is the author of “Be a Happier Parent or Laugh Trying” and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of “101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person and 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage.”