Alison A. Armstrong, author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. For her latest installment of her Marriage Bootcamp series, Armstrong explains the secret to a happy marriage is making sure your significant other is your top priority.
Most of us grew up reading fairy tales and watching rom-coms that pounded us with the message that once we've found our prince, Happily Ever After is a foregone conclusion, a natural by-product of our love. And if we're not constantly, blissfully happy in our relationship (that thing that happens after the movie ends), we worry that something is wrong. If you feel that way, there probably is something wrong, but not what you think. Instead of doubting your relationship, second-guess your priorities, because a great marriage is what happens when you put each other at the top of the list.
You might be thinking, Of course he comes first! I love him more than anything in the world! But as much as we may feel love for our partner and tell him (and ourselves) that he's our top priority, we don't always back that up with actions. And there's one simple way to do that: To make him feel prioritized in the relationship, you have to figure out what he needs from you and provide it.
This may sound obvious, but I've seen beautiful couples crash and burn because they gave something else priority over their relationship and proved it one small choice at a time. In a world where career, family, friends, and your smart phone are competing for your attention, giving your relationship top billing can be a difficult and retro-feeling choice. I'm not saying you should cut all those other things off. Please don't! You need them to pay the rent, to feel fulfilled, to be you. Just make sure they aren't constantly taking the top slot on your to-do list.
How do you manage this, with all of the other balls you're juggling? By getting ahead of the game. As you approach a hectic period in your life, warn him that it's coming and make a plan for how to stay connected. Say, "Honey, if there was one thing I could do in the middle of all this craziness to make you feel like the most important person in my world, what would it be?" Then put the imaginary duct tape over your mouth, suspend your preconceptions, and wait for his response. It may surprise you! It's often the small things that matter — things that take just a little time and effort. For my husband, it's cuddling before launching our day; those few minutes fill him up. For some men, food equals love, so cooking dinner or picking up his favorite snack on your way home from the office shows him he's first on your mind.
He may not be quick to reveal himself or the best at articulating what he needs. In that case, be patient and try to notice how he reacts to different kinds of attention. He may crave small acts of support when he's stressed or need you to stop what you're doing to help him find his keys or wallet. He may just want to feel your presence at home or your admiration for and pride in him; any of these things can supercharge most guys for days.
You may be thinking, Does he really want this from me? Yes, he does. Maybe you both fancy yourselves independent, with full lives that sometimes have you running in different directions, and you're cool with that. But he isn't really, because a little-understood fact about men is that they like to get everything they need in one place. You know how they'd rather check off the entire holiday-shopping list at a department store than wander from shop to shop? This springs from their evolutionary drive to conserve energy, and the same applies to their physical and motional needs. You may go to your best friend for a laugh, your mother for support, et cetera, but your groom will attempt to get all of it from you. And if he can't, he'll resent whatever he feels is being prioritized over him, whether it's your job, your gym habit, your volunteer gig, or, yes, your wedding planning.
Now, are you supposed to focus on your fiancé every second of every day? No, he doesn't want that. But as you conduct your life and plan your big event, your attention often will be on anything but him. If you can offer a quick "Is there anything you need from me before I sleep/get on the phone/get absorbed in the new issue of Brides?" it will go far in making him feel cared for. Even if the answer is no, it's better to ask in advance than to try to make up for him feeling disappointed after the fact.
Obviously, this is a two-way street, because you can't meet his needs if yours aren't being met. But you'll need to tell him what that looks like. So just ask: Could he DVR The Tonight Show so you can get your eight hours? Can he buy you flowers now and then for no reason? What's the one question you need to hear when you walk in the door after a rough day at work — or after a great one? ("How was your day" is considerate but broad. Think of a question that gets at your passions, like "What was your favorite part of your day?" or "Did you learn anything new today?") Make clear what your needs are, and when he meets them and sees your appreciation, you'll feel connected and he'll feel like he's doing a great job at this life-partner thing.
Our lives are busy, and the demands on our time and energy make it impossible for us to be constantly proving to our partner that he's the most important thing in our life. So focus on doing enough. Learn what your fiancé needs — and how much of it — to feel appreciated and loved. Then make those needs your highest priority and help him do the same for you, and you'll be well positioned for the real Happily Ever After, the one that happens one small moment at a time.
Want more genius planning tips? For the best wedding dresses, advice, and big-day inspiration, pick up the BRIDES June/July 2015 issue, on newsstands now and available for download here!