Disney movies and romcoms always paint a pretty picture of everything that leads up to Happily Ever After, but rarely ever walk us across the threshold. Why? Because what comes after a wedding— a.k.a marriage—takes work. In a life partnership, you’ll navigate highs and lows, hardships and prosperity, victories and failures, and everything in between.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all secret formula for successfully riding the waves, there are certain habits you can develop early—and practice often—to maintain a healthy relationship. Here, therapist Tamara Faulkner offers a look at the strategies she advises her clients on when it comes to cultivating and sustaining marital happiness—and how to know when it’s time to seek help from an outside professional.
Meet the Expert
A licensed clinical social worker, Tamara Faulkner is a staff therapist and the Director of Couples Services at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
Put Yourself First
Flight attendants instruct their passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others, and the same logic follows in a marriage: It’s much easier to attune yourself to the needs of others when your own are already taken care of. By seeking self satisfaction, we lower the expectations on others, particularly our spouses, to provide fulfillment. This eases undue pressure on the relationship.
“If I’m hungry when I’m in partnership with someone—and I mean this as an analogy—I may get into the habit of asking, ‘Why aren’t they feeding me?’” says Faulkner. “But what’s more powerful is asking, ‘If I'm hungry, what can I do to satiate myself?
So develop your own interests, address your own emotional issues, and spend time without your partner doing things you find gratifying. By strengthening your sense of self—the very person your spouse first fell in love with!—you’ll remain an interesting and desirable partner, and you’ll also be better equipped to handle issues that arise within the relationship.
While some couples might proclaim “we tell each other everything,” it’s more than fine if you don’t entirely follow suit. Setting boundaries is a productive and healthy way to ensure you both feel comfortable on your own terms in the relationship.
“My favorite definition of boundaries is from Prentis Hemphill,” says Faulkner. “They define boundaries as the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” This type of self-preservation can be useful when it comes to maintaining the strong sense of self discussed above.
Do Daily Check-Ins
Daily check-ins are one of Faulkner’s favorite relationship strengtheners. For this activity, you’ll need two tools: a timer and a deck of cards. Set the timer for ten minutes, then draw cards. Whoever draws the highest card chooses who goes first.
“I tell you what was great about my day, and what was crummy about my day,” Faulkner explains. “Then you do the same.” If someone is acting worried, upset, or stressed later on, the check-in provides outside context for the emotion, which in turn helps us understand that just because our partner is expressing negative emotion, it is not necessarily directed at or about us. “It helps depersonalize things,” Faulkner adds.
Treat Favors Like Poker Chips (Seriously!)
“In a relationship, we’re all going to do things that don’t suit our personal interests,” says Faulkner, and that’s especially the case in a long-term partnership. As time goes on, the “favors”—such as attending your partner’s office happy hour or high school reunion—often get bigger and involve more time and mental and emotional commitment. In these scenarios, Faulkner suggests imagining that each of you has a set of $100 poker chips. When it comes to a big request, ask yourself if it is worth it to cash in that poker chip for the favor. If the answer is yes, tell your partner you’d like to cash in a chip. Not only will this process force you to stop and thoughtfully consider the ask you’re about to make, it will also communicate to your partner the importance of the ask. Because it adds a bit of imaginary weight to both sides of the conversation, the poker chip tactic helps remind us to continuously appreciate and respect our partnership.
Honor What Annoys You
While it can be a buzzkill—on both sides—to feel like you’re constantly pointing out things your partner does that get on your nerves, it is important to bring up these small things when they are still small, so they don’t build into larger grudges later on. Faulkner says your daily check-ins are an ideal opportunity to raise this material, but you’ll want to do so strategically. “Neuroscience supports this: We need five positives for every negative,” she says. While it won’t always be realistic to list five compliments for your partner before telling them you really wish they’d stop leaving dirty dishes in the sink, the habit does force us to regularly keep track of and share positive attributes in a way we might not be naturally predisposed to. It also helps the partner on the receiving end of criticism not interpret the criticism as a defining characteristic in your eyes.
Don’t Look to Social Media for Affirmation
For certain generations, particularly millennials and Gen Z, it can seem necessary—and sometimes, downright obligatory—to post about your partner online. “Before you do that, check in with yourself after scrolling for a few minutes,” suggests Faulkner. “What am I looking for when posting? If I’m trying to establish a narrative, what is that narrative giving me?”
The narrative we create with our partner is unique to our own dynamic, and it will likely benefit less from outside opinions in the comments section than it would from continued internal work. “If you are looking for shareholders in your ‘brand,’ that’s taking away from your own narrative,” Faulkner says; meaning that external validation of your relationship online should never take the place of the validation you personally feel within your relationship. That’s not to suggest you shouldn’t post another sunset couple selfie, but rather to be honest with yourself about why you’re posting in the first place.
Know When It’s Time to Seek Outside Help
Though even the healthiest of relationships can benefit from marriage counseling, many couples struggle to know when it’s the “right” time to seek out a therapist. While there’s no universal answer, Faulkner does offer a few general benchmarks:
- When the person you talk to becomes the person you talk about, that could be a sign you’re avoiding sharing larger issues directly with them.
- When you lay beside your partner each night, does it consistently feel as though you’re harboring a secret? If so, that could be a sign you would benefit from a professional’s help in communicating it.
That said, it’s unrealistic to expect that one meeting with one counselor will magically solve your issues. As with dating, it can take time to find the right counselor, so Faulkner suggests committing to at least four visits. “Give yourself a few times, then decide: Do I feel felt? Do I think they get it? Not all the time, but enough?” she advises. If the answer is yes, you’ve found a good match.