Ask your mom (or your mom’s mom) how to make your marriage happier and you’re likely to hear that old preschool adage: You get what you get and you don’t get upset. But, according to Northwestern University professor Eli J. Finkel, today’s brides and grooms are setting a new paradigm for marriage—that is, they’re tying the knot because it makes them a better person and, hopefully, makes the person they’re telling “I do” a better version of themselves as well. Modern-day marrieds don’t stop working on their own personal goals just because they’re now a couple, says Finkel; they’re actively coupling up with someone who helps them achieve their ideal self.
According to Finkel’s new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, to stay in “happily ever after” territory, it takes way more than Facebook likes. “The majority of people in the engaged period tend to be pretty blissed out on the relationship and feel quite confident this is the right person, and presumably their expectations for the relationship are high and the relationship is delivering,” says the author. “But, they should also somewhere in the back of their minds realize that marriage is a long haul.”
Which means that over the years, thanks to kids, jobs, and other daily life stressors, there are going to be times when you’re going to be not so totally in love with your spouse—and that’s OK. “There are periods where just putting one foot in front of the other, just not divorcing, is exactly the right thing to do,” says Finkel. “Then, there are periods you start to rediscover each other and just not divorcing isn’t what’s relevant anymore. There’s a high end. Those are the best marriages—the ones that realize when there’s an opportunity to push toward the high end and also realize when the best you can do for today is make sure that nobody filed paperwork.”
Sometimes you’re not going to have the time or emotional wherewithal to invest a lot in your marriage and you’ll feel like roommates passing each other in the hall. You might go weeks—even, gasp, months without having sex. But if you’re strategic about recognizing this is happening, you can ride it out until you get the opportunity to once again invest more deeply in your marriage.
Want to be sure you make it all the way from “I do” until “death do us part”? Follow these three simple strategies and you can ride the wave of marriage like the awesome couple that you are:
Go All In
When you have the time and energy to really commit to your marriage, commit 100 percent. And you can start with the proverbial date night. “There are lots of people saying to have date nights, but there aren’t a lot of people saying what you should do on your date nights,” says Finkel. “Do something that breaks you out of your routine.” Taking a cooking class, joining an intramural sports team, or working your way through French 101 together can all be bonding activities, however, if you add a little adrenaline—getting scuba certified together, maybe?—and it can also increase passion.
Calibrate Your Expectations
You need to be strategic about how much you ask of your partner—and if you expect him or her to be your best friend, only sexual partner, and primary cheerleader, travel buddy, sounding board, plus-one to everything…well, that’s a lot to ask of any one person. “There aren’t rules that you have to ask this one person to do all of these things for you,” says Finkel. “People who have this more diversified social portfolio tend to be a little bit happier in their lives than people who are dependent on one person or a small number of people.” If your husband-to-be’s eyes glaze over every time you need to bitch about Janice in Accounts Receivable, call your girlfriend who loves to talk office politics. If he only likes eating at the tried-and-true neighborhood favorites, go there with him and save meals at the crazy new fusion place for girls’ night. Find the things that you’re willing to give your marriage a pass on so that you can focus on the things that are really important.
Try a Lovehack
Finkel’s book details eight small science-based things (a.k.a. lovehacks) that you can do to help look at your marriage with fresh eyes—from cultivating gratitude to celebrating together—that don’t take much time and don’t particularly require your partner to be on board. One lovehack to get you through a rough patch is a seven-minute writing exercise where you rethink a disagreement you’re having through the lens of a neutral third party who wants the best outcome possible for each of you. For example, before you throw down (again) over buying a new car versus fixing your current ride, imagine how a mediator would hear both sides and work through a solution you could both live with. People who tried the exercise had “more satisfying and hotter marriages,” says Finkel. “When they had conflict, they were better equipped, so they were less angry and more constructive about how they dealt with it because they weren’t so focused on their own perspective and their own sense of righteousness. They were better able to adopt a more generous, all-encompassing perspective.”
Another exercise to keep you riding high, particularly during the good times, is affectionately touching. Literally, just touch your spouse. (It doesn’t have to be sexy.) The best part is you’ll get the desired effect—a feeling of closeness, a reassurance that you’re a couple—even if the action isn’t super sincere, says Finkel. So next time you’re on the couch in the midst of a Game of Thrones binge, just cross your feet over his lap, or sit shoulder to shoulder. That little bit of contact is a nice gesture when things are a little chaotic and will help make sure you and your bae stay together.
Want to ask Eli J. Finkel a question about relationships? Tweet him at @EliJFinkel with the hashtag #AskFinkel.