When we look at couples in multidecade marriages, many of us wonder what the secret is to building a healthy marriage.
As it turns out, according to the three mental health and relationship experts we spoke to, the secret to building a healthy marriage is a combination of traits and skills that we can develop within ourselves and our unions. Read on for their advice on how to do both.
Look Inward First
The professionals agree that building healthy marriages requires spouses who understand the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. “We have to be able to identify our own issues and work through them—even if that means through therapy—in order to be in accord with our partner,” says Alyce Keys, MA, a pre-licensed therapist in Atlanta.
The experts advise learning to be accountable for what you say and do, which can improve your conflict-resolution skills. As Dr. Shay Thomas, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), also in Atlanta, points out, traits associated with accountability regarding disagreements look like “the willingness to take responsibility for [your] part in conflict, apologize, and avoid frequently playing the blame game and taking on the victim role.”
Keys notes, “I guarantee if you are aware, you will be able to take a step back in every disagreement and identify something you could have done differently.”
Additionally, Thomas says knowing how to “self-soothe, de-escalate and engage, rather than avoiding conflict or instigating after the disagreement” are also important skills to have for managing discord.
Uriah Cty, MA, LMFT, in Los Angeles reminds us that while it is imperative to take responsibility for ourselves, we must draw the line there. He says: “It’s important not to make yourself responsible for other people’s feelings. The attempt to manage the emotions of others leads to a complex dynamic of power and control in our relationships. Assuming that we know another person’s thoughts and feelings is equivalent to presuming we know the way their mind works.”
Another major trait associated with strong romantic relationships is effective communication. Thomas says that though open and honest communication can be nerve-racking, we must share what’s truly on our minds and embrace being vulnerable.
When learning to self-reflect and take accountability, we often look at the many factors that shape us to better understand why we say, do and believe certain things. Thomas advises that we extend this same level of understanding to our partner when our partner communicates back to us with the same openness and vulnerability about their thoughts, emotions and concerns. She says: “Mutual emotional intelligence and maturity [looks like] the ability to not only communicate feelings and be vulnerable but also to understand [the] impact of contributing factors—relationship history, family history, personality, societal/environmental influence, holistic aspects—of self and partner instead of regularly engaging in personal attacks and harsh critique.”
Build a Solid Foundation from the Beginning
While communication is certainly an important part of any healthy romantic relationship, Keys notes that the foundation for it is comfort. This is but one area where the traits of honesty, trust, respect and support can come into play. Once that sense of comfort exists, you’ve laid the groundwork for unhampered communication to happen. And that is exactly the kind of communication all three experts advise you have when determining the future of your relationship. When looking ahead, Cty says, “It’s important that the relationship moves at a comfortable pace, something that feels enjoyable for both partners.”
As expected, there are quite a few topics couples should be prepared to talk about regarding their views on and expectations of marriage. “Discuss what marriage means [to you], what you learned from parents/family, and what you want for yourselves,” says Thomas. “Address factors such as finances, including spending habits and debts, parenting plans, pets, religion and spirituality, gender roles, fears, educational/career goals, hobbies/interests, medical history, trauma, addiction and sex/intimacy before marriage.” Thomas also says premarital counseling may be beneficial.
Besides listening to what your partner has to say about these topics, you should also respect their opinions, beliefs and values around them and any other discussion points now and in the future, says Cty.
Establishing boundaries is key in a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of respect, both for yourself and others.
Handle Disagreements Wisely
You and your partner will not always see eye to eye, and according to our experts, disagreements shouldn’t be something you try to dodge. Instead, the professionals suggest you face them head-on, with resolution and hearing one another out as the main objectives.
When trying to figure out how to bring up an issue with your partner, think carefully about the discussion timing, Cty advises. “Find out when your partner is most comfortable having a difficult conversation. It’s imperative to choose a time that is convenient for both of you because a conversation that is more complicated will require more uninterrupted time,” he says. While having the conversation, “focus on the situation, not the person,” he adds.
Thomas says to consider what you are saying with nonverbal communication, such as your tone, body language and the decision to utilize “the silent treatment.” She also says to avoid falling into some common traps. “Don’t expect your partner to read your mind and know what you want,” notes Thomas. “Talk ‘with’ instead of ‘at’ your partner.”
You may even need to step away for a while to give yourselves room to breathe. “Understand when space is appropriate to avoid intensifying conflict,” says Thomas. “Agree on a time and strategy to reengage. In other words, don’t attack your partner and don’t sweep things under the rug. Set out to be a partner in the true sense of the word.”
Coming to an understanding isn’t always possible no matter how much discussion has occurred, meaning it’s time for the other big “C” word—compromise—to happen. “I’m not the biggest fan of ‘let’s agree to disagree,’” Keys admits. “But sometimes it’s necessary, and there will be a lot of compromise in a marriage/relationship because we are fighting for each other not against. Allow evolving together to be the end goal at all times.”
Maintain Your Marriage’s Strength
Practicing the traits and skills mentioned above is vital to building and maintaining a healthy marriage, but there are other things you can do to fortify your relationship’s strength over time.
Starting with the heavier stuff, Thomas says it’s important to keep the lines of communication open regarding your values, goals and desires. “As these change over time, discuss again,” she advises. Additionally, knowing that you and your partner can communicate openly should nudge you to talk to your partner versus guessing what their intentions or thoughts are. Thomas says, “Choose curiosity over assumptions and blaming.”
Other traits you should foster in your marriage include fairness, individuality and playfulness, says Cty. Thomas adds that appreciation, fondness, fun and care should be part of the mix as well. And if you need a little extra guidance, she suggests picking up copies of the “The Four Agreements” and “The 5 Love Languages.”
Of course, counseling is always an option as well if rough spots arise that you can’t seem to tackle on your own.
Create Boundaries and Watch for Red Flags
Finally, it’s important to put boundaries in place for yourself and your relationship. “Boundaries keep us safe from internal and external intrusions. Establishing boundaries is key in a healthy relationship; they’re a sign of respect, both for yourself and others,” says Cty.
Two boundaries you may want to establish are who you confide in about personal matters and how much you choose to tell them. “Be mindful of the risk of talking to random people about your relationship, especially if they are not fond of your spouse or if their responses are not in line with your values,” says Thomas. “The person you should talk to most about your marriage is your spouse.”
As unfortunate as it may be, relationship abuse exists, and according to Cty, it happens more often than we may care to believe. He says: “An unhealthy relationship should be clearly evident if your partner attempts to physically harm you or force you into sexual situations without your consent; even if your partner says they love you, it doesn’t mean they aren’t harming you. I encourage you to seek help if this is your experience. Please call the [multilingual-friendly] 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is available seven days a week, at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233).” He also adds, “Be aware of those who might try and isolate you from your friends, family and colleagues.”
Remember, abuse isn’t always physical. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recognizes the various forms abuse can take, including verbal, emotional and financial, stalking or the use of technology against you—all are serious.