"The car in front of you paid your toll."
At first, I felt confused when the toll collector made that statement. Then I realized he meant that my boyfriend (at the time) paid it for me. It was at this moment that I thought to myself, "this guy's a keeper." And I did, in fact, end up marrying him.
The toll was only $1, so that wasn't why I was impressed. His gesture made me feel that he cared about me and that he was thinking of me. It reminded me of something you see in a rom-com movie. So I try to reciprocate that kind of gesture as often as possible.
Next year we will celebrate our 20-year wedding anniversary. But even sometimes I wonder: how do couples get so far? To learn more about what makes a healthy marriage, I spoke to relationship expert Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Loving Bravely. During her work with couples, she found that the most important aspect of being in a healthy relationship starts with yourself and your willingness to view marriage as a classroom.
"We must accept that change is inevitable, and the best we can do is meet the changes with curiosity instead of resistance," says Dr. Solomon. "Part of viewing marriage as a classroom is knowing that we bring our past with us. It's important to be willing to look at how our old wounds, patterns, and triggers get activated with our partners."
Dr. Solomon offered the following tips to help foster a healthy relationship with your partner.
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Take Care Of Yourself
Being a great spouse is based on making sure your basic needs—such as eating healthy food, exercising, and getting good sleep—are being met.
"I know that I am a better wife when I take care of myself. When I am not getting enough sleep, exercise, and laughter, I feel bitter and irritable," says Dr. Solomon. "The more stressed out I am, the more I see my responsibilities to provide care to my husband and teens as a burden rather than a blessing. When I am burned out, I start to feel like a victim and that makes me less able to ask for what I need—help, praise, a break."
Another aspect of self-care is to do things that make you happy such as going out to lunch with your friends or reading a book.
"We cannot pour from an empty cup, so we need to make sure we are engaged in activities that provide meaning, connection, and joy. It is demanding to provide care for others and doing things that feel restorative and that inspired passion prevents caregiver burnout," says Dr. Solomon.
And if you are feeling overwhelmed it is important to take a time out instead of making a comment you may regret later.
Connect Through Touch
Dr. Solomon explained that touching your spouse communicates, "We're on the same team."
"Touch helps couples maintain connection and cushions the blow of the inevitable daily irritations of family life. It's important for couples to have all kinds of touch in their relationship, not just a sexual touch," says Dr. Solomon.
In working with couples Dr. Solomon found that often, touch is an ask, "Do you want to make love?" which can feel like another demand on an already-overwhelmed partner. She recommends touching outside the bedroom which can reduce stress and help couples feel connected.
Happy couples accept that they are two different people and approach misunderstandings with curiosity rather than accusation.
—Alexandra Solomon, Ph.D.
Make Time For Dates
Dr. Solomon stresses the importance of spending time alone with your partner especially when you are a parent and/or you have demanding careers.
"It's so important to remember that you are partners/lovers/friends and not just two people running the small business that is your household. If evenings are hard because of kids and jobs, then you could also meet up during the day," says Dr. Solomon.
It is important to check in with each other and to think about your partner throughout the day. Dr. Solomon recommends that you should be aware of what your husband or wife is nervous or excited about and then ask questions about those feelings.
"Having windows into each other's world's builds connection," says Dr. Solomon.
Give Them The Benefit Of The Doubt
Dr. Solomon suggests that if you feel upset about something your partner did, approach them in a descriptive rather than accusatory way. She recommends thinking about, "this is what happened, and this the story I'm telling myself about what happened."
"Your efforts to separate the facts from your interpretation of the facts will go a long way toward getting you more of what you want and need—validation, recognition, accountability, empathy—and less of what you don't want—defensiveness, counter-complaint," she said.
If you are the one that did something wrong then take responsibility for it and apologize.
Your Partner Isn't You
When you feel upset about an issue Dr. Solomon recommends saying, "I'm feeling upset by this thing you did. Can you help me understand what's going on for you?"
She says that by approaching the situation with curiosity instead of judgment means that you understand that your husband has a different way of perceiving the world. This will reduce conflicts and led to a better relationship.
"Happy couples accept that they are two different people and approach misunderstandings with curiosity rather than accusation," says Dr. Solomon.
In working with couples Dr. Solomon found that couples that have a healthy married view disagreements as an opportunity to understand their partner's internal world instead of a fight that needs to be "won."
Ask, Don't Assume
If something is important, ask for it. Some of Dr. Solomon's clients will push back on this idea saying, "If I have to ask for it, it's meaningless." But she says that is a mistake since people aren't mind-readers. She further explains that when we don't ask for what we want, our need ends up coming out sideways, usually in the form of a complaint.
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and is the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Parents magazine, AARP, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessing and Your Teen Magazine. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05