Everyone wants their marriage to be fantastic. Unfortunately, despite all the marriage advice available, not all relationships work out that way.
Both my and my spouse's previous marriages both ended in divorce. So we've spent the last 10 years really digging into the science of love and healthy relationships for married couples.
Not only did we need to understand our failed relationships, but we also had a bigger mission: to help others avoid the pain of divorce and learn how to have a healthy relationship with their spouse.
What are the keys to a healthy, loving, and happy marriage?
Remarkably, I was able to distill the keys to a good marriage down to three but, of course, there may be more, and they are all big and important.
There's no shortcutting here.
How The Happiest Couples Keep Their Marriage Running Smoothly
1. Take care of yourself
Whether you're single or in a relationship, there's no getting around this. You've got to take care of yourself. Who you are as an individual has a great impact on your life and definitely on all your relationships.
That's not to say that you must "perfect" yourself prior to getting into a love relationship. Quite the contrary. If you're in a healthy relationship, your personal growth should continue within the context of your relationship. In fact, many of us who subscribe to the tenets of attachment science believe that we become our best selves in the arms of another.
So what's taking care of you look like? What's it take to become a well-rounded, healthy you? Here are some starting points:
Ground yourself in meditation or prayer
Do you hit the ground running in the mornings, with your to-do list in hand and a tornado of thoughts filling your head? We've all had those days, right? And sure, sometimes it just can't be helped. But finding time in the busyness of each day to pause for intentional quiet time is important. It's calming, healing, and centering.
Can you imagine how it would feel to let calm set the stage for your day? Even 15 quiet minutes first thing in the morning will make a huge difference in how you move through the rest of your day. There are lots of resources out there to help with this.
Dr. Kristin Neff gives mindfulness meditation a focus on, what she calls, the practice of loving-kindness. In his book, Mindsight, Dr. Dan Siegel, does a great job describing how mindful meditation has a positive impact on the brain and body. The Headspace app can guide you through a mindfulness meditation process. It's a free app available for iOS and Android devices.
The point is that there's really no right or wrong way to spend your quiet 15.
How's your day end? Has it been a race to the finish line? Are you the marathoner who collapses just across the line? Do the kids pull on you right up to the time your head hits the pillow?
Grabbing a few quiet minutes of me-time before crashing will increase the quality of your sleep. So if possible, another 15 minutes of centered and calming quiet can go a long way. Maybe it's in the locked bathroom after brushing your teeth. Or in a quiet corner of your bedroom, curled up with a book.
Take a few to unwind before crawling under the covers. And by all means, get a good night's sleep. We should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night, in order to function at our best.
Get healthy exercise and nutrition
Are you taking care of your body and mind with a healthy diet and exercise? What's that look like for you? Google "healthy diet and exercise" and you can peruse 445 million articles or pieces of advice on the topic.
Of course, I don't know whether you're 20 or 70 or what medical or genetic challenges you deal with. If you're not currently a believer or follower of a particular diet or exercise plan, here's some advice: balance. (If you've not heard of a Mediterranean diet, check it out. It offers quite a bit of leeway and yumminess.)
Find some exercise that you love, something that fits with your lifestyle, body type, age, etc. The list is endless. And there is something for everyone. And just like the 15 minutes, you'll give to the quiet and calm, exercise in small doses is better than none at all. So, find 15!
Spend time with friends
Healthy individuals spend time with others. Are you a loner, tending to isolate much of the day? Call a friend. Or go make a new friend. Or talk to a stranger in the grocery store.
It's stimulating to connect with others. We were wired for human connection and we're our best when we're interacting with other humans.
Find a hobby and recreate
Don't be too busy with obligations and responsibilities that you lose sight of those things that really float your boat. Do you love to paint, read or drive into the mountains? How about going to the movies, dancing, or trying new recipes or restaurants? Get out there and do it and have fun.
Life's short and waiting until retirement to enjoy is not a good plan. Live well in the moment!
2. Take care of your partner
"What?" you say. "I've got to take care of me, and my partner?"
Well yeah, sort of. He is responsible for his own self-care. So please give him the time and space he needs in order to do all those things we just talked about. Be your partner's yin or yang.
But how can you help your spouse become the best he can be? Are you his yin or yang? Per Wikipedia, in Chinese philosophy, yin and yang describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent.
My spouse and I fit that bill. Not sure if I'm the yin or the yang, but for sure we have that going on.
So much of today's culture calls for us to be strong and independent. Some feel that "needing" our spouse is a sign of weakness or us falling short. Au contraire my friend.
We are complex human beings, each of us with a unique set of gifts and talents. Two-year-olds have difficulty sharing. It's all part of their developmental process. But come on, share your toys with your spouse and make both your lives better.
If your guy is working after hours on a big proposal for work and you can lend your eye for detail, do it. Or maybe he's got writer's block and needs you to spark his creativity. Get in there and do what you can to make his life better. It's a great thing when we can help make someone we love look better.
The bottom line is this: a marriage partnership makes each of us better individuals. It does not make us weak or incomplete or co-dependent.
3. Take care of the two of you
Commit to an emotional connection
Emotional connection is critical for all healthy relationships for married couples. This is a heart connection or bond that goes beyond verbal communication skills. It's a deep trust that protects relationships from infidelity. And where there's been a betrayal or relationship injury — either in your current relationship or in previous ones — healing won't come without repair work through emotional connection.
Emotional connection is based on the principles of attachment science. The healthy bond a mother has with her infant child is where a healthy connection begins. But that is not where it ends. All healthy relationships for married couples are built on the foundation of emotional connection.
In our book, Emotional Connection, you can read about a couple whose perfect-looking marriage was threatened by betrayal, namely an emotional affair. No matter how many communication skills you're equipped with your relationship will be vulnerable without building an emotional connection within its foundation.
Don't forget the fun
Laugh together. Be spontaneous. Try novel things. Remember when you first met and were giddy with a new love? You had been hit by the dopamine bug. Feels great, right?
Well, dopamine lasts for about 18 months. It makes us stumble over our words or create beautiful music or poetry for our beloved. We stay up all night talking. Compromise is easy as can be. We swim in the pool of new love dopamine.
And then it happens. Just as quickly as it hit you, the new love drug leaves you high and dry. You're staring routine, maybe boredom, in the face. It's time to work on mature love. But while that's happening healthy relationships for married couples still need fun and excitement.
Studies show that novelty actually dumps a dose of dopamine on us. Spring fever is not just a pretty change of seasons. The newness of it does something to our chemistry to make us feel new and alive. Cool, huh?
Do you and your spouse have a marriage mission statement? Maybe it's time to pull out the whiteboard and do a little dreaming. Healthy relationships for married couples include a shared mission and vision.
Wouldn't it be fun to walk into the future toward a shared goal? Know what you each want as individuals and as a couple and go after it. You'll get nowhere if you don't know where you're going.
How about your bucket list? Do you have one? Share them and know where they overlap. I'm absolutely not going to jump out of an airplane but I can (maybe) support my husband in being able to check that off his list.
Don't develop parallel lives
You may have heard us talking about the dangers of parallel lives. In a nutshell, when couples say "I do", they begin to focus on careers, kids, finances, and setting up their infrastructure.
All of these things can separate couples, rather than keep them connected. All healthy relationships for married couples require a commitment to figure out their lives and relationship together.
Protect your relationship
Healthy relationships for married couples require healthy boundaries. Boundaries protect your most valuable assets. They don't rob you of your independence. There are just some things that set relationships up for disaster. Meals and meetings with clients or co-workers can be landmines.
Be mindful. Keep conversations on business. Be very careful about sharing details of your relationship with people other than your spouse. It doesn't take much for these kinds of conversations to open up emotions.
On a stressful day or the day when you and your spouse parted on not-so-great of terms, opening emotions to someone other than your spouse is an accident waiting to happen. This is how emotional affairs begin.
Make your primary your "primary"
It's about putting your partner above all and everyone else. Yes, that means work, other family members, and even kids.
Healthy relationships for married couples are those where partners make their spouse number one and their marriage relationship number one. I know this is a tough one, especially for moms with kids. They need us, and they'll get us.
But in the long run, they need us to be a great wife to their daddy.
When you look through these three lenses — yourself, your partner, and your duo — it's not rocket science. How are you doing in these areas?
Michael W. Regier, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist, and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California. He and his wife Paula are authors of the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love and of the Emotional Connection Relationship Foundations online course.