10 to-do's after "I do" 

What makes a marriage work? Marriage experts and everyday couples offer 10 tried-and-true tips.

MAUREEN ROGERS AND LANNY LAW, caught in a sudden downpour, took shelter in a little café and warmed up with some tea. After several hours of conversation—and several pots of tea—Maureen and Lanny knew they wanted to be together. Some 20 years have passed since that tea-filled heart-to-heart talk, but when Maureen phones her husband to say she's on her way home, Lanny's ready reply is, "I'll put the teapot on." For Maureen, that simple phrase, loaded with memories and meaning, tells her she is still loved by the man she fell in love with.

Is that all it takes for you and your spouse to have a successful marriage—just some schmaltzy words and fond memories? Hardly, according to experts who study the dynamics of marriage relationships. But it doesn't hurt to take part in a little ritual only the two of you share. Similar words and actions that show love and respect, care and concern, interest and affection are all part of the answer to the question: What "works" to keep a marriage together and growing?

Since today more than 40 percent of first-time marriages fail, married couples continue to need both an understanding about what it takes to make their marriages last and some suggestions to help them make the journey together.

Chances are you are already doing some of these. Try others on for size, but don't go into this thinking there is one little trick you can learn to turn your married life into paradise.

Maureen Law, now a marriage and family therapist in private practice in Minnesota, warns against cookie-cutter answers.

"People are more complex than easy solutions," she says. "The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't cut it. But if there's a bedrock to the relationship, simple things do work."

For Law, married to fellow therapist Lanny for more than 20 years, having a bedrock means "truly knowing the other person cares deeply about you."

Here are 10 tried-and-true tips:

1. Be able to tell each other how you feel.
Happily married couples know their spouse is not trying to hurt them by expressing his or her own feelings.

Helping couples express feelings is what Mary Jo Pedersen, a marriage and family spirituality specialist with the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Omaha, does in her workshops. "Once you've developed the ability to share how you feel about an issue of contention, you've reached a place of intimacy where you can start building instead of fighting," she says.

Mark and Liza Margelofsky of Bonduel, Wisconsin, both St. Norbert College graduates, were married five years ago in the college chapel in DePere. Mark is a teacher and high school coach, while Liza does home day care in order to be with the couple's two toddlers. She also waitresses part time.

The Margelofskys have kept alive their wedding day reading from St. Paul, using the description of love in 1 Corinthians ("Love is patient, love is kind…") as a tool to help them express their feelings openly and honestly.

Some good marriage reads

1. Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart (Guilford Press, 2001) by William Doherty

2. Marriage and the Spirituality of Intimacy (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1997) by Leif Kehrwald

3. Marriage and Sacrament: A Theology of Christian Marriage (Liturgical Press, 1993) by Michael G. Lawler

4. The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate (Northfield Publishing, 1992) by Gary Chapman

5. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999) by John M. Gottman and Nan Silver

6. When Bad Things Happen to Good Marriages (Zondervan, 2001) by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott

7. The Heart of Commitment (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998) by Scott Stanley

8. Promises To Keep: Developing the Skills of Marriage (Paulist Press, 1991) by Kathleen R. Fischer and Thomas N. Hart

9. Called to Marriage: Journeying Together Toward God (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001) by Carol Leubering

10. Becoming Soul Mates: Cultivating Spiritual Intimacy in the Early Years of Marriage (Zondervan, 1995) by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott

11. A Daring Promise: A Spirituality of Christian Marriage (Crossroad, 2002) by Richard R. Gaillardetz

12. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (Simon & Schuster, 1994) by John M. Gottman

"Since it was part of our wedding ceremony, we use the passage from St. Paul as a reminder of what we have and what we need to do to make our marriage work," Liza says. "It's a nice tension-breaker and a friendly way to remind each other, 'Hey, are you behaving as this verse says we should, as God would want you to behave?'"

2. Be intentional about forming an "us."
Partners in a successful marriage work at being a couple. They do things together—work in the garden, attend a concert or sporting event, even paint or clean the house—because shared activities make them feel bonded. They take time to have intellectual intimacy by sharing ideas, talking about what each other is reading, or sharing what they got out of a book or movie.

Couples with good marriages balance their own needs and desires with those of the other person. The Laws, authors of God Knows Marriage Isn't Always Easy: 12 Ways to Add Zest (Sorin Books), say there are only two big questions: What do I need and desire in my life and in my relationship with you? And, what do you need and desire in your life and in your relationship with me?

Pope John Paul II is clear on the mutuality of the couple, Omaha's Pedersen points out. "He calls marriage ‘an intimate partnership of love and life,' and refers to males and females as equals. That's a strong invitation to have both own responsibility for the marriage."

Lee and Ceci McCormick of St. Damian Parish in Oak Forest, a Chicago suburb, are retired from their careers in automobile sales and medical lab work, respectively. Married 33 years, the McCormicks remember laughing when their daughter, at age 11, expressed surprise that her parents never fought. "Do you and dad fight at night after we're asleep?" she asked.

"We just always seemed to work things out or to give each other the courage or encouragement to go on," the McCormicks explain. "It's the can-we-fix-it?/yes-we-can philosophy."

The Margelofskys of Wisconsin work at togetherness. Mark loves to golf but Liza never had. Mark taught her to play so they could enjoy the sport and the time together. When Liza works late at the supper club, Mark puts the boys to sleep, then stays up to hear Liza's "winding-down" story of her day.

A continuing education class offered them support for making time for themselves as a couple, Liza says.

"Mark took a class designed to help teachers with students of divorced parents," she says, "and one of the keys that struck us both is that our relationship comes first. The class taught us that when we put our marriage first, we're not hurting the children but showing them how to love your spouse above all else."

3. Deal well with conflict.
Pedersen, who gives couples' retreats all over the country, finds that resolving conflict is among the key pieces to the happy-marriage puzzle.

"Every healthy marriage has conflict," Pedersen says. "You have two intelligent, rational people coming upon problems and seeing them in different ways. It's how you deal with conflict that makes a marriage last."

John M. Gottman, one of the country's top researchers on marriage, is author of the highly regarded Why Marriages Succeed Or Fail (Simon & Schuster) and other books based upon more than 20 years studying couples in the University of Washington's Seattle "Love Lab." One of his principles for a happy marriage and the basis for his landmark 1994 book involves conflict resolution.

"A lasting marriage," Gottman writes, "results from a couple's ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. We grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That's how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage."

Pedersen says Gottman has it right when he talks about "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" that are lethal to marriage:

  • Criticism ("You are so sloppy, it's hard for me to feel like I want to do the laundry when your clothes are all over the floor").
  • Contempt (being sarcastic or cynical).
  • Defensiveness (blaming the other person).
  • Stonewalling (the silent treatment; refusing to talk about the problem; saying, "Whatever," then walking away).

What about the old saw that goes, "Never go to sleep angry with your spouse"?

The Laws joke that you could end up losing a lot of sleep. It's not bad advice for problems that are solvable, and that's where learning some conflict resolution skills is important, they say.

But some problems won't be solved before midnight or even 3 a.m., and Maureen Law suggests it's OK on some issues to say, let's work on this some more tomorrow.

"But before you go to sleep, affirm your love," Law says.

4. Pay attention to issues of sexuality.
Sex is at or near the top of the list of issues that cause conflict in marriages. Married couples are reluctant to offer their expertise and experience on record about this topic. Experts in the marriage field say this is not uncommon.

"A lot of couples do not feel free to talk about sexual issues," Pedersen says. "There are many married couples who don't have sex often at all. They don't attend to it, and it undermines the emotional life of the marriage. Couples who do attend to their sex lives are less likely to have an affair interrupt their marriage. The promise of sexual intimacy in marriage is the promise to fulfill the human desire for intimacy."

Attending to it, Pedersen says, means being able to talk with your spouse when you are dissatisfied. She specifically advises couples dealing with issues of sexuality to read Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage by Dr. Kevin Leman (Tyndale).

"It's about improving your sex life," she says. "It's very specific, but it's not a manual. From a Christian perspective, sexual intimacy can be a window to the divine for the couple. Allowing yourself to be naked and making a gift of yourself to your spouse is a deeply spiritual action, one that puts you in touch with how God loves us—totally and selflessly. When we give the gift of self to another we are imaging God. It's holy ground."

5. Pay attention to the spiritual dimension in your marriage.
A number of studies by secular entities show that couples who have common religious practices and share common faith beliefs and practices have longer, more satisfying marriages. Couples with successful marriages talk about what they believe about their union and how they believe God is present in their marriage.

In the retreats she gives for married couples, Pedersen focuses on helping couples reflect on their life together in light of what Catholic tradition teaches about the sanctity and the sacramentality of marriage. "I try to get couples to mine their own experience to see how God is present in ordinary events and in the crises of their marriage," she says.

Marcy and Larry Anderson have moved from Illinois to Kentucky to Mississippi to Iowa and back to Illinois with Larry's job as civil engineer for a major railroad line. Now members of St. Jude Parish in New Lenox, Illinois, they've found their spiritual life to be important during the 31 years they've been married.

"Because we've moved around so much over the years, the one constant in our lives has always been church," says Marcy, a grants assistant at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. "It has been a place for us to meet new friends who share the same values and spiritual beliefs we do.

"It is very rare that we don't attend Mass together," she adds. "During the Prayers of the Faithful, when we pause for our own intentions, we always reach for the other's hand to pray in unison for those things that are most important in our lives and the lives of our family and friends."

6. Reinforce your mutual fondness and admiration.
Though driven to distraction at times by a spouse's flaws, happily marrieds still feel the person they wed is worthy of honor and respect. The experts recommend reminding yourself frequently of your spouse's positive qualities, what makes you cherish him or her. Research by the University of Wahington's Gottman says couples who see their marriage's history in a positive light are 94 percent more likely to be happy in the future.

"Mark and I do this on a regular basis," reports Liza Margelofsky. "We have talks probably monthly, usually before bed, reminding each other of how we met, what we like about each other, funny things that happened in our first months of dating, and why I ‘knew' that Mark was the one I would marry."

Larry Anderson expresses it succinctly: "I think my wife is very talented, and she has always made me feel special."

7. Do little niceties for one another.
Using the Steven Covey idea of building up an "emotional bank account" with your spouse, happily married couples make deposits in that account so that when conflicts arrive there is a lot to withdraw before the relationship becomes bankrupt.

The Andersons say Larry frequently will bring Marcy coffee in bed on Saturday or Sunday mornings. On weekdays, Marcy reciprocates. Although Larry starts his job very early and Marcy starts work later, she'll get up at 5:15 a.m. to keep him company while he gets ready for work.

And Maureen Law says every time she arrives home after a trip to the store, her husband Lanny helps carry in the groceries. Without being asked.

8. Build a firm foundation for comprimising.
Successful married couples know that if either person closes his or her ears to the other's needs, opinions, and values, they cannot resolve their differences. They respect one another enough to listen to the other's point of view and take it into account.

The Margelofskys say they learned two things: First, that marriage takes work; and second, that it's not always easy.

"No matter how upset or frustrated we might be with each other," Liza says, "it is part of being married, and those minor things will never break us apart. We learned that divorce is not a word we ever use regarding ourselves. We both truly believe we will be together until death, as God intended."

William J. Doherty, a family and marriage therapist who teaches would-be marriage counselors at the University of Minnesota, takes a hard line against those who give up on marriage quickly. Doherty is author of the often-recommended resource for couples, Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart (Guilford Press).

"Lifelong marriage means accepting who we both are and forsaking new, improved models of a husband or wife," Doherty writes. "Commitment no-matter-what means I am faithful to a flawed human being who is faithful to me as a flawed human being in a moral covenant that does not have a lemon clause and does not permit leasing and trade-ins. And it means we never stop working on being married."

9. Think and act like a team.
There is a sense of fairness and justice about the married life of happy couples. They appreciate the culture and rituals of married life together and see how they are bonded in an inner life, linked by role and goals. They understand and value what it means to be a part of the family they have become.

The most stable marriages are those in which the husband respects his wife by listening to her and considering her needs, opinions, and values, and in which they share power and decision-making. Marriages where the husband resists sharing power are four times more likely to end in divorce or to drone on unhappily.

Through 33 years of marriage, the McCormicks of Oak Forest have held onto a philosophy that has staying power.

"We think of our marriage as a play with many acts, characters, and scenery changes," they explain. "Situations of calm and chaos, joy and sorrow fill the plot; yet, sharing the lead at various times, we always hold true to our core values of truth, faith, and love."

10. Seek out a supportive community.
Pedersen reinforces one of author Doherty's key points by encouraging couples to find and be part of a community of couples that support each other. She and her husband David have for the past 21 years made a couples retreat with the same seven couples.

"We vacation together and learn together and get together for all kinds of reasons," Pedersen says. "There's lots of storytelling."

While few may have the skills of a marriage workshop leader like Pedersen, there are a variety of avenues to turn to for help in joining or forming a support group of married couples.

"The Catholic Church offers a number of wonderful options and possibilities to form groups, with organizations like the Christian Family Movement and Marriage Encounter," Pedersen says. "But there are lots of ways of forming a community of couples. It could come out of a discussion group at your parish, RENEW groups, or Bible study groups."

Marriage Encounter in particular has a lengthy track record, having helped millions of couples "make a good marriage great," as the program's slogan states. A Marriage Encounter weekend is designed to bring husband and wife together to communicate lovingly in an atmosphere where the focus is on their relationship.

The talks by other couples and a priest teach communication skills and give couples time away from other distractions to practice and use them. Many couples find it a rare opportunity to delve into their own relationship and their relationship with God.

There are two Marriage Encounter groups in operation. For information about WorldWide Marriage Encounter, call 800-795-LOVE (795-5683) or go to http://www.wwme.org/. For National Marriage Encounter, call 800-828-3351 or go to http://www.marriage-encounter.org/.

The Christian Family Movement is another highly successful organization prepared to help couples join a support group for their marriage or to help them organize one. An outgrowth of the Catholic Action movement of the 1940s, CFM has developed into a national network of parish/neighborhood small groups of families. Parents meet regularly in each other's homes. Programs and group activities promote and reinforce Christ-centered marriage and family life. For an outline of a typical CFM meeting, go to http://www.cfm.org/ or call 812-962-5508.

Retrouvaille is a ministry to hurting marriages that has saved thousands of couples. Its program includes a weekend retreat, follow-up sessions, and ongoing support groups that help couples build relationship skills. The website, http://www.retrouvaille.org/, includes a list of local telephone numbers in hundreds of cities.

Finally, when Maureen and Lanny Law meet with couples in marriage therapy, they use a worksheet inviting the husband and wife to evaluate their marriage on a scale—very good, good, in-between, bad, very bad—according to how well they are doing as a couple in 12 areas.

When the couple begins the evaluation, that's when the "working at" a happy marriage starts; the couple has to discuss how the two of them are doing on each point.

"That's because therapists can't solve couples' problems," Law says. "The couples are the experts in their own marriages."

Phrased as open-ended questions—"How well do we …?"—the evaluation leads couples to "see some spots on the journey to work on," Lanny Law adds. "No one else can do it. Each couple has to put their own journey together."

This article appeared in the July (Vol. 69, No. 7: pages 12-17) issue of U.S. Catholic. 

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