“A good marriage is one which allows for change and growth in the individuals and in the way they express their love.” – Pearl S. Buck
My husband and I turned 12 as a married couple this year.
With three children in primary school, and both of us working (albeit part-time for me), it can be challenging to find the time to tend to our relationship.
But still, we try.
I remember our first year of marriage quite vividly. As I got pregnant shortly after our honeymoon, we barely had enough time to get used to being known as “Mr and Mrs” before becoming “Dad and Mum”.
We got mad at each other often, had cold wars, and disagreed over the habits that we each brought into our marriage.
Thankfully, with some work, lots of conversations, and tonnes of understanding and forgiveness, we navigated our way through the minefield of early marriage and parenthood.
Healthy marriages allow room for negotiation, change and growth. If we had entered into marriage thinking that life would be just the same as it was before we said “I do”, we’d have been blindsided, and thoroughly disappointed.
Here are some things that have worked for us over the past 12 years:
1. Make time to talk about your relationship
When work and children take up the bulk of your energy and time, it can be easy to just let things slide where your marriage is concerned. My husband and I have noticed that even when we go on dates, it is hard to get through a meal without once mentioning the kids or any issues that we have experienced at work!
To help us focus on our relationship, we make it a point to ask each other questions, such as:
- Do you feel loved? If not, how can I fill your love tank?
- How can I better support you in your role as a father/mother?
- What goals can we work towards as a couple?
- How can we better work together as a team?
These conversations can be bite-sized, or even take place when you’re on the go. What is important is to create a safe space where we can share honestly, even if we are not happy about something, and to feel listened to and understood.
2. Seek to understand your differences better
When something about your spouse irks you, seek the “why” behind it.
For example, I found myself feeling annoyed by my spouse’s tendency to plan everything — right down to the nitty-gritty — and his expectation of me to do the same. While I can handle a high degree of ambiguity, he needs all the data and facts.
We had to find time to talk through it, and only then did I realise that it boiled down to his need for security and control. Without all the information, he felt things are out of control or not planned well.
I shared that while I understood his viewpoint, I needed to have clear guidelines for the task, and some time to execute it. I also needed to feel trusted to do it.
After this crucial discussion, we could sidestep unnecessary arguments because we had begun to see the issue from each other’s perspectives, and could focus more on meeting needs.
3. Learn to fight well
Arguments within marriage are bound to occur from time to time, but let’s try to choose our battles wisely and to fight well.
What does it mean to fight well? Here are some examples:
- Using generalisations: You never … / You always …
- Accusing: Why did you …? / Why did you not …?
- Expressing your anger: I don’t know why I even bother making a nice meal.
- Expressing concern: I was worried about you…
- Being specific: I felt [emotion] when you…
- Being curious: What happened?
- Making your request known: I need you to call when you will be late for dinner next time.
In Daphne de Marneffe’s book The Rough Patch, she describes a golden-ring mindset where both partners bring “his or her individual feelings into the ‘ring,’ and they think together about the problem at hand”.
“Both implicitly recognise that they are two people, each with a complex mind and body, which means that they can’t expect their communication to be magically, telepathically received. Even between intimates the distance between minds can be great, and it will take time to come to an understanding.”
When you can only see the negatives of your life partner, it can trigger certain ill feelings over time. But if you choose to appreciate the good sides, it can change the dynamic within the marriage.
4. Notice the small things your spouse does well
It is often easy to put on a critical lens when we view our spouse. Why can’t he help out in the home more? Why can’t she give me more space to chill and wind down after work? The list of “why can’ts” can grow long.
Stuart Shanker wrote in his book Self-Reg, “When you see a child differently, you see a different child.” The same principle applies to spouses.
When you can only see the negatives of your life partner, it can trigger certain ill feelings and pile on resentment over time. But if you choose to acknowledge and appreciate the good sides — perhaps he is really funny, or she is good with maintaining connections with people, or your spouse is simply dependable — it can change the feelings and dynamic within the marriage. This then creates the atmosphere for gratitude, positive change or collaboration to occur.
5. Focus on your own lane
Sometimes social media can feed our feelings of envy and jealousy. Pictures of exotic experiences, or frequent expensive dinners and gifts that others enjoy can trigger feelings of discontent in your marriage.
We should become aware of how certain media, people or environments make us feel, then be extra vigilant to allow into our minds only what is good for ourselves and marriage.
With the growth mindset, we can focus on developing the positive qualities that will help the relationship to flourish.
Applying the growth mindset in love
Psychologist Carol Dweck found that there exists two different mindsets. People either have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
The growth mindset says:
- You are still growing.
- You can learn from your mistakes.
- We all have strengths as well as areas to improve on.
The fixed mindset says:
- Don’t even try.
- My spouse is always like this, things will never change.
- Don’t take the risk.
When we apply the fixed mindset to love and marriage, it seems like life should reflect what we see in movies: Love is easy, perfect, and simply “meant to be”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Ask any couple who have clocked over 10 years in marriage what their secret is, and the answer will likely be: pure hard work.
Perhaps the best thing we can do for our marriage is to decide that we will do whatever it takes to make it work.
With the growth mindset, we can encourage the positive qualities—both within ourselves and in each other—that will help the relationship to flourish.