4 Steps to Building a Smart Marriage


Stressed about choosing between buttercream and ganache? Ivory versus platinum white? These decisions can be overwhelming when wedding planning, but not nearly as important as those involved in planning a marriage. What about kids or no kids? Financially conservative or indulgent? The good news is that prepping for married life doesn’t have to be stressful if you start planning now! Just like selecting frosting and dress hues, your marriage can be a thoughtful and colorful original design, starting with a sturdy foundation.

As a therapist specializing in couples and relationship health, I find myself energized by couples headed down the aisle. I’m refreshed by their eagerness to co-create a lasting marriage, and am invigorated by the infancy of their relationship. There is so much that I want to share, to practice, to incite, and yet so little to predict with certainty. To all you Everygirls knee-deep in wedding cake and signature cocktail options: First, save me some. Second, take some time to remember that you’re planning a marriage, along with a wedding. Revel in your shared future, and set aside time with your partner to explore it. To all my single ladies, it’s never too early to begin exploring and identifying your own relationship values. You don’t have to be in a relationship to know how to be great in one.

Wondering what the formula is for a good marriage? Consider these important fundamentals with your future spouse, and you’ll be off to a great start.

1. Learn how to argue effectively.

What we know from research done by John Gottman (essentially the Jonathan Adler of marriage counseling) is that there are several barriers to effective communication. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I just call them naughty. The four main barriers are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. If you or your partner display even just one of them, you’ll struggle to communicate effectively. Name-calling, withdrawing, and digging up past arguments to use as justification are not only unpleasant, they’re useless. When I hear one partner bring up that one time, seven years ago, he broke your favorite coffee mug in the heat of an argument, I politely insist that they move on and remain present-focused. Using a past transgression as ammunition for a current fight is unreasonable. Only mention these past hurts if they truly require resolution for you, and do so in a mature way, outside of an argument.

Go back to basics: Take turns talking and mirror what your partner says, then respond with positive, reaffirming, intentional statements. Your goals in effective arguing are to be heard and to reach resolution, not to shame or prove wrong. Appeal to the best in your partner, and you’ll likely get the same in return.

2. Get your hands dirty.

Once you’ve solidified your status as a communication-savvy couple, jump on into the weightier (read: scarier) conversations. I’m talking kids, finances, in-laws, house chores, religion, vacations, sex. Yes, discuss sex now before it becomes an issue (sad to say there’s a good chance this will happen, people). Approach these topics with compassion and clarity, certain about your vision for the marriage, but equally ready to listen and really hear your partner’s side. The trick here is to do it NOW, if you haven’t already! Don’t wait until after you’re married to get into the nitty-gritty details. I regularly see couples several years into their marriage just learning about their spouse’s debt, dislike of children, incompetent bed making skills, etc., and are in agony over these newly discovered discrepancies.

While it’s never too late to discuss and resolve these details, had they done it earlier, they would have been better able to practice the art of adaptation and negotiation. Be a smart fiancé and strategize your way to a thoughtful and well developed marriage. Sit down with your partner in a neutral, comfortable atmosphere, and make a list of topics you’d like to discuss. Don’t exclude anything, even if you’re worried it will cause discomfort. Because you’re already expert arguers/listeners, discussing these important topics will be a breeze!

3. Drop the routine.

Ever hear that marriage is hard work? Here’s why: When the initial stages of newlywed delight dissipate (and they inevitably will), your goal turns toward creating a secure, safe, domestic life with your partner. All of those things are important and great, but there can be a tendency to get stuck in routine (translation: rut). I have a magic trick I often use with couples in a rut. I have the uncanny ability to guess their daily routine, down to the hour. While they’re in awe over my special powers, I’m planning their next move: Have some fun, because when I hear “rut,” I think of boring, expected, nothing out of the ordinary, no risks. I can almost see the fun being sucked out of their marriage.

I can also guarantee that NONE of those characteristics were involved in your relationship when it first began. I bet you took trips together, you surprised each other, you were playful, and you flirted. While it’s important to recognize that monotonous down times are a normal and very much expected part of marriage, also know that it doesn’t need to last forever, or even a long time, for that matter.

One exercise I give couples in a rut is to have them take turns planning a date—the whole thing, from event or activities, to dinner reservations, to picking out your partner’s outfit, shoes, underwear, hair style, etc. Keep your plans a secret until the big day. The idea is to increase anticipation, and to help identify what exhilarates you. Let fun be the element of change. Get back into the habit of actively loving one another. The only thing better than the thrill of a new relationship is reinvigorating it years later.

4. Spice it up.

That leads me to my last point. You know how you got all excited to be husband and wife and ride off into the sunset of domestic bliss? That’s fabulous, and I personally congratulate you, but don’t forget that at one point you were boyfriend and girlfriend, and treated each other as such. You shaved your legs. You put on makeup. You worked out. You tried. He surprised you. He bought you flowers. He complimented you. He tried. Sexiness shouldn’t stop when the ring goes on.

One of the most common concerns our couples bring to therapy is the “roommate stalemate,” and it sounds like this: “We’re great friends, we get along well, we actually like each other, but…we’re not having sex.” The reason for this is couples that forget (or don’t know that they have to) to cultivate passion and eroticism, both of which thrive on novelty and the nuanced language of flirtation and seduction, find that sex is no longer exciting, and stop trying. Sexiness and passion come naturally with newer relationships, because the elements of desire and arousal (novelty, mystery, intrigue) are innately there.

I suggest that couples in this stalemate get reacquainted with their own elements of desire, first and foremost. One easy way to do this is to make a list of the top ten things that rev up your sexual interest (lighting candles, wining-and-dining, Bradley Cooper), and share them with your partner. After you feel comfortable sharing these, go on and take some risks. Share your fantasies in detail with one another, and pick one or two to try out. Role-play with one another. Experiment with toys, props, or lubricants. Allow your sexual relationship with your partner to evolve, and get creative in the process! Don’t be afraid to try new things in and out of the bedroom, and be your sexy self that attracted your partner in the first place. A helpful hint: Women tend to have more variables when it comes to being ready and excited for sex. Dirty dishes in the sink or having a bad work day affects women more than it does men, so give yourself permission to take the time to mentally prepare for sex—if you’re not in a good place mentally and emotionally, you probably won’t experience sex at its full potential.

If you’re an engaged Everygirl living in the Chicago area and are interested in learning what it takes to build a solid foundation for you and your future spouse, then join us for an upcoming Premarital Workshop! The pros at Enliven Couples Therapy will guide you in reaffirming your strengths as a couple, and will coach you in learning how to keep your sexual relationship fresh. Details can be found on our blog: