This time of year, people tend to look at their waistline, their exercise goals, or that unfinished project in the garage. How about a New Year's resolution that's more lasting and more important? Keeping your marriage healthy is paramount for your mental, physical, even financial health. It has a powerful impact on your children and influences your friends and other family members as well. That's a big responsibility! Here are 10 tips for making your marriage stronger and happier than ever.
1. Remember that love is a decision, not a feeling.
It's impossible to keep warm fuzzy feelings for your spouse constantly, especially when you have children taking up much of your time and energy. In the year ahead, there are sure to be challenging times, but remember to love your spouse, even when you don't feel like it. Your children are important, but your relationship with your spouse comes first. Period. Keep making the decision to love him or her even, and especially, when it's hard.
2. Put your spouse first.
Even though we all learned to share in kindergarten, we are still selfish beings. We want what we want when we want it. Technology and society as a whole aren't great at helping and encouraging us to break this habit, but the happily functioning marriage should be anything but selfish. Always ask yourself, what would your spouse like? Whether it's what to eat for dinner, what movie to watch, or what dessert you share at a restaurant, let your spouse choose. Having a happy spouse makes you a happy spouse. Let his or her happiness bring you happiness.
3. Keep dating each other.
Just because you're married, and especially if you have kids, doesn't mean your dating life is over. You still need to spend quality time together, or out with friends, but especially alone together. Getting out of the house for a date isn't always possible with sitters or finances, but you can have dates in, too. Rather than spend your evenings in separate rooms on separate phones, unplug - everything except your TV. Snuggle on the couch with popcorn or a glass of wine and a good movie. Better still, pull out a deck of cards or a board game. Every couple should have one indoor and one outdoor activity that they enjoy doing together. Schedule it on the calendar if necessary.
4. Have couch time.
This should happen daily. If it's difficult to talk about your day at the dinner table because you're too busy haranguing Penelope to eat her peas, or keeping Bobby from dunking his face in his soup, get your quality time on the couch when the children aren't around. Sit next to each other. Snuggle. Have at least some part of you touching. Physical touch soothes you. And as an added bonus, if you're touching even in some small way when you're upset with each other, the physical contact will ease tension and help you work out your troubles in a calmer, quicker manner.
5. When it's time to speak your mind, do so in a gentle way.
Don't keep a laundry list and dump all your grievances at once. No one likes being attacked. This is all the more reason to speak up when something is getting you down. And whenever possible, do so in a self-effacing way to lessen the blow. For instance: "We should probably both work on keeping the kitchen a little tidier." Even if you know full well it's the other person who's a slob, this phrase comes off much nicer than: "You need to clean up your mess! I'm tired of picking up after you!" That approach only leads to more yelling, childish name calling, and pointless comparisons of who does what and how often. It never ends well. Instead, be nice.
6. Don't let Robin rule the roost.
If your devotion to your children has gotten to the point where it feels more like they're in charge, tension is bound to occur in your home. It might be with a spouse who disagrees with your discipline methods, or within yourself because you're whipped by your own two-year-old. When it comes to discipline, it's imperative that both parents are on the same page. When there are cracks in the foundation of the castle, Little Prince or Princess will find them and take full advantage, turning you into court jesters. Your marriage will be happier if an agreed upon discipline is firmly in place.
7. Always be open with communication.
Whether it's discussing synchronizing your parenting styles or realizing when you last had an intimate moment alone together, you need to be open and honest. "Communication is key" is a cliché, but they're also words to live by. If you have something to say to your spouse, out with it. If it's unfortunately negative but needs to be said, don't keep it bottled up where it will only fester and grow to the point of explosion. If it's something positive, all the more reason to share it! It takes ten positive statements to push aside the sting of a negative statement. Don't be stingy on the praise. Only be negative when absolutely necessary.
8. Go to sleep at the same time.
This provides you with another opportunity for communication: verbal or physical. You decide. Be open. Enjoy each other's company. If you're normally too tired to do more than collapse into bed and fall directly to sleep, get yourselves in bed sooner. This is more needed couple time.
9. Maintain an attitude of gratitude.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are not Wonder Woman or Superman. You cannot do it all on your own. Sometimes you'll need help from your spouse. Allow your spouse to help you. Ask for help, but don't demand it. Ask kindly without whining or complaining. And accept graciously. When help comes unsolicited, be grateful and don't shy away from showing your gratitude. The words "thank you" and "I love you" go a long way. Kisses can go even longer.
10. Focus on the positive things in your life.
Maybe you're not as thin as you'd like to be and the garage or laundry room are still a mess, but how adorable was it when the baby blew raspberries at you? You may have been in your pajamas all day, but your spouse brought home dinner! Can't remember the last time you showered? Try instead to remember your wedding day in every blissful detail. Don't get down on the negative. Nobody ever promised life was easy. You do the best you can. If you're Debbie Downer, you won't be fun for your spouse to be around. Everything else will get taken care of in due time. Take that to heart by enjoying all the good and filtering out the bad.
Betsy Kerekes, editor at the Ruth Institute, is co-author with Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage (Ave Maria Press 2013) and 101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person (Ave Maria Press 2016). She blogs at Parentingisfunny.wordpress.com.