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Recipe for a Healthy Marriage Relationship for Parents

Settling down is just step one. Real wedded bliss takes hard work, time and attention – especially with kids in the mix. Here are key ingredients.

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This morning my bed was made – and I hadn't touched it. In fact, all week I've come home from my morning walk to find the blankets smoothed and the stack of overstuffed decorative pillows all in place. No, the tooth fairy hasn't found a side job: My husband has.

I know because a week ago, when I was explaining how I felt like the all the cleaning duties had fallen into my lap, he asked what he could do. "Make the bed," I said. I have no illusions that he'll do it indefinitely, but I felt like he'd listened to me and wanted to show he cared. One made bed = I love you.

Seemingly insignificant moments, conversations and acts like these form the basis of what makes a marriage work – or falter, explains Terri L. Orbuch, Ph.D., aka "The Love Doctor" – and the project director behind a ground-breaking study at the University of Michigan that tracked 373 couples for over 20 years.

Some of her findings on what makes a marriage work won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been married more than six months, but other findings stunned even Orbuch. So if you're looking for the key ingredients to move your marriage from ho-hum to happy, break out your relationship measuring cup.

1 cup reality

There's no perfect marriage – and no perfect partner. Often one or both partners have idealized what a spouse should be.

"There's a romanticized picture of the partner – that he or she is going to be the best friend, the best lover, the best parent and he or she is going to meet all my needs," Orbuch says. "No one can fulfill all of those expectations."

And let's be honest: You'd most likely be more annoyed than overjoyed if your spouse never revealed a fault and always catered to your every whim. Instead, what a person really needs from a relationship boils down to three things: "to feel valued (reassurance), the need for connection (intimacy) and the need for assistance (support)," explains Orbuch in 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.

2 cups communication

But how do you get to the point where you feel valued, connected and supported? Communication goes a long way.

While men and women are similar in many ways, when it comes to communication – especially talking about a relationship – they are completely opposite. For women, talking about relationships can act as an aphrodisiac, explains Orbuch. Not so for men. Instead, relationship talk can leave them feeling inadequate or like there's something wrong that needs fixing.

Add to that, partners often assume that their spouses know their needs and wants, even if they haven't said as much. "I just don't think men can read women like we wish they could," says Dawn Follis. The Plymouth wife and mother of six – three stepchildren and three biological children, ages 4 to 21 – says she's figured out to tell her husband exactly what she needs instead of assuming he'll know on his own.

"Sometimes you just need a shoulder to cry on. I'll tell my husband, 'I just need you to hold me; you don't need to fix anything.'" Follis believes her ability to go right out and explain her needs to her husband, and his willingness to listen, may come from having marriages that ended previously. "I think we're both more understanding this time around."

Follis has also learned that how she approaches her husband is often just as important as what she says. She gives the example of household chores, which she's learned not to assume that her husband will notice and take care of without a nudge to get them done.

"I don't want to sound like a nag, or say something like 'Oh my gosh, you never help.' So I try to go over and touch him on the shoulder and say something like, 'I could really use your help with such and such.'"

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