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 – 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.'”
Jill Mozdzen-Kathan of Livonia believes that body language plays an important role in whether a conversation stays calm or becomes heated. She says crossed or folded arms are a no-no because they tend to communicate the notion that you’re angry or upset.
Keeping her voice soft is key, too. “I’m just a loud person. I was a teacher and having a big voice was a good thing, but when it comes to talking through something, I always try to be quieter with my voice and not be so loud.” She also avoids letting a nasty or sarcastic tone creep into her voice.
2 cups listening skills
That’s not to say that a great marriage is free from conflicts or misunderstandings. But both partners should be committed to meeting the needs of the other in spite of differences. When Alisa Bowman gets in disagreements with her husband, she reminds herself as the conversation escalates: “I need to listen to his point of view.”
While she doesn’t practice reflexive listening – where one person repeats back to the other what he or she has just heard – she does try to keep the principle in mind. “When you’re angry and you’re both yelling, you’re not listening. I know when I’m angry, I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to prove you wrong,’ instead of trying to hear what my husband is trying to say. That just doesn’t get you to a resolution.”
But Bowman, author of Project: Happily Ever After, Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters, knows that there are times when “you’re just going to screw up, that’s part of being human; you’re a communicator-in-training, not an expert.”
After disagreements with her husband, she often reviews what went wrong and what she could have said differently or done differently to make the conversation stay calm instead of becoming a full-blown argument.
1/2 cup memories
To temper your thoughts of an ideal marriage with the realities of a day-to-day relationship, remembering why you got married in the first place may bridge the gap. When Bowman’s marriage began to fall apart and she contemplated divorce in 2007, recalling the early days of her courtship reminded her why her relationship was worth holding on to.
“I think of my husband as the only person on the planet who always pushes me to be a better person.” That realization didn’t come all at once. Bowman leafed through a stack of 12 marriage self-help books trying every worthwhile – and outlandish – tip to help keep her marriage intact. Bowman and her husband have since renewed their vows.
“Those things that made you fall in love in the first place, unless you married for superficial reasons, they don’t change over the years,” says Bowman. “He may not be as polite, he may just fart right in front of you – but the basic personality doesn’t change.”
1/2 cup positivity
Working on listening skills and trying to be better at communication may sound like couples in great marriages spend all their time talking – that is, when they’re not dissecting a recent fight.
Not so, says Orbuch: “When we look at happy couples, we see that really great marriages are not the result of long hours of tedious hard work. In fact, it’s actually small changes in behavior and attitude that create happiness over time.”
In other words, toss the idea that a stronger marriage equals long hours of complex, heart-wrenching discussions. Orbuch notes that strong marriages begin with a positive foundation that the couples build on over the years.
Going further, Orbuch suggests that when couples are experiencing troubles, instead of immediately jumping to “what’s wrong,” perhaps the better approach to take is “what’s right” with your relationship.
3 tablespoons levity
“You need to be able to laugh at yourself and laugh with your spouse,” notes Jacqueline Odom, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist who formerly worked at Beaumont. She connects laughter with having fun with your spouse and enjoying activities with one another.
“Couples tend to grow apart when they don’t have any activities that they can do together that they both enjoy.”
For my husband and me, it’s M*A*S*H reruns. Sure, we also like to go out on dates or cook together – but when we’ve had a long day, we reconnect watching Hawkeye play practical jokes on his buddies.
1 tablespoon (or more) spice
As it turns out, passionate marriages don’t hinge on what happens in the bedroom. There are several ways to revive your passionate feelings toward your partner.
First, you can try out something new – whether it’s taking a dancing class together or dining at a new Thai restaurant. Mixing up your regular schedule can also trigger romance. Surprise your spouse at her office or offer him breakfast in bed, just because.
One technique that Orbuch has found works well for her clients, which is based on several multiple psychological studies, is helping your brain associate an arousing activity (other than sex!) with your partner, which then in turn can lead to greater physical intimacy. Here’s how it works: Say riding a roller coaster revs up your heart rate. Taking that thrill ride with your partner will make your brain associate your partner as the source of the arousing feelings.
Dr. Orbuch explains: “You are, in a sense, fooling your brain chemistry.” Not an amusement park fan? From feel-good activities like exercise or hiking to adrenaline-pumping scary movies, by combining the activity with spouse time, you’re likely to have more success reconnecting when it comes to physical intimacy.
A pinch of affirmation for all
Even though Orbuch’s research found that men shun relationship talk, one of her key findings is that they crave affected affirmation. In other words, simple acts and kind expressions reassure your partner that you care.
But women tend to receive this type of positive feedback on a regular basis whereas men don’t. Think of all the positive comments that women exchange daily – “I like your shoes,” “Your hair looks great today,” “Thanks for bringing that by; you made my day.” Men don’t tend to receive as much positive feedback, but they still need it.
In happy marriages, both partners offer affected affirmation. Orbuch recalls that when she first came upon this finding, she called her own husband to let him know how much she appreciated him. For couples, she suggests using phrases that go beyond “I love you” – phrases like “You are my best friend,” “I would still choose you” and “I’ve noticed you’ve been doing such-and-such around the house.”
Orbuch says that, according to her study results, men who reported not receiving affected affirmation from their wives were two times less likely to say they were happy and two times more likely to divorce over time.
Mix with care
Any baker knows that the real difference between a successful and unsuccessful outcome is often a result of what goes beyond the recipe. Take cheesecake, for instance. Cracks, dryness are all the signs of overcooked, poorly crafted cake.
To avoid a crack, cooks need to make sure all their ingredients are at room temperature before they begin, that the eggs are beaten for at least five minutes, that the oven door is left ajar after baking for an hour before removing the cake pan. So many small steps go into making the cheesecake a standout dessert. And so it is with marriage. If you overlook small things, you might end up with a crack up.
“You often hear that couples ‘shouldn’t sweat the small stuff,’ when just the opposite is true,” says Orbuch. “Serious challenges like the death of a loved one, or job loss, actually brought couples closer together – but small, perceived slights gradually turn a relationship sour.
“‘He doesn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher’ or ‘He never visits my mother’ can accumulate over time if they’re not addressed and become ‘He never listens to me,’ which then turns into ‘He doesn’t respect me or our marriage.'”
By talking about issues when they come up, instead of letting them go, chances are your relationship will be a success – sweet, strong and crack-free.
Now, discover more tips on how to make your marriage stronger.
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.