Whether you've been married for just a few months or are inching towards a full decade as Mr. and Mrs., you've probably come to the realization that a marriage—like any other relationship—is hard work. As they say, good things don't come easy. A happy, healthy marriage requires continual commitment, energy, and devotion on the parts of both you and your partner throughout the days, weeks, months and years you spend together. In fact, marriage is merely a work in progress—it needs to be watered like a plant in order to grow and flourish.
"Our culture, especially in the media, promotes the idea that the best part of a relationship is at the beginning, when people feel a tremendous sense of connection. However, this is unsustainable, and over time differences begin to come to the surface," explains Stephanie Buehler, MPW, PsyD, licensed psychologist, and AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist at Hoag for Her Center for Wellness. "For committed couples, it requires work to understand and navigate those differences, and the 'work' is communication between partners that is respectful and attuned to emotions as well as ideas." Especially if one or both partners grew up in a household where there was a lot of conflict and mismanaged emotions, it can take a great deal of skill to learn how to work on a marriage the right way, Buehler goes on to explain.
It takes hard work in order to establish good communication skills. In the heat of the moment, you may say things you don't mean, or say nothing at all when you're in a rush to get out the door and go to work. Setting aside a specific time to sit down and talk about important issues around finances, children, and the future takes energy, effort, and time, but it's an important thing to do. "If things get heated, you should both stop and take a break for 15-20 minutes to get a drink of water or do some deep breathing," advises Buehler. "You should also keep in mind that the point is not for one partner to 'win' and the other to 'lose,' but for both partners to feel good about resolving issues or making acceptable plans."
Another part of the hard work involved in a marriage is allotting time to have fun (doesn't sound so bad, does it?). "Married couples need to keep creating a bank of happy memories they can draw from when tough times come, as they always do," says Buehler. "Whatever that fun might be—dancing, taking walks, traveling—it helps maintain a sense of togetherness and adventure."
When family and friends are concerned, time and energy focused on setting boundaries is necessary to protect the marriage. "When in-laws cross the line by making inappropriate comments, coming over uninvited, giving over-the-top gifts to children, or favoring one adult child over the other, then boundaries need to be set," says Buehler. "Remember, when you marry, you are leaving your family of origin and creating a new family—unless it is your partner that is being unreasonable, your allegiance is first to him or her."
One of the biggest issues that drive a wedge between couples is not establishing a strong relationship before walking down the aisle. "Weddings can be a celebration of love and commitment, however, weddings are often seen as a symbol of status," explains Katie Ziskind, LMFT and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling. "By taking the time to date and get to know each other before moving in together, you're creating a solid foundation from which true love and genuine empathy can grow." She reminds couples that all marriages have low points, most of which are not posted on social media for the world to see. "Marriages mean that you aren't always going to be happy 100 percent of the time and may need to give in and compromise, and that, even if your partner is so attractive when you meet them, that you'll love them even if they lose that muscle and gain 100 pounds," she says. "A marriage means that you will commit to being loyal no matter what, even if your partner could never have sex with you again. In a marriage you're committing to caring for this person, through the good and bad."
While the "work" part of marriage might not be all that fun, remember that it's required in order to reap the benefits of the non-work stage—the happiness, fulfillment, and joy of being a couple that's lasted through the years, and in both good times and bad. "The emotional work of marriage generally helps one to mature and become a better person, one who is more measured in their thinking and problem-solving," explains Buehler. "All in all, I think that most couples who do the work of marriage feel that it pays off with an overall happy and long-lasting relationship."