By: Dr. Gregory K. Popcak
You said, “I do.” Now comes the Happily Ever After part. Right? Well, not to rain on the reception or anything, but you and Prince Charming there might want to read this before you ride off into the sunset in your enchanted carriage. Don’t get upset. This is not one of those, “You said, ‘I do’ and now you’re doomed” articles. I promise. I am a firm believer that fantastic, yes fantastic, marriages are absolutely within in the grasp of almost every couple. BUT (and you knew that was coming, right?) there are a few things you might want to start doing to make sure that you not only make it past your first year, but all the way to Happily Ever After. And for all of you “We’ve been married FOREVER so this doesn’t apply to us” couples, you might want to just check that conspiratorial smile because you might just learn something too. The truth is, what helps couples survive the first few years of marriage are the same things that help couples survive the next fifty years as well. The problem is that most couples have to figure out what I’m going to share with you on their own. Now, you won’t have to. (You’re welcome.) Although we can’t cover all the rules for a Happily Ever After marriage, we can at least hit some of the most important points. Ready?
1) You MUST Learn to Pray Together. Now.
First things first. You are in a Christian marriage. That’s supposed to be a marriage founded on Christ. But you can’t have a Christian marriage without couple prayer. Period. If you pray on your own, that’s great. That’s essential for your personal Christian walk. But if you aren’t praying WITH your partner, then you are not learning God’s plan for your marriage. It often happens that I talk to a couple who are praying on their own but not together. The husband will say, “I really believe that God wants THIS for our marriage.” The wife will then say that when she prays, she feels God wants the opposite for their marriage. Who’s right? More often than not, they both are. See, God’s sneaky. He wants the couple to talk and pray together, so sometimes, he will give one piece of the picture to the husband and a completely different piece of the picture to the wife. Then he expects that they will talk and pray together so that he can teach them how to fit the two pieces together to make a completely new picture. Problems enter when husbands and wives don’t pray together and think that their piece is the whole picture. It rarely ever is. The whole point of Christian marriage is having someone who can be a helpmate in sorting our God’s plan for your lives together. Even if you feel awkward at first, save yourself years of confusion and grief by learning to pray together now so that you can discover early in your relationship how to discern God’s plan for your lives together.
2) Arguing is Normal and Healthy (but how you do it makes all the difference)
Here is a fact that may surprise you. Thirty years of research by Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington has found that happy couples and unhappy couples argue about the same amount. Furthermore, Dr. Gottman discovered, and many other studies have confirmed, that for both happy and unhappy couples, almost 70% of disagreements between husbands and wives never get resolved. That means that not only do happy and unhappy couples argue the same amount, but also both happy and unhappy couples have about an equal success rate at solving their problems. So what does separate the two groups? The bottom line is respect. Happy couples manage conflict and disagreement better than unhappy couples. They treat each other with respect even in disagreements. They work hard to take care of each other even when they are angry at each other. They tend not to criticize or blame their partner as much when problems come up. And finally, they tend to not pout, stonewall (i.e, shut down and refuse to talk), or behave contemptuously (by tantrumming or by lecturing) as much as their unhappy counterparts when conflicts occur. In short, having a conflict is natural. Being unable to resolve many of those conflicts is even natural. But approaching conflict in a way that makes either of you feel demeaned, ignored, or humiliated is most certainly not natural and is always an early warning sign. In fact, the presence of the negative traits I described above predict, with 95% accuracy, which couples will be together and which will be divorced within five years. If you or your partner are engaging in these sorts of behaviors, change now, or get the help you need to make the changes.
3) Establish Rituals to Distinguish You as a Couple.
In the early years of marriage. Couples tend to take their time together for granted. They just have each other so they tend assume they will always have time for their marriage. Not so. This is the time to establish those rituals like a scheduled time to discuss your relationship, couple prayer-time, regular meals together, one day a week that will be your “family day” (the day you go out just with each other and later with your kids too), and regular date times. You will also need to establish your own traditions around the holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. Don’t wait until your marriage has been squeezed out of the picture by life, kids, work, friends, and extended family. Establish the rituals that protect the integrity of your marriage now when you don’t have as many pressures to attend to.
4) Commit to ongoing Relationship Formation.
In any pursuit you need ongoing training and support to be good at it and stay good at it. Make a regular commitment to read good, faithful books on marriage and family life, to attend talks and conferences. Make a Marriage Encounter weekend. Lead a Marriage Made for Heaven Marriage enrichment group for your parish or your friends. Join Teams of Our Lady. Whatever you do, the point is you can’t have a great, faithful marriage without the ongoing support of other great, faithful couples and resources. Make that commitment to growth now in the early years and you will watch your relationship become stronger with time. The challenges that couples face in the early years are the same challenges every couple faces at every stage of the marital life cycle. As the old saying goes, it is proper planning that prevents poor performance. Take the time you have now to establish those patterns and habits that will help you create the kind of marriage that make everyone else you know want to learn your secret.