After my divorce, I took time to reflect and consider what I would not do again. Through the counsel of a good therapist, my own reading, and conversations with others, I determined how I would do things differently next time around. Fortunately, I was able to get married again. We are celebrating our seventeenth wedding anniversary this month.
Perhaps you, too, have thought about your past marriage as a learning environment, teaching you what you want to do differently if marriage presents itself again. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has also been through this himself, I invite you to consider the following five tips. My wife and I vowed to take these actions, with beneficial results. These five tips can change unhealthy patterns and provide new ways to create a successful, loving relationship.
5 Vows for a Better Marriage, Next Time
1. Let your partner know when you are hurt.
I would like to add to the traditional vows at the wedding, “I promise I will hurt you.” When you get married, you will hurt your spouse and your spouse will hurt you, intentionally or not. The challenge is to not be quiet, not avoid, and not stuff your pain inside you. I’ve seen the one being hurt turn to other things for comfort—alcohol, food, shopping. The hurt person may also put up a wall to avoid pain, effectively hiding out within the marriage.
In my first marriage, I tried to please my spouse. I didn't want her to be angry, and I thought keeping her happy would prevent her from hurting me. I didn't know what to do when I felt hurt. I had falsely concluded that if I communicated any negative feelings, she would become defensive and not hear me. I would say I was fine, even when I wasn't, and devise strategies to avoid honest communication. I felt my pain was not very important, and that pleasing her would lead to a happy marriage.
Healthy relating in marriage becomes unhealthy when hurt is not expressed and processed. If you don't feel free to say, “Ouch, that hurts!” then you are hiding from your spouse and minimizing the importance of your own feelings.
I vowed that next time I would express myself when hurt, even if the wound were small. I wanted to make confrontation my friend and deliver my words in an assertive, productive way.
In my marriage now, my wife and I both value communicating hurt feelings, and resolving the issue. We value and prioritize our feelings by sharing them. We also focus on the current slight, rather than bringing up past grievances. The goal is to communicate what you're feeling now, not make a case against your spouse.
2. Emphasize acceptance, not correction.
Many television shows today revolve around a contest. We watch talent shows, singing shows, cooking shows, dog shows in which experts judge the contestants and correct them. This makes good TV, but marriage is not a completion stages for others’ entertainment. We did not sign up for having our spouse correct, criticize and point out our flaws. But in my first marriage, my spouse and I spent far too much time trying to proving who was right, and who was wrong, which lead to fighting and blaming.
We marry for love and acceptance, not correction and criticism. In my current marriage, my wife and I vowed not to let our relationship become like the at-home version of American Idol. We would not let that happen to our most intimate relationship. Marriage is not about auditioning or performing attempting to gain your spouse’s approval. Emphasize accepting one another, not correcting each other.
My wife and I live by this question: “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be loved?” We choose love.
3. Weed out resentment before it takes root.
You work hard to keep your car clean, your house clean, and your flowerbed free of weeds. Are you keeping your marriage clean? Get rid of the dirt and poison that resentments can bring. When hurt does not get resolved, it can lead to anger and resentment. Resentment is anger frozen solid. Resentment can lead to stubbornness, resistance, and shutting down. Resentment also can set up a negative dynamic: “You hurt me, and now you owe me something because it’s your fault that I am hurt and angry at you.” Resentment can lead to the feeling that someone has to pay.
So now in my new marriage, my wife and I have vowed to get rid of resentment as quickly as we can. We both value building honesty and listening. Once a week, we check in with each other to make sure resentments are not building. Rather than getting blindsided one day by a spouse announcing how angry he or she is, we will prevent resentments from taking root and destroying trust.
4. Remember to be a “we,” not a “me.”
When you are single, you are focused on yourself. When you get married, you focus on your partner—what is best for him and for the two of you. Marriage is about two individuals becoming a “we.” Marriage is a statement that we are joining together on this journey. We are asking each other to be by our side, on our team.
Selfishness happens when one partner is only thinking about himself, what he feels entitled to, his rights, and his ways. It’s a single-person’s attitude, or a lack of concern for how the other partner is affected. Sure, we are all selfish at times. But in a healthy marriage, partners pause to ponder how their choices will affect the other person and the team.
In my first marriage, when we hurt each other, we tended to go off and do things on our own, avoiding each other. We didn't stop to think about how the other person might be feeling. In my current marriage, my wife and I work to create new patterns of what we both want for us. Sit down together and communicate how you can make choices that bring about happiness for both of you.
5. Don’t let the ideal be the enemy of the real.
Life can be stressful, with work, family and friends all demanding various things. We also can be demanding of ourselves, pursuing perfection and trying hard to live up to our own personal ideals. These expectations can be useful, of course. But in marriage, we need to be able to be real, to be vulnerable and free to expose our weaknesses or pain. Being with your spouse and sharing your life together should involve acceptance and freedom, not more pressure to perform or live up to the other person’s expectations of perfection. Nor should you have to live up to someone else’s rules or plan of how you should live. Expectations can ruin a relationship.
In my current marriage, my wife and I consistently look for ways to make sure we are not pressuring or demanding one another to perform. We practice saying, “It is good enough.” We have created a relationship in which neither of us feels pressured to live up to some ideal in order to please the other. Finding ways to communicate, "It's good enough," can reduce the pressure to live up to an unfair ideal.