Judith S. Wallerstein, co-author of the book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, discusses the nine psychological tasks for building and maintaining a healthy marriage. Some of it sounds like practical advice you would hear anyone giving, but some of the “psychological tasks” need a little bit of unpacking.
- “Separate emotionally from the family you grew up in… enough so that your identity is separate from that of your parents and siblings.” – This does not mean that successful marriages are only had by those who are their parents’ opposite or have a poor relationship with them. This means that having an established personal identity that is distinct from that of your family members will help your marriage, because you are your own person.
- “Build togetherness based on a shared intimacy and identity, while at the same time set boundaries to protect each partner’s autonomy.” – Similar personalities attract and more often stay together than opposite personalities in a relationship. This does not mean you allow you or your partner’s individuality to get swallowed by the other.
- “Establish a rich and pleasurable sexual relationship and protect it from the intrusions of the workplace and family obligations.” – Make time for your sexual relationship with your spouse, but also keep it free from influences outside of the bedroom. In other words, don’t bring things like conversations from work or with family into bed with you. Freeing yourself of outside mental hang-ups makes for a happier, more intimate sexual life.
- “For couples with children…absorb the impact of a baby’s entrance into the marriage. Learn to continue the work of protecting the privacy of you and your spouse as a couple.” – Having children absolutely changes the dynamic of the marriage. Don’t be fooled into thinking things will all be the same if and when children enter your life. Have a game plan, both for your new family and for the continued health of your relationship, before you start the family.
- “Confront and master the inevitable crises of life.” – This one sounds a bit vague, but it means preparing yourself for changes in your life as you grow older, such as changes in your physical appearance and stamina, and shifts in goals, values, and priorities. Discuss the changes before they happen with your spouse, because you both will go through them.
- “Maintain the strength of the marital bond in the face of adversity. The marriage should be a safe haven in which partners are able to express their differences, anger and conflict.” – While it is easier said than done when tensions are high, the two of you should try to work constantly towards peaceful conflict resolution. Being able to rely on one another is far more important than “winning” the next spousal argument.
- “Use humor and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation.” – Pretty straight-forward advice for the most part, but putting it into practice can be challenging during the midst of marital tension or relationship doldrums. If you use humor to try to lighten a situation, make sure it’s humor that your spouse can appreciate it. Don’t constantly make your spouse the butt of all your jokes.
- “Nurture and comfort each other, satisfying each partner’s needs for dependency and offering continuing encouragement and support.” – While this should go without saying, it is easy for us to get caught up in ourselves, especially if we don’t think that our spouse is doing the same for us. Drawing away from one another, however, does not inspire the other person to suddenly do the right thing for the relationship. Lead by example, and for the sake of the other person first before your own. Opening up and being loving towards one another can make us vulnerable, but that’s what a relationship is all about.
- “Keep alive the early romantic, idealized images of falling in love, while facing the sober realities of the changes wrought by time.” – You will change. Your partner will change. That is inevitable. Find new ways to romance one another, and try to court the person that your partner is now, instead of chasing down an imaginary idea of who they used to be or who you think they ought to be.
While not foolproof advice, the tasks that the APA lists above are meant to target the causes of marital discord rather than pure symptoms. The underlying message is that people inevitably change, whether they are single or married. Not all marriages will last, as not everyone can reconcile all the changes that happen to each other throughout the course of life. But perhaps some of us can learn to love the ever-changing person that we married, just as we hope that they can come to love the ever-changing us.