Six Tips for a Long and Happy Marriage

by Megan Taylor Stephens and guest starring Sarah Zollner Case

It’s our anniversary! The Hubs and I have made it to 21 years. This has me reflecting on how we have managed to last this long. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not shocked — it’s not like I expected us to get divorced or anything. I’m delighted. But I’m also very aware that marriage isn’t a cakewalk and that many people who seem much more lovey dovey or level-headed than me and The Hubs tossed in the towel long ago. I mean, half of the couples who got married in 2000 are divorced by now, according to the CDC*.

Our union is far from perfect, but I still find myself wondering what key things may be helping us along. What, pray tell, is the secret sauce?

Beyond the obvious skillset, like having respect for one another, I think three things have helped me and my guy survive thus far:

  1. Date night
  2. Time apart
  3. Sense of humor

Date night

We have both always worked full time or nearly full time. Our kids are 20½ months apart. They almost did us in. Imagine if you will one as an active toddler and the other a needy little baby. Or one as a potty training two year old and one as a potty training three year old. Or ages six and seven. Now picture one of the spouses – either will do because they’re interchangeable – exasperated at the other spouse for not doing anything about our filthy pigpen of a house, not stepping up to entertain a fussy child, not following through on whatever was discussed, or simply not being a pleasant person all day long. We were both the guilty party, we were both getting substandard sleep, and we were both irritated on the reg. We really had no choice but to shower, go to a civilized restaurant with a menu that did not have mac ‘n cheese, and order the most flavorful and child-unfriendly dish possible… with a carafe of wine of course. Either that or get divorced.

Sometimes we weren’t in the mood to leave the house and were disgruntled about some peccadillo the other had committed. But we made ourselves somewhat presentable and found a bar or restaurant to be just the two of us. It shouldn’t come as a shock, but it kind of was: We were relieved to find that we enjoyed each other’s company. Soon we were relaxed and laughing (the carafe of wine could have helped).

It was obvious after a while that our disequilibrium wasn’t really about us. It was our situation. We had little kids. We had busy jobs. We had a messy house. We could get through raising kids if we just kept honoring us. Even though it cost us a pretty penny, and even though the kids’ college savings accounts have been terribly neglected, weekly date night has saved our marriage. Anyway, as much as they added up, I’m pretty sure that all those dates were cheaper than getting a divorce.

Time apart

The Hubs has worked in the international development and humanitarian sector for a long time. Him going on trips is par for the course. I certainly had moments where I cried to see him go. (Go back to imagining me with a toddler who wouldn’t stop running and falling, and baby who wouldn’t let me set her down without crying.) But I got used to it and even looked forward to it in a way.

Without The Hubs around for a few weeks, I make my preferred dinners, which tend to be variations of salad plus ice cream. I tackle little projects that I normally don’t have time to do. I watch the rom-com shows that I want to. I know one doesn’t have to wait for one’s spouse to go on a trip to have some agency over one’s life. But for me, a semi-introvert, I enjoyed that time when the little kids were asleep at 7:00pm and I had the evening to myself (now that they’re teens I most definitely have switched to mornings to myself).

I also can’t ignore the fact that The Hubs is the sweetest person ever when he is about to abandon us. He leaves heartfelt notes for all of us to find under our pillows after he has gone. Once he’s far away, he Skypes or calls to tell us how much he misses us and appreciates us. And his homecomings have always been a big family deal, often with the kids waiting with baited breath as he exits the airplane and then tackling him when he emerges from the long hallway. (Sorry, Honey. There’s not quite as much fanfare these days.)

Let’s not forget that there is always a nice honeymoon after The Hubs returns and the pall of jet lag is over. The adage ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ is true in our case. As long as it’s not more than a month at a time. That kind of distance makes us lonely.

Sense of humor

There are so many heavy things in life. Pandemics, people getting sick or dying, political insanity, societal ills, a sickly planet. If we didn’t make each other laugh every day, I don’t know how we’d cope. Sometimes we find ourselves mad at each other, and we say something that cracks the other up or we belt out a lyric from a sappy song or we do a stupid dance move, and — poof, the tension is gone. It doesn’t let us off the hook from feeling the other feelings, but humor is an important salve and critical component of our matrimonial bliss.

• • • •

You just got an earful from a layperson (moi!) about what keeps her marriage afloat. Now let’s hear what a bona fide counselor has to say.

I asked Sarah Zoller Case, MA MFT, LPC, for her three top tips for a lasting union. Sarah is a licensed counselor in private practice. We didn’t compare notes with each other before writing, so I was excited to see these pearls of wisdom just now. This section is written in Sarah’s own words.

• • • •

Sarah’s three relationship tips are:

1. Fighting is better than not fighting
2. Decide to care about the things your partner cares about
3. Dream together  


Fighting is better than not fighting
It sounds weird, but as a couple therapist, the couples I find who are often in the most danger of splitting are those who have deep resentments toward one another but never talk (or fight) about them. In many cases it’s better to open a can of worms and start the conversation and the process of understanding each other better than to silently retreat to your separate corners and simmer with rage. Be willing to live in the temporary discomfort of conflict, because conflict is an opportunity to know your partner at a deeper level, if you can show up with curiosity and courage. Conflict has the potential to increase intimacy, but you have to be willing to go to that uncomfortable space together.

Decide to care about the things your partner cares about
Hopefully, there are many things you *both* care about – shared values, plans, and interests. But inevitably there will be ideas, hobbies, foods, and experiences that your spouse finds compelling but only bring ambivalence for you. Nevertheless, find ways to show interest, ask questions, and cheer your person on in the things that fascinate them and bring them joy. My husband loves sushi and I don’t, but I have made it a practice to say yes when he suggests going out to sushi, to learn more about it and find things on the menu I do genuinely enjoy. And it’s our tradition that I always pay when we eat at a sushi restaurant because I want to send the message that I’m invested in the things that make him happy.

Dream together
Once a couple has established a life and a household together (especially when there are kids involved), it’s easy to end up spending all of your energy dealing with transactional topics like budget, chores, family schedule, and parenting decisions. But the heart of a strong marriage is a connected, intimate friendship, not just a business partnership. Many things can nurture that connection — shared activities, sex and affection, regular intentional conversations about how each partner is feeling. But one often neglected aspect is prioritizing dreaming together about the future.

Dreaming is different from planning. Dreaming might sound like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to buy a vintage Airstream and refurbish it, and then drive around the country together when the kids are out of the house?” This is different from committing to actually follow through on the idea, or starting to budget for it or work on logistics. Dreaming is a practice that allows creativity to flourish and a sense that we are building a future together and we are empowered to shape that future in many different ways. Dreaming can energize us and draw us closer together. It lifts us — even for an hour — out of the mundane daily tasks and reminds us that so much is possible.

So, there you have it. Three tips from me, a speech therapist with no credentials regarding marriage, and three tips from Sarah, an actual therapist. Take them or leave them. (I actually suggest you take Sarah’s advice; it sounds astute.) If you’d like to know more about Sarah or her private practice, she can be reached at sarahcasecounseling.com.

For those who prefer not to leave the house, there are ways to access online therapy with a licensed therapist that could be explored, such as Talkspace and Better Health.

• • • •

*Source/Endnote

The divorce trend is improving a little: fewer people are getting married these days, and those who tie the knot have better odds of staying together. Marriage and divorce stats found at:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Health Statistics. Marriages and Divorces. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/national_marriage_divorce_rates_00-16.pdf.

• • • •

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, HONEY!!

(Can you hear that 9,000 miles away?)

My anniversay gift to you is this little ditty from Michael Jackson’s 1979 hit, “I Want to Rock With You”:

I wanna rock with you (all night)
Dance you into day (sunlight)
I wanna rock with you (all night)
We’re gonna rock the night away (rock, right)

2 thoughts on “Six Tips for a Long and Happy Marriage

  1. Mine were 15 months apart. We lived in a two bedroom apartment. The hubs went fishing on the weekends when he wasn’t working. Eventually, ended in divorce!! But not for those reasons. I think, lack of flexibility had something to do with it!

    Like

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