Marriage is more than just wearing a ring on your finger. Marriage is an intimate and enduring relationship that grows over time and makes you a better person, says Harvard psychologist and psychotherapist Mark O'Connell, PhD.
"We hold this conservative view of marriage as a safe but boring choice," says O'Connell, author of the Marriage Benefit: The Surprising Rewards of Staying Together in Midlife. "But there has to be a more compelling reason to get married, and to stay married, and my experience points to the value of intimacy and personal growth."
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From the benefits of marriage therapy, which helps couples resolve their differences, to taking it one step further and focusing on more than just getting along, experts tell WebMD how you and your spouse can build a stronger bond and make your marriage matter.
Making the Marriage Leap
"People need to think about the relationship as an opportunity to not only understand the other person but to better understand yourself through the other person," O'Connell says.
The first step, he says, is to be smart before you walk down the aisle: Assess why marriage matters to you and why you are wiling to spend the rest of your life making the relationship a priority.
A simple question to ask: "What's in this for us?"
"Marriage is an enduring relationship, and it should create an environment in which you can change and grow," O'Connell tells WebMD. "As our culture becomes more focused on the moment, it's important that two people look at not only now, but 10 years from now so they can better understand what marriage will add to their life in the long term."
It's more than just getting along and having a good relationship -- two components of marriage that can be fine-tuned in "traditional" marriage therapy. Marriage therapy is usually designed to help a couple better communicate, resolve conflicts in a more productive way, and find paths to compromise.
"Almost any couple could benefit from marriage therapy," says Jenn Berman, PhD, a family and marriage therapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Because over time we develop resentment and communication issues, it does help to have an objective person on board to help a couple talk through their issues."
But getting to that higher level of intimacy takes more work.
"Our intimate relationships should change us," O'Connell says. "They should cause us to grow, and if they don't then there's something missing."
Starting to Build a Better Marriage
Building a strong and intimate marriage starts from within yourself, and then becomes a bond between you and your partner that lasts a lifetime.
"It's not that people should stay together no matter what, but there is something about sustained intimacy that offers people a chance to get to know themselves and each other in a way that is more honest and real," O'Connell says. "There is an incredibly powerful lesson in that."