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."
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."
Whether you have a solid relationship that has been built on compromise and self-sacrifice or you're in a troubled relationship that's damaged by ongoing disagreements and disappointment, he says the trick is to know yourself so you can better understand how you fit as a partner.
The way for a married couple to begin moving their relationship to a better place starts with some obvious, but important, steps, O'Connell says. Although these rules seem straightforward, they're crucial for improving intimacy.
- Recognize and respect your differences.
- Talk to each other.
- Be respectful.
- Reinforce the positives and minimize the negatives.
- Don't blame.
- Be honest with each other.
- See things from each other person's perspective.
- Don't judge.
Toward a More Meaningful Marriage
These tips are just a start, however. Once you've built a relationship in which getting along is par for the course, and you've come to middle ground on your major matrimonial issues, building a strong sense of intimacy allows you both to reap the benefits of marriage.
Here are ways to better understand your partner and make your marriage really matter:
Embrace a longer-lasting definition of love. O'Connell explains that love is more than just short-term and in the moment. Focus on what your marriage and your love for your partner mean over the long haul and how your life is better because of your spouse.
Celebrate your differences."Challenge the notion that people get bored with each other because they get used to each other," O'Connell says. "Instead, recognize that people are infinitely complex and always changing."
Recognize the gift of time. Time is one of the most precious gifts you can give someone, most importantly your spouse and your family, says Berman, author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy Kids. For your spouse, make sure you have least 20 minutes of time a day to commit to the relationship, and that's the bare minimum. Focus on each other, with no TV and no computers, and use the time to be intimate and connect.
Have real sex. There are ways that people can stay alive in their bodies by having an ongoing sexual relationship with their spouse as they get older, O'Connell says. Embrace your sexuality as you age and explore ways to keep the spark alive as your marriage evolves.
Strike a strong balance "There are lots of conflicts in marriage," Berman says. "You both have to handle them in a way that's productive and that helps you grow." Berman recommends striking the right balance between positive and negative interactions -- a good rule of thumb is that this balance has to be 4 to 1 for a marriage to work, a theory on relationships put forward by psychologist John Gottman, PhD.
Find liberation through commitment. "Commitment involves giving up something, but you need to recognize it also means getting something in return when you are married," O'Connell says. Focus less on what you don't have and more on what marriage brings to your life.
Forgive and give thanks. "Think of the recurring things that happen in marriages that are problems as opportunities," O'Connell says. "Use your issues as opportunities to address your challenges together and move forward as one."
Have fun. "Two very important components of an intimate marriage are companionship and friendship," Berman says. And having fun is a key element for both.
"And, particularly relevant to us graying baby boomers, these steps will help us to forge relationships in which we can make the time of growing older one of expanding, rather than diminishing, a possibility," O'Connell says.