5 Simple Rules That Will Improve Any Marriage

by Jennifer Li Shotz
Originally Published: 

You know what’s hard on a marriage? Marriage.

Eleven years into my first (and, if all goes according to plan, only) legal union, I think I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. Some days I think it’s a recipe for failure. Other days, I feel like the luckiest gal on earth. It’s everything everyone says it is: hard work, based on trust, a marathon and a sprint, something worth fighting for, you really have to want it, a huge accomplishment, blah blah blah. Or, as my extremely patient husband likes to say, “You know this is optional, right?” (Read: “Get it together, Woman, or I’m out.”)

Whether you’re currently married, recently separated, or considering snapping on the ol’ ball and chain, you’ll need sound advice from people you trust to get you through. This is not that, and I’m absolutely, positively, definitely not someone you should take marital advice from. So I won’t give you any. Instead, I’ll just casually list five rules of the ring finger that my beloved and I have developed over the years, and that have seen us through the good, the bad and the nights spent sleeping on the couch.

1. The Ikea Epiphany: Play to Your Strengths

Early in our relationship, while we were still just dating, Sully and I took the Ikea bus from Manhattan to New Jersey. It was not, as you can imagine, Sully’s idea of fun. After about an hour of zigzagging through the oppressively domestic displays, we both got cranky. (What is the Swedish for “Get me out of this flat-packed hellhole!”?) But we still needed to accomplish two things: 1) Get a disassembled lamp back into a box, and 2) locate a specific, tiny item in a different department somewhere far across the warehouse-sized haystack.

Tangled up in cord, I twisted and shoved and jabbed at the lamp, swearing under my breath. Meanwhile, the congenitally shy Sully stood with his arms by his sides, staring blankly as one, then another, elusive staffer in a yellow shirt slipped by, and failing to ask them to help us find what we needed. “Why aren’t you asking for help?” I demanded. “What is going on with you and that lamp?” he shot back. At the same moment, we were struck by the Ikea Epiphany: I handed him the box, and he swiftly, meticulously laid the lamp back to rest in its little cardboard cocoon. I flagged down the closest employee and got the info we needed. Thus new job descriptions were born: I am head of public information, he is chief of physical plant. Crisis averted, lifelong relationship-saver established.

2. The Toilet Paper Principle: Don’t Be a Bean-Counter/Pay Attention

If you happen to be married to someone who seems to believe that toilet paper and other household necessities are brought into the home under cover of the night by handy, loyal elves, then please read on. We’ll call you the toilet-paperer, and your spouse the toilet-paperee. In marriage, one of you will always pay more attention to the details and dry goods of daily life.

If you are that person, the toilet-paperer, don’t keep a running tab. Do not hide the last roll of toilet paper for your personal use in an attempt to see how long it takes the toilet-paperee to notice that you’re out of the stuff (definitely not speaking from experience here…noooope, no way). Do you really want to tell the kids that Mommy and Daddy got divorced over toilet paper? Just buy what’s needed, know that you’re caring for your family, and let it go. And if you’re the toilet-paperee, count your lucky stars, express your gratitude regularly, and for the love of Charmin, try to pay more attention to the little things.

3. Dealbreaker or No Dealbreaker?: Have the Right Fight

The worst fight Sully and I have ever had was about Deal or No Deal. We’re talking 2 a.m. screaming at the top of our lungs, throwing around the “D” word (no, not donuts—divorce), name-calling, etc. It was ugly, it was hard, and yes, it really started because we disagreed on the statistical and psychological variables that influence a contestant’s choice of briefcase. I’ll spare you the details, but I swear it’s true.

Needless to say, we weren’t really fighting about a game show. We weren’t even really fighting about whatever the next layer of sublimated issues was. We were fighting about something much bigger and deeper between us that we were too upset, frightened, or stubborn to actually fight about (sadly, I don’t remember what that thing actually was—that’s a good sign, right? RIGHT?). We know that now, and we get a good laugh out of the ludicrousness of the entire situation, but we could have spared ourselves—and our neighbors—a lot of trouble if we had just stopped and figured that out. Then we could have screamed about the actual problem.

4. The 90/10 Policy: Spend More Time Focusing on the Good Than the Bad

Odds are there’s more good to your relationship than bad. For some reason, though, we tend to focus 90 percent of our attention on the 10 percent that’s imperfect. Flipping that inverse relationship changes everything. And that is the extent of my math abilities (that, along with physical plant and tech support, is Sully’s department), so hopefully this already made sense.

5. The Go to Bed Mad Rule: Go to Bed Very, Very Mad

Trust me, it’s better than being exhausted and frustrated and desperate and saying things in the dark of night that you will regret for the rest of your life. The life you will spend as a divorcé(e). Better to toss and turn and grit your teeth on the couch, then revisit the issue in the morning when clearer heads and caffeine can prevail. You may not get much sleep, but it’s OK to be mad. Sometimes it’s even good for you and your marriage. You know what’s not OK? Reaching a forced or false resolution because you’re supposed to “fix” things and adhere to some outdated fiction of civility. Being mad means you’re invested—it’s just a question of figuring out what you’re really mad about. And that, my friends, is not going to happen if you’re just trying to be nice and smooth things over so you can get some much-needed sleep.

So, if you’re foolish…er, naïve…er, fortunate enough to consider hitching your wagon to someone else’s, perhaps you’ll benefit from the hard-earned experience of others. In marriage, there is no right and wrong—there is only compromise. (Though, for the record, a contestant’s emotions on Deal or No Deal absolutely affect the outcome as much as the odds, which is why that lady didn’t go for the case she’d put aside and didn’t take the deal that night. Just sayin’.)

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