Staying married is important for your career. If you’re the breadwinner, and you have kids but get divorced, you will need to earn enough money for two households instead of one. Bye-bye career change. If you are not the breadwinner, you’ll start being the breadwinner, and all the career flexibility your marriage provided will be gone. Now you’ll have a much more limited set of possibilities for your career choices.
Add to that: you won’t be able to relocate for a job because your kids are not going to relocate with you—that’s almost always by court order. And you’ll also not be able to work late or go in early if you don’t have a partner to stay with the kids. So keep your marriage together.
Warning: you are reading marriage advice from a writer who was so checked out in her marriage that she was blindsided by a divorce. But I never want that to happen again, so I spend a lot of time researching what keeps marriages together, and here is some of the research I have implemented to protect my own, second marriage:
1. Don’t live together too long before you commit.
In the 60s when living together was a sign of rebellion, cohabitation was 30% more likely to end in divorce. The Atlantic reports that today co-habitation is a step on the road to marriage more than a rebellion against it. So it doesn’t necessarily lead to high divorce rates.
But beware of endless but uncommitted co-habitation. At some point living together is a form of procrastination rather than moving toward marriage. And in that case most partners will end up unhappy, whether married or chronically unmarried.
2. Don’t use ultimatums.
John Gottman has a proven set of rules that are simple enough to remember so that when you’re in a fight with your spouse you can say, “Hey! That’s not fair fighting.” One thing he doesn’t talk about is ultimatums. We often use them like an escape route from negotiating.
But in fact, in all cases—marriage, salary, and everything in between—the person who gives the ultimatum is the one most likely to lose. The Harvard Business Review explains the science behind this: the ultimatum activates the animal instinct part of the brain, and negotiating in that mental state is nearly impossible.
3. Act like an old couple.
Younger couples tend to use the demand-withdraw method of conflict. One spouse demands a change and the other spouse withdraws from the relationship. As couples age, they tend to avoid conflict rather than head toward it. Which means there are fewer demands from one spouse and less withdrawing from the other spouse.
As couples age, they increasingly avoid areas of conflict, making the marriage stronger, as long as they don’t hold a grudge (which is, by the way, one of the rules from John Gottman—no harboring resentment.)
4. Spend similarly or have good in-laws.
Couples who have similar spending patterns have fewer arguments about money. Duh, but the important thing here is that every couple argues over one of three things: money, in-laws, or sex. Look at the one of those three that is most difficult in your marriage. The level of difficulty and how you cope with it will probably determine if your marriage will survive.
For some of us it’s too late to find someone who spends similarly. I found this advice in Get Rich Slowly to be helpful in terms of creating financial safety nets in my marriage, to decrease the chance that money problems will ruin my marriage.
5. Forget spicing up your sex life.
Couples who have sex three times a week are much happier than other couples. This is not a statement about how good the sex is. Of course, if it’s terrible then at least one partner will start refusing. But if you can reach a baseline level of sex where both people will engage in sex three times a week, the marriage will be happier than most.
Cynical note to all you smug newlyweds: We know you are having sex every night. It’s not because your marriage is good, it’s because it’s new. Wait a few years. And in the meantime, check out this study of what happens to text messages between two people when they go from dating to married. Spoiler: The most frequent words during dating are love, fun, soon. Most frequent words after two years of marriage are ok, home, yeah.
So what makes sex good after the thrill has worn off? It’s not saucy costumes and leather whips. It’s vulnerability. That’s right. Sex gets more exciting as the partners get more and more vulnerable. Brene Brown, professor at University of Houston, gives great advice on how to become more vulnerable.
6. Avoid couples therapy. Just go to therapy yourself.
Marriage works best when there are two people who feel good about themselves, coming together to feel good about each other. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to feel good about ourselves at all times, and that’s where individual therapy comes in.
Psychologist Kelly Flanagan writes: “We spend most of our adolescence and early adulthood trying to pretend our shame doesn’t exist so, when the person we love triggers it in us, we blame them for creating it. And then we demand they fix it. But the truth is, they didn’t create it and they can’t fix it. Sometimes the best marital therapy is individual therapy, in which we work to heal our own shame. So we can stop transferring it to the ones we love.”
7. Your wishes for a soulmate should be filed right next to your wishes for a Disney ending.
The idea that there is a perfect partner for you is delusional. Because there is something wrong and disappointing with each person we could pick. Recognizing that and dealing with it is part of growing a mature relationship.
Fortunately, the idea that there is a wrong partner for you is also probably delusional. Polly Shulman, writes in Psychology Today , “All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things. The magic is to develop binocular vision, to see life through your partner’s eyes as well as through your own.”