You know all that conventional wisdom that’s supposed to keep couples happy? Fuggeddaboudit! The real way to make love last is to make your own rules.
“The pressure to follow old rules — like ‘never go to bed angry’ — can be extraordinary,” says psychiatrist Steve Simring, coauthor, with his wife, family therapist Sue Klavans Simring, of Making Marriage Work for Dummies. “But it’s worthwhile to ask yourself: What are the sources of those rules? Are your perceptions of what you should do based on your parents’ marriage? Why not consider an alternative and try it?”
Why not, indeed? Interviews with long-married women reveal that the happiest are those who dare to break the rules. And marriage experts agree that questioning these chestnuts, and then ignoring them as needed, is key to building a relationship that lasts. Here, five formerly ironclad rules to consider breaking right now.
Breakable Rule #1: Never Go to Bed Angry
This is one of the oldest and most widely quoted “happy marriage” prescriptions around, probably because conflict makes so many of us uncomfortable — and because anger (our own and others’) is something we’d rather avoid.
“There’s this notion that conflict is a sign of trouble in a marriage,” says Steve Simring, “so there’s a temptation to force a resolution as quickly as possible to get back to that conflict-free state. To make things worse, we’ve all gotten so used to the TV sitcom time frame that we expect any problem to be resolvable in 30 minutes. That’s simply unrealistic.”
It’s unrealistic not only emotionally, but physically.
“Telling someone not to feel angry is like telling someone not to feel hungry,” says Seana McGee, coauthor ofThe New Couple: Why the Old Rules Don’t Work and What Does. “Anger is a physiological and chemical response. You can’t turn it off like a switch. And if the anger is still on and it’s time to go to sleep, you are just going to have to go to bed angry.”
Which is just fine, because a strong marriage can withstand, even benefit from, the occasional overnight fight.
“Sometimes a couple just needs a cooling-off period,” says Ann Berger, 30, an elementary school teacher from San Juan Capistrano, California. “When I go to bed upset, I often can’t even remember what I was angry about when I wake up; and the same usually goes for my husband.”
And when they are still annoyed in the A.M.? “Making up in the morning,” says Berger, “can lead to a more constructive resolution — and a great quickie, too!”
Breakable Rule #2: Tell Each Other What You Want in Bed
This isn’t just a rule, it’s a commandment: Tell him what you want in bed. Show him what you want. After all, it’s the 21st century, and you have a right to a fabulous sex life!
Yes, you do. And communication is certainly important. But playing show-and-tell every time you crawl between the sheets is probably not the best thing for a long-term relationship.
“The assumption that happy couples show and tell implies that technique is everything,” says Sue Simring. “But while it’s fundamental that you tell your partner how you like to be touched, not every encounter in a long-term relationship has to be a mindblower.” Mind-blowing sex takes effort — and in real life, there are times when one partner or the other needs the freedom to coast.
“Sure, I’ve heard that you’re supposed to tell each other what you want in bed,” says Regina Pearson, 35, an assistant bank manager from Modesto, California. “But you have to consider each other’s mood. If my husband has had a bad day, I focus on what he wants and needs. If I need a pick-me-up, we do things more my way. We’re in this for the long run, and it evens out over time.”
Even “Dr. Ruth” Westheimer, who earned her fame and fortune urging couples to communicate, acknowledges that there are situations in which it is best not to tell your partner what you would really like — especially if you know that your request is going to result in more problems than pleasure.
“For example,” says Westheimer, “if a woman knows that her husband really does not like to perform oral sex, why keep asking over and over?”
Communication can be a double-edged sword, especially when there are unresolved issues in a marriage.
“Sometimes,” says New Couple coauthor Maurice Taylor, “people use honesty as an excuse for being downright mean, when they have anger they haven’t expressed in a healthier way. In the name of honesty, many people share sexual fantasies or requests that they know are really going to be upsetting or hurtful to their partner.” You may, in other words, be going to bed angry without admitting it to yourself (see Rule #1) — in which case you need to figure out what you’re really telling each other in bed.
Breakable Rule #3: He Deals with His Parents, You Deal with Yours
Suppose your mother has her own patented ways of making you crazy, techniques she’s practiced on you ever since you can remember. Doesn’t it make sense that you should be the one to interpret for her, deal with her and otherwise keep peace in the family — especially if your husband has a crazy-making mother of his own to contend with? That’s the conventional wisdom. But think a minute: Sometimes it actually makes more sense if you take on each other’s folks.
“We got married very young,” says Pearson, “and when I was pregnant, we moved in with my parents. My mother had always been very dictatorial, and she was really giving me a hard time. Well, one day, my husband had enough, and he lit into my mother. It turned out to be the best thing he could have done: She backed down, she gained respect for him — and this showed the rest of us that she was dictatorial partly because we had long since given up challenging her.”
Indeed, when it comes to in-laws, who deals with them is less important than how you deal with them, says Sam R. Hamburg, Ph.D., author of Will Our Love Last? “As long as you both agree, for example, on how much time you will spend with your parents, it doesn’t matter who breaks the news to your mother-in-law that you’re not coming over for dinner every Sunday,” says Hamburg. “In fact, it can often be easier to have the in-law child make that phone call, because when parents talk to their own adult children, there’s a tendency to infantilize them. But if the same conversation takes place between two people who met when they were both adults, they can deal with each other as equals.”
Breakable Rule #4: You Can’t Change Each Other, So Don’t Try
Of course you shouldn’t attempt to force your mate to be someone he isn’t, and vice versa. On the other hand, a good partnership is supposed to change the partners involved — to help them learn and grow and try things they might not otherwise dare.
“The age-old rule says don’t try to change your spouse, don’t rock the boat,” says Steve Simring. “But relationships in which one or both parties keep quiet about their dissatisfaction are the ones in which, down the road, the wife walks into my office and says, “He just walked out. I never knew there was a problem.” It takes profound respect for your spouse and the value of your marriage to speak up and say, “I care enough about our marriage to try to change the things I’m unhappy with.”
Judy Deese, 39, a construction project manager in Escondido, California, thought about walking out a lot when she was first married, but decided to try to change her husband before giving up on him.
“Don was an absolute pig when we were younger,” says Deese. “It was so bad that I decided that I’d have to fix him or leave him. One night, there was a bag of trash I had been begging him to take out, but he was passed out on the couch. I cut the bag open and dumped it on his head. Another night I decorated the front yard with the dirty laundry he’d left all over the floor. He got the message. Now, I can’t put a dirty spoon down on the counter without him picking it up and washing it for me.
“I loved him enough to stay and fight,” Deese adds. And because she did, the Deeses are so genuinely happy that “our friends just want to puke.”
Breakable Rule #5: Happy Couples Always Spend the Holidays Together
If you’ve ever watched a TV Christmas special, or shown up at a family gathering without your husband, you’ve gotten society’s message loud and clear: Happy couples must spend the holidays together — and going your separate ways for Thanksgiving or Christmas is a sure sign of trouble in paradise. Or is it?
When Linda Bowman’s husband had to stay home in Grand Junction, Colorado, to work during the Christmas holiday, his wife, Linda, 33, packed up their daughter and went off to visit relatives. Did it bother anyone that her husband spent the holiday with a stack of video games? Not at all. “It was very liberating for him to know that he wasn’t solely responsible for entertaining us and taking care of us,” she says. “I think it relieved a lot of pressure on him, and on our marriage.”
“If you use holiday togetherness as a barometer of your happiness, then spending the day apart can have a negative meaning,” says Sue Simring. “But you can give it whatever meaning you want. Consider the fact that giving each other the freedom to make your own choices, for whatever reason — religious, practical or social — shows you support each other’s self-expression.”
“A blanket prescription that couples have to spend the holidays together is meaningless,” adds Taylor. The trick, he explains, is “to negotiate to a win-win so that both partners feel the situation is fair in the end.”
That’s what Michelle Sonka, 31, and her husband did one Christmas. She was feeling homesick for her family back East. He couldn’t get enough time off to make the trip from their home in Houston worthwhile. Instead of doing their best Siamese-twin imitation to everybody’s dissatisfaction, Michelle went to visit her family in New Jersey, and her husband stayed in Texas and celebrated with his relatives.
“I learned the hard way that staying together over the holidays doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness,” says Sonka. “My parents were never apart for a Christmas or a Thanksgiving, and after 31 years of marriage, they got divorced. Obviously, holidays are not what make or break your marriage.”
Her husband’s family was disappointed that Michelle didn’t stay home with her husband, Michelle says, “but I learned a long time ago that our marriage is not about anyone else. It’s about what works for us.”
And that, really, is the key — solving problems in a way that works for your marriage. “It may seem arrogant to think you can make your own rules,” says Steve Simring. “But you’re not making new rules for everybody else. You’re making them for the two of you.”