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  • Even the best couples will struggle to enjoy marriage if they barely see each other. Tweet This
  • 3 common mistakes conspire to undermine a happy marriage: getting too comfortable, talking at the wrong time, and not making time for fun. Tweet This
  • Establish daily rituals to get in the rhythm of starting every day, reuniting every day, and ending every day with a positive connection. Tweet This

Our happiness in marriage, according to famed marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, is determined by the ratio of positive to negative interactions in the relationship. When positivity in marriage is high, couples are drawn to each other. When negativity reigns supreme, the marriage is at risk.

This all makes sense. If you want a happy marriage, you need to nurture the positive side of your relationship—while doing your best to keep the inevitable irritations at bay. Sounds simple enough, but in my experience working with more than 5,000 couples as a New York-based marriage coach, even the best couples can find themselves drowning in frustration. Time and again, I’ve heard spouses I admire declare, “I can’t take it any longer!” How do these good people find themselves in marriages so sour?

In my experience, three common mistakes conspire to undermine what should be a happy marriage. It surprises me how many couples make all three mistakes. Happily, for each of these mistakes, there is a simple fix. If couples could just embrace the following three “good marriage practices,” their chances of having a happy marriage would be improved.

Mistake #1: Getting Too Comfortable

The first mistake couples make—I call it a silent killer of marriage—is getting lazy about the small niceties of married life. We forget to say thank you, fail to greet each other at the door, and show little interest in the other’s day.

I once met with a couple in urgent need of help. The husband sent me a video of his wife screaming expletives and wildly throwing things at him. He wrote that they could not take one more day of their marriage.

When I asked the couple what was wrong when I met with them the next evening, the wife exclaimed, “He forgot to bring home our baby!” 

Now, I am not an advocate for forgetting to bring your baby home, but I could see the man was no slouch, at least not in the business world. He had joined us after working a long day at one of New York City’s many investment banks. There must have been a deeper issue underlying her discontent.

I asked the husband if he thought his wife was a good mother. “She’s a great mother,” he answered.

She seemed shocked to hear this. I then asked him how often he had thanked her for her work as a mother. He said once, maybe a year and a half ago, when their baby was a newborn. Ever since, he had been asking her why she hadn’t done this or hadn’t done that.

Only one thank you and 100 nagging questions? Here was a great couple that got lazy about the positive side of the relationship. Thoroughly unappreciated, it’s no wonder the wife was so quick to explode.

The fix to their predicament was a simple one. “What comes naturally in the beginning, at some point you need to make it a habit, ritual, or tradition,” is one of the single best sentences of marriage advice I have ever heard—from Bill Doherty, one of the most esteemed marriage counselors in the country.

I ordered the couple to take a 10-day vacation from bickering. Instead, each morning, at the start of the day, they were to thank each other for what the other would do that day. Each evening, the moment the husband arrived home from work, they were to thank each other for what the other had done.

It’s simple: start the day by thanking each other and end the day the same way.

Just two days later, the couple emailed me to report their relationship was already remarkably better. For a happier marriage, simply saying “thank you” is more powerful than the most romantic dinner.

Here is essential marriage advice #1: marriage is long—we’re all going to get comfortable, busy, and tired at times—so establish daily rituals of connection to get in the rhythm of starting every day, reuniting every day, and ending every day with a positive connection.

Establish daily rituals of connection to get in the rhythm of starting every day, reuniting every day, and ending every day with a positive connection.

An important note: a welcome home kiss is also good, but it’s not good enough; it’s too quick. The best daily rituals last about two minutes, slowing you down long enough to take genuine notice of each other. Imagine how nice it would be to hear, “Honey, you look tired, let me take care of dinner this evening.” Daily rituals are one path to a dream marriage.

Mistake #2: Talking at the Wrong Time

The second common mistake couples make—this one is often a not-so-silent killer of marriage—is talking at the wrong time. Dr. Gottman estimates couples are emotionally available to talk at the same time only 9% of the time—91% of the time is “ripe ground for miscommunication.” From my work with couples, I’ve seen that talking at the wrong time is the single most common couple communication error.

My wife tended to bring up issues when she was frustrated with me. I often felt ambushed. We never solved anything in these conversations. I would often say I was sorry but hadn’t given a thought to how I could change for the better. My bad behavior—and my wife’s nagging—persisted.

Essential marriage advice #2: schedule your important conversations and give each other time to think and set a deadline to motivate you to be ready to talk at the appointed time.

Couples should get in the habit of asking, “when can we talk?”—instead of springing topics on each other—and of never making the other ask twice. You will soon find you are having constructive problem-solving conversations.

Mistake #3: Failure to Make Time for Fun

The final common mistake couples make is the failure to make time for each other and for fun. When I ask couples what’s wrong with their marriage, the most common response I get is “We spend no time together.” I also like to ask couples if they have anything fun planned. Almost always the answer is “no.” Even the best couples will struggle to enjoy marriage if they barely see each other. And when nothing is planned, there is nothing to look forward to doing together.

There’s a simple fix for this problem. My third essential piece of advice for couples is to maintain a shared calendar—ideally cloud-based—and to put their marriage (including regular date times) on the calendar.

Responsibilities in marriage have a way of piling up fast. If couples lack a clear plan for making time for each other, drifting apart is inevitable.

I urge couples to develop a shared vision for their marriage incorporating their various interests—as examples, my wife likes a quiet cup of coffee at home with me, while I like exploring nearby towns—and then using their calendar as a system of accountability for making sure these things happen. As an added plus, a shared calendar has benefits beyond helping couples make time for each other. Remember that New York City banker? He probably would have remembered to bring home his baby if he had put it on his calendar!

Peter McFadden, a New York-based marriage coach, blogs on marriage at MarriageFun101.com.