When most people think of a matrimonial and family lawyer, the first thing that comes to mind is divorce. But that is not the only reason why you would consult with someone in my line of work. In fact, I devote a substantial part of my practice to helping clients strengthen their marriages, not dissolve them.
As soon as a couple looking to remain married approaches me, whether the couple is currently struggling in their marriage or wants to implement safeguards for the future such as a post-nuptial agreement, I advise them that to strengthen or keep their marriage healthy, they need to develop a marital action plan.
A marital action plan is like a roadmap for those looking to go the distance. It is for the couples that seek to stay together but may have gotten a little lost along the way. These couples know their marriage has potential and are willing to do the work to save it or make it better than it currently is. Here are the 10 steps I tell them to take.
1. Trust. Every stable relationship rests on a solid foundation of trust, particularly marriage. But before you put your faith in your spouse, you must first define what trust means to you. Does it mean reliability? Visibility? Loyalty? All of the above? Regardless of your definition, bottom line, trust should imply that you and your partner are there for each other no matter what. If your spouse says he is going out for milk, you need to believe him. If there exists a reason why your partner currently does not trust you, perhaps the result of a past indiscretion, it may become incumbent upon you to check in until they can trust you again. If the trust issues are rooted in your own insecurity, it may be wise for you to address these matters independently first with a life coach or other mental health professional.
2. Show gratitude. That means remembering to acknowledge your partner, especially when he or she does something nice for you, no matter how small. Everyone needs to feel appreciated. Not to mention, when you reinforce good behavior, you are bound to receive more of the same in the future. Husband offer to do the dishes after you cooked dinner? Let him and say how much you appreciate him offering. Did your wife agree to pick you up from the train station so you would not have had to walk home in the rain? Tell her how much you appreciate her making this small gesture for you. When it comes down to it, it does not take a whole lot to make someone else feel special. Often a simple “thank you” is all it takes.
3. Emit emotion. Smile. Get excited! If your wife is happy about a project that went well for her at work and wants to tell you all about it, let her know you share her enthusiasm. Maintain eye contact and stop what you are doing so you can be an attentive listener. If you consistently behave as though what your spouse is saying is of no interest to you, you will soon find that the conversations will become fewer and farther between. Nobody wants to feel as though they are talking to a wall and that their experiences and feelings are unimportant.
4. Show recognition. Let your partner know, both directly and indirectly, that you appreciate all that they do for you, whether it is how hard they work inside or outside the home, how great a cook they are, and what a great foot rub they give. Whatever the case me be, make sure they notice that you are seeing them and the role they play in your life. In a healthy marriage, neither party should ever feel like they are inconsequential. And if your partner does raise an issue, let them know you are listening.
5. Love kindly. Everyone has bad days, no matter how upbeat and positive they normally are. If your partner appears to be struggling, let them know you are there, even if it means giving your spouse space. Loving kindly also means respecting your spouse’s opinions, values, and belief system. If you disagree with them, do so without demoralizing or hurting their integrity. At the beginning of your marriage, you made a vow to love and respect each other. Both go hand in hand. Invariably, that simple vow may be the most important tool you have in keeping your marriage healthy and happy.
6. Maintain honesty at all times. Behaving with honesty means more than being transparent about your whereabouts. It also means being clear about your feelings. If something is bothering you, it is critical that you communicate what your issues are with your partner so you may begin working on them together. When you keep problems bottled up inside, you may become passive-aggressive in your behavior, creating more problems for your marriage in the long run. Do not let issues fester. Be upfront so the healing can begin.
7. Show loyalty. In a public setting, it is vital that you support your partner. If you have an issue to address that may undermine them if discussed in front of others, wait until you are alone. In the same vein, do not disparage your spouse to friends and family, even if you are in an argument from which you believe you will never recover. People have an uncanny way of remembering the worst no matter how many other good things you tell them after the fact. Most importantly, remain loyal to your partner when they ask you to support their dreams and aspirations. Guaranteed, they will remember if you are not there for them when they need your comfort most.
8. Talk lovingly and with deep respect. Whether your partner is looking to discuss a serious matter or is confirming what you would like to order in for dinner, speak to them with love and respect. Even if you are having a bad day, busy, or in a lousy mood just because, remind yourself that your spouse has feelings, too, and small, dismissive comments tend to create distance between a couple over time.
9. Support without hesitation. Yes, support your partner enthusiastically, but still within reason. That means if your spouse, for instance, is considering going back to school or work, or switching careers, hear them out. Listen to the pros and cons and weigh in without pause. If your partner, however, is speaking about liquidating your joint savings account to put it all on black in Vegas, obviously you may want to refrain from jumping for joy. The point is to be as supportive as you can, given the realities of the situation.
10. Touch often. Words mean a lot but they are no substitute for human contact. Kiss and hug your partner. Touch their cheek, their hand. Hold each other. Often we can communicate more with a few moments of skin-to-skin contact than we ever could in an hour-long conversation. Listen carefully. Just like words, silence can speak volumes. The key to a healthy marriage is to incorporate both.
Photo credit: *Ken Lane* Lovers @ Sunset in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (April 2016) via photopin (license)
Vikki Ziegler is the star of Bravo TV’s Untying the Knot, the founder and CEO of DivorceDating, Author of The Pre-Marital Planner: Your Complete Legal Guide to a Perfect Marriage, and a co-founder of and partner at Ziegler & Zemsky, LLC. To learn more about Vikki, visit www.vikkiziegler.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.