You’ve heard it a million times – marriage is hard work. Today’s couples must contend with mounting debt, intruding in-laws, different parenting styles, crazy schedules, career stress, spats over housework and the mind-numbing effects of domestic routine. Add to these the passion-slaying fallout of sexual familiarity and it’s small wonder that negativity is the prevailing vibe in many marriages. But this doesn’t mean that couples shouldn’t fight back. Winning the war against negativity and its nasty offspring—irritation, apathy, resentment, bickering and boredom—is a victory that doesn’t just improve your relationship, it enhances your entire life.
On a daily basis I help couples learn how to have a healthy marriage. I show them how to communicate and resolve conflict without nagging, name-calling, giving up or giving in. I teach them how to enjoy mutual respect and appreciation, and how to get on the same page about spending, socializing and parenting. I stress the need for a team approach to life, and I sing the praises of emotional and physical intimacy. These skills lead to a healthy marriage; however, they don’t automatically lead to a happy one. A truly happy marriage isn’t about skill, it’s about attitude. And that’s the hard part.
My husband and I recently took a trip to New Orleans to power-down our lives and power-up the romance. We followed the tourist checklist: booked a spooky voodoo tour, visited a sugar cane plantation, chased alligators down a swamp and inhaled beignets and café au lait on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. We spent our days roaming the French Quarter and strolling hand-in-hand through the Garden District—no doubt nauseating the hell out of the locals—and then spent our evenings sipping wine in jazz clubs. It was the perfect romantic getaway. Until the fight, that is.
It was our last afternoon in New Orleans and, as often happens to those on vacation, we couldn’t decide how to spend the time we had left. We made a frantic plan: shop for souvenirs, see another graveyard, check out the cathedral and take a ferry across the river. It was an impossible list, but normal life was looming and we were in denial. As time flew and our plan fell apart—we couldn’t find the good shops and the graveyard was in a bad area—we started to turn on each other like cats in a sack.
It was getting hard to relax in ‘The Big Easy’ — an irony that wasn’t lost on either of us. I saw the stress in my husband’s face and I knew he was worrying that I wasn’t having a good time. It was an unhappy ending to a fantastically fun vacation. Despite the negativity coursing through my veins, I managed to summon some self-discipline and perspective. ‘Practice what you preach,’ I told myself.
“Screw it,” I said. “Let’s go sit by the water and have a drink.”
The change was instantaneous. He smiled, tossed the tourist map in the trash and led me to an outdoor lounge on the boardwalk. We spent our last afternoon in New Orleans enjoying a drink on the Mississippi River, lazily watching the ships go by, feeling the sun on our faces and listening to jazz on the breeze. The scowling match morphed into a happy memory.
If negativity is hijacking your marriage, look to ‘The Big Easy’ for advice. Slow down. Enjoy life. Enjoy each other. New Orleans stays afloat with a combination of skill and attitude. That’s how a marriage stays afloat, too. The city builds and maintains levees the same way a couple has to build and maintain relationship skills. It wages war against water with the same persistent, positive attitude that a couple must use to wage war against unhappiness. So yes, marriage is hard. Having a happy marriage is even harder. But then again, nothing worth having ever comes easy.
Debra Macleod, B.A., LL.B., is a local couples mediator who offers private sessions and seminars to help couples stay together and stay happy. She is a relationship author-expert for television, radio, magazines and newspapers. Check out www.MarriageSOS.com for more information.