Happy marriages are no accident. Couples don’t trip and fall into marital bliss. But this is great news. If happiness in marriage were merely a roll of the dice, then couples wouldn’t be able to improve their relationship. Instead, everything would come down to choosing the right partner. Fortunately, this is not the case, and there are specific steps couples can take to move toward a happy marriage.
Happily married couples think and act in predictable ways—the ways most happy couples do. As you might expect, the opposite is also true. Unhappy couples also think and act in predictable misery-generating patterns. If you ever wondered how to have a happier marriage or wanted to know how to make your marriage last, then keep reading. We’ll explore exactly what makes happy marriages work. Toward the end of this post, you’ll have the opportunity to download our free Happy Marriage PDF. Then take action by acting in the ways happy couples do!
Fireworks and Happiness
A happy marriage is a lot like an exceptional fireworks show. The best displays always have a steady stream of brightly colored rockets that light up the sky. Similarly, happy marriages have a constant flow of happy moments. One of my favorite college professors often said, “Couples get married for the wow factor.” But one wow moment is not Elmer’s glue. No matter how amazing one specific period in time may be, is not enough. Instead, like a good fireworks show, happy marriages keep the happy moments going. Here’s why.
Our Fireworks Adventure
On July 4, 2012, my amazing wife and our young daughters enjoyed a beautiful day at the beach. As the sun set, we turned toward the city of San Diego for what we were sure was going to be a spectacular fireworks display. The annual Big Bay Boom Extravaganza was set to music and scheduled to be 18-minutes long. The show began with a bang—a big one! In fact, the opening was more intense than any grand finale. Our family “ooohed” and “ahhed” as the night sky lit up as if it were day! I thought to myself, If the start is this impressive, I can’t wait to see what happens next!
A Fireworks Disaster
But then the fireworks stopped. A moment later, the music faded. Soon, confused spectators packed up their belongings and went home.
The entire show lasted a mere 15-seconds. The next day, headlines announced a technical glitch ignited all the fireworks at once. As a child, I always wondered what this would look like. Now I knew. Although it was a glorious 15-seconds, it was also not the experience we hoped for.
Many couples are like that 2012 fireworks display. Their love begins brightly. The wedding is spectacular. Friends say kind words about the couple’s remarkable bond. This is followed by a glamorous honeymoon that resembles a dream vacation. But despite this fanfare, the couple’s love is short-lived. Soon the wow moments are replaced by boredom, bickering, and an icy chill. Although the couple dreamed of living happily ever after, the fireworks abruptly stopped. Now both partners feel trapped in a ball-and-chain marriage.
If this describes you, don’t despair. We’ll provide three powerful strategies for increasing happiness in marriage.
After the Fireworks Fade
Who are the loneliest people in America?
Contrary to popular belief, the loneliest people in America are not single adults. Instead, they are unhappily married couples. The ones who fall asleep, back-to-back each night, wondering, When is this pain going to end?
Research shows that an unhappy marriage hurts—literally! When we are emotionally disconnected from our spouse, the anterior cingulate (the brain’s pain center) lights up. In other words, the same part of our brain activates when we accidentally smash our finger with a hammer and when we are emotionally disconnected from our spouse. When I share this with couples, there are always nods of agreement. Unhappy couples know that disconnection hurts!
Many couples say, “If I had a choice between smashing my finger with a hammer and the pain of being emotionally disconnected from my spouse, I’d choose the hammer every time.”
If this sounds dramatic, consider the following. Loneliness does as much damage to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And marital distress increases the risk of depression tenfold. Relationships are serious business. So serious that perhaps marriage should come with a Surgeon General’s warning that reads: Warning: Disconnecting from your loved one is hazardous to your health.
What Happy Couples Know
Happy couples know that human beings are hardwired to connect. We function best in a warm, caring bond. In happy marriages, the attachment to our spouse remains steady.
Happy marriages are connected marriages. No matter how wonderful the opening scene of a relationship is, this is not enough. Much like a good fireworks show that keeps the pyrotechnics going, happy marriages have a steady stream of happy moments.
Now, let’s dive into three tips for increasing happiness in marriage. Whether you’re looking to resuscitate a flatlined relationship or to reignite the joy that was once there, these happy marriage tips are for you!
Happy Marriage Tip #1: Turn Toward Your Spouse.
How do you react when your spouse bids for your attention?
A bid for attention can be as simple as asking, “How was your day?” or pointing out the latest cute cat picture on social media. While these small moments may seem unimportant, research shows that couples in happy marriages turn toward one another with a positive response to the attention bid. In other words, tiny moments matter.
When your spouse vies for your attention, there are basically three options:
Happy Marriage Option #1: Turn toward your spouse and connect.
This is what happy couples do. Simple moments of connection are like igniting a rocket. No one refers to a single firework as spectacular. Yet, an amazing fireworks show is nothing more than one lone firework ignited after another. In happy marriages, couples turn toward one another often. These positive moments of connection add up over time. They build trust and strengthen the couple’s love.
Lonely Marriage Option #2: Turn away from your loved one by ignoring your spouse.
In unhappy marriages, couples ignore their partner’s bids for attention. Ignoring bids can be done intentionally or unintentionally. Either way, it hurts! According to Gottman’s six-year study, “Couples that stayed married turned towards one another 86% of the time. Couples that divorced averaged only 33% of the time.” In happy marriages, couples turn toward each other far more often than they turn away.
Miserable Marriage Option #3: Turn against your loved one.
Perhaps the worst thing a partner can do is turn against one’s spouse. This is a tried and true recipe for unhappiness in marriage. In miserable marriages, couples attack. They use their spouse’s bid for attention as an opportunity to show how upset they are by responding with contempt.
Happily Married Couples vs. Miserable Couples
To return to our firwork metaphor, happy couples ignite fireworks by turning toward their partner’s bids for attention. Unhappy couples ignore their partner’s bids and miss out on these firework moments. And in miserable marriages, couples respond to bids for attention by setting off stinkbombs of criticism and contempt.
Back in middle school, a group of peers thought it was hilarious to set off stink bombs in class. I always thought this was absurd. Most teachers simply acknowledged the smell and went right on teaching. Thus, the entire class, including the person who set off the stink bomb, had to endure the stench. Turning against a loved one creates a marriage stank that results in suffering for both partners.
Happy Marriages Turn Toward
Happy marriage tip #1 is: Turn toward your spouse. Turning toward your loved one is easy. It can be done with a smile, by taking his or her hand in yours, or by literally turning your body toward your loved one. Happy marriages create an abundance of firework moments by turning toward each other often. The key point to remember is this. In marriage, the little things are the big things. To create more firework moments, turn toward your spouse.
Happy Marriage Tip #2: Get in a positive perspective by strengthening your friendship.
Have you ever heard someone say, “My spouse is my best friend,” only to think, Whoa, buddy, if that’s how you treat your best friend, then you can’t possibly have many friends? In happy marriages, couples create more positive moments by staying in a positive perspective. As a result, they truly become best friends for life.
The Positive Marriage Perspective
Gottman’s research shows that all couples are either in a positive or negative perspective. No couple views their relationship exactly as it is. Instead, couples either wear rose-colored glasses or gloomy goggles. When something happens that could be taken as either good or bad, a couple in the positive perspective thinks I’m sure my spouse meant that nice. On the other hand, a couple with a negative perspective interprets the same action as an attack.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that in happy marriages, couples spend the majority of their time with a positive perspective. Wouldn’t it be nice if marriages came with a perspective-switching button? Sadly, no such toggle exists. The good news is that there is a formula for staying in a positive perspective. The recipe is this: happy couples stay in a positive perspective by strengthening their friendship.
But how do happy couples accomplish this? And what, exactly, makes the phrase My spouse is my best friend, more than lip service? We’ll unpack this next.
Best Friends for Life
In 2021, we asked couples, “How do you know you are in love?” We received nearly 150 replies. Jen and I thought we might receive stories of grand-finale types of firework moments. You know, stories of exotic honeymoons, amazing vacations, expensive gifts, and other truly wow moments. Instead, happily married couples said their relationship was characterized by lots of tiny, meaningful moments.
Happily married couples reported laughing often. They talked about being so connected it was almost as if they could read each other’s minds. They also reported having impromptu fun—such as breaking into spontaneous songs and dance. Basically, happily married couples said they did the types of things that you’d expect to do with your best friend in high school. In happy marriages, couples truly are best friends—goofy, silly, spontaneous best friends.
Does this surprise you? Our guess is it doesn’t. Happy marriage advice like, Be goofy with your spouse. Laugh often. Break into spontaneous dance. Have lots of adventures. And do what you’d do with your best friend are not likely to make it into popular self-help books. Nonetheless, this happy marriage advice works. Nearly 150 happily married couples attest to it!
Happy marriage tip #2: Get in a positive perspective by strengthening your friendship. In happy marriages, spouses don’t merely talk about being best friends. They stay best friends by creating a steady stream of firework moments. They do the types of things that best friends do.
Happy Marriage Tip #3: Plan soft landings for your marriage.
Our third tip is to plan lots of soft landings for your marriage.
Six years ago, our family moved from sunny California to snowy Minnesota. Besides the major weather change, packing our home and moving across the country with four tiny children was no small feat. During all this stress, Jenny called her dad, who said, “We’re ready for you. Know that once you arrive, you have a soft place to land.”
During the hustle and bustle of the move, knowing we had a soft place to land meant a lot. This leads us to our third happy marriage tip. Happy couples are intentional about planning soft landings. If your marriage is stressful at times, you are normal. Hard times happen. Happy marriages take this into account by intentionally planning soft landings for the couple to rest and renew their love.
A soft landing can be as simple as having a favorite anniversary getaway, scheduling a weekly date night, or having daily coffee together. The key is to have regular rituals where you and your spouse connect.
Intention is Key
Happily married couples are intentional couples. In his book, The Intentional Family, William Doherty writes, “Less than a third of American families eat dinner together most nights… When they do sit down for dinner, over half of American families say they have the TV on.” Giving your loved one time and attention may sound like common sense. But as it turns out, common sense is pretty uncommon.
CNBC recently published an article on couples who quiet quit their relationships. The term quiet quit initially referred to workers who only do tasks within their job description. Quiet quitters settle for the bare minimum. They mentally check out. Today, some couples are quiet quitting their relationships. Instead of opting for divorce, they passively give up. Don’t let this happen to you. In happy marriages, couples get intentional about scheduling soft landings. They plan times to meaningfully reconnect into their bond.
Happy Marriage Tip #3: Get intentional about scheduling soft landings into your year.
What is a happy marriage?
What exactly is a happy marriage? And will these happy marriage tips actually lead to marital bliss? First, let’s explore what a happy marriage is. A common definition sounds like this. Happy marriages are based on mutual respect, trust, and love. They also involve good communication, honesty, and compromise. While this definition sounds nice, it also states the obvious. A second problem is it’s filled with “cloud words.” Cloud words are terms that are difficult to define and measure.
This is why we like to say happy marriages are characterized by a steady stream of firework moments. As a result, happy couples are more connected than disconnected. And when they do get upset with one another—which is completely normal, by the way—happy couples don’t stay stuck.
Actress Aubrey Hepburn once said, “If I get married, I want to be very married.” Our take is that Aubrey envisioned a marriage characterized by a steady stream of firework moments as opposed to dreaming of one oversized grand finale.
A Happy Ending
“Daddy, we want fireworks” our children sadly proclaimed. “I know. So do I.” After what may have been the shortest and brightest fireworks show in history, many families left. But we stayed a little longer. Suddenly, there was an unexpected boom and a colorful explosion. Although the 2012 Big Bay Boom Extravaganza was a bust, the fireworks display put on by a nearby hotel was impeccable. Our children squealed with delight. I took Jenny’s hand in mine as we all soaked in the joy of the moment.
Jenny and I share this fireworks story with you, hoping it will serve as a happy marriage metaphor. Regardless of the current state of your bond and whatever did or didn’t happen in the past, we believe that bright moments are in your future—especially if you apply the happy marriage tips in this post. In fact, your marriage may be so bright the two of you will need to wear shades.
Okay, that last line was cheezy. But the point is happy marriages are no accident, and this is great news. It means there are proactive steps you can take to find happiness and make your marriage last. The best place to start is by creating more firework marriage moments.
Happy Marriage PDF.
Use the Happy Marriage PDF. below to get intentional about creating more firework marriage moments. We believe the best way to keep your spouse is to do the types of things you did to get your spouse in the first place. You’ll start by reflecting on previous happy marriage moments. Then, brainstorm new firework moments the two of you would like to create in the future.
10 Happy Marriage Conversation Starters
After completing the Happy Marriage PDF, use the happy marriage conversation starters below to keep building happy marriage momentum.
- Describe an early happy memory with your spouse. Then, share one thing that attracted you to him or her.
- Tell a story about when your spouse made you feel especially loved.
- If you were giving advice to a newly married couple on how to make your marriage last, what advice would you give?
- Describe a favorite firework moment (or happy memory) from your wedding. What made this so meaningful to you?
- Share an extravagant firework moment you hope to have with your spouse in the future. Pretend finances are not an issue. Dream big. Where will you go? What will you do? Provide as much detail as possible.
- In 2021 we asked nearly 150 couples, “How do you know you are in love?” We received some fun answers. How would you answer this question?
- How would you like your spouse to connect with you this week? If your spouse did this, how would it make you feel?
- Share a time when a small act of love from your spouse meant a lot to you. What do you think made this so meaningful?
- Describe a happily married couple you know. What do you think this couple does to make their marriage work?
- What positive steps will you take to increase your happiness in marriage today?
Help Us Keep the Happy Marriage Content Comming
Jen and I are thrilled you stopped by! Kind words and coffee fuel this blog. If you enjoyed our thoughts on happy marriages, help us keep this great content coming. Let us know what happy marriage tips you would add to this list. Or partner with us by using the buy us a coffee button to help fuel our next project. To dive even deeper, you can also check out our happy marriage books and resources for couples. We honestly couldn’t do this without you!