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7 Secrets to a Happier Marriage

Relationships expert Harville Hendrix offers advice on how to make your marriage stronger and more fulfilling

1. Ramp up the fun factor. Couples who play together, stay together. And the more time you invest in doing things you both enjoy, the happier you'll be. Each time we learn a new skill — especially if it's a few paces outside our comfort zone — our brains build new neurons and connections, triggering a cascade of positive emotions.

The good will that springs from shared enjoyment spills over into the rest of your life, sparking conversations, lightening the mood and deepening intimacy. The problem is, as stress ratchets up, fun is often the first thing sacrificed. To change that, pencil in time to do things you enjoy doing together just as you would a dentist's appointment.

Be curious — ask for a list of things your partner wants to do and check it regularly. If your interests don't align, take turns: Go antique shopping one week if that's her passion, and sh»e'll take a bike ride with you the following week.

Or find something new for both of you — take ballroom dancing lessons or a wine-tasting course. Be silly and laugh — there's no better tool for putting all the little annoyances of life into proper perspective. "Marriage counselors would be out of business is more people understood how essential it is simply to spend time together," says Hendrix.        

2. Stop trying to control each other. Conflict isn't necessarily bad and it doesn't mean the two of you shouldn't be together or lack some basic skill that happier couples have. Rather, it's a sign that the psyche is trying to survive and break through its defenses.

In fact, Hendrix believes that those who claim they never fight have simply given up on the relationship and tuned out. "Instead of sharing their lives, they begin to lead parallel lives," he explains.

But there is a right and a wrong way to fight. Hang up the boxing gloves and stop being judgmental. Your goal should be zero negativity, because any time you put your partner down, you create an unequal relationship that leads to anxiety and anger.

Instead, ask yourself: Do you want to be right — or do you want to be happily married? Is the fight over which movie to see, or where to go on your next vacation worth it? Let go of the toxins polluting your marriage: the grudges, the eye rolls and name-calling, the sarcasm or pettiness, the global assumptions (you always this, you never that) that might have slipped into your conversations.

3. Learn to listen deeply and empathically. Many couples who've been together a long time assume that they know what the other is thinking or feeling — and they're often dead wrong. Or they believe that if a partner really loved them, really cared about their welfare, they'd just know what was upsetting them. Wrong again.

Banish the mind-reader syndrome by carving out time for a heart-to-heart talk (consider it your personal state of the union address). Harville's communication technique, called the Intentional Dialogue, can help you eliminate the guesswork:

Step 1. Take turns telling your partner what's on your mind. Use '‘I statements" ("I feel hurt when you put me down in front of other people." "I wish you would stop interrupting me when I'm telling a story.") Your partner needs to listen, and mirror back exactly what he/she hears without judging, criticizing or putting their own spin on it. If your partner didn't understand your message, say it again until she/he does.

Step 2. Validate what you've heard, even if you don't agree. "It's not enough just to listen to your partner," says Hendrix. You must be able to say, "That makes sense because..." or "I see why you feel that way."

Step 3. Empathize by showing genuine caring and awareness of your partner's emotional experience: "I can imagine how frustrated you must be." Then — and this is critical — be sure to ask, is there anything more you want to say? "There is always more," says Hendrix. "But most of the time people don't say everything that's on their mind because they believe their partner just doesn't want to hear it."

Step 4. Finally, suggest something your partner can do to help you feel better about whatever problem or issue you've raised. Make it a wish, not a command. "I wish you'd share information about the kids with me before you tell everyone else."

If you've never spoken to one another like this, expect to feel awkward, even silly at first. Keep practicing and it will soon be second nature.

Next: Make love more often. »

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