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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

En español | Falling in love seems effortless. Intoxicated with each other, you're thoughtful, attentive, generous.

"When we fall in love, we see the world in Technicolor," says psychologist Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., who Oprah Winfrey has dubbed the marriage whisperer. "We're filled with delicious expectations of wish fulfillment."

Join the discussion: How do you fight fair? Tell us your secret.

Loving senior married couple

Photo by Jose L. Pelaez/Corbis

Successful couples treat each other with respect at all times.

But staying in love, maintaining that close connection through the years? That's tricky. "Inevitably, things start to go wrong," explains Hendrix, who created Imago Relationship Therapy three decades ago after listening to thousands of couples talk about their once-happy marriages. "Traits and qualities you used to admire begin to grate. Old hurts resurface; new ones are forged. The relationship that started with such promise leaves you feeling lonely, disconnected and unsure how to get back on track."

Why do some marriages burn out while others burn bright? Hendrix believes the key lies in what he calls the "hidden agenda" of romantic love. "We like to think that we have free choice when it comes to picking a partner," he explains. "In fact, subconsciously we choose someone — I call this your Imago partner — who resembles one of our parents in positive as well as negative ways." No matter how wonderful those caretakers were, he explains, they weren't perfect. As a result, we all have old emotional wounds and unmet needs that stay with us for years. We assume that the person we love will help us rewrite the script, soothe those hurt feelings and satisfy all those missing needs — and in the beginning, they often do. But as time goes by, couples become gridlocked in power struggles large and small that can simmer for decades.

"To break the cycle, couples need to learn how to love in the other what they dislike in themselves," says Hendrix. "Once you've developed this self-awareness, you take the first step toward a conscious marriage and a real and lasting love." Here, Hendrix offers seven rules for making the second half of your marriage even better than the first.

Next: Stop trying to control each other. »

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. »

4. Make love all the time and sometimes have sex. That may not make sense at first, but it actually highlights a critical distinction. The number of times you have sex isn't important. How you feel about yourself and each other every day of your life does.

"Many couples confuse physical closeness with emotional closeness," says Hendrix. "Sex makes you feel connected, but if you're not emotionally intimate, that connection is short lived."

Happy, stable couples treat each other in a kinder, gentler way all the time: Conversations are respectful, even if they don't agree or like what the other is saying. Arguments are short-circuited before they escalate, allowing partners to laugh, cry, be spontaneous or vulnerable without fear of being criticized or judged.

While it's true that weathering a crisis together can forge deep bonds, research shows that the everyday things you do, or fail to do, more accurately predict long-term happiness.

One way to ensure that your marriage remains strong is by making a list of caring behaviors — the things that each of you can do to show your love — and sharing it with each other. These small gestures form a kind of shorthand that creates a positive emotional climate and sends the message, "I care. You count." So consider: What could your partner do to make you feel special? Send an email or text during the day just to check in? Make reservations for your anniversary without prodding from you? Initiate sex more often? Follow through on at least one caring behavior each day.

5. Compliment each other. When was the last time you told her how sexy she looks in those jeans? Did you let him know that you admire the way he handled a dicey work situation?

At the start of your marriage, you probably showered one another with praise and affection. Maybe you think that since you've said those things before, there's no reason to repeat them. There is: Praising and admiring each other can keep your marital engine humming. Forget to exchange regular compliments and you risk chipping away at the foundation of respect and love that supports your marriage.

6. Remember that you can't change each other but you can change yourself. Sometimes, no matter how many times you ask, cajole (OK, berate) your partner for always being late or sloppy or (fill in the blank), nothing changes. You could continue to fume about it, or you could find ways to flip his annoying behavior into a win for you.

If he's paying too much attention to the TV, use the "free" time to do something for yourself. Pull out your iPad and read a few chapters in your book. Catch up on emails. This way, you dial down your stress level so you can both enjoy the evening.

Keep in mind that any change will be incremental, not revolutionary. The guy who has always raced through the airport at the last minute to catch a plane will not suddenly become the one who checks in a leisurely two hours before takeoff. The paradox is that the more we accept our spouses for who they really are, the more they become like the person we want them to be.

7. Be a little selfish. When we don't make time for ourselves to do the things we love and need to do, we can't feel loving and understanding. We feel squeezed. Pay attention to what makes you feel happy, rested, whole. So don't skimp on the gym, or feel guilty about playing poker with your guy pals. When you feel good about yourself and your life, it will be easier to feel good about your relationship.

Week 2: New Ways to Spice Up Your Sex Life. »