5 Rules For a Happy, Balanced Marriage

As soon as you say 'I do,' everything becomes a 'we.' But does that mean there's no longer a 'me'? Discover what the best marriages are made of.
By: 
Rebecca Gardyn
you're a mrs.somebody now!

Michelle Frenkel had just finished writing a housewarming card to some friends when she realized her mistake. "I had written ‘I' all the way through the card," says the bride-to-be from Phoenix, Arizona. "Then I signed it with both mine and my fiancé's names. Needless to say, I had to start over."

Michelle, a public relations consultant, is certainly not the only bride-to-be to occasionally "forget" that she is no longer a solo act. It's a tough thing to remember, especially in the hubbub of wedding planning, when everything seems to be all about you, the main attraction, The Bride. But the truth is, that exchange of rings marks a major life shift — from single woman independence to husband-and-wife partnership — and you must begin to adjust to all the changes that brings.

Of course, becoming a "Mrs." doesn't mean you will abandon your independence completely. You will still be an individual, with your own career, interests and relationships. But in your new role as a partner in marriage, your husband's needs and desires will factor into almost everything you do. Part of building a successful marriage is recognizing, appreciating and embracing this new role without losing touch with the single woman you were before. It's a balancing act.

For many brides, like Michelle, the transition from "I" to "we" doesn’t come naturally. So we consulted the experts for ways to steady yourself as you make the leap. Their advice: See your engagement period as a "trial run" for adjusting to your new status. Start here.

Prepare to Share

"The first step in all of this is beginning to feel married," says Judith Coché, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist and director of The Coché Center in Philadelphia. And that doesn’t mean simply feeling romantic. It means constantly remembering that your opinions, needs and desires are no longer the only ones that matter. "That can be very hard," adds Coché, "especially if you are already established and accustomed to getting your own way." While there are no quick tips for reaching this point — or many, it’s a process that evolves over time — you can start by consciously acknowledging that every decision you make, no matter how small, affects your mate. Always try to take his feelings into consideration before you act, and know that your actions will have consequences.

Julie Soul first started "feeling married" in the dinnerware department at Bed, Bath and Beyond last winter, when she and her then-fiancé, Bill were registering for dishes. She wanted a watercolor style; he preferred a checked pattern. "I couldn’t believe that I had to get another person’s opinion on the matter," says Julie, who was married in August. The couple, from Portage, Michigan, eventually compromised (they settled on a solid-color set in cobalt blue) and now laugh about the dilemma, but it was at that moment that Julie realized that decision-making — even about the simplest things — would never again be a solo activity.

It may be easier for you to assume total control of all the wedding-related decisions, and your fiancé may even be happier taking a backseat, but if you want to build true "we-ness" into your marriage, it’s best to involve him in every aspect of the planning, says Cheryl Storm, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in Tacoma, Washington. That’s because the ways in which you communicate at this stage — even about seemingly small details, like what pattern of china you choose for your registry — reveal how you are likely to handle bigger decisions down the road, like buying a house or deciding when to have a baby. "I commonly hear women who did not involve their fiancés in the wedding planning later complain that their partners are not as involved in their homes and household responsibilities as they would like them to be," says Storm. "But it’s hard for men to become involved when they’re used to their wives making the decisions all along."

Agree to Disagree

But what if he doesn’t like what you like? Chances are, he won’t. Disagreements are a huge part of being a "we." Newlyweds sometimes give in to each other because they don’t want to make waves, but backing away from conflicts won’t make them disappear. Instead, expect big differences of opinion, be clear about your position, and listen closely to his. Then compromise, if possible. Most important, be okay — really okay — with not always getting your way. "In a great marriage, partners get their way only about 50 percent of the time," says Coché. "In any disagreement, each person should feel that he or she was handled fairly, otherwise resentment builds up, and it can get nasty."

To Your Own Self Be True

Help Is On the Way!

A few sessions with a professional marriage counselor and a life-skills course are two great ways to start your union off right. Some resources:

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) can help you find a therapist in your area. Go to aamft.org/TherapistLocator.

The Couples School, at The Coché Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is a 12-hour weekend course on how to build a better marriage. Go to thecouplesschool.com.

"Calling All Brides: Stress Management Workshop for Brides" is led by Tracey Ellenbogen, MSW, LSW, in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Call 610-457-6361.

The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment (ACME), a non-profit organization, provides literature, workshops and retreats in cities throughout the country. Go to bettermarriages.org.

PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) offers workshops for premarital and newlywed couples in cities across the U.S. These include the eight-week PAIRS FIRST program and the five-week, faith-based Christian PrePAIRS, Jewish PrePAIRS and Catholic PrePAIRS programs. Go to www.pairs.com.

Of course, you don’t have to share absolutely everything in a marriage. Take hobbies and personal interests, for instance. It can actually be healthier for you, and your relationship, if you continue to participate in activities without your spouse, says Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., a social psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the forthcoming Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way (Sourcebooks). "If you have a passion for something and your husband doesn’t, don’t put it on hold," she says. "You’ll bring fresh energy into the relationship by following where your own enthusiasm leads." Enthusiasm is an understatement for what newlywed Brian Dickerson feels for duck hunting. "He proposed to me in a duck blind," says his wife, Carrie Crawford-Dickerson, from Mission, Kansas, whose own passion is visiting art museums. Since Carrie’s not crazy about hunting and Brian’s no museum lover, they decided to pursue their interests separately, but once in a while will come together for a shared art or hunting outing. It’s a compromise that keeps them both happy, they say.

Keep Your Pals Close

As with interests, some friendships should also be kept separate. "I worry that as we get used to living as a couple, I will have to make couple friends and always do couple things," says Katherine Westhoff, a bride-to-be from Kansas City, Missouri. She plans to set up monthly girls-only outings with her friends once she’s married, so she doesn’t lose touch with them.

That's a good plan, confirms Tracey Ellenbogen, MSW, LSW, an outpatient psychotherapist at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who runs a workshop called "Calling All Brides: Stress Management Workshop for Brides." "One person cannot possibly meet all of your needs," she says, "especially someone of the opposite sex. I've heard some women say, ‘I don't need anyone else but my husband.' But if you jump into your marriage neglecting who you were and with whom you were relating before marriage, you only stifle your own growth. For a relationship to grow, the people in it need to be growing as well."

Remember, though, that you are not the only one with needs. You must be prepared to give your husband space to fulfill his own desires. Kara Udziela, a newlywed living in Vancouver, Washington, is paying for her husband, Chris, to attend school. Eight months into his computer science program, he told her he was considering changing his major to electrical engineering. This would mean another year of classes and additional financial strain. "I wanted to cry," Kara says. "But instead, I said, ‘I want you to be happy in the long run. One more year won't kill us, compared with 30 years of you going to a job you hate.' " As it turned out, Chris decided to continue with computer science after all. "My support paid off," says Kara. "He felt he had freedom to explore, and he thanked me for making it okay for him to be scared or unsure and to change his mind."

Hash It Out Now

It may not be terribly romantic to sit down and decide who'll be taking out the garbage or doing the dishes once you're married, but these conversations are best had now, says Kandi Walker, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Her advice: Draw up an "open contract" with your fiancé, in which you actually write down answers to questions such as: Who will do the grocery shopping and the cooking? Who will balance the checkbook? Whose parents will you visit on holidays? "The answers may change later on," she says, "but if partners differ greatly in their marital expectations before the wedding, there is a greater chance of conflict and disappointment down the road."

If you talk about nothing else, discuss money — it's the topic married couples fight about most. "I'm so used to my money being my money," says Sheri Daly, a research analyst in Weymouth, Massachusetts, who was just married in October. "I like to shop, and it's frustrating sometimes when my husband objects. Our different spending styles are going to be the toughest part of our merger, but hopefully in time we can find a system that works for us both."

To help negotiate your differences, consider premarital counseling. Getting help does not mean there is something wrong with your relationship, says Tina Tessina, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Long Beach, California, and co-author of How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page Books). "In an effective premarital workshop, you will be encouraged to talk about the difficult matters every couple needs to settle beforehand, such as sex, religion and career issues, saving and spending money, and child-rearing philosophy and practice," she says. You'll also learn communication skills so that you can better settle differences of opinion when they arise. And they will arise.

All in all, the road to "We"-ville won't always be smooth, but learning how to navigate its obstacles in advance can be one of the most important things you do for your marriage. For this trip, you'll need patience, poise and lots of practice. So, hold on tight, you're about to take the ride of your life.