19 March 2021

Seven Tips for Keeping Your Marriage Happy

As Partner and Head of Family at Forsters, and having worked with hundreds of divorcing couples in the past 20 years, Jo Edwards shares her insight into where many marriages go wrong and tips on how to keep yours happy. This article was originally published in Brides magazine.

As a family lawyer and mediator, I have worked with many individuals and couples who have sadly reached the conclusion that their marriage is at an end. After 20 years, this unique perspective has shown some common themes about marriages which don't stay the course. Although it is right that statistically divorce rates are on the wane, and that this reduction is heavily concentrated in the first decade of marriage, the facts remain stark (from the most recent data available from the ONS), there were over 100,000 divorces in this country in 2019 with the average marriage lasting for 12 years.

So using my experience, here are my top tips for building solid foundations and keeping your marriage happy rather than another divorce statistic.

Tip One – Discuss your goals and ideals before getting married

I have seen many cases, especially where divorce is happening after only a short marriage, where it is clear that the couple entered the marriage with mismatched goals and ideals. That may be about whether (and if so when) to have children, what would be division of responsibilities if they did (stay-at home parent and breadwinner, two breadwinners with childcare etc), how a child may be educated, where they are to live (including where one harbours hopes of moving abroad), the level of involvement of wider family in married life, political and religious beliefs, etc.

There is no substitute for a full, open dialogue about the small print of your marriage before you get wed. Sometimes it is said that it is far too easy to marry but hard to divorce. Have these discussions early on and if you hit any bumps in the road, think about having a facilitated conversation with a therapist to try to reach compromises.

Tip Two – After you marry, never stop discussing your goals and ideals

Even if a couple enters marriage with aligned aspirations, over time priorities change as people grow older. What may have been important to both of you aged 30 may not be the same ten years later. When couples are in the throes of divorce, it is often sadly apparent with hindsight how and when their priorities began to differ and I often think, if only they'd talked. A common example is that, by agreement, one spouse (usually but not always the wife) will give up work to care for children. Over time she may begin to feel resentment about a good career sacrificed and frustrated about feeling financially dependent upon her husband, exacerbated where there is lack of transparency about the finances. Meanwhile her husband may harbour resentment about the expectations of him on both the work and home fronts. Often these resentments fester to the point of no return, whereas early communication could have led to problem-solving.

Tip Three – Be ready to work at the marriage even harder when you have children

Rightly, the arrival of a baby is a joyful time. However, research has shown that as a mother's bond with a child grows, her other relationships may deteriorate. Couples' satisfaction with their marriage declines during the first years of marriage, and researchers have shown that the relationship between spouses suffers once children come along (which also tends to be in the early years of marriage). The rate of decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than those who don't. However, even as the marital satisfaction of new parents declines, the likelihood of divorcing also declines. At the other end, some marriages improve once children leave home, whilst others flounder then when the couple discovers they have few shared interests and there's nothing keeping them together. All of this highlights the importance of working together as a married partnership to keep things on track after the inevitable chaos a marriage can be thrown into after the birth of a child.

Tip Four – Remember to make time for just each other

It is apparent (though perhaps unsurprising) that time for romance often goes out the window when a marriage is beyond the honeymoon phase and other life pressures (career, children, having to care for elderly parents etc) compete for a couple's attention. With lots of the couples I see, it's apparent that there has been no sudden, life-shattering incident - only about 10% of divorces are based on adultery, for example - but rather that they have gradually drifted apart as their attention has been focused away from the marriage.

Many of the unreasonable behaviour petitions I draft contain points like "he prioritised his career to the exclusion of the family", "she forgot my birthday/said she was too busy to accompany me to an important work function" and the like. I see the whole range of cases, from marriages which haven't even made it to the first anniversary to those which have lasted 40 years or more. A fellow divorce lawyer, married for over 50 years, used to tell me that throughout his marriage he has taken flowers home for his wife every Friday night. Such gestures, and keeping plenty of "you time", are vital.

Tip Five – Learn the art of compromise

When I work as a mediator, helping separating couples to resolve issues around money and children, I often ask them how they sorted out disagreements during the marriage as this signals how I may get them to agreement on divorce. Some couples have clearly had a fiery marriage, rife with conflict, and it can be difficult to get them on the same page. With others, it is clear that one is the peacemaker who will invariably back down when there is disagreement; again, this isn't the bedrock of a happy marriage. The couples I find it easiest to work with in mediation (and who sometimes end up reconciling) are those where there has been low conflict, who can see (if not always understand) the other's point of view and are willing to work towards common ground, both making compromises in the process. That is the recipe for a happy marriage.

Tip Six – Be open about your finances

Although, increasingly, the families I work with have two successful breadwinners, and the idea of the "norm" being a husband who works and a wife who stays at home to raise children is dissipating, it is still surprising how many cases I do where one spouse knows little or nothing about the family finances. This can leave (usually) the wife feeling insecure and anxious and sometimes this is the main trigger for divorce; in the absence of clarity, that person wants to "cash in their chips" and get a settlement. Instead it is far better to have compete transparency over finances throughout a marriage including joint bank accounts, any salary being paid into them, property in joint ownership, life insurance and Wills providing for each other on death.

Tip Seven – Commit to working hard at your marriage

Sometimes I see someone who has decided, after months or even years of soul-searching and therapy, that their marriage is over. On other occasions I meet a client who is in the throes of an emotional crisis, having only just discovered that their spouse has been unfaithful or behaved in a particular way that has caused upset. To the spouse in the second camp, I always counsel against making hasty decisions in the midst of the storm; sometimes they just need space to think and couples counselling to work out what caused the other spouse to stray and whether a state of forgiveness and trust can be reached.

Someone in an emotional crisis will often ask me, what's the usual amount of time to wait before making a decision about the marriage? I always say, every case is different. But one thing is certain – every marriage goes through choppy waters. So don't be tempted to pull the rip cord at the first sign of disharmony; instead, determine to work even harder at your marriage and take it to the next level of contentment.

Jo Edwards is Head of Family at Forsters.

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