One of the many profound lessons this challenging year has taught us is just how important our closest relationships are. For some married couples, difficult times may have forged stronger bonds; for others existing issues may have become magnified.
I asked Suzanne Venker, a relationship coach and the author of five books on marriage, for her advice on nurturing marriage in troubled times. Here’s what she said.
The Epoch Times: Every married couple wants a good marriage. What do you believe are the key characteristics of a good marriage?
Suzanne Venker: There are four main aspects of marriage that have the capacity to make or break the relationship. If a couple can agree on those, they have a great shot at a happy marriage. Those four areas are: money, parenting, religion, and in-laws.
Money is the No. 1 source of marital conflict and divorce. This has always been the case, but the nature of the problems has changed. For one thing, men and women are bringing a boatload of student loan debt to the marriage and viewing this debt and “his” and “hers.” Nothing is your own after you get married; the entire purpose of marriage is to become one, or part of a team.
If a couple’s monies are separate and if there’s no transparency, this is a huge indicator the couple is approaching marriage all wrong. To be successful at marriage, you have to work together. All income is joint income when you marry, regardless of who makes what—and both partners need equal spending power. Bottom line: When it comes to money, if you and your spouse are adversaries rather than allies, your marriage will be rocky or will end.
How to parent the children—or more specifically, how to discipline them—is also huge. It is imperative that a couple be on the same page about how to discipline, otherwise the kids wind up in charge because they’ll use their parents’ disagreements to their advantage and wreak havoc on the marriage.
Third, religion. This may seem less important these days, since religion has taken such a precipitous decline, but when kids come along, it still matters. Being the same religion is obviously ideal, but as long as the couple agrees on whose religion to follow, being of two different religions is fine. The real problem, in my opinion, is when one person is a believer and the other one isn’t—because that philosophical framework colors so much of what we think and do.
Finally, in-laws. This is tricky territory and can be a big problem, especially if the couple doesn’t agree on how often to spend time with the in-laws and especially on how to set boundaries. If the couple views their home as a fortress, where people who can cause division aren’t allowed in, they’re good to go. Most of the problems with in-laws arise when that is not the case.
In addition to the four items above, I believe a key ingredient of a successful marriage is your attitude, or mindset. Attitude is an undervalued attribute of marriage. How you think matters. If you’re invested in marriage as an institution, for example, you’re far more likely to do what it takes to make it work. The way you think also affects your approach to problems. When a problem arises, do you assume it’s fixable and keep your focus on the problem itself? Or do you view it as insurmountable and make the problems personal by attacking the spouse rather than the problem?
Never underestimate the power of attitude. It can make or break your success with anything, and it’s no different with marriage.
The Epoch Times: We’ve been living through challenging times. From what you’ve observed, how have marriages been impacted?
Ms. Venker: Unquestionably they’ve been strained due to spending so much time in close quarters with few opportunities to get out due to everything being closed. Plus with kids home on top of that. It’s a lot.
I’m a big believer that being apart from one’s spouse on a regular basis is important for perspective and even for sexual attraction. As Violet Crawley said on “Downton Abbey,” “Marriage is a long business.” Because of this, it’s important for couples to have time alone without the other person. When you have no separation, the problems you encounter can feel far less surmountable than if you have time away from each other. Perspective is important.
The Epoch Times: How can couples nurture their marriage, particularly during times like this?
Ms. Venker: I wish I had an easy answer for this, but as long as COVID-19 is with us, I can only say that this too shall pass, so be careful not to come to mistaken conclusions about your marriage since they may be based on temporary circumstances.
Make sure you schedule plenty of alone time as well as time with your friends, and get out on “dates” with your spouse where the pressure of children and running a household aren’t weighing on you. This can be as simple as taking a hike or getting a quick bite at whatever restaurants are open.
I would also encourage people to use this time to either escape with a novel or to take up a new hobby, or even a cause.
The Epoch Times: Women receive mixed messages these days about their roles in society and in their relationships. In what ways can a wife contribute to a “peaceful and passionate” marriage, as you put it in your book “How to Be a Wife?”
Ms. Venker: There are so many things women can do to improve or to even fix their marriages! As for the skills I teach, by far women’s biggest hurdle is being mentally ready to hear the message since it’s so countercultural. For instance, step 1 in “How to Be a Wife” is “Don’t direct his traffic,” where I essentially tell women to stop telling their husbands what to do. Nagging and complaining doesn’t bring out the best in a man, and it won’t produce the desired result.
A better approach is to (a) not say anything or (b) be soft and kind with your overtures. This requires empathy, which is hard for a generation who’ve been encouraged to be entitled, as though men owe women for centuries of oppression. Not all women will say this is how they think, but the way they talk to men suggests otherwise.
Some of the other steps include: Master the art of respect; focus on what you do have, not on what you don’t; and be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is also a key ingredient of a good marriage; but it is something many women, especially today, struggle with. Not only are they distrustful of men and marriage, they’ve been groomed to do everything themselves and to never “depend on a man”—not just financially but in any way. So the idea of showing gratitude, or asking for help, or admitting they’re capable of being hurt is very scary for them. Yet these are the underpinnings of a strong marriage.
The Epoch Times: Women, in particular, tend to carry the responsibility of maintaining a peaceful and nurturing home for their families. What can women do to alleviate the impact of outside stressors like those we face today?
Ms. Venker: Take care of themselves! Too many wives and mothers ignore their own wants and needs in favor of their family’s. I’m all for making the requisite sacrifices on behalf of one’s family, but not at the expense of your own needs. Sure, sometimes this will happen—for husbands and fathers, too. But it can’t happen regularly or often without the bottom falling out. We’re all human, and we’re no good to anyone if we don’t take care of ourselves.
The Epoch Times: Do you have any final thoughts or advice to offer readers seeking to maintain peaceful, happy homes during challenging times?
Ms. Venker: To keep in mind that this pandemic will end and have some grace in the meantime. Be careful not to make rash judgments about your marriage based on a temporary problem. It’s true that COVID-19 has highlighted for many couples problems they may have been avoiding in their normal, everyday lives; but this can also be a turning point in causing people to focus on what really matters. In short, perspective is sorely needed right now.