The key to a happy relationship isn’t date night and roses (although that doesn’t hurt). It’s ditching traditional wisdom and at times, fighting your own instincts. “Couples who rely on age-old marriage advice frequently set themselves up for frustration and less than optimal relationships,” says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a New York City-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “Marriages need to be fluid, dynamic and reflect what’s happening in the present.”Here are seven ways to break the rules and strengthen your bond.
Nix the idea of unconditional love. True love knows no bounds, right? It sounds romantic, but it’s not realistic, points out Hokemeyer. “Unconditional love is a fairytale storyline taught to women at a very young age,” he says. “However, that theory has no place in an adult relationship because it sets a very low standard for the relationship. A partner shouldn’t learn that no matter how badly he behaves, he’ll always be forgiven.”Sure, you want your relationship to endure tough times, but healthy couples don’t take each other for granted—they respect each other’s deal breakers. Also, without setting limits on love, you train yourself to overlook major warning signs—irresponsible financial behavior, emotional abuse, sexual neglect—that can harm and erode a relationship over time.
Don’t buy into the fantasy of “The One.” When times are tough, it’s common to wonder, “Did I marry the right person?” but Mort Fertel, creator of the Marriage Fitness Tele-Boot Camp and author of “Marriage Fitness: 4 Steps to Building and Maintaining Phenomenal Love” says that successful marriages don’t happen when you find the “right” person, but rather when you love and work on the relationship you’re in. That’s not to say you should be psyched about his video game habit or sloppy table manners—it’s about having realistic expectations and understanding the mechanisms of a healthy relationship. “Love is not a mystery and finding it isn’t a matter of luck,” says Fertel. “If you want the right person, then be the right person. Model the behavior that you would expect from your partner. You only get from a relationship what you put into it.”
Put in 70 percent. We always hear that two people need to pull their own weight, but a relationship doesn’t always have to be 50/50. “One person’s unilateral initiative can change the momentum of a marriage,” says Fertel. Maybe that means not glaring when your guy chews with his mouth open or taking the bait when he pushes your buttons. It can even mean attending a therapy session without him, if he’s not up for it and later, applying what you’ve learned. Be the bigger person once or twice and he’ll likely return the favor.
Be selfish in bed. Sexually satisfied couples are focused on their own pleasure, not that of their partners’, according to a study conducted by Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. So ask him for a rubdown, give yourself a hand during sex, or let him give you oral sex without stressing about how you look or smell. He won’t mind—a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health found that men have more positive attitudes about female genitalia than women do. “Women should never be shy about getting their physical needs met,” says Hokemeyer. “Don’t wait to be pursued or for pleasure to come along. Make it happen for yourself.”
Avoid taking a break. Remember in high school when the antidote to breaking up was “taking a break?” That may have worked in your teenage years, but when times are tough, spending time solo can be a bad idea. “Many couples argue because they feel emotionally distant and taking space will underscore those feelings,” says Fertel. “You may feel relief in the days or weeks following a separation but just because things feel better, it doesn’t mean they are better. That’s an important distinction.” To be clear, spending the night at your mother’s house to blow off steam is one thing; moving out or experimenting with a trial separation is another. “If you have any hope to reconcile with your spouse, taking space will make that more difficult,” he says.
Go along to get along. Why should you forgo back-to-back episodes of “The Bachelorette” when he wants to see an action flick? Because, at times, putting your partners needs before yours will reap big rewards. “While it’s important to maintain your autonomy around big issues like where you should live and career choices, it can be good to let little issues like movie and restaurant choices slide,” says Hokemeyer. “Too often, partners take strident positions that serve their ego but compromise the wellbeing of their relationship. By surrendering your will, you show your partner that you value them and their happiness.”
Stop rehashing old problems. It’s a universal truth in any relationship: There are some issues—be it your texting addiction or his inability to put a dish in the dishwasher—that will never die. And pointing them out, even constructively, won’t make them go away. “You can never talk yourself out of a problem that you behaved yourself into,” says Fertel. What’s more, a marathon trouble-shooting session can create a false sense of accomplishment. “After a lengthy talk, a couple may feel satisfied that they’ve cleared the air and made progress, so much so that they convince themselves that the problem is solved,” says Fertel. “But after the talk is when the real work of ‘doing’ and ‘showing’ begins.”That doesn’t mean you have to remain tight-lipped if your guy is constantly late or exhibits other iffy or disrespectful behavior. But if after a solid conversation you find yourself regularly griping, it may be time to seek professional help. “A good therapist will focus on solutions, not have you rehash the issue,” he says.