20 Ways We've Kept Our Marriage Happy & Healthy For 20 Years | DrKathyNickerson.com | Relationship advice, marriage adviceToday is my 20th wedding anniversary and to celebrate this milestone, I thought I'd share the 20 things we do to keep our marriage happy and healthy!

First... a little history: I met my husband, Mr. D, when I was 19 and he was 29. We dated for a few months and broke up because I was very busy with school and he had just ended a relationship and had a young daughter. It was complicated.

We both went on to date other people and one day about 2 years later, after I healed from a very abusive relationship, I called Mr. D and left this voicemail... "Hi, it's Kathy, I've realized that I love you and I want to marry you, so when you want the same thing, call me back."

So... he called back to say he was in a relationship and he wished me well. But 6 months later, his relationship ended and we got back together. That was December of 1996, we got engaged the following summer and married in 1998. And every day since then... ok, almost every day... I've felt like I won the lottery to be married to such a wonderful man.

Here are the 20 things we do that I think have helped us have a really wonderful, happy, lasting relationship:


1. Talk nicely to each other, ESPECIALLY when you're mad.

How your partner sees you matters a lot! And we judge our partner's feelings for us by how they talk to us and treat us. We assign a lot of value to how people talk to us when they're angry, so go out of your way to be gentle and loving when you're having a disagreement. Say kind things like, "I love you, I am on your side, I want this to get better..." when you're arguing. Little gestures like this go a long way.


2. Really be a partner, jump in there and help, don't wait to be asked.

If you see your husband or wife struggling with something and you just stand there and "supervise," what message does that send? Usually it says, "I am ok with letting you struggle and feel no need to help you." Now, that might not be what you're thinking, but be aware that that's the message that comes across. Instead, jump in there, help pick up the kids, help wrangle the dogs back into the house, help clean up the broken glass... do what you can to help and really share the load with your spouse.


3. Make time for each other every day and every week.

My husband and I have dinner together most every night and talk about what was going on during the day. I always ask, "What's been on your mind?" and I genuinely want to know. I think it's important to know and care about what he is thinking about and what happened during the day. And he does the same for me. Then on the weekends, we go for a long walk and really catch up about deeper issues, like friends and family, things we're excited about, poker strategy, business plans, etc. To stay close and connected, we have to know what's happening in the other's world and mind.


4. Support each other's passions.

Speaking of poker, I head out to the World Series of Poker every summer... not because I play, but because HE does... and he loves it! I think it's important to go and support him while he does what he loves. I try to be very mindful of the message my behavior sends and I want him to get the message that what he loves is important to me because he is important to me. And while I'm there with him, I cheerlead and encourage, because I want him to feel very loved and supported. He does the same for me with my passions... bulldog rescue and growing my business. So whatever your partner's passion is, find a way to support it.


5. Save your fights for things that are worth it.

Weight Watchers used to feature a point system where every food had a certain number of points and you were only allowed a limited amount of points each day to lose weight. So the question you had to ask yourself about eating something was, "Is this really worth the points?" 3 day old crackers, not so much. A  warm, perfect chocolate croissant... yes, absolutely! I think of fights the same way, is this issue worth the points? If it is, I have to bring it up. If it's not, I don't. It's not worth using my points on a silly fight about his forgetting to take out the trash. I just take care of it and move on. And I know he does the same. Let the little stuff go.


6. There is no prize for being right.

This one took me a long time to learn. I am pretty stubborn and early on, I thought it was important to convince him that I was right. And you know what the prize for that was? Absolutely nothing! Actually, there was an anti-prize... in order for me to be right, he had to be wrong. And guess how good it makes people feel to be told they're wrong? So, don't do this... find a way for you to both be right. Find something in the other person's argument that makes sense to you and acknowledge that. And make sure you fight fairly. (btw, here are my rules for how to fight fair.)


7. Realize that some things are unsolvable and find a way to talk about it.

We really struggle with 1 particular parenting issue... I see it one way and he sees it exactly the opposite way. For years, we've fought about it and it resulted in some of the worst moments we've ever had. Finally, I realized that we are NEVER going to see it the same way. And that's ok. I'd love for him to see it my way... and he'd love for me to see it his way, but it just isn't going to happen. So we have to accept this and find a way to talk about "the forbidden topic" so that we both can feel heard and understood. I have to understand that he has the right to do it his way; he understands that I don't have to like it. And we've made peace with that.


8. Don't criticize... do suggest and encourage.

Criticism really hurts a relationship... because criticism is essentially a judgment, right? It's you passing judgment on your partner and declaring their thoughts or behavior as bad. So look out for this, don't be critical and say, "You are really stupid for doing that...." Instead, say, "You know, you might want to consider doing it this way... or I encourage you to try this..." (Although, Mr. D famously once criticized my approach to building a pathway in the garden by saying, "There's so much wrong with this, I don't even know where to start!" and now we laugh about that... he did help me fix the pathway, so it all ended well.)


9. Try to make things fair.

Actions really do speak louder than words. If you tell someone you love them and then let them do the lion's share of the work or take on the lion's share of the responsibilities, your actions undermine your words. Things don't have to be perfectly fair, and there will be times when things are very one-sided, and that's ok. For example, if one of you is badly injured, the other will be doing much more of the work than the other... but this is ok, it's a special circumstance and there is the understanding that if the shoe was on the other foot, the roles would be reversed. But in everyday life, try to make it fair... one cooks, one cleans... one bathes the kids, one reads the stories. It doesn't have to be exactly 50/50, it just has to feel fair to both of you.


10. Be intentional about creating a great relationship.

You've heard that you have a much better chance of reaching your goal if you decide in advance what you want that goal to be, right? So do the same with your relationship. Decide that you want it to be great and figure out what it takes to get there. How many hours a week do you need to spend together? What things do you need to do to keep things happy? How often should you have date nights? Dinner with friends? Sex? Really think and talk about these things and then make a point to make them happen. And if something seems off-track, talk about it, don't sweep it under the rug. Make a plan to make it better and if it isn't getting better, call me.


11. Follow the 5 to 1 communication rule.

If you spend any time chatting with me, you'll hear me sing the praises of Dr. John Gottman and his 5 to 1 rule, which basically says.... for your relationship to be happy, you need to have 5x as much positive communication as negative communication. You can really think of this as you needing 5x as much good/positive stuff as compared to the negative stuff. Try to focus on this and make it happen... if you just said something hurtful, go out of your way to do/say 5 nice things. You don't have to be over the top about it, but be mindful that you always want to have 5 goods for every 1 bad. And whatever you do, be genuine and sincere about it.


12. Have fun together.

I don't remember where I read it, but before we got married, I read, "Try to have fun in your marriage every day." This really stuck with me and from day 1, I've tried to practice this. I try to make my husband laugh every day, usually with my silly songs that I sing or ridiculous stories I tell him about the antics of our 4 dogs. I also try to make sure we do something fun each day, like watching a show we both like together or looking at funny YouTube videos. It doesn't have to be something big or take a bunch of time, but try to infuse some fun into your relationship every day.


13. Tell your spouse that you love them every day.

Every night, as we are falling asleep, I hold my husband's hand and tell him I love him. It might be a little cheesy, but I don't want a day to go by where he doesn't hear that I love him. Even if we had a shitty day, I will will still do this. And he says, "I love you too." It's a little thing that goes a long way.


14. Speak their Love Language.

Over the years, I've learned that my husband feels loved when I do things for him... when I cook him dinner, buy his favorite peanut butter cups, take care of our household finances, and such. His love language is acts of service; he feels loved by having these things done for him. My love language is words, I feel so happy and full when I am told good things... like praise or compliments. So, I encourage you to figure out what your partner's love language is and act in these ways every day.


15. Act in ways that nurture trust.

This is so important that it should really be number 1 on this list. It's really hard to love someone you don't trust, so make sure you act in ways that show you are trustworthy. Be where you say you are, don't lie about friends or how  you've spent money, don't keep secrets or start re-connecting with old exes on Facebook. Act in ways that show... I have no secrets, I am an open book to you, there's nothing I am doing that you can't see or know about it, and you're the most important person in my world.


16. Do things to stay connected.

I really see my marriage as the rock of my life on which everything else is built. So I try to take care of my relationship and my connection with my husband throughout the day. I'll text him at least 1x during the day to just say hi and see how the day is going. I give him a hug or kiss before he heads out to the office; I greet him with a hug or a kiss when he comes home. I plan fun excursions for us on the weekends and I force him to do home repair projects so we're working on things together. I really try to be mindful about keeping us connected. (Here's a list of my favorite ways to stay connected.)


17. Cultivate interesting conversations.

Once you've spent 10 or 15 years with someone, you pretty much know everything there is to know about them... so you need to come up with some new stuff to talk about. It's fun... and bonding... to have interesting conversations with someone, so check out your favorite news source or social media site for interesting news items to discuss. We love to discuss politics, so I'll frequently tell my husband about some article I read and ask what he thinks... then he'll check on Twitter and tell me what he read about that and what people are saying. It's fun.


18. Be respectful.

Another one that really could be at the top of the list is this one: be respectful. We love people who make us feel valued. You show someone you value them by treating them with kindness and respect. There are so many ways to show you respect someone... don't put them in situations that make them uncomfortable, don't ask them to do something they don't want to do, don't take their money or things without asking, etc. Talk to your spouse respectfully, treat them respectfully.


19. Compromise.

This is so critical.... you have to compromise with the person you love. No two people are the same, so there's just no way you're going to avoid compromise. When a conflict comes up, talk about what you want and need, and listen to what your partner wants and needs. Then, make a deal... say, "Tell you what, I could be good with you going on that fishing trip if you'll let me go to Vegas with my girlfriends for Tish's birthday. Deal?" This works well for big and small things.... our standard deal is one of us picks the movie, the other picks where we go for dinner. We also try not to choose to do something the other person will hate. And if there's something that one of us really, really doesn't want.... such as a 5th dog.... we don't do it. We might keep talking about it... but we don't force the other one to compromise and do something they'll really be upset about.


 20. Marry someone you adore.

When I am giving advice to friends about whom to marry, I often say, "Marry someone with a problem "package" you can deal with... because everyone has their "stuff" and you need to know that and be ok with it going in." I also tell them, "Marry someone you really adore." When I decided I wanted to marry Mr. D, I knew there was stuff that I'd have to deal with, but I also knew it would be so worth it.... he is the nicest person I know, so kind and loving and gentle. He's also very loyal, generous, and smart... He really is my best, dearest friend and I just adore him. Even still, 20 years later, he makes my heart melt when he walks in the door.

So in closing, a special message for Mr. D....  I love you, honey. You're the best decision I ever made and the best person I know. Thank you for marrying me and for these 20 amazing years. I hope we have 20 or 40 or 80 more! XOXO



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