Ground Rules for a Happy Marriage in the Modern World
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When I first started dating my husband Tony almost 13 years ago, I told him I didn’t think we’d last more than 3 months.
Yeah, I was a little pessimistic. But can you blame me?
We were only 18 then and both of us had never been in a relationship before. And given my skeptical attitude about dating and marriage at that time—thanks to my parents’ marriage from hell—3 months seemed generous.
Then 12 years, two bouts of cancer, and a lot of growing pains later, we got married. March 24, 2018—that was the date we sealed the deal and began our life as a married couple.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about us—how far we’ve come and the things we’ve learned along the way that helped make this relationship endure through the low valleys and come out on the other side stronger than before.
I’ve boiled them down to 7 things which I like to call ground rules for a happy marriage (or any other long-term relationship). These are are key relationship tips I picked up over the years both from my own experience, personal advice from others, and not-so-personal-but-backed-by-research kind of advice from relationship experts. I included the tips I believe are the most relevant for millennial couples today.
Because let’s face it, some of our dear granma’s marriage advice might be a little out-dated!
Shall we begin?
- 1. Don’t “Zombify” Your Past Issues
- 2. Set Clear Boundaries With Others
- 3. Be supportive of each other’s goals and dreams
- 4. Establish ground rules for Fighting and stick to them
- 5. Be transparent about finances and work towards the same financial goals
- 6. Be direct and open about needs and wishes
- 7. Don’t Insist on Being Right
- 8. Final Thoughts on What It Takes to Build a Happy Marriage in Modern Times
7 Ground Rules for a Happy Marriage for the Modern Couple
1. Don’t “Zombify” Your Past Issues
Do you like to “zombify” your past issues by rehashing old arguments again and again?
It’s tempting, isn’t it? Especially when you’re in the heat of the moment.
“You’re always doing this! Remember the time you…” Insert a thousand words here.
I get it. You still feel the sting of those old wounds. You haven’t seen a drastic enough change in the other person to ease your frustration or calm your growing nervousness that you’re falling into a slippery slope that leads to some dark and scary place.
But this practice is bad. Yeah, no use sugarcoating it. It’s terrible. Zombifying your past issues is one of the ways you can kill your relationship for good.
My husband and I both have zombified past issues in arguments before and it always made things worse. Bringing up past issues makes the other person super defensive and quickly derails the communication. It also hurts the other person to know that you’ve been “hoarding” resentment.
It’s so destructive that we’ve made an agreement to talk only about the issue at hand. And we would remind each other if one person starts slipping into “zombifying” mode. It helps to de-escalate the conversation before it turns into a full-out argument.
If you have a problem, talk it out. Then let it rest. You have to accept that some issues may be unresolvable and if that happens, you just have to reach a truce and move on.
2. Set Clear Boundaries With Others
Many of our modern relationship problems stem from a lack of boundaries.
What do I mean by this?
Take the following behaviours for example:
- Exchanging cute or even flirty texts or online messages with people other than your partner.
- Letting your friends or family get involved in your arguments or influence your decisions.
- Being so nice that you become more available to friends, coworkers, or even neighbours than your own partner.
These are all signs of “blurry-boundaries” syndrome and they all hurt our relationship.
People often think these kinds of behaviours are innocent and harmless, and that’s precisely the problem. It’s this unguarded attitude towards small behaviours of blurring the lines that get them in trouble.
One cute text to a stranger online or one argument you let your friends get mixed in probably won’t crash and burn your relationship. But these things are like opening a fresh bag of chips—you can never stop with just one.
So we keep blurring the lines more and more until problems explode in our face. I’ve seen it all too often in other relationships including my parents’. That’s why I promised myself I would make setting clear boundaries with others an important aspect of my own relationship.
My husband and I are both very careful about texting and online messaging, and upfront with each other about online activities. We’ve both agreed to keep our families out of our relationship and deal with any arguments and problems between the two of us. And we’ve learned to say “no” to people and engagements that take up too much of our time away from each other.
To the outside world, we may seem a bit distant, but we’re happy with keeping our world small with our defined boundaries. And we’re grateful for having parents and a few valuable friends who support and respect those boundaries.
You and your partner will have to decide what boundaries work for you, and they look different for every couple. But the key thing is you have to set boundaries with others outside of your relationship and protect those boundaries with vigilance.
3. Be supportive of each other’s goals and dreams
Back in the old days, a woman was expected to give up her ambitions (or not have them in the first place) to support those of her husband’s.
But this isn’t the 50’s anymore.
Today, the modern couple typically looks like this:
First of all, it’s no longer just the cookie-cutter “man and woman” pairing—it’s much more fluid. No matter what the pairing looks like, in the modern relationship, both partners usually have their own careers, social network, and dreams of their own.
It’s not uncommon for both to—besides having a day job—have side hustles, hobbies, or life goals that fill them with a sense of purpose.
If one partner just expects the other to ditch all their own goals and dreams because they need someone to “take care of the household stuff”—well, that ain’t gonna fly.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly okay if, upon discussion, the couple makes a choice together that one person will slow down on the pursuit of their goals and concentrate on the home front for a period of time—nothing wrong with that.
But if one person thinks that they automatically get the right to pursue their ambitions while their partner should sit out on the bench, then that’s a recipe for resentment.
And when I say be supportive, I mean show true support with action. Encourage one another to continue in their path to greater things and help remove obstacles out of each other’s way.
4. Establish ground rules for Fighting and stick to them
Fighting is a normal part of any relationship. I don’t know any couple in my life who never argues. In fact, I’ve come to believe that periodic, healthy fighting is good for a relationship.
But what we don’t want in our relationship is the type of fighting that turns ugly—yelling over each other, hurtful language, or on the other side of the spectrum—the dreaded silent treatment. This type of fighting is unhealthy and if it keeps happening it will wear down the love like water on soap.
There was a period in our relationship where we were having way too many unhealthy fights. It got to the point where I started to lose control of my emotions during our fights and would even break things. After I broke the last large bowl I had in the house and had to pick up all the pieces of broken china on the floor, I realized I was becoming my father—and it scared the hell out of me.
I went to a therapist the next week and started working on how to release anger before it takes hold of me. One of the best advice the therapist gave me was to establish ground rules for fighting with my partner. This helps contain the fight and keep it from derailing into the kind of unhealthy fights that destroy relationships.
Once we set ground rules for fighting in our relationship our arguments became a lot less emotionally-charged and a lot more productive.
Some examples of ground rules for fighting are:
- You’ll let each other take turns to speak without interruption.
- You won’t use any profanity or other disrespectful language.
- You’ll stick to the present issue and avoid generalizing with words like “always” and “never”.
- You won’t jab at things that are sensitive or important to the other person.
- If things get heated you have an agreed-to “brake signal” that you’ll both honour.
You and your partner will have your own set of ground rules, but the important thing is to come up with them together.The rules will only work if you both agree to them.
Fighting is inevitable in any relationship. You just need to set rules on how you're going to fight without inflicting real damage.
5. Be transparent about finances and work towards the same financial goals
Relationship is about teamwork. And one thing all couples must tackle together as a team is finance. And it all starts with open communication and transparency.
Ohhh, but money seems like such a touchy subject, doesn’t it?
Oftentimes we’re afraid talking about money might create tension, open wounds, or trigger defensiveness. But we can lay those fears to rest—talking openly about money is actually great for relationships. According to research, couples who talk about finances at least once a week report feeling happier in their relationship.
So make it a priority to discuss finances in your relationship, especially before you get married or move in together. Be transparent about how much you make, the savings and debt you have, and any financial goals you want to achieve—both in the short and long-term.
If both partners can’t come to an agreement about their financial goals or how they’ll each contribute to the finances of the household, that could lead to a bigger problem down the road. So it’s good to hash those details out from the get-go.
6. Be direct and open about needs and wishes
I still remember the first relationship advice I received after I started dating my husband. It turned out to be one of the best advice about relationships I’ve ever received.
One day, shortly after Tony and I started dating, I confided in a friend that I was frustrated over something in my new relationship and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Every time Tony asked me “would you like me to wait for you after class?” I would say “no, you don’t have to wait for me”, and he would respond with “ok, see you tomorrow!”
“Doesn’t he know I really meant I wanted him to wait for me?” I said to my friend.
She looked at me and said in an amused tone: “Well he’s not a mind reader.”
Then she continued in a serious voice: “If you need something, you have to tell him directly.”
It took years for me to properly digest that piece of advice and apply her wisdom consistently in our relationship. But once I started being more direct and open about all my needs and feelings, our communication improved drastically.
Now if I need or want something—I’ll tell him directly. For example, I told him the other day that I would like more gestures of affection from him. To many, this approach may sound “unromantic” but it has saved us from a lot of misunderstandings and disappointments.
Life is busy for the modern couple. Nobody has the time and energy to guess your thoughts and feelings all the time. If you want lower frustration and higher satisfaction in your relationship, just tell your partner your needs and wishes.
7. Don’t Insist on Being Right
But I’m right and they’re wrong!
Well you have a choice to make here: Do you want to be right, or do you want to have a relationship?
When you try to make the other person accept your point of view as the “correct” version, it’s like trying to force chicken pot pies down someone’s throat when they’re not hungry. Yeah you can make them swallow the pies, but don’t expect them to love you for it.
And if you do that too often, sooner or later they’re going to get sick of your pies and shove them in your face.
All jokes aside, insisting on being right is detrimental to relationships. It’s so damaging that relationship experts like Esther Perel have said over and over again: “You can be right or you can be married.”
There’s a saying in Chinese that goes something like this: “the melon that you pulled off the vines with force won’t be sweet.” It means don’t try to force anything because you might not get the result you were hoping for. If you keep hounding your partner with reasons why you’re right and they’re wrong, you might get them to agree with you, but you can bet that agreement came with a load of resentment.
Does this mean you should always go along with your partner’s point of view and never insist on your stance? I believe there should be a balance. Both partners should acknowledge the value in the other person’s opinions. Having one person constantly conceding to the other—as this study shows—may be bad for mental health.You can be right or you can be married. —Esther Perel
Final Thoughts on What It Takes to Build a Happy Marriage in Modern Times
When I was little I thought all married couples were like my parents—always angry and unhappy. But as I grew up, I realized it is possible for two people to live happily together. It just takes commitment and effort from both sides. No matter how times may change, this is the golden rule in relationships that will never go out of fashion.
I’m working on these 7 ground rules of a happy marriage. I expect I’ll have to continue working on them throughout my life as we both grow and our experiences expand. And that’s the beauty of relationships—it’s always an unfinished project and it gets more and more amazing if you’re willing to keep working on it.
Do you have any relationship tips? I’d like to hear them! Let me know by leaving a comment below or send me an email!
Looking for more ideas on how to improve your relationship? Don’t forget to check out my post “15 Simple Creative Ways to Show Love to Your Significant Other” and download the free “30-Days to a Happier Relationship Challenge” below!