Imagine being together with the one you love without negativity. Imagine a rich, loving relationship built on the foundations of kindness, appreciation, compliments, affection, support, honesty, tenderness, and attention. Imagine experiencing these fulfilling qualities on a daily basis.
The key to a great marriage is the quality of the habits you share together. Healthy, positive habits create an extraordinarily happy marriage. Negative habits create chronic dissatisfaction.
Fortunately, healthy habits can be learned. This book will help you learn and integrate them into your daily life. You can read the chapters from start to finish or simply choose one habit at a time from whichever section interests you the most. The four parts of this book include the following:
Part I, “The Fundamentals,” offering a thorough grounding in the essential elements of understanding extraordinary love and the nature of habits.
Part II, “Connection-Building Habits,” offering two chapters of habits that are useful on a daily basis to help you connect emotionally and physically.
Part III, “Communication-Building Habits,” offering two chapters of habits to help you talk to each other when you’re out on a date and when you’re experiencing conflict (which is inevitable, by the way).
Part IV, “Intimacy-Building Habits,” offering three chapters of habits that focus on the senses, heart, and spirit as gateways to taking your relationship to a new dimension, both deeper and higher.
We know that these habits work for couples because they are based on cutting-edge marriage counseling techniques, mindfulness science, energy medicine, positive psychology, neuroscience, attachment theory, spiritual principles, and common sense.
Each of the 75 happiness habits is triggered by an ordinary “prompt” in your life, such as “when you’re eating dinner” or “when you’re watching TV together.” You’ll find that the habits take almost no time to absorb into full and busy lifestyles.Adopting even a handful of them will make a huge impact on your marriage.
Each habit is also illustrated with an anecdote, either personal or clinical. All client names and identifying characteristics have been changed in order to protect privacy. Many of the stories are composites based on Ashley’s twenty- five years of clinical experience. Any specific case or situation that you may recognize is purely coincidental.
This book is generally written in the first person based on my (Ashley’s) long career as a therapist, but it is very much a mutual collaboration. Daniel is not only a vigilant editor and contributor but has also developed, tested, and continues to live the habits with me. This book simply wouldn’t have been possible without both of us.
Daniel and I have been fortunate to experience a wonderfully rich and healing love together. Our marriage sustains and enriches us both individually and jointly. However, we know that we can’t take our relationship for granted. Even a wondrous love will wilt away if it is riddled with habits of neglect or abuse. Our marriage is only as strong as the happiness habits that we cultivate every day.
If you long for a deeper connection with your mate—if you crave more intimacy on a daily basis—then these habits are for you. Read. Learn. Practice. You deserve to be deliriously happy in your marriage. And with these tools, you can be.
What’s a habit? It’s something you do regularly, something that becomes, after a while, almost unconscious. Think about some of the habits you already have: for example, your morning routine. You get out of bed and proceed through a series of mindless tasks: make your bed, use the bathroom, brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast. These are habits you learned, many of them when you were a child, some of them later in life. By sheer practice, they’ve become automatic. They help get your day off to the right start.
It’s quite possible as well that you’ve got some bad habits. For instance, maybe you check your e-mails first thing in the morning rather than take a moment to center yourself. Or perhaps you eat a pastry every morning rather than a nutritious breakfast.
The habits for a healthy, happy marriage aren’t fundamentally different from other kinds of habits. They’ve got to be learned and practiced. Sometimes, in doing that, you’ve got to break bad habits that are injuring your relationship. Let’s look at an example.
Bad Marriage Habits
Mary and Bob have unhealthy relationship habits. They’ve been married for fifteen years and, truth be told, don’t think too hard about their marriage. If you asked Mary if she felt close to Bob, she would say he’s like a comfortable shoe—worn and familiar. If you asked her if there was spice to their connection, she would say that spice is unrealistic after the first year of courtship.
If you asked Bob if he felt intimate with Mary he would say, “I guess, sure.” He might assume that all was well as long as Mary wasn’t complaining and as long as they had sex fairly regularly.
However, both Mary and Bob feel lonely, underappreciated, and stressed. They can’t quite pinpoint why because life appears relatively good; they’re healthy, their kids are doing fine, they each have jobs, and they share a nice home. And yet, there is a chronic underlying sense of dissatisfaction.
A typical weekday for Mary and Bob includes early-morning departures to full-time jobs, no communication until 3 p.m., Mary running kids to activities into the early evening, Bob coming home late from work and giving Mary a peck on the cheek, Mary complaining that he doesn’t help around the house, Bob feeling nagged, Mary folding clothes before going to bed without Bob, Bob staying up late to watch TV or work in the basement. Both of them end the day feeling lonely and unsupported.
Mary and Bob have sex about every other month or so. They go out to dinner together about four times a year. They see family and friends on weekends but rarely spend time alone together. Notably, they don’t have conversations with each other about the state of their relationship.
Poor Mary and Bob. They’re caught on the treadmill, the relentless pace of modern society that threatens to squeeze the joy out of living. Because of their bad relationship habits, they are asleep to the miracles in their midst.
It is likely that eventually one of them will encounter the potential for intimacy outside the marriage, maybe with a friend or colleague (which may or may not end the marriage). Or maybe Bob and Mary will simply numb out their intimacy needs, losing themselves in obsessive work, family activities, excessive drinking, shopping, or Internet use until one day, after the kids are grown, they’ll wonder, “Who is this stranger in my bed?” (if they even still share a bed).They will end their days feeling lonely and deadened inside.
And yet, there was a time when Mary and Bob were crazy about each other. They were so in love, in fact, that they willingly joined their lives. They chose to build a life together, have a family, and grow old side by side. But
somehow, through the years, they lost sight of the intimacy that was the initial foundation of that hopeful beginning.
A foundation of Healthy Habits
Habits—whether healthy or otherwise—create neural pathways or “grooves” in your brain. You want a brain grooved for emotional safety, compassion, and joyful connection. Repetitive healthy habits are the way to get this. Love might be the reason you got married, but a brain wired for intimacy is what will sustain your marriage over the long haul.
When Daniel and I began to live together, I thought at first that our great love would sustain us, and that keeping our intimate connection would be a breeze. But who was I kidding?
Nobody tells you how complicated a second marriage can be—or at least nobody told me. The love of my life was a package deal. He came with two children, an ex-wife, the ex’s new partner, that partner’s children, the ex-in- laws, and the usual assortment of ordinary in-laws.
I, too, was hardly an island. With three children, an ex-husband, his new partner, my ex-in-laws, and the usual assortment of extended family plus pets, I was more of an archipelago. Add to this a non-overlapping joint custody arrangement tracked by a six-month wall calendar that resembled air-traffic control, and life became complex and full indeed.
It was immediately apparent to me that regular healthy habits were our only hope of keeping a strong foundation for our marriage. Without them, we would be swept away in an avalanche of life.
Can small moments of daily intimacy really make that much of a difference? Yes! While traditionally recommended intimacy activities—such as weekends away, vacations, weekly sex, and hobbies together—are good for the health of your relationship, they are not enough. Without healthy habits practiced every single day, your relationship will suffer.
We know that the happiness habits in this book will help you feel closer every day, and we know because we use them! Their effectiveness is based on tried and true foundations.
- Emotionally Focused Couples’ Therapy (EFT)—This framework emphasizes attachment theory and the need to create a secure bonding attachment between partners.
- Imago Relationship Therapy—This framework emphasizes listening/ mirroring skills and a need to understand how to help each other heal childhood wounds.
- The Five Love Languages —This framework looks at how different people express love and prefer to receive love based on the following modes: touch, verbal affirmation, acts of service, quality time, and gifts.
- Couples’ research—John Gottman is a pioneer in couples’ research and can predict with 97 percent accuracy which couples will divorce based on whether they fall prey to the four “horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).
- Neuroplasticity and rewiring the brain—Current neuroscientific research confirms that we can change neural pathways in the brain for the better by having repeated and sustained positive experiences.
- Mindfulness-based therapies—Mindfulness brings an attitude of curiosity, receptivity, and nonjudgmental awareness to present experience. Being in the moment leads to compassion and less emotional reactivity.
- Positive Psychology and gratitude—Gratitude practices lead to higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and overall well being. Most couples chronically underappreciate each other.
- Energy Medicine and bodywork—Energy medicine integrates the body’s energy (electromagnetic fields) and the manipulation of that energy via touch. Bodywork of all kinds is a powerful form of nonverbal communication that links mind, body, and spirit.
I have seen happy couples become happier as they integrate these happiness habits into their daily routine, and I have seen distressed couples turn their relationship around as they work with these habits in their lives.
At the Core
Each of the habits in this book creates an intentional break in the automated and seemingly relentless pace of life. They initiate a “pattern interrupt” to the usual stream of behaviors, thoughts, and reactions. In that space of purposeful interruption, the habit becomes a moment of intimate connection. Who among us doesn’t want more of that?
Essential to each habit is brevity: short and simple. If a new activity together is too time-consuming, labor-intensive, or expensive (such as taking up golf), it is less likely to happen. But easy suggestions, like “touch your mate during dinner” or “have a twenty-second hug at the end of the day,” are doable on a daily basis.
The strategy here is to avoid the “New Year’s Resolution Syndrome.” It’s easy to make a big proclamation about how everything is going to be different on January 1. But sadly, as you know, few resolutions are ever kept. By Valentine’s Day most are a distant memory.
The key to lasting change in your relationship (or any goal, for that matter) is to integrate bite-sized, practical changes into your daily routine. Over time, the wonder of a close relationship will become your reality. The beauty of couples’ happiness habits is that they set you up for success!
Try several new habits consistently for a few weeks and see how your mate responds.
Having worked with many couples over the years, I’ve learned to expect certain questions. Here are a few of the queries that come up most often, along with our answers.
What if my partner won’t participate? Can I do this alone?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” You are part of a dynamic duo. As you begin to make changes in your patterns, the entire relationship system will be affected. It may take two to tango, but it only takes one to redirect the dance.
Why should I be the nice one when my spouse is so neglectful or rude?
Because you shouldn’t let your partner determine your level of consciousness. By consciousness, I mean your ability to respond with generosity, compassion, kindness, and love.
It’s easy to point your finger toward your partner and notice all the ways that he or she falls short, fails, and doesn’t meet your needs. But consider turning that finger around and pointing to yourself. Are you the kind of partner that you would want? How do you rate as a partner? Would you say, “I do,” to yourself? Do you meet your partner’s needs?
Be the partner that you would desire. If you raise the bar on behaviors that are thoughtful, warm, kind, and loving, chances are high that your mate will begin to respond.
What if I don’t feel like being loving?
Then “fake it ’til you make it.” Neuroscience has demonstrated that our feelings and our behaviors are connected. Just as changes in how you feel lead to changes in how you behave, so do changes in how you behave lead to changes in how you feel. That holds true for being nice, for behaving affectionately, and even for making love.
How quickly will these habits take to work?
The habits help you feel connected immediately. However, it takes about twenty-one days of consecutive use for a habit to stick. So it’s best to try a few habits and see which ones you want to use regularly. Then commit to integrating them into your life for twenty-one days. Hint: It’s easy to forget the habits until they become second nature, so use Post-It notes or digital reminders as prompts for yourself!
What if I find that I only use the habits sporadically?
Using the tools a little bit is better than not using them at all. You may find that you start using a tool and then forget it or switch to other tools. Don’t get discouraged if you let the habit slip. It takes time and awareness to create new patterns in your marriage. Any day is a good day to start—or restart—a new habit.
Aren’t relationships, in the end, just a lot of hard work?
This perspective always amuses me because it makes love seem like such a drudgery, a chore, with all the sex appeal of cleaning toilets. Who wants more “work” in a world where we practically work 24/7 as it is?
No, relationships require nourishment, that’s all. Healthy habits are nourishment for a happy marriage. Think of your body. You can have plenty of unhealthy habits that will lead to heart disease, high cholesterol, and obesity. Or you can have healthy habits that make you feel alive and vibrant. Feed your relationship with unhealthy habits and you might end up in divorce court. But use the healthy habits in this book and together you’ll feel like a million bucks.
Prompt: When you reunite at the end of the day
habit: greet each other with enthusiasm. be excited and grateful that your beloved has come home. stop what you’re doing, engage in a full body hug (stomach to stomach), and hold the pose for twenty or more seconds. feel your bodies relax into each other and say, “I’m so glad you’re home.” (feel free to use whatever words and phrases best express your love.) if you’re the one coming home, go up to your spouse, engage in the extended hug and say, “I’m so glad to be home.”
Purpose: this reunion hug will feel unusually long at first. However, it takes twenty seconds to stimulate the flow of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. When you activate the release of this hormone, you start to feel closer and more connected right away.
You might find it initially challenging to make this exercise into a habit, because if you’re the one coming home, you will have many demands on your attention (check the mail, check the e-mail, hug the kids, return a phone call). and if you’re the one already home, you may feel inconvenienced to drop what you were doing in order to engage in this ritual. Most of us are used to a cursory “welcome home” peck – if that.
However, when you develop the habit of this oxytocin-rich reception, you ignite passion. you increase awareness of how precious your partner is to you, and you break the cycle of dull routine and complacency.
Sally complained that her husband barely noticed her when he came home from work. She looked at me and sniffed, “He happily hugs the kids; he even pats the dog enthusiastically. Me? I barely get a nod.” Sally wanted more than anything to know that she mattered to her husband.
I knew how she felt. There had been too many times when Dan came home and I felt invisible. Or worse, times when I came home and greeted good old Hickory, my faithful golden retriever, with real enthusiasm while Dan got a simple “Hi.”
It just didn’t seem right that upon coming home, I could get down on the floor to rub Hickory’s belly whereas to Dan I would just say, “Hey, did you remember to pick up milk?”
Yep, guilty. And so, one crisp autumn afternoon, after reflecting on this unsatisfactory reunion, I decided to turn things around and give Daniel a complete puppy welcome. That evening, rather than wait for him to enter the house, which would be customary, I bounded out the front door, ran to him outside and gave him a big hug.
He naturally attempted to pull back after a second but I held on longer. I held on for dear life. Dan began to laugh and started to hug me back.
At that precise moment, our neighbor across the street appeared at the end of his driveway. This curmudgeonly neighbor, a man who we had hardly ever seen in three years, barked, “Maybe you’d better take it inside.”
And so we did.
Reflection: How do you feel when you make your partner feel cherished when he or she walks in the door?