We had just sat down for lunch when Dennis dropped the bomb. “Michelle and I are separated, and it looks like we’re getting a divorce.” My heart sank. I hadn’t seen him for over a year and was eager to spend the next hour getting caught up. Over the course of our 12-year friendship, Dennis and I have provided each other with plenty of advice, ranging from career moves to what phone to buy. Suddenly, we were in unknown territory, and I was sitting across from a man whose marriage was crashing down and didn’t know what to say or do about it.
This was the second time that this had happened to me in the past 6 months. In February, I met another old friend for drinks and discovered he had been separated from his wife and living in an apartment for several months and hadn’t told me. Like Dennis, this friend was also unable to explain why his marriage was falling apart. Neither he nor his wife had been unfaithful. He just said they didn’t like doing the same things anymore and that as their kids grew up he and his wife became less of a couple and like more roommates.
It’s not like divorces are on the rise—quite the opposite according to a recent University of Michigan study.
Overall, the divorce rate has been on the decline since the 1980s. But when you combine your real-life divorced peers with the array of celebrity couples—Ben and Jen, Gwen and Gavin, Blake and Miranda—currently in the process of consciously uncoupling, there are times when it begins to feel like a long-lived marriage is up against impossible odds.
Of course, there are any number of reasons why couples split up, from unrealistic expectations to abuse and infidelity. Money often plays an oversized role, too. With so many ways marriages can go wrong, there’s no easy secret formula to making them work. If there was, then Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggywould still be together. But in the 12 years I’ve been married, I’ve learned that the big issues are easier to tackle when my wife and I focus on consistently doing the little things that keep our marriage healthy. Here are the six that work for us.
1. Give a little bit. While there’s a time and place for grand romantic gestures, like surprise trips to Monte Carlo, there are also plenty of other small ways to make your partner feel your love. For instance, my wife likes to slip little notes into my bag before I head out the door for a business trip. She’ll send a screenshot when a song we love pops up on Pandora. But I find that anything from a foot massage to hand-delivered cup of coffee can add flavor to the average day and keep you connected.
2. Create something together. It helps that my wife and I are in the same line of work, where collaborating is a necessity. But I find that working with your spouse on a project is a rewarding way to spend time together and keep you on the same page. It can be as simple as cooking dinner together or planting a vegetable garden. The act of being creative and bouncing ideas back and forth naturally brings people closer. It also helps break a marriage out of the day-to-day minutia of bills and busywork.
3. Make each other feel good. One of my wedding vows was to make my wife laugh every single day. And even though I’m not sure if I’ve managed this feat completely, I do know that it’s something I love to do. That’s because making her laugh and feel good goes a long way toward keeping us both happy. When you think about it, your partner is your touch stone. This person knows your favorite movies, all your proudest moments, and every single one of your life dreams. When they feel good, you tend to feel better, too.
4. Don’t keep score. When you both work or have young children to care for, it’s easy to get the impression that all the hard work is falling on your shoulders. From cooking to cleaning to helping with the homework, there’s an unending to-do list that inevitably leads you to feel like you’re taken for granted. While the healthiest thing to do is to communicate these feelings and team up with your spouse to better tackle the load, you should also take into account that in marriage the math doesn’t always add up. Focusing on where it doesn’t will only lead to resentment.
5. Carve out your own space. Going on a trip with a friend, taking a college course, practicing a hobby, or joining a book or running club are all great ways to enrich yourself. But what’s even better is bringing those experiences back to your marriage. Encouraging each other to have experiences and become richer people will fortify your marriage.
6. Take time rediscover each other. Over the past 12 years, my wife and I have both changed. And I’m sure we’ll change even more over the course of the next 12 years. I feel differently about her now than I did when we first met, and I’m sure she does too. The best way for us to keep growing together is set aside an evening each week to check in, to talk, and to remember why we chose each other to begin with.