5 Steps to a Better Marriage
What if I told you that there are things that you can do that would improve both your individual and marital health? What if they were so easy that they did not involve studying, reading, individual or couples therapy, pastoral counseling or even a lot of contemplation? If you are like most people, you probably think that what I am about to say is too good to be true. Unfortunately, if you are like most couples, you overlook these simple steps that can set the stage for a healthier marriage and make it easy to feel irritable, annoyed and out of sorts with your spouse. The best part is that you already know how to do these things. You just might not realize how important they are to your marital health.
These simple steps are the following: good sleep, good nutrition, active social life, lots of exercise and (most men will pay attention here) an active sex life. What research shows us is that once most couples marry and the honeymoon phase, or even the actual honeymoon, is over they start to neglect each of these areas, especially if they have children, ambitious careers or financial concerns. When they do this, they accidentally make it difficult to feel good in general which in turn makes it easy to feel bad about their spouse, their life and their marriage.
Here is what happens to many adults—they are chronically sleep-deprived, chronically busy and chronically on-the-go. Sleep gets short-changed and results in irritability, decreased ability to concentrate and pay attention, feeling flat and feeling depressed. Lack of adequate sleep also decreases libido, ups the odds for motor vehicle accidents and other accidents. Forty percent of adults are chronically and severely sleep deprived because they get less than 7 hours of sleep every night. Here is the news-most adults need between 7 –9 hours of continuous sleep in order to feel and be healthy.
The benefits of exercise are not just for your physical health. Regular exercise (an average of 5 times/week for at least 45-50 minutes, much more than what is needed for cardiovascular health) stabilizes and improves your mood and prevents depression and anxiety. Daily exercise improves sleep quality, concentration and attention, problem-solving ability, libido and sexual response in both men and women. How does exercise do all of this? Exercise improves blood flow and oxygenation to your brain and genitals. Men should take extra note–within two weeks of beginning a regular exercise program, men experience improved erections! Men are also the ones least likely to engage in a regular exercise program, closely followed by mothers with young children.
More recent research on the effects of the refined carbohydrate diet (think junk food, fast food, white breads, white potatoes, sugar and processed foods) shows that it is implicated in depression, anxiety, poor concentration, acne, weight gain and feeling low on energy. People who eat lots of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains and who avoid processed and highly refined carbohydrates improve both their physical and mental health. Simply eating out a lot and failing to take the time to make nutritious home-cooked meals can have a serious negative effect on your mood, your outlook and your health which hurts your marriage.
Some couples make the mistake of believing that all they need is each other. They stop socializing with others in order to devote themselves to their spouse. This sounds really romantic. Many love songs attest to this mentality. However, God made us to live in community, not just with our spouses. Some studies have shown that in healthy marriages, 70% of the important conversations about important issues happen with close friends outside of the marriage. These couples have discovered and accepted that no husband or wife can meet all of their needs. They realize they need a wealth of resources such as close friends, advisors and mentors in order to successfully navigate life and marriage. Women frequently make the mistake of wishing that their husbands would listen and talk repeatedly about the same topic just like their girlfriends. Men tend to make a different mistake when they only talk to their wife and to no one else. Both errors make it easy to lose perspective and become lost when marital conflict occurs.
Sex has a special role in marriage beyond being a privilege for spouses and way to procreate. Research shows us that sexual activity releases feel-good hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin, vasopressin & serotonin) that make a couple feel closer as well as more bonded. It also helps improve sleep quality (this is why so many men find it easy to fall asleep immediately after having an orgasm) and releases hormones that decrease anxiety and improve mood. Women who engage in frequent sex with their spouses find that they improve their libido because sex is the sort of activity that causes a “the more you have it the more you want it” phenomenon. When you engage in sex, you give a gift to yourself and your spouse that makes you feel great, feel closer, sleep well and feel like having more fun. Making the mistake of always waiting for the perfect time or the perfect mood is backwards–sex tends to work the other way, making the time perfect instead of the opposite. Researchers also have found that when both husband and wife agree upon the frequency of sex, they have a much more satisfying marriage.
So, there you have it, five simple habits that you know you ought to be doing, but perhaps never considered as something significant beyond your annual medical exam when you doctor asks about your health habits. Here are some suggestions for how to implement these easy steps.
- Turn off the TV, the smartphone and the laptop at least an hour before bedtime and set a regular bedtime that allows you to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep before you have to wake up. The light from electronic devices interferes with sleep onset, so read or listen to quiet music instead, or snuggle with your spouse. Be in bed vs. getting ready for bed by a reasonable time so that you allow enough time for sleep.
- Vow to cook one more meal at home a week instead of eating out. Take a cooking class or start watching the cooking shows to make your meals more interesting. Try to go on a fast from pizza or junk food for a month.
- Bring fruit or veggies and dip to work instead of going to the vending machine or the fast food vendor.
- Invite other couples and friends over to play games, watch movies or TV shows or to cook together. Make weekly fellowship a part of your marriage.
- Men—Help out with the chores at home so your wife has time to get interested in sex. Sometimes the best foreplay is washing the dishes, putting the kids to bed or folding the laundry. Men need to remember that it takes most women at least 20 minutes to warm up to a sexual response and that this is normal. It takes most men about 1 second and this is normal too!
- Women—Finish up with the chores, kids and smartphone and remember that once you and your husband get sexual, you will be glad that you did.
- Talk about how often you and your spouse want to engage in sexual activity. There is no magic formula for how often you should have sex. The magic happens when you both agree and seek each other out for sex and refuse to made your bedroom a zone of avoidance or forced cooperation.
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