Go Retro: 12 Tips for a Happy Marriage
Tried-and-true strategies you can borrow from your parents' marriage to enhance your own. By Suzanne Wright WebMD Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Would you take relationship tips from your grandfather or your mom to make your marriage happier?
Modern married couples just might do well to emulate some of the successful strategies of their happily married parents and grandparents -- from sleeping in separate beds to maintaining same-sex friends.
Two newly reissued books originally published in 1913, Don'ts for Husbands and Don'ts for Wives, contain hundreds of tried-and-true tips for a happy marriage. Advice for wives includes such tidbits as "don't let him have to search the house for you after his day's work. Listen for his latch-key and meet him on the threshold," and "don't bother your husband with chatter if he is tired." And for husbands, "don't hesitate to mention the fact when you think that your wife looks exceptionally nice," and "don't scowl or look severe; cultivate a pleasant expression."
"Baby boomers got sold by psychology on the idea of being 'authentic,'" says Terrence Real, therapist, founder of the Relational Life Institute, and co-author of Wonderful Marriage: A Guide to Building a Great Relationship That Will Last a Lifetime. "It's given us permission to treat and speak to each other horribly. Our grandparents knew better."
Could "old-fashioned" practices offer greater longevity, stability, and pleasure to your marriage? Yes, say the relationship experts WebMD spoke to. Read on for ways to incorporate these retro practices into your own relationship.
(What relationship habits (good and bad) did you learn from your parents? Join the discussion on WebMD's Couples Coping: Support Group board.)
Retro Relationship Tip No. 1: Reinstate Civility
"Please," "thank you," "pardon me" and "may I" are phrases that seemed to have all but disappeared from present-day vocabularies, especially with our loved ones.
After spending time with Wonderful Marriage co-authors Lilo and Gerard Leeds, married for more than 50 years, Real believes you should extend your partner the same courtesy you would a stranger. "When speaking to your spouse, don't be rude, be respectful. Use a combination of old-school civility and modern frankness." Additionally, he suggests trying more sweetness and tenderness by saying things more lovingly.
Psychotherapist and author Tina Tessina, PhD, concurs. "Politeness is like a lubricant for your daily interactions; it makes everything go more smoothly."
Joyce Morley-Ball, EdD, a counselor in Decatur, Ga., adds some specifics. "Show her that chivalry is not dead: Pull out her chair, open the door for her, help her over a puddle, give her your coat when it is cold outside, help her to put on her coat. This act of affection shows that she is important and there is a level of respect for her."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 2: Put Pen to Paper
Back before cell phones and instant messaging, people wrote letters of affection to each other, often waiting weeks to receive them.
Retro Relationship Tip No. 2: Put Pen to Paper continued...
Lilia Fallgatter, author of The Most Important Letter You Will Ever Write: How to Tell Loved Ones How You Feel Before It's Too Late, advocates reviving the lost art of letter-writing to increase intimacy in a relationship.
"Love letters exchanged between a couple can strengthen their relationship by helping them to connect to one another on a deeper level," she says via email. "These letters may also become treasured keepsakes that can be revisited and experienced anew each time they are read." You'll reap bonus points if you hand write it on beautiful paper and enclose a cherished memento such as a photograph or ticket stub from a movie you saw together.
Retro Relationship Tip No. 3: Sleep As Singles
It was TV censors who kept sitcom couples in separate beds, but maybe there was wisdom to catching your ZZZs in your own bed.
When one partner snores or is a night owl, tensions can mount in the marital bed, experts say. It may seem like a throwback a la Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, but many couples happily sleep in separate beds; some even maintain separate bedrooms and eliminate tossing and turning and fights over the blanket.
And many couples who are secure enough to seek satisfying slumber on their own report using the regained energy for more ... loving pursuits.
Retro Relationship Tip No. 4: Maintain Same-Sex Friends -- and Interests
Don't for Wives instructs women not to "try to regulate your husband's pleasures and don't be jealous if they don't include you."
It's only been during the past couple of decades that couples expected to share a bulk of their free time together. Retro couples didn't necessarily want to participate in each others hobbies.
Charlotte, N.C., relationship expert Kathy Stafford recommends that couples keep close ties with their same-sex friends throughout marriage. "My parents had separate interests. Dad belonged to a men's club, and Mom belonged to a ladies-only club. This gave them both time to cultivate their own interests, and they weren't totally reliant on each other for their entertainment."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 5: Look Sharp
How did June Cleaver do it? She always looked impeccable when serving dinner to Ward and the kids.
Les Parrott, PhD, and professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University, says you can inspire romance by dressing up for the occasion. "With our hectic schedules, it's tempting to resort to sweatpants all weekend or immediately changing into a ratty T-shirt after work. Instead, dress up the next time you and your spouse have dinner or plan a night out. Wearing a beautiful dress or a button-down shirt and slacks will be unexpected and make your partner feel special that you took the extra time to look nice. Taking time with your appearance inspires romance and shows your partner you care."
Rhonda Fine, PhD, a board-certified sexologist at the MIAMI Institute, agrees. She tells WebMD via email, "Never let yourself go. Look your best as often as possible -- it will make your partner feel loved and proud."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 6: Don't Go to Bed Angry
Jackie Gleason may have wanted to "send Alice to the moon," but the Honeymooners settled their quarrels before turning in for the night.
The long-married Leeds are proponents of this wisdom. Even if you can't resolve a disagreement before you hit the sheets, you can agree to let the anger go for the night. Remind each other how lucky you are -- even as you disagree -- to have each other to disagree with.
"From the very beginning we decided that we didn't want to go to bed angry," Gerard Leeds writes. "And we seldom go to sleep without kissing each other good night."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 7: Hit the Dance Floor
Ever notice how blissful couples look as they are twirling across the dance floor, entwined in each other's arms like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?
There is a language of leading and yielding that dance teaches. Paul Bolotovsky is the owner of the Manhattan-based Nightclub Dance Series, an instructional dance series that teaches men and women how to dance in nightclubs. He says that putting on your dancing shoes can put the sizzle back into a relationship that has fizzled.
"The old days of ballroom dancing and swing have a lot to offer today's couples," he tells WebMD in an email interview. "The touch, teamwork, energy, music, anticipation, and companionship are all wonderful byproducts after a night of dancing." Don't fret if you have two left feet; even "contemporary" dancing" is a way to spend fun time together.
Retro Relationship Tip No. 8: Have Couples Fun
Bridge and pinochle were common activities shared by our parents and their friends. So was cocktail hour and formal anniversary celebrations with like-minded couples.
Fine says, "Play board games with other couples! It's fun and a great way to be social with others and playful with one another."
Parrott says it is important to identify friends who are healthy additions to your social circle. "Your goal is to become close with other couples with similar standards and interests who have positive attitudes about marriage and family life. Gravitate toward fun couples who make you feel supported and enhance your active, healthy lifestyle. Friends like these are good for your marriage and overall well-being."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 9: Give Compliments
To give a compliment, you've got to pay attention -- really notice something about someone. Remember how Carol and Mike Brady, the happily married matriarch and patriarch of The Brady Bunch, lavished them on each other?
If it's been a while since you've doled out flattering praise, try it.
Tessina notes that it costs nothing to say, "You look good," "You did a great job," or "I like your shirt." Yet compliments can really reassure and pump up your spouse.
Retro Relationship Tip No. 10: Hold Hands
Back in our parents' time, hand-holding and discreet pecks on the cheek were the tasteful, chaste displays of affection.
Although anything goes these days, Morley-Ball encourages couples to simply hold hands in public. "[It] affirms to everyone your undying affection and love for each other. [It] shows everyone that you are proud to be with each other and you want everyone to know it."
Tessina echoes this sweet sentiment. "There's an actual electrical connection that passes between us when we touch. You can use that electrical connection to provide juice in your marriage. Give each other little pats and gentle touches and hold hands frequently when you're walking or driving and you'll keep the energy -- and the sweetness -- flowing between you."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 11: Cut Back on Complaints
Yesteryear's couples had a comic reputation for nagging -- think of The Dick Van Dyke Show -- yet, in truth, many partners often held their tongues.
Real thinks a stumbling block in modern marriages is a constant soundtrack of discord. "Our generation thinks that closeness comes from sharing everything, letting each other know how miserable you are. But it doesn't motivate me to treat you better."
He says that relaying every annoyance is a bad idea. Instead, he recommends you pick your battles. "Not everything needs to be addressed."
Retro Relationship Tip No. 12: Try Thoughtful Little Acts
Back in the day, with fewer stresses, limited technology and less multitasking, couples were more "present" in their relationships.
"The presence of little, daily thoughtful acts showed caring and appreciation for one another," says licensed clinical social worker Toni Coleman. "Things like making breakfast for your spouse or packing their lunch, bringing them coffee in the morning or a drink or glass of wine at the end of the day, warming up their car or putting their keys and other personal effects on the hall table, ready to go."
Real writes that sustaining a happy relationship, such as the Leeds', requires careful thought, a generous spirit and hard work.
"There's a lot of wisdom [to be gained] from our parents or grandparents, he says."They had companionship marriage, but we've raised the bar -- we want romance, great sex, and more intimacy. We can reconcile these two approaches. With some of the gentleness and graciousness of previous generations with the technology and savvy of today's marriages."