Keep, Toss and Add: Secret to a Happy Married Life

Couples have bushy tails and brilliant eyes. They are anticipating their next new trip with excitement. They have the utmost respect for their fiancé. They are open to discussing communication methods and welcoming of suggestions and new tools. They haven’t yet amassed a lifetime of disappointment or animosity. The majority of the time is spent in happiness, laughter, and casting visions for their future life together.

But it’s important that I urge these couples to keep realistic expectations for the future. There will be challenges, challenging days, needs that go unfulfilled, and irritations. But having a sound understanding before getting married is crucial. Expect the best, but be ready for the worst and work to avoid it. Do not become stale. Confront the boredom. And never cease being genuinely shocked and grateful that someone has chosen to be with you every day.

Exercise inspired by the Clean Sweep television program on TLC

In premarital counseling, there is one exercise I frequently have couples complete that tends to be quite helpful for them as they later face challenges in life. The task is loosely modeled after an old TLC television program called “Clean Sweep.” If you watched this program, you may recall that an expert would compel a family to arrange and purify their disorderly home. They would gradually sift through their belongings, sorting everything into piles marked “Keep,” “Toss,” or “Sell.” Then they would pick which items they needed to keep, which ones they wanted to donate or toss away, and which ones they wanted to sell in a garage sale to make a little money.

Choosing a marriage strategy

I advise couples to sit down and talk about some particular categories of what they want to keep, throw, and [instead of selling] add using this graphic. These two people are choosing to identify as one unit, a new family, and their own entity when they choose to join their lives through marriage. Therefore, it is crucial that they (and not their parents or friends) jointly decide what is best for their marriage.

They reflect on their own families of origin and past relationships before deciding how they want their future union to turn out. The topics they cover can range from how disputes were handled to how money was perceived, how children were brought up, how religion was viewed, whether or not romance was maintained, how fights were settled, who did what around the house, what unwritten family “rules” existed, and what traditions were significant.

What needs to be kept, discarded, or added

Couples discuss these issues and decide whether to maintain, discard, or add something completely new.You might use communication as an example. Let’s say the prospective husband’s family covered up a disagreement. They maintained order and avoided talking about serious matters. Let’s assume that the wife’s family was used to having arguments and that screaming was a regular component of their fighting technique. However, there was always a solution to the conflict, and the family would reconcile and move on. Now that they may choose for their own marriage, they do so. They may speak in a manner similar to this:

“Let’s continue yelling, and aim toward peaceful confrontations. But let’s always have a conversation and never ignore anything. Let’s be quick to apologize and make sure we don’t let our rage fester. I don’t want to be like my parents, who I don’t recall ever apologizing for anything. In light of this, let’s make sure to be prepared to apologize, even when we don’t want to and even if it means swallowing our pride.

The couple intends to be married and actively seeks to make the aforementioned ideas their norm. In order for their children to be able to say, “I liked that our parents talked things out,” when they are attending premarital counseling one day. They didn’t yell, but they also didn’t shy away from conflict, which I found admirable. And I appreciated that they occasionally stated “I’m sorry” to us. What a lovely illustration of the significance of the choices this married couple makes in the long run.

Keep, toss and add relevant for married couples too

For married individuals, this post is about marriage, so how is that helpful? It’s never too late to have this conversation, in my opinion. Even if you now have additional wounds, bad habits, and unwritten rules, the choice to keep, throw out, or add something still remains. Your family of origin may even be the topic of discussion for the first time during this session.

The fact that one individual always valued spending time with extended family while the other always preferred a quiet morning with only their parents may help to explain why Christmas always ends in a conflict. It could shed some light on why one of you is so frugal with money while the other finds comfort in spending. You’d be surprised at the differences that arise when we judge something to be right or wrong based on how it was modeled to us as children. These differences do not stem from right or wrong.

So go home, sit down, and have this conversation even if you’ve been married for 25 years. Choose what you want to maintain from what you feel actually works for you and your partner as a pair or for your parents or other role models. What poor behaviors are impeding the development of your relationships or your capacity to communicate effectively? Decide what to add, i.e., what resources you haven’t really used yet or what you see other couples doing that you haven’t really tried.

The guidelines for your marriage are up to you two as a couple. Such a frightening yet empowering thing. But getting started now will make you feel more like those soon-to-be married couples who are ready to do everything it takes to keep their relationship strong and who believe that nothing could ever make them love their spouse any less. It offers hope for change and lays out a road plan for getting there.