We recently profiled four couples who have established what we think of as Third Metric marriages - relationships where both partners value wellbeing ahead of accumulating wealth or climbing a career ladder (which can responsible for so much misery). We realized that in the aggregate, their choices offer a nice cheat sheet of marital dos and don'ts. If you're looking to shape or reshape a shared life that doesn't feel like a grind, where you have less stress and more time for each other, consider following their lead:
1. Work the important stuff out before you get married (to the extent that you can).
When I asked Meghan and Josh what the biggest challenge in their marriage is, Meghan said a lot of their hardest moments so far came before they got engaged, when they were figuring out "if we can actually function and work together, being who we each are." Meghan was used to her independence and wasn't even sure she wanted to get married. She tended to work more and have more work-related stress than Josh, who described himself as a "late bloomer" - he still lived with his parents in his late 20s while he was establishing his nutrition practice. Before anyone put a ring on it, Meghan made it clear that Josh needed to move a little faster, and she committed to including Josh in her decisions and not letting work infringe on their time with each other.
Other couples we talked to also had key decisions and positions worked out when they married. Sarah and Jeff knew that Sarah would always be focused on her career, whereas Jeff would work part time or stay home as soon as they had a family. "Even though we got together pretty young, it's always been an understanding," Sarah said. Although they had lots to work out in terms of how they spent their money, high school sweethearts Bethany and Dustin knew that they wanted several children. As much as possible, figure out the big stuff before you say "I do."
2. If you have trouble coping with stress, marry someone who is less affected by it.
Both Meghan and Dana, who admit their vulnerability to stress, married people who are temperamentally less likely to become unmoored by their own stress. As a result, there's always a voice of calm and reason in their dynamic.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't be responsible for managing your own stress or that it doesn't deplete the less stress-prone partner to be constantly trying to help the other unwind. But tough situations are much easier to manage if both of your nerves aren't constantly singed.
3. Know that your job affects your marriage.
Most of the spouses we profiled saw their lives and marriages get profoundly better when they left jobs that didn't offer them flexibility or fulfillment. Not everyone has the option to switch jobs or careers, much less quit, like Sarah and Jeff, did, but if you have a sense that you're not where you're meant to be, think about the steps you would need to take to move into something you enjoy more. The person talking you off a ledge every night will appreciate it.
4. Have a plan.
If Josh and Meghan's life together seems like a designer marriage, that's because they consciously built their life in a way that minimizes stress and maximizes time for pursuits they believe in and enjoy.
For them a key piece has been assuming that they can do what they set out to do and refusing to accept that anything simply can't be done. Here's how Josh put it: "I think people don't really look at what they truly want to do in life and then take the steps to see if that's a feasible thing. [They] just jump to conclusions -- 'oh, that's not responsible,' or 'I don't have the money to do that.' You can pretty much do anything if you take the appropriate steps to set it up that way."
5. Reevaluate the plan.
If you didn't start your marriage with the lifestyle that works best for you, you're not stuck. Almost all of the spouses we interviewed once thought they would always be in the careers that were making their lives miserable and putting pressure on their marriages. Sometimes together, sometimes at different moments, they questioned whether that was true, and simply asking the question led to changes that have made them healthier, less stressed and happier with each other.
6. Even if you think you're doing everything right, reevaluate the plan.
Dustin and Bethany were learning how to lead marriage retreats for engaged couples when they realized their marriage "just wasn't what we'd set out to do," as Dustin put it. It wasn't terrible, but they realized it could be a lot better, and they were willing to experiment with doing it differently. Like the other couples who reorganized their lives in an attempt to feel better and enjoy it all a little more, their effort wasn't wasted.
7. Do the corny exercise.
You can understand why Bethany and Dustin were skeptical of a marriage retreat activity that asked them to describe their "dream marriage" to each other. It also happened to be one of the most useful excercises they had ever done, and it's one every married couple or prospective married couple should probably do, maybe at several different junctures in the marriage. There may be things your spouse wants that you're not even aware of, or have long forgotten - in Bethany's case, it was being a stay-at-home parent. And there may be desires of your own that you think you've made known but haven't actually communicated all that clearly.
Talking about your shared future also helps reinfuse the relationship with that element that so often goes missing in periods when you're feeling bored or less connected: a sense of possibility.
8. Choose sex over your to-do list.
Most people know stress affects their sex lives, but Dustin pointed out that it's easy to start thinking of sex as something you do when you have nothing else on your plate. That's a great recipe for having sex a few times a year, tops.
"It used to be [that] sex was reserved for when we weren't stressed out, when everything else is already done and perfect," said Dustin.
And he pointed out that insane lust isn't the only acceptable provocation. "It could be, 'Hey, I'm stressed,' or, 'Hey, I'm sad,'" he said. "Sex doesn't have to just be when things are in line in the rest of our lives."
9. Do not underestimate the power of exercise (and kale).
Every couple we talked to mentioned that exercise has helped them reduce their stress, cope better with the stress they have and be nicer to each other. Dana found Pilates and ran a half marathon, and she and James often go for walks together, as do Sarah and Jeff. Meghan and Josh do yoga and ride their bikes as much as possible.
Eating well helps, too, even if it seems only distantly related. If you feel better, you're a better partner, and you're less vulnerable to stress. "It takes a lot more for our health to be affected because we maintain those non-negotiables of eating good food and exercising regularly," said Meghan, who obviously served lots of kale at her wedding. Stress "doesn't take the same physical toll [on us] that it would otherwise."
10. Forget other people's expectations, or "We're just happier. Deal with that."
For Dana and James, a huge part of changing their life and their marriage was abandoning other people's ideas of who they should be. James had been told his entire life that law was his calling. Now he works at Whole Foods, where he says he goes to work happy every day. "I didn't have any lawyers in the family, but everyone thought that's what I'd be a natural at," he said. "It doesn't feel like my calling anymore."
Dana said that some acquaintances and coworkers have volunteered commentary on the choices she and James have made, along the lines of, "Oh my God, how can you pay your student loans? Don't you feel like you should be making more money?" Her response? "We're just happier. Deal with that. These choices weren't easy, but this is what we want."
11. If they aren't too devastating, the hard times make you stronger.
Most of University of Texas psychologist Lisa Neff's work on stress and marriage shows that the best way to keep stress from weakening relationships is to cut out as many stressors as possible. That said, two studies she conducted in 2011 showed that couples who had good coping skills and were exposed to mild to moderate stress as newlyweds were more resilient in the face of later stressors, including parenthood, than those who had good coping skills but saw relatively little stress during the early phases of matrimony. The key was that the stress the first group of couples were exposed to didn't exceed their ability to manage it.
Dustin seemed to echo Neff's findings when he said that in retrospect, the hard times early in his marriage to Bethany "put a lot of pressure on our relationship, but at the same time it kind of proved to us that we can make it through those things. There's going to be other stuff that comes up that we can't control. It's good to be able to look back and say, 'You know, that was tough, too, but we made it through.'" And they're happier than they've ever been.