Jun 172015
 
Tips For Keeping Relationship Happy Wedding Planning

Photo: Getty Images

Alison A. Armstrong, author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. For her latest installment of her Marriage Bootcamp series, Armstrong explains the secret to a happy marriage is making sure your significant other is your top priority.

Most of us grew up reading fairy tales and watching rom-coms that pounded us with the message that once we've found our prince, Happily Ever After is a foregone conclusion, a natural by-product of our love. And if we're not constantly, blissfully happy in our relationship (that thing that happens after the movie ends), we worry that something is wrong. If you feel that way, there probably is something wrong, but not what you think. Instead of doubting your relationship, second-guess your priorities, because a great marriage is what happens when you put each other at the top of the list.

You might be thinking, Of course he comes first! I love him more than anything in the world! But as much as we may feel love for our partner and tell him (and ourselves) that he's our top priority, we don't always back that up with actions. And there's one simple way to do that: To make him feel prioritized in the relationship, you have to figure out what
he needs from you and provide it.

This may sound obvious, but I've seen beautiful couples crash and burn because they gave something else priority over their relationship and proved it one small choice at a time. In a world where career, family, friends, and your smart phone are competing
for your attention, giving your relationship top billing can be a difficult and retro-feeling choice. I'm not saying you should cut all those other things off. Please don't! You need them to pay the rent, to feel fulfilled, to be you. Just make sure they aren't constantly taking the top slot on your to-do list.

How do you manage this, with all of the other balls you're juggling? By getting ahead of the game. As you approach a hectic period in your life, warn him that it's coming and make a plan for how to stay connected. Say, "Honey, if there was one thing I could do in the middle of all this craziness to make you feel like the most important person in my world, what would it be?" Then put the imaginary duct tape over your mouth, suspend your preconceptions, and wait for his response. It may surprise you! It's often the small things that matter — things that take just a little time and effort. For my husband, it's cuddling before launching our day; those few minutes fill him up. For some men, food equals love, so cooking dinner or picking up his favorite snack on your way home from the office shows him he's first on your mind.

See more: The Surprising Way to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage

He may not be quick to reveal himself or the best at articulating what he needs. In that case, be patient and try to notice how he reacts to different kinds of attention. He may crave small acts of support when he's stressed or need you to stop what you're doing to help him find his keys or wallet. He may just want to feel your presence at home or your admiration for and pride in him; any of these things can supercharge most guys for days.

You may be thinking, Does he really want this from me? Yes, he does. Maybe you both fancy yourselves independent, with full lives that sometimes have you running in different directions, and you're cool with that. But he isn't really, because a little-understood fact about men is that they like to get everything they need in one place. You know how they'd rather check off the entire holiday-shopping list at a department store than wander from shop to shop? This springs from their evolutionary drive to conserve energy, and the same applies to their physical and motional needs. You may go to your best friend for a laugh, your mother for support, et cetera, but your groom will attempt to get all of it from you. And if he can't, he'll resent whatever he feels is being prioritized over him, whether it's your job, your gym habit, your volunteer gig, or, yes, your wedding planning.

Now, are you supposed to focus on your fiancé every second of every day? No, he doesn't want that. But as you conduct your life and plan your big event, your attention often will be on anything but him. If you can offer a quick "Is there anything you need from me before I sleep/get on the phone/get absorbed in the new issue of Brides?" it will go far in making him feel cared for. Even if the answer is no, it's better to ask in advance than to try to make up for him feeling disappointed after the fact.

Obviously, this is a two-way street, because you can't meet his needs if yours aren't being met. But you'll need to tell him what that looks like. So just ask: Could he DVR The Tonight Show so you can get your eight hours? Can he buy you flowers now and then for no reason? What's the one question you need to hear when you walk in the door after a rough day at work — or after a great one? ("How was your day" is considerate but broad. Think of a question that gets at your passions, like "What was your favorite part of your day?" or "Did you learn anything new today?") Make clear what your needs are, and when he meets them and sees your appreciation, you'll feel connected and he'll feel like he's doing a great job at this life-partner thing.

Our lives are busy, and the demands on our time and energy make it impossible for us to be constantly proving to our partner that he's the most important thing in our life. So focus on doing enough. Learn what your fiancé needs — and how much of it — to feel appreciated and loved. Then make those needs your highest priority and help him do the same for you, and you'll be well positioned for the real Happily Ever After, the one that happens one small moment at a time.

Want more genius planning tips? For the best wedding dresses, advice, and big-day inspiration, pick up the BRIDES June/July 2015 issue, on newsstands now and available for download here!

May 102015
 
Relationship Bootcamp, How to Leap Into Commitment

Photo: James Wojcik/Trunk Archive

Alison A. Armstrong, the author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. For her second installment of her Marriage Bootcamp series, Armstrong explains that men and women approach commitment differently, but if you can learn to bridge the gap, you're on your way to a very happy Rest of Your Life.

"I've had moments of doubt about my relationship come out of nowhere," Laura, newly engaged in Katy, Texas, wrote to me. Things about her fiancé that had bugged her a little when they were dating were starting to look like serious problems when she thought about enduring them every day for the rest of her life. These doubts scared Laura because, like many brides-to-be, she has bought into one of the biggest marriage myths of all: that men are the ones with commitment issues, while women are naturals at it, making even the hint of cold feel like a serious red flag.

In reality, the opposite is true. Since your engagement, have you noticed that your fiancé has become more attentive? More protective? And more focused on being able to provide for you long-term? This is because no matter how long it took him to pop the question, he now considers himself responsible for you, for taking care of you and providing for you. Yes, it sounds old-fashioned — and it is! But even if you're the one with the fat paycheck and black belt in karate, men have an evolutionary imperative to provide and protect. And when you got engaged, you became the cornerstone of his life. In his mind, he's already married to you. He's committed to you as a whole package, which means hes accepted everything you are and everything you're not. He doesn't expect you to be perfect. He's decided you're just right for him.

See More: Not Totally Head-Over-Heels in Love Anymore? Don't Freak Out

But for women, commitment is a different animal. People say that when a man and women get married, she's hoping he'll change, and he's hoping she won't. It may be a cliché, but there's truth to it. In more than 20 years of coaching couples, I've found that while men commit by accepting everything about you at once, women commit one acceptance at a time — and that can take a while. I've met women whose weddings happened 20 years ago but still aren't truly married because they've spent all that time resisting their husband's behaviors, needs, and values. Their husbands are aware of it and feel confused and disempowered because they thought they'd been accepted too. This harms the couple's ability to trust and connect with each other.

Does this mean you have to put up with everything about him unconditionally? No way! Think of your engagement as a commitment to committing, and get busy accepting what you can and working on what you can't. The more you do this between now and your wedding, the more confidently you'll walk down the aisle and the more prepared you'll be for that tricky first year of marriage.

When I explained this to Laura, she asked a good question: "How do you know which doubts are serious signs of trouble and which are just a normal part of adjusting to the biggest leap of your life?" Answer: Determine what you can tolerate and what you can't. My definition of tolerate is to be able to be with, without any loss of respect, admiration, or affinity. Consider the behavior that's bothering you, and imagine it happening for the rest of your life. Can you live with that, without any loss of admiration, respect, or affinity for your husband? For yourself? This applies to small and large things, from how he keeps his bathroom to what he spends money on to his religion or spiritual practices.

When you come upon something that you can't — or won't — accept, use the Great Ask method to have that crucial conversation. (Go to brides.com/bootcamp for my column on how to master this critical relationship skill.) Start by saying, "I have a problem that I need your help with." Most women avoid the word problem because we have a compulsion to be perfect or to be seen as perfect. But it's key here because most men love to solve problems and may even feel a surge of energy just contemplating solutions. By contrast, issue sounds chronic and unsolvable; say it and you'll probably see his shoulders droop. Ditto for "I have a concern." So add "I have a problem" to your vocabulary, and practice saying it until you stop twitching.

See More: How Much Alone Time Is Healthy in a Marriage?

Then, strive not only to be understood but also to really understand. You're not listening if you're planning your response when he's talking. Ask him what this behavior, habit, or value provides him. And wait for his answer without further prompting or guessing. You may want to interrupt or move things along. Resist the urge! Learning the real why — instead of the reason you're assuming — may help you tolerate something about him that's different from your expectations, is inconvenient to you, or is not exactly as you'd prefer, you're that much more committed. Likewise, every time you're able to have him understand a change you truly need, you're giving him another way to "provide" for you.

Avoid dramatizing, but don't understate your problem. If something is a deal breaker for you, be straight about that. Saying "As much as I love you, this isn't something I can see myself living with" lets him know how much you need his help sorting this out. And you do need his help, because you've probably been unsuccessfully trying to resolve this on your own.

Side note: If you're wondering why it falls to you to do all this accepting and to initiate these hard conversations, there are two reasons. First, it's because this is a column for women; we're working on your half of the equation. Rest assured that when I'm addressing men, I give them plenty of homework! Second, we're talking about the process of acceptance, and his has already happened. His attention is now focused on the plan for your future, while yours, if you're like Laura — who, by the way, realized that her doubts were normal and is now happily planning her wedding — and so many women I've worked with, is on reassuring yourself that you can spend the rest of your life with this person, quirks and all.

The good news? Men expect life to include problems, so problems don't cause men to uncommit. An attendee at one of my panels put it this way: "When my wife and I got married, we struggled with our sex life. But I knew we had a long time to work it out." Of course, in our Happily Ever After fantasies, none of us would need to have these uncomfortable conversations with our spouse-to-be. But in an actual marriage, we often do as we grow and change as individuals and as a couple and deal with new situations. Thankfully, the more of these problems you work though, the more confidence you'll have in your ability to face them down together and the more you'll experience the freedom that comes with being really, truly commited.

This article appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of BRIDES.

Mar 032015
 
Marriage Bootcamp: The Myth of the Instant Fiance Upgrade

Photo: Joel Stans/Exposure NY

Alison A. Armstrong, the author of The Queen's Code, has helped millions of women and men learn to communicate better. Here, the couples coach kicks off our six-part Marriage Bootcamp series, which will focus on prepping you for the next phase of your life. To start, Armstrong explains why we expect the relationship to be perfect after a guy proposes, and how you can avoid that trap.

Brooke and Lee, both in their mid-thirties, had lived together in New York City for a year. She's a very creative pile person and he's a neatnik. Soon after getting engaged, Lee made one of his usual teasing remarks, only this time Brooke felt criticized for her messes and was hurt and angry. Nothing had materially changed between them except that Brooke had a ring on her finger, but suddenly she thought she should be a domestic goddess and that they should be suddenly... perfect. She didn't realize it at the time, but Brooke had bought into the myth of the Instant Fiancé Upgrade.

Along with the joy and euphoria, getting engaged can generate a host of hidden expectations about what you should do and have and how you should look and act — for the bride-to-be in particular. And these can get you into trouble, because your beloved doesn't know that you have a new set of standards for yourself and for him. He's likely to disappoint you, hurt your feelings, or feel blindsided. Why doesn't he automatically know what's expect of him? Is it because he's inconsiderate or doesn't love you enough? Nope. It's because he's still just a guy, and the same one you fell in love with — not some new engaged version of himself.

In 20 years of helping couples create great partnerships, I've seen the illusion of the Instant Fiancé Upgrade undermine the most loving, well-matched, and well-meaning pairs, just like Lee and Brooke — who, with some coaching, realized their mistake before the wedding. (Brooke even said in her vows, "I do not promise to cook, but you will be fed.") But you want to nip these issues in the bud, because the Upgrade myth can pop up at every major turning point — see: the Instant Spouse, Homeowner, and Parent upgrades. Follow these steps to bypass the danger.

1. Uncover Your Hidden Expectations
Whether they're for your partner or yourself, you probably won't know what they are until they're not being met. To uproot yours, finish these sentences — and feel free to list more than one for each slot.

Now that we're engaged...
I should... (blank)
He should... (blank)
We should... (blank)

It can be as simple as "I should be happy all the time" or "He should attend all of my family's functions." After you've written your answers, begin again, using your other hand. It may feel strange, but you'll be surprised how many deeply hidden truths this trick will uncover.

2. Start Sorting the Facts from the Fantasy
Divide your expectations into the following categories:
A. I truly need this.
B. It would make me happy.
C. It's a small thing that makes a big difference.
D. What the heck is that?

Then, if it's an expectation you have for yourself and it falls into categories A-C (ditch the Ds), take steps to make it happen. Get up earlier so you can eat breakfast together every day. Set a savings goal so you can have the all-peony centerpieces you love.

As for your expectations of him, look at them through the lens of evolutionary psychology. Men are natural protectors and providers, and they want to give you what matters to you — again, as long as it falls into one of the first three categories. If it doesn't, or if it runs counter to his values or needs or threatens his career, financial security, dreams, or foundational relationships, he won't fulfill it. Likewise, anything you think you should have just because someone else does — things that tend to fall into category D — won't be worth his time, money, or energy. So suss those out and let them go.

3. Formulate Your "Great Asks"
For your fiancé to accept a new task, behavior, or accountability, your request should include:

— A simple statement of what you want. (For example, "I need you to weigh in more on wedding-planning details.")
— What that would look like, with specifics. ("A weekly check-in to discuss progress. And your commitment to attend vendor meetings where I need a second opinion.")
— What that would provide you. ("I would feel like I have a partner in the planning and in life.")

Once you've determined your asks, prioritize them. Most men like to move from success to success, and he needs the chance to implement your requests one at a time.

See More: Why You Should Marry Your BFF

4. Ask for a Time to Talk
Most people can't pay close attention when they're driving, transitioning home from work, or already focused on something else. In a quiet moment, say, "Could we set up a time to talk about something I need?" Make sure your tone is friendly and you're relaxed; if you're amped up, he'll think he's in trouble. And overestimate the time you need to talk, because he'll get antsy if you run long and you'll misinterpret it as his not being interested.

5. Make Your Asks
When the time arrives to deliver your first Great Ask, start by thanking him for hearing you out. Then go for it — slowly, clearly, and pausing from time to time to see if he has questions. If you feel embarrassed, you can tell him you're learning to ask for what you need and you want it to work for him. But try to be direct, because everyone appreciates a partner who asks for what she really needs. Remember, this is about making your relationship better, so there's something in it for him too!

6. Help Him Help You
After you've told him what you want, what it would look like, and what it would provide you, ask: "Is there anything you need in order to give me what I'm asking for?" Then put the invisible duct tape over your mouth and let him think. If he takes awhile to figure it out, that's good! While he's thinking, let go of everything you think he might come up with. (In more than 20 years, I have never accurately predicted what my husband will need for any request, large or small.) Once he's given you his answer, think: "Is there anything I need so he can fulfill my Great Ask?" This may sound complicated, but it's how you cover all the bases and make sure your hopes turn into reality.

7. Show Appreciation
Once you see him making an effort, be grateful! Even when it's not perfect. Even when it's not completely finished. Appreciation is the juice that fuels people to try new things instead of sticking to old habits. That means taking his effort personally, because he's trying for you, and saying "thank you" for his commitment and the difference he's making in your life together.

Then it's time to pat yourself on the back. It's not easy to ask for what you need. Way to be thoughtful and communicative as you navigate this new world!

This article appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of BRIDES.

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