Marriage shouldn’t be that messy and complicated. But in real life it is. When we share a living space with another person, tie our finances together, negotiate sexuality and the countless decisions that daily life demands—well, of course things can go badly.

Then there’s the baggage we bring from our first family, and all the unresolved issues of the past, to say nothing of all the stresses that pile up as we move along the life cycle. If we make or adopt a baby (never mind adding stepchildren to the picture) it’s more difficult still because nothing is harder on a marriage than the addition or subtraction of a family member. In fact, it amazes me that all marriages don’t fly apart by the baby’s first birthday.

The older I get, the more humble I am about marriage. When anxiety spirals high enough, and lasts long enough, even the most mature relationship may begin to look like a dysfunctional one. To paraphrase the novelist Mary Karr, a dysfunctional marriage is any marriage that has more than one person in it.

I always remind my readers that even the best marriages get stuck in too much distance, too much intensity, and too much pain. Our automatic tendency toward fight or flight is hardwired, and marriage is a lightning rod that absorbs anxiety and intensity from every source. In case you haven’t been around long enough to notice, stress will always be with us.

Life is one thing after another, so it’s normal for married folks to yo-yo back and forth between conflict (fight response) and distance (flight response). And just because the universe hands you one gigantic stress, it doesn’t mean that it won’t hit you with others while you’re down. So your mother’s health is deteriorating, your dog dies, your son drops out of drug treatment, and your husband is laid off--all in the same year. Unless you are a saint or a highly-evolved Zen Buddhist, intimacy with your partner may be the first thing to go.

It helps to know the rules for a good marriage. The ones you’ll find in Marriage Rules look pretty simple. But it’s not simple to actually make a change and it’s especially challenging to maintain it over time. With marriage, as with learning a language or establishing an exercise routine, nothing is more important than motivation.

To be a true agent of change in your relationship, you need to have these four things:

1.Good will and a genuine wish to create a better relationship.

2. An openness to focusing on your self. (This does not mean self-blame, but rather the capacity to observe and change your own steps in a pattern that is bringing you pain.)

3. A willingness to engage in bold acts of change.

4. A willingness to practice, practice, practice.

Anything worth doing requires practice, and having a good marriage does too. One can practice choosing happiness over the need to be right or to always win the argument. One can practice playfulness, generosity, and openness. One can practice having both a strong voice and a light touch. One can practice calming things down and warming them up even when the other person is behaving badly. One can practice taking a firm position on things that matter—a position that is not negotiable under relationship pressures.

It helps to know the rules, which you might prefer to think of as pretty good ideas to consider. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of our own common sense. At other times imagination and uncommon sense are required to see an old problem from a new angle. So, consider following a few rules and trying something new.

We can’t really see a relationship until after we change our part in it. It’s fine to start small. Small, positive changes have a way of morphing into more generous, expansive ones. And when we try to change too much, too fast, we stir up so much anxiety that we may end up changing nothing at all.

Remember that lasting change in an important relationship often occurs at glacial speed. It's the direction of change that matters, not the speed of travel.

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