After nine years of friendship and courtship, Prince William and Kate Middleton will be walking down the aisle of Westminster Abbey on Friday, April 29, 2011. It's been predicted that as many as 2 billion people - myself among them - will tune in to watch this young couple tie the knot.
Like many of you, I have been fascinated with their love story and touched by the unhappy marriage and tragic death of Will's mother, Diana. I am hoping that this young couple will have a better chance at happiness, but it's no secret that daunting challenges lie ahead for them.
Having studied hundreds of newlyweds in my Early Years of Marriage Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, and ongoing since 1986, I'd like to offer up some advice to Will and Kate - and all newly married couples - that will help them navigate around the inevitable obstacles that pop up along every marriage path.
Personalize your expectations.
The soon-to-be princess will be assaulted daily with comparisons to Diana, whose fans have elevated her to saint-like status. Kate knows she'll be held to a very high public standard of conduct and appearance. Prince William may be more accustomed to public scrutiny, but his marriage to Kate has ramped up the media coverage of his every move and word. My advice: Focus on very personal expectations of yourself and each other. Remember that in all marriages, relatives, friends, and society have norms they expect you to follow. But what's more important is how you view each other. In my long-term study of married couples, one feature shared by the happiest couples was that they had discussed and were aware of each others' expectations. So, does Kate expect Will to listen to her opinions and respect her decisions? Does she expect him to be honest about where he is and what he's doing? Does Will expect her to be open and trusting toward him? Does he expect her to share the burden of royal responsibilities cheerfully? Whatever their expectations, Will and Kate, like all newlyweds, should have a frank discussion of what each one needs and wants from the other and the marriage. These are distinct and different from public expectations.
In all marriages, spouses can get caught up in their work lives, their extended family lives, and their public responsibilities and obligations. For the royal couple, such outside obligations practically define their marriage. However, Will and Kate should know that in the happiest marriages I have observed, the spouses make a deliberate effort to create "us-time." Us-time is private time you set aside with your spouse to have a date, to be alone, to do something you both love, and to talk. I recommend at least 10 minutes a day of talking about anything except family, domestic duties, work, your relationship, or money. I have written about the 10-Minute Rule before, but it bears repeating. It is the single best way to stay connected to your partner and to deepen relationship bonds (note that talk specifically about the relationship is forbidden during these 10 minutes). I also recommend scheduling two date nights a month, at minimum. These private, shared moments of intimacy will be restorative for the royal newlyweds and their marriage.
Be kind to each other.
Will and Kate will always feel the strain of "making nice" in public. We all remember Princess Diana's frowns and pouts when she couldn't hide her discontent in public. As soon as the royal couple leaves their home and steps into the public eye, they will be in a fishbowl - snapped by photographers and picked apart by gossip journalists. They will learn to smile, even when they don't feel like smiling. But in private, it's so very important for spouses to remember to be kind to one another in small ways, on a daily basis. Give him a compliment. Give her a hand with a chore. Tell him you value him. Tell her how much you love her. Share small endearments at home, out of the public eye. A kiss, a squeeze of the hand, an empathetic ear, a word of encouragement or support - such small affirmations offered up daily are what keep marriages strong and happy. After a long day of putting on your best self in public, it's too easy to shut down once you get home. However, it doesn't take a lot of effort to remind your partner that you like, love, admire, respect, desire, and value him or her. My study found that these small and seemingly insignificant daily endearments have a powerful influence on the happiness of married couples.
Knock each other off balance.
The royal couple, like the rest of us, can too easily get into a relationship rut characterized by predictability, boredom, and a rigid schedule. One of the most common complaints I hear from married couples is that the passion, freshness, and excitement from the early days has faded. The same-old, same-old aspects of daily life have reduced the once roaring fire of passion to a bed of cooling embers. Believe me, a highly visible couple like Will and Kate aren't immune to this problem. I would give them the same advice I offer to my clients: To reignite the passion, bring newness and excitement into the relationship on a regular basis. One way is to surprise your partner. Propose something unexpected - an activity, a trip, even a picnic in your back yard - anything that gets you both out of a routine and knocks him or her gently off balance. Another way is to get involved in a new hobby, sport, or activity yourself. Learning, growing, and developing on your own introduces a fresh element into the marriage. When you continually see each other as stimulating, interesting, surprising, mysterious, and exciting, it helps to rev up the passion in the marriage.
Here's wishing Will and Kate - and all of you who are in loving relationships - a long partnership filled with fun, love, and happiness.