Keeping the happy in happily ever after: Advice from a marriage therapist

July 27, 2011|By Lisa Kawata

According to a recent report by The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, young couples today could use a little education. Most couples get married because of romantic love, but is that what sustains a marriage over the years? Rutgers scholars believe that a successful marriage depends on how well one gets along, intimately and over the long term, with one’s spouse. That requires relationship knowledge, which is not something we’re taught in formal education, says the report. So Howard Magazine asked marriage and family therapist Risa Davis-Ganel for some advice on just how to keep the happy in happily ever after.

“Marriage is an evolving relationship,” says Davis-Ganel. “It’s not one conversation but an ongoing one.”

She has observed in the last few years that many young couples act like teenagers; they can’t imagine they would face struggles. But they will.

“A thriving marriage is one that learns to manage change successfully,” she says.


Communication is the No. 1 issue with which couples struggle, says Davis-Ganel. Conflicts in this area can be rooted in trust issues, resentments or difficulty in decision making, but often it just boils down to how couples argue. There’s a difference between complaining and criticizing. If disagreements are ugly, couples might need to ask a few questions: Am I being sarcastic? Do I accuse or call names? Do I express contempt by eye-rolling or sneering? Am I defensive when my spouse brings up a problem? Why? Progress can’t be made until these things change.


Technology is an increasing source of tension in marriages. Because technology allows for increased communication, it opens a Pandora’s box for couples, says Davis-Ganel. Singles might not realize how much time they spend on cell phones, smartphones, social media, playing Internet games or just surfing the web. Engaged couples should examine how they use technology and how that might need to change when they are married. When we’re home together, how much time will we spend online? What are the boundaries for online relationships? What constitutes privacy? Secrecy? Will phones go in another room during dinner or while having a discussion?

Personal space

There’s an expectation that couples do everything together. The sense of personal space has shrunk. A typical complaint by couples is that they’ve lost passion and live more like roommates. In order for there to be fire, there needs to be air, says Davis-Ganel. Agree on activities that can be done apart, and how often. Once agreed on, make participating in them a priority. Outside activities contribute to remaining an intriguing person. It’s not so much about how much time you can spend apart but how you are nurturing each other’s passions and interests. Fire.

Religion and holidays

Before marriage, couples need to discuss the place of religion and holiday celebrations in their lives. Questions to ask: To what degree do we practice? What are your family’s traditions? What are their expectations about holidays, and who would be angry if we didn’t meet those expectations? Will these things change after we have kids? How will we come to agreements and still satisfy individual spiritual needs?


After communication difficulties, money is the next most common reason people cite as a cause for divorce. It’s critical to express views about money and settle expectations early on. Ask: Are we going to combine our funds? What expenses will be covered by what funds? What about personal spending such as sporting events or that affinity for designer handbags? Agreeing on having personal funds is one way to address that. Spending on children’s education is another issue. Will they go to public school or private school? Will we pay for their college?


Some questions might be: What are our beliefs about who initiates sex? How frequently do we have sex? Where or when? What constitutes an affair? Could it be inappropriate texting, Internet pornography?


Obviously, couples need to discuss whether to have children. It might help to think about times spent around children. What was that like? If we face infertility, how will we manage that? Am I open to adoption? And the big question: When kids arrive, will both parents work or will one stay home?

Risa Davis-Ganel is a licensed therapist practicing in Columbia. She has been a presenter at the Turf Valley Bridal Extravaganza for the past four years. Her website is

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