I asked a top relationship psychologist for his 3 best pieces of advice about marriage

Consider it the ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ version of marriage. Eli Finkel pictured. Courtesy of Penguin Randomhouse
  • Marriage can be hard for any couple, even if it starts out smoothly.
  • Psychologist Eli Finkel says there are three main strategies to improve a rocky relationship: working on it as much as possible, using “love hacks,” and asking less of the marriage.
  • Your choice of which strategy to use depends on how much time and energy you have to devote to the relationship at the moment.
  • This post is part of Relationships 101, a series which aims to help us all be happier and healthier in love – and to stop fighting over who should take out the trash.

When I interviewed relationship expert Eli Finkel about his new book “The All-or-Nothing Marriage” last year, I was one month away from being a bridesmaid in two of my best friends’ weddings, and two months away from getting married myself.

That is to say: Every question I asked Finkel that day in September stemmed partly from a desire to sate our readers’ curiosity, but – let’s be real – mostly from a desire to sate my own curiosity about what life would really be like after I said, “I do.”

Finkel, who is a psychologist at Northwestern University and a professor at the Kellogg School of Management, didn’t exactly leave me hopeful that my friends and I would all live happily ever after. But he did leave me with some practical tips for making marriage easier when it inevitably gets tear-your-hair-out hard.

During those times, Finkel said, couples can use one of three strategies to strengthen their relationship:

1. Work on the marriage as much as possible

This first option, Finkel said, is for couples who “really want this highly intensive sort of marriage, this extraordinary sort of marriage that is available today.” The kind of marriage in which your partner fulfils the role of soul mate, passionate lover, best friend, and so on.

That means you and your partner have to spend a lot of time together, working through whatever issues you have, and pay a lot of attention to the relationship as it evolves. If you choose this option, making the marriage as strong as it can be is a top priority in your life.

2. Use ‘love hacks’

“Love hacks” are pretty much what they sound like. It’s Finkel’s term for “quick and dirty” strategies to make your marriage just a little bit happier. Best of all, you don’t need your partner’s help to use them.

This is a good option for people who are consumed with something else in their lives besides the marriage: a baby, a medical emergency, a crisis at work.

One example of a love hack is simply re-interpreting your partner’s annoying behaviours. For example, when they show up late to dinner, instead of assuming they’re a jerk who doesn’t care about the family, you assume instead that they hit traffic on the way home from work.

Another example is trying to see at a conflict between you and your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for both of you.

Finkel said of this option: “It won’t take a terrible marriage and make it a spectacular marriage, but it will strengthen the marriage, especially during those periods where you don’t really have the time or the resources to invest in the marriage completely.”

3. Adjust your expectations

This is the option that Finkel “wishes people would consider more seriously”: asking less of your marriage.

He said, “If you find yourself chronically disappointed in one element of your marriage, or in a subset of elements of your marriage, one of the really good ways of dealing with that is to think about: Is it really essential that I try to meet this need in particular through the marriage?”

In some cases, the answer might be a resounding “yes.” In other cases, the answer might be “maybe,” or “not really.” Finkel gave two examples: You like to have philosophical debates and your partner doesn’t. You like to play tennis and your partner doesn’t. Can you find a friend or a coworker to meet these needs for you?

It’s about letting go a little bit, about investing in some relationships other than your marriage.

Here’s Finkel again: “Find those places where the demands you’re placing on the marriage are clearly exceeding the amount that the marriage can actually meet. Just take off some of the demands.”