Then a marriage becomes contentious, cold or boring, too many couples point fingers or pack bags, lamenting lost dreams of marital bliss. Yet the disappointments behind today's dismal divorce rate often result not from truly unacceptable situations (serial affairs, spousal abuse)—but instead stem from couples' seriously unrealistic expectations of what a marriage can and should be.

The fix: By recognizing that relationships evolve over time and adapting to those inevitable changes, we can come to understand ourselves our spouses better and experience a deeply satisfying partnership that will last the rest of our lives.

Money Matters

One way we measure happiness is by comparing ourselves with people around us-and in that regard, the most tangible factor is wealth. When your neighbor's house is nicer or your brother's paycheck is bigger, whom are you likely to resent? Your spouse.

Be realistic: More money is not the key to permanent peace, because there always will be people who are richer. Instead, resolve the underlying conflict by figuring out what money means to each of

  • Is money a sign of self-worth—because you were ashamed of growing up poor or for another reason? If so, remind yourself of nonmaterial achievements—the way you raised wonderful children together or serve as community leaders.
  • Is money a safeguard against insecurity—because you were horrified when a cousin lost her home or you experienced some other financial trauma? Work with a financial planner to set up a long-term budget.
  • Is money an expression of love—because your father lavished your mother with jewelry? Appreciate the way your husband shows his love by bringing you breakfast in bed.

Helpful: Make a list of your top five financial goals, and have your husband do the same. Together, compare the lists...agree on several goals you both share. and brainstorm ways to achieve them. When you know what truly matters, money becomes merely a means to an end, not the end goal itself.

Bedroom Battles

He wants more sex...she wants more cuddling. She craves variety...he's happy on top. Toss in the influence of Hollywood—gorgeous couples who are eternally lusty and lip-locked-and unrealistic expectations about sex can run wild.

Be realistic: Take a compassionate look at the underlying reasons why lovemaking has become disappointing. Maybe she avoids sex because she thinks her body is not as beautiful as it once was. Maybe he sticks with one position not because he's indifferent to your preferences, but because he's worried about losing his erection. The key is to talk specifically about what you need or want-and encourage your spouse to do the same. When you both share honestly and listen with open minds, you can reach a satisfying compromise and find joy in your continuing mutual attraction.

Try this: Agree to share a kiss (a real kiss, not a peck) at least once a day-not necessarily with the goal of having it lead to intercourse, but simply to enhance the bond between you. Research shows that kissing sparks sexual desire and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Less stress is always a good thing-in or out of the bedroom.

Age Prejudice

Have you ever caught sight of yourself in a mirror and thought, "Who is that old person?" Looking at your spouse can be like looking in that mirror. In those wrinkles, you see evidence of your own advancing age—and wish you didn't have to be reminded.

Be realistic: Growing old actually can improve a marriage-once you give up the fantasy that starting over with someone else will automatically make you feel young again.

The trick: Face up to whatever bothers you about aging. Perhaps you're disappointed that your bad shoulder has put an end to your tennis games together...or you're afraid that your spouse's couch potato habits will lead to a heart attack. If so, try new activities together that can accommodate your not-as-young body, such as bicycling...or gently suggest going for walks with you because you want your spouse to be with you for years to come.

Idealization Of Love

If only we could bottle that passion of the first year of a relationship, when romance made life dreamy. But it's biologically impossible to sustain that intensity of feeling day in and day out for years on end.

Reason: The early stages of romance are associated with big physiological changes-in fact, the brain pathways that govern falling in love appear to be the same as those involved in addiction. However, studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) suggest that about 18 months into a relationship, brain chemistry again begins to alter--this time in ways that promote a change in focus from romance and lust to long-term attachment and contentment.

Be realistic: If love stayed at a fevered pitch, we would never get anything else done...and we would never move past the starry-eyed stage and really get to know each other. Love between two people is not stagnant or defined solely by romance—it is a combination of fascination, friendship, passion, shared purpose, trust, continuity and companionship.

What to do: Make a list of everything your spouse does that pleases you. Does she listen to your mother's endless complaints with a kind ear? Is he a thoughtful planner-for fun activities as well as important life issues? Does he keep his word? Look for the qualities you value in any long-term friendship. You both share a commitment to family and support each other in times of crisis-and that kind of partnership provides a path to lifelong marital happiness.

Good Marriages Help Women Destress

After a busier-than-usual day at work, women who come home to a loving spouse have a bigger drop in the stress hormone cortisol than women whose marriages are less happy. Men's cortisol levels drop when they come home regardless of the state of their marriages.

Touch Lowers Stress by 34%

Married couples who give each other back M rubs or touch each other affectionately in other ways for at least 30 minutes three times a week have 34% lower levels of stress. Researchers found that being affectionate releases the hormone oxytocin, which may protect against stress-related illnesses.

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