If you think that getting married means you will automatically live happily ever after, think again, says clinical psychologist Dr. Horeya Ahmed. 'Anyone who is married knows that achieving a healthy relationship is a challenge. It is not ever an easy thing. It doesn’t just happen. When you add stressful situations – jobs, careers, children, unresolved issues, resolved issues – all these variables can add stress to the marriage,' she explains, adding, 'So if someone says that ‘I just want my marriage to be happy,’ that is not possible. You can’t just ‘be happy.’ You have to continuously work on it, and there’s always stress that you have to cope with.'
So how do couples in a strong marriage act? 'They care about each other, they nurture themselves, they nurture the family, the marriage,' answers Dr. Ahmed. 'They work on the relationship, basically. They don’t sit and wait for things to happen; they dosomething,' she emphasizes.
THE CIRCLE OF SELF
If you want a strong relationship, the first thing you need to do is to understand yourself and take responsibility for your own happiness.
'Throughout your life, you have to continuously do work to understand yourself and understand your needs, wants, and desires,' says Dr. Ahmed, explaining that this means focusing on what’s happening inside of you versus what’s happening outside of you. Try this imaginary exercise, created by Dr. Ahmed:
Start focusing on something outside of you, like the sound of the air-conditioning. Now,unfocus on that, and focus on yourself. Take a deep breath. The only thing that matters to you at this minute is yourself. Now imagine a piece of chalk in your hand. Imagine extending the length of your arm, and start drawing an imaginary circle around yourself with the piece of chalk. Now there’s a big circle of chalk around you, and you are in the center.
Dr. Ahmed explains, 'That circle is your space, and your ‘self’ is there in the center. In [the circle], you find your values and beliefs, what you think, what you have learned from others, what you like, what you don’t like. In it, you find your emotions, feelings, needs, wants, expectations, and desires... Everything in the circle belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to your spouse; it doesn’t belong to your neighbors, your parents, nobody. It belongs only to you.'
It is each person’s responsibility to furnish his or her circle with happiness, says Dr. Ahmed. 'It is your responsibility to know what makes you feel happy versus what makes you unhappy. It is your responsibility to express those feelings so that someone else outside your circle can understand it. It is your responsibility to nurture it. In order for you to have a happy family, a happy marriage, a happy relationship, it starts in that circle. It doesn’t just happen to you; it starts right there,' she says.
To have a healthy sense of 'self,' you need to respect everything in your circle, whether you like it or not, because it’s part of you, says Dr. Ahmed, noting that inside your circle, values and beliefs are constantly changing throughout your life. She advises that if you want to change something about yourself or update some of your values and feelings, 'Don’t start beating on yourself and blaming yourself. Just take action and resolve it.'
THE CIRCLE OF MARRIAGE
Once you have a healthy sense of self, you can join your life with someone else, but you need to remember that your spouse also has his own 'circle' with its own boundaries. 'I do not need to break someone else’s circle to fit in my circle, and I don’t need someone else to break mine so I can fit in their circle. If we respect our circle, we should respect someone else’s circle,' says Dr. Ahmed.
Now imagine that you are getting married and that each of you has a piece of chalk, and together, you draw a bigger circle. 'What is that bigger circle? That beautiful marriage that we symbolize with our [wedding] ring – a circle,' explains Dr. Ahmed. Now you have three circles: a large 'circle of marriage,' and two smaller circles inside it, representing you and your spouse.
Dr. Ahmed points out that marriage is an entity that is separate from the two partners, an entity that needs to be nurtured for it to survive. A marriage is not automatically happy. It is the two people involved that work to make it happier. So whenever you are in a conflict with your spouse, or a stressful situation that could affect your marriage, you both need to imagine your 'circle of marriage' and think about what would be best for it and what you could do to make it stronger. When you keep this perspective, says Dr. Ahmed you can more easily avoid the things that will weaken your marriage, and concentrate on the things that will make it stronger.
It is a myth that you should never argue if you love each other, says Dr. Ahmed. 'The truth is, conflict happens in marriage, in every home, in every relationship,' she says, explaining that conflict doesn’t mean that you have a bad marriage or that your spouse doesn’t love you. In fact, conflict can actually help a relationship, 'because you express your feelings, and it’s an opportunity for growth.' Dr. Ahmed cautions couples not to think of a disagreement as a 'fight' that one of you has to win. She says, 'I like the words conflict, disagreement, challenge, but not fight. If you say, ‘I’m communicating; I have a conflict; I have a problem I need to resolve; I need to look at options,’ then your mind will relax. You don’t have to gear all your ammunition to go to battle.'
So what makes a marriage stronger? 'Understanding that [your spouse has] a circle and you have a circle… You need to ask for what you want. Express your feelings, ask for your needs, wants and desires,' says Dr. Ahmed. Envisioning the marriage as a circle also helps, she says, because you focus on, ‘What am I going to give the marriage?’ instead of, ‘What am I going to give my husband?’ because your husband is responsible for his own happiness and so are you,' she concludes.