10 Marriage Lessons We've Learned In 40 Years Working With Couples

Drs. Harville Hendrix & Helen LaKelly Hunt on the building blocks of building a dream marriage.

Married couple sitting on kitchen floor smiling at one another YuriA / shutterstock 

In our 40 years working together to help couples achieve their dream relationships, we have learned ten key tips to make a marriage last — and not just last, thrive. 

We haven't just educated couples; we've been a couple for 44 years and built multiple programs and businesses together. From developing IMAGO 43 years ago to our latest passion project, Safe Conversations, which aims to teach every individual the transformative dialogue process. We have not only learned to "talk the talk" but also to "walk the walk" — even when it hasn't been easy. 


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Here are 10 communication tips for a great marriage

1. Zero negativity

All criticism, even “constructive criticism” not only fails to get us what we want but it’s a form of self-abuse since the traits we criticize in our partners are often projections of unpleasant truths about ourselves.


Instead of criticizing, explore why a particular trait in your partner bothers you so much. For example, perhaps his wanting “too much sex” is really about your own sexual inhibitions. Interested in diving in?

2. Acknowledge and accept your partner's 'otherness'

We all understand — at least on the surface — that our partner is a separate human being. But deep down we often see and treat him/her as extensions of ourselves. Practice seeing and accepting your partner as someone with different perceptions, feelings and experiences that are equally valid as your own.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Master Uncomfortable Conversations In Your Relationship (So Your Love Can Grow Deeper)

3. Close all exits

Identify activities that you engage in that become an escape from the day-to-day intimacy of the partnership (any activity, thought, or feeling that decreases or avoids emotional or physical involvement with your partner). Exits can be functional (car-pooling, work, taking care of kids), motivated (watching TV, reading, sports, hobbies), and/or catastrophic (emotional or physical affairs, addictions). All exits, however, deplete the emotional reserves in a partnership.


4. Use sender responsibility when you talk

That means using “I” language, only. Avoid the word “you” unless you mean something positive. Own your experience by saying how you feel rather than blaming your partner. For example, “I feel bad when …” rather than “You make me feel bad when …”

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5. Give and receive unconditionally

Offer gifts with no strings attached. The unconscious receives only unconditional gifts. It does not accept a “you rub my back and I’ll rub yours” attitude. Similarly, learn to accept gifts. Often we feel unworthy of receiving compliments from our partner and reject them. Instead of saying, “You don’t really mean that I’m beautiful/handsome/smart,” say “Thank you. It means a lot to me that you feel that way.”

6. Increase your pleasure quotient

Make a list of high-energy activities you would like to do for fun with your partner. Write down as many ideas as you can think of that you are currently doing, that you did in the early stages of your relationship and activities you would like to engage in. They should be activities that create deep laughter and/or that involve physical movement and deep breathing. Make a commitment to enjoy a playful activity at least once a week.


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7. Practice positive flooding

Flood your partner with compliments. On a regular basis, tell your partner what you love about him or her. Talk about his/her physical characteristics (“I love your eyes”), character traits (“You are really intelligent”), behaviors (“I love that you make coffee every morning for me”), global affirmations (“I am so happy I married you”). When you have exhausted what you feel, ask them how they would like to be flooded and include those in your daily affirmations of your partner.

8. Learn how to have a safe conversation

The most important and challenging step to becoming a conscious marriage partner is learning how to talk so your conversations will be safe rather than negative. Imago Dialogue uses three basic techniques – mirroring, validating, and empathizing – to fortify the connection between partners. Check to make sure you understand what your partner is saying (mirroring), indicate that what your partner says makes sense, even if you don’t agree (validating) and recognize the partner’s feelings when s/he tells a story or expresses an opinion (empathizing).

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9. Replace your monologs with dialogue

Practice having “safe conversations” until you are perfect. Dialogue will not only improve the way you communicate with your partner, it will improve the relations with your children, and with everyone you come in contact with. Practice dialogue until it becomes a habit and a way of life until you become dialogical.

10. Change your nightmare into your dream marriage

A committed partnership can become someone’s worst nightmare, but through intentionality and commitment, a marriage can also be a spiritual journey. If you married because you chose to marry, you are with the right person — especially if you feel incompatible. See your partner as the person who holds the blueprint for your journey to wholeness.

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Harville Hendrix, Ph. D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. are partners in life and work. They are co-creators of Imago Relationship Theory & Therapy practiced in 62 countries by over 2500 therapists and co-founders of Safe Conversations LLC, a social movement and relational intervention based on the latest relational sciences to facilitate the creation of a relational civilization.