Looking down the aisle: Advice for (nearly) newly weds

Creative Commons/Petar Milošević

A young friend of mine is getting married next month and my five-year old son is looking forward to being her page boy. As the big day approaches, I've been thinking about what we can give the happy couple as a present.

When my husband and I got married just over 11 years ago we received some lovely gifts, but the things I treasured most were the little cards that guests wrote with advice and thoughts about what makes a good marriage. That got me thinking. What would I love to write to these two 25-year-olds on the brink of married life?

Here are some ideas I jotted down. My ten don'ts and my ten dos. I am sharing them here in case they are of help to you or to some nearly newly-weds that you know.

My ten don'ts for marriage

If you want to protect your marriage there are a few things that it is a good idea to avoid doing. Here they are, so you remember never to try them at home:

1. Don't threaten divorce (if you don't really mean it).

2. Don't compare your spouse (negatively) with either of their parents.

3. Don't say, 'You never ...', 'You always ...' or 'I told you so ...'

4. Don't refuse to ever talk about a topic.

5. Don't sleep in separate rooms (unless it is temporarily because of illness or a screaming baby).

6. Don't be unkind or put each other down, especially in public (it is the marital equivalent of an own goal!)

7. Don't discuss important or contentious issues on an empty stomach or when one (or both) of you is over tired, ill, flooded with negative emotions or hormonal.

8. Don't keep score, i.e. 'I did this ... so you need to do that.'

9. Don't try to get your children (if you have them) or your parents on your side in an argument.

10. Don't forget your anniversary or each other's birthday.

My ten dos for marriage

It helps to start a marriage as you mean to go on by forming good habits in the early years. Here are some positive things you can do to help build a strong and healthy relationship:

1. Do voice your expectations. Your partner is not a mind reader – so don't expect them to just know what is going on in your head.

2. Do be intentional. Spending time together in the early days of marriage might not be too tricky but it is likely to get harder. Therefore, get in the habit of carving out regular quality time together.

3. Do laugh (a lot). Being playful and having a giggle together will help relieve stress and also help to build shared memories.

4. Do learn to argue well. All couples argue (eventually) but the secret is to argue well. Listen to each other, don't get defensive, be kind and look for 'us' solutions. Remember to say sorry often and quickly.

5. Do leave and cleave. Put each other first over all other relationships.

6. Do pray together. Make time each day to pray for and with each other.

7. Do be each other's number one fan. That means believing in each other, encouraging each other, supporting each other and cheering each other on.

8. Do let go of control. Control can be toxic to a relationship. Focus on your own reactions and behaviour and let your partner take responsibility for themselves.

9. Do find support. Surround youselves with people who are 'for' your marriage and find people who you can confide in or pray with if and when you have issues.

10. Do invest in 'us'. That means being counter-cultural – it involves prioritising your relationship over everything else, putting 'us' before 'me' and refusing to give in and throw 'us' away when you hit trouble or difficult times.

A work of art

When you watch the elderly couple walking hand in hand along the pier – matching each other's strides, finishing each other's sentences and sharing private jokes – you are seeing the result of years of growing together. Their marriage is like a work of art, painstakingly created over the years, probably through much sacrifice, understanding, patience, love, tears, suffering, joy, laughter, forgiveness, time together, shared experiences, commitment and enduring love.

Perhaps, if you asked them, you'd find out that there were times when they drove each other mad, times when they didn't 'feel in love', when they hurt each other or acted selfishly, when they faced hardship or trials and when they were tempted to stray or to leave. But the fact they are standing in front of you telling you these things now is because they made a choice – when things got tough they chose 'us' over and above all other things.

Every now and again, an artist will step back from their canvas to see how the picture is coming along. It is a great help to take a step back every year to look at your own marriage and ask, 'How are we doing?' You may want to set aside a day each year to do that together. Check out the work of art you're creating and ask yourselves if it is shaping up the way you would like. And if it isn't, think of ways you can improve it.

I look forward to seeing the work of art that you both create together and the impact it has on everyone who encounters it. Here's to you both. Congratulations.

Sarah Abell helps individuals, couples and teams live, love and lead more authentically. If you want to discover how authentic you really are – you can take her free test on www.nakedhedgehogs.com.