When my husband's favorite aunt passed away shortly before our wedding, she left him some framed posters of Impressionist paintings. Aaron and I were setting up our first apartment, and he said he wanted to hang them in our kitchen and living room. I didn't respond, but inwardly I balked. I have nothing against Monet, Manet, and company -- I just don't like posters of any great art. So I brooded. Our home was our space, I told myself, and the decor should reflect both our tastes. And I worried that if I kept quiet to please him, I'd end up wimping out for the rest of our marriage.
My solution? I spoke up, suggesting that we not put anything on the walls or buy furniture unless we both liked it or, at the very least, one of us didn't object. Aaron agreed, and we started applying the mutual-approval rule to other issues, big and small -- how much money we saved every month, which friends we had over for dinner, and whether we drank white wine or red. That eliminated surprises and conflicts, and we became closer. For 16 years neither of us has been caught off guard by, say, the purchase of a 60-inch HDTV or the arrival of in-laws for the weekend.
Our approach is just what the experts advise. In a healthy relationship spouses assert themselves and then strike a deal. "Clear, appropriate boundaries are vital to the long-term functioning and intimacy of a marriage," says Stephen J. Betchen, a marital therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of Intrusive Partners - Elusive Mates (Routledge). Couples need to draw two lines: an internal one between husband and wife, and an external one between the spouses and outside influences, whether it's relatives, friends, or colleagues. "The first allows you to preserve your individuality and follow your dreams, and makes you more interesting to each other," Betchen says. "The second strengthens you as a couple and helps you withstand the inevitable pressures that every marriage faces."
It may seem counterintuitive, but setting individual boundaries will help you work better as a team. You're also setting an example for your kids, who will learn that negotiating compromises is the best way to overcome problems with their friends and future partners. That's the message Aaron and I are trying to send to our 6-year-old, Eric, when I stay on terra firma at the amusement park while they ride the roller coaster. "By seeing that Dad won't pressure Mom into doing something that bothers her, he'll realize he doesn't have to do it either," says Betchen. "That gives him a stronger sense of self and encourages him to think independently."
Need more team spirit in your marriage? We asked experts to pinpoint the areas where couples often collide and to offer advice on smoothing things out.