Holding on to a strong marriage often means letting go of your urge to control everything. Here's how.

By Shana Aborn


"Let go." Sounds like something you'd say just before visiting the divorce lawyer, doesn't it? Isn't marriage supposed to be all about holding on?

Not always. There are times when letting go can help a relationship — when it means releasing the negative mind-sets that get in the way of true happiness. Often these patterns are about wanting to have the upper hand: to get our own way, to win all the arguments, to call the shots in bed. The good news is that you can consciously choose to lose the my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Without it, you'll be free to make your marriage a true partnership.

"These are decisions that are within our control," says Howard Markman, PhD, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage (Jossey-Bass). "You can decide, 'Do I need to be right, or do I need to be happy?' When you decide to be happy, there's a sense of humility and grace that develops, and that's part of the art of love."

Choosing to be happy this way isn't always simple or easy, but it is possible. Read on for four areas in which letting go can lead to greater joy in your marriage.

1. If You're the Boss, Fire Yourself

Do you insist on having your way about the housework, the kids, the money, the driving, etc.? Warning! This attitude puts your marriage at risk of becoming a dictatorship instead of a partnership. "We don't marry to be two ones; we marry to become a couple," says Scott Haltzman, MD, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men (Jossey-Bass). "Making decisions together can lead to much richer experiences than insisting on having your own way." That's what being equals and partners is all about. "There is evidence that couples who can make shared decisions in a smooth, comfortable way enjoy marriage more," says Susan Heitler, PhD, author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage (New Harbinger). "In a marriage, 'his way' and 'her way' need to become 'our way.'"

So instead of pulling your hair out because your guy forgets he promised to load the dishwasher or feeds the kids chips an hour before dinner, look at the bigger picture — things will work out even when they aren't done your way. If you find you're getting into power struggles with your husband, consider specifically dividing up the responsibilities, suggests Dr. Heitler. The two of you could agree to put him in charge of investing the household savings into retirement accounts and mutual funds, so long as he lets you know where the money is going. You could be in charge of painting the living room, so long as he gets to sign off on your choice of colors.

The same holds true for parenting. Make sure you're on the same page when it comes to basic rules and discipline, then agree to give each other the option of relating to the kids in your own ways. Your idea of parent-child bonding might not include backyard wrestling or playing Xbox, but if they're having a great time, that's what counts.

Erin McNamara Horvat, 41, used to think a good mother had to have the final word over the kids and the house. Then her work schedule changed and she had to let her husband be in charge of more. "He didn't do things the way I did, but it was fine," she says. The payoff for Erin was her own feeling of freedom. "Seeing how much he enjoyed himself, I released the guilt I had over not being the ideal mom I thought I should be," she says.

After countless spats about their three children, Kim DeYoung, 41, and her husband negotiated a new rule. The parent who holds the most conservative viewpoint on an issue gets the final word. "I didn't want to berate him for being more cautious than I was, so it was a way to be respectful of each other," says Kim, of New Haven, Connecticut. "If he cares more than I do about what the kids wear, he wins. It keeps each of us from judging the other."

2. Say Goodbye to Fantasyland

Remember that "happily ever after" you dreamed about when you got married? So now that you're together, why does it seem to be always just out of reach? If only he made more money, things would be so much easier, you think. I'd love him more if he'd just lose a couple of pounds and stop dropping his dirty socks next to the laundry hamper.

Sure, we all fantasize. But when you spend most of your time thinking and dreaming about what might be, you're setting yourself up for disappointment if that perfect future never materializes. What's more, says Dr. Haltzman, "If you hold on to an ideal that may never be met, you lose the opportunity to appreciate the good qualities of what's already in front of you."

How to jump in and enjoy the here and now? Start by writing down all the ways your life is good and your needs are being met, right down to basics like "I have a roof over my head" and "I have plenty to eat." Then expand that list to include everything you love about your husband, from the way he looks in his faded jeans to the way he puts his arm around you when you watch TV. Next, take the time to thank him when he does something nice — whether it's a household chore or an especially sweet kiss. "When you say your appreciation out loud, you get more out of it," explains Dr. Haltzman.

"When my husband gets on my nerves, I try to remember why I choose to be with him," says Kim. "Sometimes when we're on the road and he tailgates someone, I just want to lunge over and strangle him. But then I step back and look at all his bigger-picture qualities: He's an amazing father, he perseveres, he's loving and kind. And he cuts me some slack, too, like the times when I eat peanut butter with a spoon straight from the jar."

3. Go from "I Win" to "We Win"

Having the last word does feel great; every "I told you so" and "I'm glad you finally see it my way" is like earning a point on the marital scoreboard. But marriage isn't a game, and when you add up all those points, they can be costly. At best, you might get a short-lived feeling of triumph; at worst, you'll be left with a resentful partner and tension in the air. "The desire to be right is human," says Dr. Heitler. "But thinking that he has to be wrong for you to be right is self-defeating."

Begin the letting-go process by looking at disagreements not as "me versus him," but as a situation that both of you have to work out together. With that in mind, Dr. Haltzman recommends not compromising — which implies that nobody's going to be perfectly satisfied. Instead, work together to find a solution that pleases both of you. "The result is that you often come up with more creative and interesting outcomes," he says.

It can help, Dr. Heitler adds, to start by assuming that you're both right. Erin Horvat recalls a disagreement she and her husband had about renting a second home in Vermont for the winter. She thought the price was too high and the six-hour drive too long. But as they talked, she reminded herself how much he loved skiing. Eventually, he came up with a plan that worked for everyone: Invite several other families to go in on the rental and split the costs. Each family reserves one week, with weekends open for everyone. Erin's family deals with the boring drive by playing car games like "20 Questions."

In the end, Erin realized that the time spent relaxing and bonding as a family was well worth the long trip and the financial investment. "The longer I'm married, the more I realize that it doesn't get you anywhere to push your way," she says.

4. Surrender in the Bedroom

There are plenty of ways to let go sexually. The best place to start? Drop the negative messages you give yourself about your body and replace them with empowering ones. Instead of dwelling on your fleshy upper arms, congratulate yourself on your great hair or your strong legs. And don't forget to acknowledge how well your body is designed to give and receive pleasure.

If you're the one who always has her way in bed — especially if that means saying "no" more often than "yes" — try relinquishing some of that control. Tami Robertson (not her real name) is glad she did. "I realized that I just wasn't in the mood often enough, and he would be disagreeable and feel rejected afterward," says the mom of two daughters. So as an experiment, she responded to his advances with, "Sure, but let's make it a quickie." It worked wonders. "The result was a happy husband, and therefore a happier me, happier kids, and just all-around goodness," says Tami. "Plus, the excitement of the speed made it fun and more adventurous."

Finally, if you tend to concentrate too hard on reaching the finish line, release your "are we there yet?" anxieties and give yourself over to the moment. "Too often, couples try to force things," says Dr. Markman. "Make sure you give yourself time to focus on the sensual side of things. Light candles, get out the massage oil, and devote yourself to kissing, touching, and hugging." Sensuality helps you connect with your husband, which leads to greater desire, more pleasurable sex, and (bonus!) a better chance of having that mind-blowing climax. There — isn't it fun to let go?