12/11/2014 04:26 GMT | Updated 11/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Marriage License or Lease?

"It's weird, marriage. It's like this license that gives a person the legal right to control their spouse /their 'other half."― Jess C. Scott, Blind Leading Another

"They say all marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning."

― Clint Eastwood

When John and Mary came in for couple's therapy she was convinced it was over. They had struggled mightily and even though they had a young child she was done with him. She was tired of the put downs and the condescending attitude. John was scared, he tried in vain to convince her that he was willing to change. She was ready to walk and she had her boots on. I have seen this very same scenario a million times in my professional and private life. When the chips are down and it's finally over and out, then they get going. Why don't they see it coming and do something about it when there is still time. I convinced Mary to give him one week to get his act together. She reluctantly agreed. I saw him several times that week and talked him through the changes he would have to make to turn it around. He would need to lose weight and go to the gym as he had completely let himself go. He needed to speak to her with respect, listen to her and treat her with kindness, which he had never done. When I said to him that he should always treat her like it's the first date he was shocked. Like somehow that was not what marriage was really all about. His sense of it from his own family was that it was a free for all, winner take all kind of deal. Like a marriage license was a license to kill.

John did manage to save his relationship but he was one of the lucky ones. Many more have found out too late that it's really too late. John Gottman, who wrote What Makes Love Last quotes a statistic from the Los Angeles Times that 80% of divorces occur because the man will not accept the influence of women. Men are often the culprits but not always. Marriage requires that we listen to our partner and take what they say seriously. When people refuse to look at what they may be doing to cause a problem the marriage is in trouble. Marriage is only as good as each person's willingness to look at themselves.

So, how is it that we can conceive of a completely different way to define what marriage is. Let's say it was a lease arrangement, where every three years it could be renewed or not, without any strings or ramifications. That we could get out cleanly if either one wanted to. What would marriage be like then? For sure it would look a whole lot different for a great many people who feel like it's a free pass for bad behavior because after all, they are married. In this sense marriage can be tyranny because people are essentially trapped. What can one do when the other person decides to punish, withhold or act badly? The answer is not much. People often feel intimidated or pressured to be a certain way, or else. What then are they to do up to the point of leaving?

So what are the marriage essentials that we would need to renew our lease?

• Don't Forget to Be a Good Friend. Marriage is first and foremost a friendship between two people. If you want your marriage to last it's important to make sure you show up, be interested, put the time and effort into it and don't take it for granted. Remember that the adage "Treat you family like friends and your friends like family" is actually true.

• Make Time to Be Romantic. I encourage all the couples I work with to make a "date night." That's where you get to remember why you wanted to get married in the first place. Make it fun, do something that you both like and don't go to the movies. Do something where you have to face each other and talk. Make sure you talk about everything, no criticism, judgment and don't try to fix it. Just be a good listener.

• Someone You Can Count On. Being there when you are needed, showing up when you say you will, being true to your word are super important. If your mate knows that you have their back they will appreciate it in so many ways. Knowing that you can trust your mate is essential to creating a good marriage.

• Make Your Relationship Safe. If we are safe from criticism, judgment and being deliberately hurt we are then capable of being in a good marriage or relationship. It's paramount that we feel safe with another person. If what we say or do will be turned against us, if are attacked for telling the truth we will shut down.

• Make Something Good About Being Together Every Day. Taking the time to make a short phone call, doing those small things that really matter like letting our mate know that we hear them and will close the window when they are cold, take out the trash or write a short note of appreciation. These things go a long way toward making each day something special.

John and Mary learned that it's one thing to be married and another to make a marriage. When we make a marriage we are actively creating a relationship that feels like we are living with our best friend, who loves us and wants know how we are and who we are. This is what we call "Working at being married" but it's not really work if it's something we want to do. Marriage can be a thing of beauty if we make it so. If we think of it like something we do each day and not a given we are more likely to be happy in the long term. If we think of marriage not as a license but a lease then we are thinking of it the way it really is. There are no free rides and that applies to marriage too. We don't really get away with anything, we are just wearing out our welcome and our lease on life.