IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How one couple improved their marriage by focusing on growth instead of happiness

Nate Bagley realized that he couldn't always make his wife happy, but he could create opportunities for communication.
Image: Angilyn and Nate Bagely.
Instead of trying to solve his wife's problems, Nate Bagley simply asks: “Is there anything you need?” Brittni Willie

If you want a great marriage, forget about living happily ever after.

Couples with the strongest bonds embrace conflict and focus on growth instead of happiness, according to Nate Bagley, creator of "The Loveumentary" podcast.

“Conflict is a sign that you’re in a great marriage, because conflict is the ultimate opportunity for growth,” Bagley tells NBC News BETTER.

Many people think conflict in their marriage is a sign that something is wrong, but as far as Bagley is concerned, it’s just the opposite.

“Every couple has conflict. Learning to handle it with grace and kindness is an art form, and it’s a skill. But just because you have conflict doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the relationship,” Bagley says. “It means there is something right.”

If you’re focused on happiness, you’re missing the point

Bailey recalls a quote he saw on social media that upset him: “You deserve to be with somebody who makes you happy. Somebody who doesn’t complicate your life. Somebody who won’t hurt you.”

“It super annoyed me,” he says, “because if we’re real honest, life just isn’t always easy, and if your goal is to just be with somebody who doesn’t complicate your life and who makes you happy all the time, you’re never going to find anybody,” he says.

If you’re in an abusive relationship, or a relationship that has grown toxic for some reason, then you should leave, Bagley says. But most of the time, he says, people are in great relationships — they are just going through a rough patch. He says they usually just need to improve their communication.

Bagley knows from experience. He met his wife, Angilyn in 2015 at a singles event in Salt Lake City. She winked at him from across the dance floor, he recalls, and a year later, they were married. But marriage turned out to be a bigger challenge than he anticipated.

“I think one of our biggest challenges, especially early on in our marriage, was learning to manage anxiety,” Bagley says.

His wife would occasionally suffer from bouts of anxiety. She just needed some alone time to unwind, Bagley recalls, but he interpreted her anxiety as a failure on his part.

“If I can’t keep my wife happy, like, that’s my job, you know? And so I’d start to try and fix it.”

He prodded her constantly, he says, demanding to know what was wrong.

“And it would just send her into an anxiety spiral where now she feels guilty about making me feel anxious, so that makes her feel even more anxious, and then me poking and prodding makes her feel even more guilty and more anxious, and it just turned into this … downward spiral,” he says.

Image: Angilyn and Nate Bagely.
Angilyn and Nate Bagely on their wedding dayBrittni Willie

Bagley says he eventually realized it was not his job to solve his wife’s problems.

“It’s my job to manage my own anxiety and my own stress, and when she was feeling anxious, I had to let her be responsible for her own thoughts and emotions and actions,” he says.

The couple worked out a plan. Whenever his wife feels anxious now, Bagley simply asks: “Is there anything you need?” If she says she just needs to be alone, he respects her wishes, he says.

“I can go take some deep breaths somewhere else and I can manage my own anxiety and I can say, ‘This isn’t about me — she’ll come talk to me when she’s ready,’ and it doesn’t escalate into this huge, unmanageable, week-long drama fest,” says Bagley.

Stop trying to make your partner happy

If you want to create growth in your relationship, says Bagley, stop trying to please your partner.

“I feel like pleasing your partner is doing whatever you can to make sure they’re happy — that they don’t have to face things that are uncomfortable,” he says.

Bagley says his marriage forced him to see that he isn’t as patient as he thought.

“When I got married, I was like ‘Oh, man, I’m going to be such a great husband, I’m so patient and understanding, I’ve been working on this for so long.’ Then my wife’s late and I’m like ‘Oh, my gosh, let’s go!’ he says.

They worked through the issue, he says, and now she is better about being on time, and he is more patient.

“I think one of the best things you can do in a partnership is to challenge the other person to be their best self,” Bagley says.

Be clear on what you want

If you want to have a growth-centered relationship, you need clarity on what you want, according to Bagley.

“You need to know what kind of marriage you want,” he says. “Most people don’t think about that.”

Talk about the values, experiences and goals you want to create as a couple, and the life you want to create together, he says. If you are having problems, don’t assume your partner is to blame, he adds. Even if your partner is misbehaving, ask yourself what you’ve done in the past to discourage the behavior. If you haven’t confronted them, he says, you need to start.

“If you’re both sitting around and waiting for each other to make the change to improve the relationship, you’re going to be waiting a long time,” says Bagley. “You need to take 100 percent responsibility for the relationship that you’ve created.”

Growth is about the habits and rituals you create

Creating growth in your relationship is about making opportunities to communicate, Bagley says.

“I think it’s all about the habits and rituals you create,” he says.

Maybe it’s every Sunday night you’re laying in bed together, and you cuddle and you have the ‘Hey, tell me four things you loved about this week — four things that you loved about me.’

Maybe you and your partner have a date night or go on a walk together once a week. These types of rituals are a perfect opportunity to have peaceful discussions about your relationship, says Bagley.

“Maybe it’s every Sunday night you’re laying in bed together, and you cuddle and you have the ‘Hey, tell me four things you loved about this week — four things that you loved about me’ [talk]. And then you swap back and forth,” he says.

There is always opportunity for you to get better

Your marriage is never going to be perfect, says Bagley, but there is always room for growth. Work on being a little more patient, a little more kind, and a little more self aware, he says.

“There’s always going to be a chance for you to get better,” says Bagley. “So that means there’s an infinite amount of goodness that can come from your relationship. It means my relationship can get better and better every single day, every single week, every single month of my entire life. If I can be married to this woman until I die, that means the last day of my life can be the very best day of my life. It’s about me making that choice.”


Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.