It isn’t uncommon to see a headline at the local grocery store magazine rack encouraging readers to question how satisfied they are in their marriage, or to watch a TV show that glamorizes one “finding themselves” only to quickly abandon a relationship that isn’t completely fulfilling. It is no wonder then that in today’s society there is a great deal of pressure to have an ‘ideal’ marriage where spouses perfectly connect emotionally, physically, and spiritually – which is unrealistic. It is easy to understand then why marriage therapists often hear phrases from couples such as, “we are so opposite each other” and “we have difficulty communicating.” This is natural in marriage as men and women are very different from each other and have natural patterns of communicating, which for the most part, are gender specific.
Most couples follow a normal pattern of starting out with a happy season of bliss but over time the courtship fades and reality sets in when partners start questioning their satisfaction with the relationship and see quirks in their partner that they perhaps didn’t recognize before. This is when the “honeymoon phase’ is over and the mature relationship begins. Even though marriages don’t need to be ‘ideal’ relationships, they need nurturing, attention, and care.
Marriage therapist, John M. Gottman, spent decades focusing on research to predict what makes a marriage successful. Thankfully, the research proves that couples don’t have to be perfect – in fact, it is alright to argue and to even have differences, but he did discover that there are certain behaviors that can predict marital stability and divorce. From there, he was able to narrow down specific behaviors that can strengthen or weaken a marriage.
Dr. Gottman addresses the importance of safety first in any marital relationship. A marital relationship that includes physical or sexual abuse, an ongoing affair, or addiction or substance abuse, is not suited for marital counseling. There is no such thing as “adjusting to violence or addiction. “ Should anyone be reading this who is currently experiencing such a relationship, seek professional help for yourself first. Safety and security must exist before you can build a trusting relationship.
Build & Strengthen Your Marital Friendship
Saving your marriage begins and ends with building a strong marital friendship. Happy marriages have several habits that unhappy marriages lack. By building on these habits, marital relationships are strengthened and can withstand difficulties that come to every relationship.
If your marriage is struggling, and you are concerned about the long-term well being of your relationship, these habits don’t require extreme life-style changes, nor should they add great expense to the family budget. They are simple, proven habits that will strengthen any marital relationship. Adding one or two habits at a time can help repair a marital friendship that has been broken down.
- Express appreciation daily.
- Greet one another affectionately.
- Plan activities and time together.
- Ask and discuss one another’s dreams, hopes and ideas.
- Observe a daily ritual together.
- Set a common goal and work towards it together.
- Admire one another’s strengths and gifts.
A recent study showed that watching movies about relationships, and discussing it for thirty to forty-five minutes, actually helps marital relationships as effectively as marital counseling. And, a night at the movies may in fact be cheaper than therapy.
Dr. Gottman’s research discovered how men and women influence one another. For instance, men who respond to their wives with positive emotions, feelings and actions have a greater impact upon their wives. In addition, when a difficult subject comes up for discussion, if the wife will begin with a “gentle start,” it’s more likely that the couple will have a positive conversation. For example:
Harsh startup – “You’re always racking up debts on our credit cards. Do you realize you’re destroying our finances?”
Gentle startup – “Honey, I’m feeling anxious about our finances. I know we look at these things differently, but it would really help me if we could talk about a savings plan.”
Hazardous Habits to Avoid
While there are habits that will strengthen a marital relationship, there are also habits that can destroy a relationship. Dr. Gottman explains that criticism is different than complaining, and that criticism leads to other hazardous marital habits. For example:
Criticism: “You are always late and inconsiderate”
Complaint: “ I don’t like being late, I feel embarrassed. ”
Another hazardous habit is negatively labeling your spouse. Statements that begin with, “You always” or “You never” are detrimental to a relationship and can cause deep wounds. Any marriage can improve communication by removing hazardous statements and rephrasing disappointments without labeling the other spouse. Describe what is happening without personalizing it. For example:
Hazardous: “You don’t ever help clean up”
Instead state: “I seem to be winding up doing a lot of housework today”
Defensiveness can come as a result of criticism, but using defensiveness or withdrawal as a way to communicate hurts the marital relationship from the inside out. Defensiveness is a hazardous habit because it’s one more way of closing the communication process. Even though men and women have different ways of communicating, withdrawing or responding defensively can be changed by taking deep breaths, and responding in our best rather than our worst gender specific ways.
Studies demonstrate that humor can help in these types of situations. Also, don’t be afraid to stop a tense conversation with kind words. “I know you are upset, but I want you to know you are important to me.” Other times, simple gestures such as a kind look, a gentle touch, a considerate act, when you may be feeling defensive can help a couple repair the hurt and work towards a manageable solution.
Another detrimental habit in marriage is contempt. If one partner expresses contempt or arrogance towards the other partner, the marital relationship is no longer a partnership. Contempt means one spouse feels they are somehow superior to the other spouse. Superiority in any relationship is detrimental.
Health and Happiness
Happy marital relationships mean longer life spans. Unhappy marital relationships can statistically predict illness. As roles change in marriage, marital happiness will be affected. Changes in work schedules, illness, finances, bringing children into the home, or even when children leave the home, can cause marital distress, yet the work and effort you put into strengthening your marital friendship will pay tenfold when change comes to the relationship. Strong marital friendships help couples navigate through changes and will become even stronger over time.
Regardless of whom one is married to, every marital relationship will have challenges and difficulties. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Couples with the best relationships manage their difficulties rather than expect them to go away. Love and respect grow as the friendship grows. With nurture, attention, and care, marriages that are struggling can be saved if even one spouse is willing to work on strengthening their marital friendship.
Teresa Kearl has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has been researching and writing about successful family strategies for over ten years. She has been married for twenty-nine years and has a family of seven that has grown into a family of eighteen, with two more grandchildren soon arriving.