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by Rachel Allison

What married couple has not considered marriage counseling, marriage seminars, workshops, retreats or classes to help improve their marriage?  I would venture to guess that we’ve all thought about one or more of these marriage helps at some time or another, but how many of us have actually taken the time and spent the money to help improve our most important relationship?

Brigham Young University School of Family Life professor and marriage educator Stephen F. Duncan reports that reading research-based Internet articles as a couple and applying the principles is as helpful as attending a seminar or workshop.

People are pressed for time and money.  Duncan’s research shows that couples can do something that strengthens their marriages without spending massive amounts of money or time.

“In recent decades, researchers have completed hundreds of studies about what makes marriages strong, but not enough couples know about the results,” says Duncan.  “Instead, too many rely on popular books that emphasize unresearched ideas.”

“I’m not a Mars/Venus fan, he says.  “The premise is not based on scholarship.  It suggests stereotypes and separation, which can harm relationships.  I believe both men and women have the same spiritual and planetary roots.”

“Research, on the other hand, can offer powerful insights,” Duncan says.

“We now know, for example, that couples who avoid four killers of marital happiness—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—are much more likely to enjoy a rewarding and lasting marriage.  Another study suggests that couples are strengthened by five “magic hours” per week, including a weekly date, a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each day, and a daily act that communicates appreciation and affection.”

“The findings in these studies (led by University of Washington professor John Gottman) are the result of careful observation and measurement, even measurement of physiology and biochemistry, right down to cortisone and other stress hormone levels,” says Duncan.

Duncan recommends that couples who want to fortify their marriages with self-directed approaches do so together.  “They might read quality Web site articles or books aloud as a couple, stopping frequently to discuss the material and how it applies to them, identifying and celebrating strengths.  As couples identify weak spots and ways to overcome them, they should be frank but kind.  As they learn new techniques, they can adjust them to their distinctive needs.”

“For example” says Duncan, “a couple might learn about a technique marriage educators call “speaker-listener.”  Each spouse takes a turn holding the floor and a turn listening.  The speaker must speak for himself or herself by using “I” statements rather than assuming anything about what the other person thinks or feels.  The listener doesn’t rebut but instead communicates that he or she is listening by nodding, vocalizing, and occasionally restating.”

Often one spouse wants to learn while the other doesn’t.  Duncan recommends introducing ideas to a resistant spouse in a positive, upbeat, proactive way.   “‘Honey, I read this and I think it’s cool.  Do you mind if we take a few minutes so I can share this with you?’  You’re not implying that the other person has to buy into it, just asking that he or she consider it.”

Using what Gottman calls a “softened startup” rather than a “harsh startup” is critical.  If the initiator is the wife, “She must be careful to avoid an outburst like “You never spend any time with me!” or to imply that she married a jerk and she’s going to straighten him out.

Whichever spouse is initiating better relationship skills, neither should be reluctant or embarrassed to talk about what he or she needs. “They can do that without constantly complaining, without criticizing, and without being contemptuous or harsh with their spouse.  They can just say, ‘I really would like this to happen.”

However a couple chooses to improve their marriage, the point is to avoid stagnation.  “Regularly pick up a new idea or two to keep your relationship fresh,” says Duncan.

“I believe in reading, writing, and relationships—meaning that relationship education is as fundamental as the first two and should begin very early on in the same ways we teach reading and writing.  There are many places to get that education, but we all need more of it.”





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