A satisfying marriage is one of the most important elements to a happy life and good health. We all seek it. We enter marriage with high expectations, full of hope and joy. Why then are those dreams so often shattered?
Living with another human being is challenging. We bring different backgrounds and expectations in to our relationships. We have different ideas and opinions. Unforeseen circumstances may drastically change our plans for how we hoped our lives would play out. What can we do to keep that primary relationship a source of comfort, renewal and stability in our lives?
For most of human history marriage has been fundamentally an economic arrangement, not a romantic one. Romantic marriage is a very recent invention and modern humans are definitely still working out the kinks. In primitive cultures people marry to grow a labor force (their children) and to share a division of labor. Elite members of earlier societies often married for in laws. By marrying your son or daughter in to a prominent family you gained important status and connections. In modern technological societies we marry for companionship and love and that is a tougher role to fulfill, especially since our needs and interests change as we get older. Marriage was much easier to sustain when people did not live much past the age of the 35-the average life expectancy at the turn of the 19th century in England, then the leading empire of the world. What we want and need in a partner at 25 may not be what is most essential to us at 45.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
the things most likely to destroy a relationship are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal
Drs. John and Julie Gottman have designed groundbreaking research that has taken some of the mystery out of this question. Using their assessment approach they have shown great success at predicting the likelihood of a relationship succeeding or failing to provide the happiness and comfort the partners expect. This remarkable research has also helped to identify four essential elements that are most likely to destroy a partnership: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal. The good news is that motivated couples can evaluate the flaws in their relationship and make healthy changes. Good couple skills can be learned. Research shows that counseling, workshops and marriage educational retreats can all be effective at helping couples to learn to interact in improved ways that strengthen their bond, reduce conflict and allow them to enjoy their shared life. Couples also need patience and realistic expectations. For most people it is easy to get along in the early stages of a relationship. When we are infatuated, filled with excitement and happiness about the relationship conflict is held at bay. Minor problems are not even noticed and larger warning signs of trouble are often ignored or, unrealistically, expected to be easy to solve. Once the honeymoon/infatuation phase is over partners are often deeply disappointed at the reality of living with their chosen partner, navigating day to day responsibilities and decisions.
The Role of Conflict
All of us have disagreements and differences even with those whom we love the most. There is nothing inherently bad or unhealthy in a relationship that has conflict. In fact it is completely normal. It is how we handle that conflict that makes the difference. Do we handle it with patience, understanding and good will. Even high conflict couples can have very good relationships if they are able to settle those differences with humor and compassion once they are calmer. I have often encountered couples in my work as a therapist who say, “we never fight or disagree.” This usually means that one person is not expressing any of their complaints or hurt feelings. They may end up walking away from the relationship at some point-usually a great shock to their partner. Alternatively, the silent partner may remain unnecessarily dissatisfied and unhappy in the relationship, perhaps not even realizing the source of their discontent if feelings are deeply repressed.
The challenge is to learn how to handle the differences and the inevitable conflict. Argue and fight fair and with respect for the other person. Avoid the four destructive behaviors mentioned above; criticism, contempt, defensiveness and withdrawal. Of course these behaviors are even more damaging when they lead to verbal or physical abuse While many people remain in abusive relationships, those pairings do not provide most of the positive emotional benefits of marriage. We seek and deserve marriages that flourish and enhance our lives not just living arrangements that endure.
Learning How to Manage Differences
Handling conflict is an essential skill of a healthy marriage and not always one that comes easily. Our style of conflict resolution may work great at the job or with friends and siblings but be totally unsuccessful with our spouse. Couples need to teach each other how they wish to be treated. No one style or approach is right for everyone, what is important is that both partners in the relationship find a way in which they can work out their differences. Some couples will want a cooling off period, others may need to thrash it out right then and there. Many couples today work things out online through email or instant messaging, finding they can express their feelings more easily in writing. Some may need the help of a third party; a friend, sibling or therapist. Others like to negotiate contracts and write it down. Many different approaches can be successful.
I find that many couples need to learn how to talk to each other when they are angry. We need to talk about our own feelings, how our partners behavior affects us that makes us unhappy. When we go on the offense, making accusations such as, “you didn’t do any of the dishes, you left them in the sink all day!” we are likely to get a defensive response and an angry partner. A much different reaction is likely to result when it’s framed in personal terms such as, “I wish you had gotten to the dishes, I sure don’t feel up to doing it now, what happened?” Even worse is when contempt enters the conversation. “You’re such a slob, you always leave a mess” is very unlikely to get a positive response or change the behavior in the future.
Verbal abuse is name calling, cursing, yelling and threatening. This type of bullying may achieve the objectives of the offender but will never lead to a loving partnership or a happy life. Contempt is one of the most destructive elements to enter a relationship. Mocking the partner, using pejorative language and/or belittlement all inflict scars that can be lasting.
Essential couple skills to learn are how to complain, how to negotiate differences, how to make both partners feel respected and fairly treated.
How can Love Survive
express praise, admiration and appreciation and watch your relationship thrive
Research done at the Gottman Institute as well as earlier research shows that the main ingredient of a successful relationship is praise, admiration and appreciation that is expressed. It is not enough to think, “well he knows how I feel.” Couples that frequently let their partner know how much they are appreciated and valued report a much greater level of satisfaction in their marriages. These do not have to be grand gestures. Candy, cards and flowers are what the retail industry push but it’s the little everyday type of praise and thoughtfulness that sustains love; “gee you look nice today”, “you really handled that well”, thanks for bringing that in for me”, “I can’t believe how easily you were able to do that”, etc. An easy experiment that psychologists often use with couples entering counseling is to set a goal of saying or doing 3-5 things a day that pleases the other person. Couples are usually very surprised to see how quickly the atmosphere improves at home and how much easier it is to feel fondly toward the other person.
It is much easier to tackle difficult or complex differences when couples are getting along well and are feeling good about the partner and the relationship. It is hard to compromise or work out solutions when there is an atmosphere of hostility or distrust.
Good relationships are not uncommon. The media brings us the stories of the spectacular failures, the messy divorces, the shocking affairs. Outside the circus of TV, magazines and blogs many people consider their spouse their best friend and a wonderful person with whom they are fortunate to share life. Do not let cynicism or fear stand in the way of making your home a happy and loving environment. Relationships can be improved. There are few other areas in life which can bring us as much satisfaction and joy as a loving primary relationship.
Article posted 27 August 2009
Robin Goldstein, EdD, is a licensed psychologist practicing in Boca Raton, Florida, USA. She has over 30 years experience and has worked extensively with divorce related issues.