Let’s face the truth, here. Marriage is a journey, isn’t it? Once the honeymoon phase of marriage is complete, couples are left with the non-exceptional and routine expectations of everyday life. They go to work, cook, do laundry, pay bills, and manage family and social relationships. Oh, and those pesky little things called “differences”. Those need to be worked out too.
This is a lot for couples to manage, yet many underestimate this unexplored dimension of married life. Much of married life is acted out in the everyday behaviors, actions, thoughts, and interactions that you and your spouse have. Yet, there seems to be some things that healthy couples do and things that unhealthy couples do. These things set the successful marriages apart from the unsuccessful marriages. Well, this is your chance to give your marriage a check-up. Read on to see ten things that healthy couples do that could extend their relationship indefinitely. (These things are backed up by research, so it isn’t just a bobble-head talking here!)
1. Play the math game
If you have ever played any type of game in life, then you’re in luck. Marriage can be a game too. Marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, is the one of the foremost authorities on what makes marriages work. In fact, he is so accurate that he can predict whether you will get divorced with 96% accuracy. That’s a pretty amazing percentage considering most things in life are not so accurate. So, what is something that Dr. Gottman has found that successful marriages do?
Marriage can be a numbers game – Dr. John Gottman noticed that healthy couples have five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. These could also be understood as having five positive feelings to every one negative feeling. In their ground-breaking book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2000), Gottman and Silver write that having a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions is a sign of a healthy relationship. And one that may help you avoid the painful conclusion of divorce.
In order to test your ratio, put a piece of paper on the kitchen refrigerator. Divide it into two columns. Label one column “negative” and the other “positive”. Both you and your spouse are responsible for monitoring the ratio. At the end of week, see how many positive and negative interactions you’ve had. Don’t fret if it skews toward the negative side the first week. Another week is coming and you get another chance. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own behavior, so do your part. Take your eyes off what your spouse is doing, or not doing. Your goal, for example, could be to get to your ideal ratio in three months. Be sure to celebrate improvements in your ratio by going out on dates, giving each other back rubs, or smacking your spouse with the juiciest kiss you’ve ever given.
2. Remember your history
One of the many ways couples become disengaged with each other is to forget their history. Think of a ship’s anchor: it serves a very important purpose. Not only is an anchor useful when there are turbulent waters in the midst of a maiden journey, but anchors usually provide a sense of assurance. Whenever needed, the ship can be secured and stabilized. Furthermore, an anchor is controlled by the ship captain and can be deployed at any moment. It is always there.
Life can take marriages through turbulent waters. I have worked with hundreds of couples whose waves are capsizing the ship and there is no sign of an anchor. In marriage, I see a relationship’s courtship and the early days of a marriage as the relationship anchor.
In an article titled, “Family Beginnings: A Comparison of Spouses’ Recollections of Courtship” (2005), Dr. James J. Ponzetti from the University of British Columbia writes that couples use their relationship’s beginning stories as a way to highlight several things. One is to highlight the basis for the marriage taking place. In other words, why did the marriage become a reality? When couples were interviewed, they were able to highlight the positive reasons that led them to marry. The marriage is justified and feelings of happiness and positive recollections flood the couple. Additionally, these stories help highlight that although a couple may be experiencing turbulence, their relationship is more than just what is happening currently. A relationship history can offer long-forgotten reasons for why the relationship is worth fighting for or saving. Furthermore, every relationship has survived tough times. Many times, relationship beginnings have stories of successes and triumphs that have become buried in piles of countless arguments, petty differences and negative feelings.
Here’s what to do with this: take a night this week or next and spend 30 minutes on the couch with your spouse and tell your story of getting together, courting, and eventually marrying. Tell it to each other. See if it matches. Have some fun with it. Laugh and recollect. You can choose to take this challenge even further: send your unique marriage story to me personally, and I’ll select TWO inspiring and awesome stories to post on my website (click my picture below for web address) for everyone to read. I believe we need to use our marriage anchors more frequently and celebrate them, especially when times get tough.
3. Be positive
Remember that old saying, about seeing the glass half-full, instead of half-empty?
Well, it turns out that if applied to your marriage, it could greatly benefit it. In some ways, being positive in your marriage is like giving it a super-strength pill.
According to her article titled, “The Happy Couple” (2005), Suzann Pileggi investigated several studies that point to the benefits of being positive in marriage. One of the benefits is that choosing to look on the bright side is NOT ignoring problems. In fact, being positive and upbeat helps make your marriage bond stronger, increases marital satisfaction, expands your thinking, and allows for working better together toward solutions to those problems.
Examples of being positive include expressing gratitude towards your partner, celebrating accomplishments, being enthusiastic and doing fun activities together. Need a little more positivity in your marriage? Take an evening walk and tell your spouse a joke on the way. The next morning, leave him or her a note on their pillow letting them know one special thing you really appreciate about them.
4. Be a chain-breaker
No one comes from a perfect family. And although some families may present with healthier characteristics than others, it is ultimately up to you and your spouse to alter the future. Ever seen the iconic film Back to the Future II? Then remember that every couple has the opportunity to influence the future of their children and their families.
In the 1950s, psychiatrist and family therapist Dr. Murray Bowen established that individuals and families tend to pass along traits, beliefs, and behaviors from generation to generation. Known as the “multi-generational transmission process”, this process is actually alterable, yet many of us fall into its trap. The way we behave, think and act in marriage is also a reflection of the families we came from and our marriages suffer for it.
In an article titled, “Breaking the Chain of Negative Family Influences” (2005), Dr. Roberta L. I. Margarrell and Dr. Dean E. Barley write about “transitional persons.” These are the ones who interrupt and ultimately stop negative and unhealthy patterns from being passed on to future generations. Some of the ways in which transitional persons do this include, but are not limited to, an increased awareness of negative and unhealthy circumstances, a strong desire to change, persistent focus on making the changes happen, and getting help from others to make these changes happen.
Are you and your spouse transitional persons? What are you inserting into your marriage that came from your family of origin? Think about it: which behaviors and patterns are you passing on? Which behaviors and patterns are you eliminating?
5. Make marriage about friendship
Friendship is a wonderful word. Although friendship can be defined in many ways, there are two basic requirements for friendship: trust and admiration. There are very common phrases that float around in society about friendship, such as “a friend is always there, even when we’re not,” or, as Aristotle put it, “friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
In a study titled, “Ties that Bind: A Qualitative Study of Long-term Marriages” (2001) by Leslie L. Bachand, M.S. and Sandra L. Caron, Ph.D, friendship was one of the top responses couples gave when asked why their marriages have lasted as long as they had, which in this article ranged from 38 to 54 years.
One of the enemies of friendship in marriage is chaos and lack of scheduled time to act friendly towards each other. Set time apart to work on building that friendship with your spouse. Once children come in and careers take off, competition for your attention and time will be fierce. Schedule it in your calendars and hold each other accountable for building the blocks to a great marriage friendship.
6. Commit to getting marital therapy
Just like you take your car to get a tune-up, or go to the batting cages to work on your swing, taking your marriage to the “shop” is something that could improve your married life.
In 2005, Douglas K. Snyder and W. Kim Halford reviewed several studies that dealt with measuring the effectiveness of couples therapy in their article titled, “Evidence-based couples therapy: current status and future directions.” They reported that five different couple therapies showed a statistically significant effect on improving marital distress, especially when compared with couples receiving no treatment at all. Furthermore, marital therapy has also been shown to help with other individual psychological disorders, even including medical problems.
If you and your partner have received marital therapy before, then great job! If you haven’t ventured in that direction, then the recommendation is that you try it – at least once. It would not hurt to try and you may even be surprised by the benefits. Plus, rest easy in knowing that you are taking care of your life’s most important investment.
7. Don’t be shameless
Do you remember forgiving your best friend when you were a child? It was so easy. There you were with a big scrape on your knee because you and your best friend in the whole world had just had a fight. Yet, you knew deep inside that you would forgive them and in about five minutes, and then you’d be best friends again. Life was easy and peaceful. Plus, it was a pretty sure deal that your friend authentically apologized for being so mean – so that just made it too easy to forgive them.
In marriage, forgiveness is the knot in your marriage rope that keeps your union strong. In a 2014 study of 33 couples out of York University on how forgiveness is established in a relationship, it was found that expressing shame rather than guilt increases the chance that the injured partner develops empathy and eventually softens to show acceptance towards the offending partner. The authors, Meneses and Greenberg, write the following:
“In sum, the expression of primary shame related to the emotional injury in the injurer communicates genuine
suffering for having been responsible for damaging the relationship and empathic distress for the
injured partner’s pain. Its expression helps evoke a more empathic/accepting response from the
injured partner, which facilitates forgiveness.”
This allows for the process of forgiveness to set in, which ultimately protects the marriage from breaking down over time.
The next time you cross a hurtful line with your partner or spouse, be sure to leave the guilt at home and revel in some shame instead.
8. Use quality and constructive communication
In a 2013 study, over 1,000 couples were studied to see if either constructive or destructive communication affected the relationship between work-life balance and marital satisfaction. It was found that constructive communication had a positive effect on marital satisfaction. It may seem obvious; however, the study showed that the quality of the communication was the factor that influenced the marital relationship – regardless of the circumstances surrounding any work-life balance difficulties. So, you could have a bad day at work, but still positively impact your marital satisfaction.
Therefore, the individuals in the couple relationship had the decision to make: either use constructive communication, or destructive communication. Constructive communication involved being able to self-soothe, show empathy and be clear about what you’re communicating. On the other hand, being defensive, feeling contempt, criticizing and feeling flooded were all indicative of destructive communication.
9. Pray for each other
A little prayer never hurt anyone or anything. Although the discussion of whether there is a God or not will probably go on for years and years to come, the psychological and relationship effects of prayer have been studied extensively. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology (2014) it was found that what is called “Partner-focused Petitionary Prayer,” or PFPP, was linked to increased relationship commitment. The prayer patterns must be focused on praying for the needs of your partner, not necessarily just for your own.
Although the study did not state how many prayers to make, I believe that there should not be a limit. Instead, follow your heart and if you feel like praying for your partner while waiting at the local Starbucks, then there’s your chance.
10. Don’t forget to laugh
When you laugh together, you are in essence injecting positive emotions and cementing lasting memories into your marriage story. Remember, a marriage really is a story, and most successful stories include a healthy amount of humor. In an article titled, “Laughter Makes Love Last” (2007), published in the magazine Prevention, laughter was pinpointed as a marker for marital strength and bonding. You might have to put on your comedian hat even if you don’t consider yourself funny. It is important to note that humor doesn’t just include doing stand-up comedy, or performing skits in front of the family. Humor in marriage involves noticing the quirky, odd, and strange behaviors associated with that person you decided to marry. It could also involve simply “trying” to be funny. Just trying to be funny, sometimes, ends up being funny.
Hopefully, these ten marital insights will give you some ideas on how to have a long, loving and lasting marriage. Hopefully, it also gave you and your spouse a healthy dose of affirmation if you’ve already been doing these things. Marriage is definitely complex, so take it one step at a time, and invest, invest, and invest some more in your marriage to increase the odds that it will thrive and last.