“Marital bliss takes a little work and positive communication.Stockbyte/Thinkstock
We fall in love, get married, have children and raise a family. Over the years, love deepens, the bond strengthens, but our feeling of marital satisfaction waxes and wanes.
During the "bad times," there is more arguing and blaming, less sharing and touching, fewer moments of joy and appreciation. But we weather the storms, and some 50 percent of us do stay married.
What most couples don’t realize, say marriage experts, is that there are things they can do to ensure better times than worse, to make riding out the storms smoother and easier.
Marriage is like a beautiful garden, says Renee Colclough Hinson, Ph.D., executive director of The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment. "It requires skill and constant attention. If tended to, it will thrive, but if neglected, it will wither and die."
It Takes Work — For All of Us
"You mean I have to work at it?" Yup. "There is no couple that doesn’t have to work hard at improving their relationship," says Sallie Foley, MSW, author of Sex Matters for Women and an instructor at the University of Michigan. Believing that the good times will continue to roll on their own is setup for disappointment and disillusionment, she adds.
The fact is that all marriages have problems that cause conflict and strain the relationship. Among the most common problems:
- Money. There never seems to be enough, or if there is, one person is upset about how the other spends it.
- Sex. It’s the reason 45 percent of couples seek marriage counseling. Usually, one partner desires sex more often and on different terms than the other.
- Work. Partners have different role expectations about who does what within and outside of the home.
- Children. Couples may disagree over how to raise and discipline children.
Positive Communicators Fare Best
These problems won’t lead to marital meltdown if you can talk about them constructively with your partner.
John Gottman, University of Washington psychology professor and founder of The Gottman Institute, has videotaped more than 3,000 couples to try and isolate the conditions that make relationships thrive or fail. He’s found that when discussing a problem, an unhappy couple starts out by criticizing a partner’s behavior. Then comes an attack on the partner’s personality or character, followed by expressions of contempt — a particularly corrosive factor. Naturally, the attacked partner goes on the defensive, prompting a counterattack. A fight ensues, and needless to say, the problem is neither directly addressed nor solved.
By contrast, happy couples use five times more positive behaviors in their arguments than negative ones, Gottman has found. For instance, they draw on humor to relieve tension and pepper the conversation with expressions of affection to maintain calm.
Good Communication Techniques
Don’t despair if you don’t communicate like one of Gottman’s happy couples. You can learn the tricks of the trade — so to speak — says Colclough Hinson.
To see how good communications can help solve marital problems, let’s consider a typical cause of friction, i.e., the wife feels her workload has become too great and she wants her spouse to help out with the kids.
Here’s What You Should Do:
- Send "I" Messages. A good example is: "I’m concerned about the current state of affairs of home. Can we set aside some time to discuss our roles, responsibilities and chores around the house?" "You" statements are demanding, critical and controlling, but "I" statements are self-revealing and invite real listening and understanding, notes Colclough Hinson. When you ask to set aside a mutually agreed time to talk, you are showing sensitivity to the other’s needs — now may not be the best time for him to talk. Furthermore, you both make a commitment to focus attention on the problem in the near future.
- Be Empathetic. Listen to your partner and give empathetic responses to the content of the message you’re receiving. "I understand that you feel you are being taken for granted because you do most of the work with the kids. I’d like to help reduce your burden." The point is to be thoughtful about how you respond. It could be a statement of acknowledgement — "What you are saying is" an affectionate touch of the hand, or a sincere look. In short, you want to convey to your partner that you care and can see the problem through her or his eyes.
- Think It Through. Come up with a solution you both can accept. This action will reinforce shared decision-making. Be sure to discuss the obstacles that may thwart achieving the solution and develop strategies to work around them. For instance, suppose you agree to put the kids to bed three nights a week but find that you have to work late on one of your "on" nights. What will you do?
- Provide Feedback. "I really appreciate it when you put the kids to bed. I don’t feel like I have sole responsibility for the care of the children." Positive feedback will encourage your partner to stick with the solution.
The next time you want to work out a problem with your spouse, consider following the steps above. They’ll keep a difficult-to-have conversation from sliding into negativity — the ruin of more than one relationship.
Lots More Information
- 10 Marriage Myths
- How to Be Happy in a Relationship
- 10 Steps to a More Intimate Relationship
- Communication Skills for Lifelong Relationships