How Not to Destroy Your Marriage: 8 Tips for Staying a Happy Couple
So how do you make your marriage work? Or do you just blindly hope it’ll take care of itself?
Think of a hot, successful date with someone you’re attracted to. You have fun, great conversation and more sexual chemistry than a warehouse full of pheromones. You don’t have to “work at” the date because it’s self sustaining. It runs as smoothly as the gliding hand of a classical guitar maestro and you can’t wait for another rendition.
But marriage, or any long term relationship; well that’s a whole other caboodle.
If we’re not careful, marriage can deteriorate into little more than a torturous assault course; littered with routine boredoms, frustrations and resentments. Couple all that with external pressures and sometimes marriage feels not worth the effort. But there are major benefits to being hitched or committed, other than just a beneficial tax regime.
Healthy marriage; healthy people
Being happily married bestows heaps of health benefits. You might be forgiven for thinking that if you’re married you don’t live longer it just seems like it but, no, a good marriage really can help you clock up more years (1) and married people are happier (2) even though they don’t always look it from the outside.
But when marriage doesn’t work it can feel being manacled to a maniac, marooned with a misogynist or nailed to a nag. And I don’t care what the studies say, that’s not healthy. You may hear couples say stuff like: “We are making our marriage work!” but how do we do this?
Making it work
We pay lip service to “working on the marriage” but what is the work we need to do? Marriage vows such as-“to love and to cherish” and “forsaking all others, for better or for worse” don’t really tell us how to make it work, although they give us a clue.
Fortunately a ton of research has been done on what to do and not do to make your marriage, or any intimate relationship work. Follow the guidelines here to become “good at marriage”.
Tip one: Be romantic but keep it real
We are all (force?) fed romance in movies and novels. The handsome man gets the beautiful woman. But what I wonder is what happens after our romantic couple ride off into the sunset together? What do they do exactly? Bicker? Moan at one another? Start to ignore each other?
After all that romance, our beautiful couple is bound to have massive expectations of their life together. But when rose tinted expectations clash with day to reality, watch out!
Romance is vital in any relationship. Always seeing the best in your partner helps to keep things intimate and love should be expressed. But if you have been raised on Mills and Boon Romance novels or feel-good movies, then your own romantic expectations can work against the sustainability of your long term relationship.
When day to day life fails to live up to the giddy, heady lust-filled days of the pre-settled down romance people can become angry, even blame one another: “This wasn’t what I signed up for”. They find it hard to take the rough with the smooth because they never really figured there would be any rough.
Expectations not diluted with at least a dash of realism can be a royal road to relationship ruin. Your partner may be an angel, but they have feet of clay. You must learn to love those feet or at least accept them a bit!
Tip two: Say sorry so you won’t be
Some people don’t apologize, and can never admit they were wrong. Sorry isn’t a word they can say unless they are asking you to be. If such people drive you nuts, console yourself with the thought that they don’t keep relationships very long
People who don’t say sorry to their partner are much less likely to ever become married, or if they do they are much less likely to stay married. Never or seldom apologizing is a relationship crusher because one partner ends up feeling always in the wrong.
A survey conducted in San Francisco (3) found that people who stay happily married are twice as likely to be able and willing to apologize to their partners as divorced or single people are. The survey found happily married people are 25% more likely to apologize first, even if they only feel partially to blame. The harder divorced and single people found it ever to apologize or make conciliatory gestures, the more likely they were to stay single.
Romance, passion and good Italian food may bring couples together, but compromise and respect will keep them there. Say sorry sometimes.
Tip Three: Drive those relationship-ruining bandits out of town
The marriage psychologist John Gottman spent decades observing the interactions between married couples behind a one way mirror (legally!). He and his researchers found they could predict amazingly accurately which marriages would stay the course and which would crash and burn. They could tell with great accuracy which couples were destined for relationship break up after listening (and watching) just five minutes of discussion regarding a difficult issue.
It wasn’t how often they argued it was how they argued that was key to relationship longevity or marriage.
There are four ways of communicating which are toxic to marriage. What Gottman describes ‘The “Four riders of the Apocalypse’, any one of which, if it’s a repeating feature of couples communication, is a big predictor of a not so happy ever after – and soon!
So what are the Four Apocalyptic Riders you need to steer clear of?
Evil Rider One – Contempt:
You can show contempt in all kinds of ways from rolling your eyes, cursing, sarcasm, and name calling. Some people have a PhD in contemptuous communication. But the expression of contempt is toxic to relationships. Gottman (4) found that if the expression of contempt was a regular feature in the start-up phase of a disagreement, the prognosis for relationship survival were poor. For example he found women who looked contemptuous whilst their husband was talking were six times more likely to be divorced two years later.
Evil Rider Two – Defensiveness:
“What do you mean by that!!” or “Why are you always picking on me?” when someone really isn’t is a sign of defensiveness. Being too defensive can do to your relationship what sulphuric acid can do to a beautiful oil painting.
If one partner immediately starts shouting as soon as their er… “loved one” even gently broaches a subject then the local divorce lawyer may be in for some new business shortly.
Feeling overly attacked or threatened can be a deal breaker as it makes you, well, hard to live and feel intimate with.
A partner may have gotten into the habit of being defensive because of having been genuinely relentlessly criticized which brings us along to the next marriage deal breaker:
Evil Rider Three: Don’t criticize but do compliment
Want to sever your relationship completely, destroy it beyond repair? Then keep on criticizing. The humble criticism has destroyed more marriages than you can shake a divorce lawyer’s fee at. A criticism, as opposed to a complaint is an attack on the whole person.
For example: “You are such stupid fu”!er you forgot the milk!” implies they’re always stupid in all contexts rather than they did something that was not so bright in this instance.
A complaint, on the other hand is limited. It’s directed at one off behaviors rather than the core identity of your partner. “I’m upset you forgot the milk this morning! That’s not like you” is a complaint not a criticism because it’s specific an not a attack on their core being.
People in happy marriages feel appreciated, loved, and respected. Drive this evil rider out of town by reminding your spouse of their talents, strengths, and what you love and like about them much more. No one likes to feel constantly under fire. Mind you if someone has been under fire a lot they are more likely to run and hide:
Evil Rider Four: Withdrawal or ‘stonewalling’
Emotionally withdrawing or stonewalling, ‘closing your ears’ or ‘shutting off’ when a partner is complaining or just trying to be intimate is another huge predictor of breakdown. There are lots of ways to make ourselves absent even if we are in the same room.
Men may typically do this in the face of what they perceive to be nagging. Gottman found that whilst criticizing was generally more of a female trait, men used stonewalling more. But the withdrawal can become its own problem if it becomes habit or is used in response to attempts at intimacy from your partner.
Everyone needs space, but never responding to an emotional issue leaves the other partner out in the cold.
So these are things to avoid or at least minimize. But on the positive side what can you do to breath health into your marriage?
Tip four: Know what not to talk about
Younger couples often want to ‘dig deep’ to unearth all their ‘issues’, to be entirely open with one another, and to ‘talk everything through’. “There should be no secrets in this relationship!” This is the cliché of marriage guidance counseling that everything has to be “processed” and discussed. Imagine doing that on a first date!
But studies of couples who have actually been successfully married for many decades have found, counter intuitively, that these elderly happy couples often don’t listen very carefully to what the other is saying when expressing negative emotion.
They also tend to ignore their own feelings about the relationship unless they consider that something absolutely must be done. This is so different from the “is this/isn’t this person right for me” agonizing that can pollute perfectly good relationships.
So the typical advice of agony aunts and amateur therapists to ‘air all your issues’ and get ‘everything out’ doesn’t, after all, make for long-term healthy relationships. Agreeing to disagree and knowing which subjects to steer clear of is a key relationship skill. But..
Tip five: Work it out but keep a lid on it
Another key skill exercised by people good at marriage is to know when a conversation or argument has ‘run its course’ and change the subject.
The old ‘quick shift’ lessens the amount of negative emotion experienced and decreases the likelihood of later rumination or return to negative interaction. It also conveys the message, “We do argue sometimes but still get on.” Thus, the argument is contained and doesn’t leak and messily contaminate the whole relationship.
Disagreements need to be ‘one-off specials’, not long-running serials. And talking of not always doing big relationship talk, have some fun. I’m serious, have some fun… now!
Tip six: Laugh together and stay together
It’s been found that regularly revisiting past romantic times and alluding to them often in conversation keeps relationships strong. So “Wasn’t it wonderful when we…” and “Do you remember…” is a powerful way of staying bonded. Believe it or not some couples do the opposite and only drag up the bad stuff – ouch!
Here’s a surprise though. As healthy and good as regular romantic reminiscing is, regularly laughing together is even more powerful at keeping intimacy flowing (5). I guess this is because fun and laughter is all about seeing the perspective of things.
So, create a reservoir of funny times and re-visit them often together. Lack of fun is, well, no fun. And having fun and laughing will help you with this all important marriage success equation:
Tip seven: Remember the 5:1 golden rule
According to our Dr Gottman, if a marriage is to be stable it needs to adhere to the magical 5:1 rule.
Which is… there need to be five good interactions for every not-so-good one. And ‘good’ might mean a fun afternoon spent together, a loving hug, an enjoyable movie date, an exchange of genuine smiles, or a nice chat about the garden, anything positive. A ‘bad’ interaction may be a row, disagreement, or disappointment.
Make efforts to keep to the 5:1 rule in your day to day life and your marriage will become more stable. And finally:
Tip eight: Can you read (love) maps?
I used to watch the Mr. and Mrs. TV show. The basic idea was that the host would ask one partner to go behind a soundproof screen. Next he’d get the remaining partner to answer questions about their absent spouses preferences, their likes and likely dislikes.
For example: “Where in the world would your husband most like to travel?” or “What drink would your wife most likely order in a restaurant?” The idea was that the more correlated the answers, the stronger the relationship and marriage. And research bears this out:
The more you know your partner’s tastes, aspirations, whom they like and dislike at work, and so on, the better ‘love map’ you have. Knowing the details of your partner’s inner and outer life (whilst allowing for some privacy) makes for a stronger bond.
One woman I treated with complained her husband had no idea who her best friend was! She saw this, not surprisingly, as a lack of interest and therefore, love on his part. Another client didn’t know the name of her (underappreciated) husband’s company.
Strengthen and update your love maps to better navigate your relationship. Remember details about your partner so they feel connected to you and you to them. Feed back your knowledge of their “map” so they feel listened to, understood and cared about.
Follow these tips to improve your relationship and, unless your partner is too defensive, get them to read it too.
In a paper called, “I just want to get married – I don’t care to who! Marriage, Life Satisfaction and Educational Differences in Australian Couples”, doctoral candidate Shane Worner of Australian National University reports that married people are happier than unmarried people. Worner surveyed 5,000 Australians, asking them to rank their level of happiness on a scale from one to ten, then inquired as to their marital status. In general, Worner found that married men are 135% more likely to report a high happiness score than single men. In contrast, married women are only 52% happier than their unmarried counterparts. Another UK-based study found that both married men and women were happier than non-married, but women more so than men.
The willingness to apologize to partners may be key to a lasting marriage, suggested the survey of over 7,590 US adults (Zogby International pollsters).
Dr Gottman has studied couples for over two decades at his ‘love lab’ in Seattle.
The study, conducted by Doris G. Bazzini of Appalachian State University and three of her former students, appears in the January 2007 issue of the journal Motivation and Emotion