“Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship, mutual respect and enjoyment of each others company.” –John Gottman
I was taking my usual morning walk when I spotted an elderly couple sitting on a bench, holding hands and enjoying the beautiful bay view. That image of lifelong love and affection pulled at my heartstrings; it’s the kind of scene we strive to live out in our own relationships. But a happy marriage that lasts until the end doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes hard work and a strong commitment. How do you end up as the couple sitting on the bench together, instead of in divorce court?
Society Misrepresents Marriage
“The sound of your heart—it is the most significant sound in my world.” –Edward Cullen, Twilight
Society tells us we need love to be complete, but many people don’t quite know what real, healthy romantic relationships look like. When we compare our actual relationships to the ones we see projected in the media, it’s easy to feel like ours are falling short. Movies usually end just at the start of the characters’ romantic relationships. Well, of course: The beginning is the exciting part! What the movies don’t show is what happens during and after the couple’s fights, when all the making up is over. What happens when the children are waking you up at all hours of the night, dirty clothes are strewn all over the floor, and the pile of bills keeps getting bigger? Movies distort the image of a romantic relationship, setting an unattainable standard. They trick us into thinking you can change the “player," turning him into a lifelong monogamous partner. These relationships are unrealistic, working the angle that true love conquers all, brings endless happiness, and involves zero conflict.
As people embrace this popular view of love, it’s becoming more common for couples to enter relationships based on a desire for happiness and personal fulfillment. When the initial romantic feelings fade, people think the love is gone. They become emotional subway stations, transferring from one relationship to the next. This can be problematic because it sets unrealistic expectations about sex, love, and relationship intimacy.
Since 1973, Dr. John Gottman has studied what he calls the “masters and disasters” of marriage. Hundreds of individuals from the general public have taken part in his long-term studies, which he designs to determine what makes marriages fail, what makes them succeed, and what factors give them meaning. Based on his results, Gottman is able to predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which couples will make it and which won’t. Below are some of his top suggestions for how to keep your own relationship strong:
1. Seek help early. The average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems—and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so within the first seven years. This means the average couple lives unhappily for far too long.
2. Edit yourself. Couples that avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.
3. Soften your “start-up.” Arguments typically escalate when one partner makes a critical or contemptuous remark in a confrontational tone. Bring up problems gently and without blame.
4. Accept influence. A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, “Do you have to go out with your friends Friday night? My parents are coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,” and her husband replies, “My plans are set, and I'm not changing them,” this can create some shakiness in a marriage. Gottman emphasizes the husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife, because research shows that women are generally well practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership occurs when both husband and wife accept influence from one another.
5. Have high standards. Happy couples have high standards for each other from the beginning. The most successful couples are those that, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behavior from each other. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behavior at the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple will be down the road.
6. Learn to repair and exit the argument. Successful couples know how to exit an argument. After a fight, they repair by using attempts that include changing the topic to something completely different; using humor; saying a caring remark (“I get this is a hard topic to discuss”); establishing common ground (“This is our problem”); backing off (as Gottman puts it, “In marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you have to yield to win”); and offering signs of appreciation for each other along the way (“I really want to thank you for…”). If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again when you’re both calm.
7. Focus on the bright side. When discussing problems, successful couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, “We have fun together,” instead of, “You never want to do anything.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make frequent deposits to your emotional bank accounts.
I know how difficult it can be to implement the suggestions in this post, especially in the heat of an argument. But like anything worthwhile, it takes work and a conscious commitment. If you can’t control yourself during a fight, take time afterward to repair your bond. And if you’re married, please share how you keep your marriage strong. I look forward to hearing from you.
Copyright Ilene Strauss Cohen 2017.