For many couples marriage is a difficult journey. Since the early 1970’s close to 50% of all marriages in America have ended in divorce. An even higher percentage of second marriages end in divorce. And many of those couples who stick it out express dissatisfaction and, at some point, seriously consider ending their relationship. Indeed, it has been said that marriage may be the most risky adventure routinely undertaken by the majority of people in our society today.
Some people see these numbers and conclude that the institution of marriage is in trouble. But I disagree. In spite of the challenges of marriage and our high divorce rate, it is natural for men and women to want to find a partner and settle into a life together. Ninety-six percent of people in our society today marry. And even among those who divorce, the great majority of them will eventually remarry. So while individual marriages struggle, it seems that the institution of marriage is strong and enduring.
However couples need new awareness, understanding, and skills to work out a successful relationship.
We come into marriage ill prepared; we have unrealistic expectations of our partners; we bring baggage (wounds) from our past which we unconsciously expect our partners to heal; and on top of all this, we are egocentric. No wonder marriage is difficult.
But don’t be gloomy. The good news is that there is a great deal of research on healthy and happy marital relationships. People like John Gottman and Howard Markman (and colleagues) are discovering patterns of successful relationships and letting the rest of us in on their secrets.
One conclusion of those who study happy marriages is that these marriages are based on deep friendship. According to John Gottman, this is far more important than the ability of couples to communicate and work out their differences. Don’t get me wrong. Empathy and communication skills matter, but a climate in which positive feelings override negative feelings is even more important. Couples will work through their disagreements far more gracefully if the overall sentiment is friendly and positive rather than negative and resentful. Building friendship and goodwill is more predictive of a long relationship than any other factor.
Okay. This makes sense, but the question is, how do we build friendship and goodwill? We build it in many ways and perhaps I’ll continue discussing some of these practices in the future. However, I want to share just one in this article—it is being aware of our partner and making regular deposits into their “love account.” Happy couples deliberately do things that nurture their partners and help them feel supported and loved. In order to do this we have to get to know our partners and understand what behaviors indicate to them that we care. Here is a list of such behaviors:
This list could go on and on. None of these actions is big, but they say, “I am thinking about you. I honor you. You are important to me.”
Happy couples are mindful of each other. They deliberately make deposits into their partner’s love account daily. Notice that the equation is not “I am happy and therefore do acts of kindness” (which is what most of us are waiting for). Rather, it is “I do acts of kindness and then I am happy.” We have to do our part. We have to nurture each other and then we will feel happy in our relationship. For some couples this is easy. For most it takes conscious effort.
So think about your spouse. What makes him or her happy? What little things might you do to add to their feelings of love, happiness, and security each day? If you’re not sure, it is okay to ask. And then do one or two of them daily. Doing so regularly will increase the positive feelings (friendship and goodwill) and happiness in your relationship.