February is traditionally recognized as a month to remember love and relationships. Marriage is one of the most pivotal and significant relationships any of us will experience. During this Valentine season it is especially important and helpful to reflect on what qualities, behaviors, and attitudes predict satisfaction and happiness in a marriage.
During my clinical training (over 25 years ago) I was taught the importance of communication in marital happiness. For many years therapists predominately focused on assisting couples to express themselves and listen to their partners. While the skills involved in open and effective communication are important in any relationship, research has shown how much more there is to a happy marriage.
Dr. John Gottman a clinical psychologist and foremost researcher in the area of couple relationships, has studied many hundreds of couples since 1980. Dr. Gottman’s research has identified not only predictors of divorce but also has identified 7 behaviors that predict a mutually satisfying marriage.
A strong friendship is the foundation of a good marriage. A relationship where one feels known (preferences, dreams, goals) and where fondness and admiration are expressed to each other are the first two predictors of a stable marriage. The third important behavior identified by research is an inclination and effort to turn toward and approach your spouse rather than turn away. Expressing genuine interest in each other’s daily activities is important. Also essential is a focus and intention to look for the good in each other rather than to focus on negatives.
Conflicts are inevitable in any relationship and research has shown that the ability to resolve solvable problems is predictive of a stable marriage. However, some conflicts cannot be resolved by reaching agreement (different views on religion, sex or political issues; some parenting attitudes; basic attitudes about money). When agreement cannot be achieved, the goal should be to find a way to respectfully express and listen to each view without getting stuck with the goal of convincing your spouse of the “rightness” of your view. Not only is this disrespectful, it will lead to gridlock in the relationship.
Unsolvable (or perpetual) issues are difficult but once each partner respectfully understands the view of their spouse, it is important to know when to “drop it and move on”. Continuing to focus on and rehash the same points will often lead the couple to power struggles and destructive communication behaviors including criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Focus on ways to compromise to find the middle ground. Be open to a willingness to be influenced by your partner and to “see their side” of an issue.
It is important that couples create a sense of “we-ness” with shared meaning in cultural, philosophical, and spiritual ideas. While your spouse needn’t be your clone – (how boring would that be?) -- sharing important life dreams and goals is bonding in a marriage.
It is valuable to spend time with your spouse to discuss your day and your feelings. Make a daily commitment to express things you appreciate about your spouse - - look for the positive things you can recognize – they are there but often in marriage we neglect looking for or expressing gratitude. Take the time for physical expressions of affection (sexual and nonsexual) to keep that part of your relationship alive.
Good marriages do not “just happen” but are always the result of deep desire and genuine effort. With commitment and energy you can create the relationship you want.