I thought today I might review some of the well-established basics for a healthy marriage.
1. No Terrorism
Never, ever cause your spouse physical harm or fear to get your way. No choking, shooting, hitting, punching, pinching, imprisonment, abandonment, or destitution. And no threats of any of these, either. Everyone deserves to feel safe in their own home and in their marriage.
2. Avoid Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling
John Gottman’s research revealed these as the four biggest signs that your marriage is falling apart. If you accidentally slip into any of these, stop yourself immediately and apologize. A marriage is a trusting and honest relationship between equals. Although Dr. Gottman doesn’t say this, I will: infidelity is almost always seen by the spouse you cheat on as criticism or contempt, unless they’ve agreed to it in advance. Dismissing infidelity as anything less than a big deal is defensiveness. And living a secret life is a severe form of stonewalling.
3. Keep Your Own Ratio of Positive to Negative Words and Actions to 5:1 or Better
Again, this one comes from John Gottman’s Love Lab. One harsh word requires at least five loving words to erase. One “too busy” turn away requires at least five “I’m yours” gestures to restore things. It’s OK to fight or to focus on your own needs when your spouse needs something, but only in a relationship where your positives contributions greatly outweigh your negative ones.
4. Take Note That We Experience Love Differently
You can do something that feels undeniably romantic to you and yet shows your spouse no love at all. What has meaning to each of us is largely shaped well before we even meet. If you want something, ask for it instead of feeling neglected and angry. When you do something to show your love, pay attention to whether it gets the same reaction from your spouse as it would from you. If it’s not a hit, try something else. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages offers many suggestions. You might also want to read one of the many books about Attachment Styles, so you’ll be alert if you’re more focused on independence (the Avoidant Style) or togetherness (the Anxious Style) or both (the Fearful-Avoidant or Disorganized Style) than your spouse.
5. Aim for What’s Best for Both of You, Not What’s Best for Yourself
Stephen R. Covey, in The Third Alternative, offers us lots of evidence for what’s wrong with competition and with compromise in any relationship. There is almost always a third alternative that won’t just please you but will also allow you to be a hero to your spouse and a builder of a strong and lasting relationship. This blog includes lots on how to find third alternatives.
6. Never Ignore Love When Your Spouse Offers It
John Gottman’s research shows that positive responses to bids for your attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection are the building blocks of relationship. They can be serious, funny, or sexual, as small as reaching out for your hand or sharing a joke to the grand gestures of someone trying to win you over or keep you from drifting away. I would also add that you should especially watch for and respond positively to loving acts offered while you’re resentful about something that’s not going the way you want. The only way to build a relationship is together. The moment you start to believe you know better than your spouse what needs to be added next is the moment you kick one of those building blocks out of place.
7. You Will Change Your Spouse But You Cannot Choose How
Forget your spouse-improvement projects. They don’t work, and they muck up your marriage (see item 2, above, and drop the criticism and condescension implied by your suggestions). Stick to being an inspiration and someone worthy of and supportive of your spouse’s self-improvement efforts, whatever they are. Remember to praise your spouse’s many strengths, because praise makes us brave, and change takes courage.
May your relationship last a lifetime and deepen with each year of trials and triumphs together.