I have had too many couples married 20+ years sit on my couch with the look of hopelessness and helplessness. Once best friends and high school sweethearts, they now can barely stand to be in the same room together. What happened? Where did the love go and more importantly, can it return? Absolutely!
Continuing our series on Marriage Fitness, today’s post will center on the core. Just as our physical core is the foundation for our body, marital friendship is the core of a strong marriage according to marriage expert Dr. John Gottman. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman defines friendship as knowing one another intimately, being well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes, and dreams. Based on twenty-five years of research, the book explains that couples in good marriages have an abiding regard for each other, express this esteem in many ways…large and small, respect each other, and enjoy one another’s company. The quality of a married couple’s friendship is the most important predictor of satisfaction with sex, romance, and passion.
So what is the magical answer to making marriage work? According to Gottman, happily married couples are not smarter, richer, or more beautiful than others, living in castles in the clouds with no conflict. They’ve simply learned to let their positive feelings about each other override the negative. Here are some practical tips to rebuild or keep a marital friendship strong:
Know your spouse well – how well do you still know your mate? Can you answer the following questions (adapted from Gottman’s book)?
True or false:
a. I can name my partner’s best friends.
b. I know what stresses my partner currently faces
c. I know some of my partner’s life dreams
d. I can outline my partner’s basic philosophy of life
e. I can list the relatives my partner likes least
f. I can relate in detail my first impression of my partner
g. I ask my partner about his/her world periodically
h. I feel my partner knows me fairly well
If you answered “true” to more than half the items, your friendship with your spouse is an area of strength. If not, plan a date or uninterrupted time at home to start to work through the list. Not as a to-do list you need to complete, but as a fun rediscovery of your mate. You may get side tracked and discuss other topics – good! As long as they involve knowing your partner more intimately.
Practice “positive sentiment override” – It is easy for marriage partners to become experts at identifying the negative traits of the other person and ignore or minimize the positive ones. Negative sentiment is powerful and destructive to a marriage. Research shows that to build a happy marriage, couples need 8 to 20 positive interactions for every negative. So, to improve positive interactions:
- Make a list of all the things you admire and appreciate about your spouse (ex: she helps me with my work problems or he scratches my back even when he is tired). From this list, choose two or three qualities and rehearse them in your mind.
- The next time you are tempted to focus on your mate’s negative traits, override the temptation by focusing on the positive qualities you chose.
- Catch your spouse doing something good – notice the kind and generous things your spouse does (empty the dishwasher, fill up the car, etc.) and express gratitude. Don’t get caught up in “he/she should have done it anyway!” Reinforce positive behavior, so it will happen again.
For more ideas on nurturing your marital friendship, check out Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg.
If you feel your spouse is not your best friend, the foundation for your entire marriage could be at risk. Don’t wait for things to get better on its own. Be proactive! Start working on the friendship. At Power of Two Counseling, we can help you strengthen the core of your relationship so you know your marriage is healthy and strong. Call us today at 972-441-4432.