Enhancing Marital Relationships

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The question might be asked, “Why marry?”.
As Kierkegaard said about marriage, “If you do it you’ll regret it, if you don’t do it you’ll regret it.” But the British Office of National Statistics in 2007 reported that married couples live longer, that younger married men have half the mortality rate of unmarried men, that married people commonly enjoy better health, that children living with married parents are healthier, and that those children stay in education longer. Marriage is also reportedly associated with better psychological adjustment, reduced violence, increased wealth and reduced welfare dependency. There are clearly many community benefits to marriage which help justify society’s efforts to support the institution. However, a distinction needs to be made between happy and unhappy marriages. Research shows that those who are unhappily married are more prone to illness than others, and that unhappy marital partners live on average four years less than happy ones. Therefore whether or not to marry might not be the key question, but how might one go about having a happy, long-term union.

Of all the things I have heard and read about marriage after 25 years or so of offering marital therapy, a few, in particular, stand out.

First of all, a healthy marriage is essentially based on a deep friendship. Yet it is nonetheless important to continue to appreciate the “otherness” of one’s partner in order not to be lulled into an overly cosy or complacent familiarity which may stifle passion. A key issue is the way in which marital partners respond to the challenges of marriage which involve sacrifice. As suggested by the American philosopher, Joseph Campbell, when marriage is appreciated by each partner as a higher order entity than the partners themselves, then they may sacrifice to the relationship as opposed to sacrificing to each other. This in turn strengthens the marriage from which each partner derives benefit.

Regardless of our own views of marriage and intimate relationships in general, there is a greater level of understanding these days as to what kinds of things will lead to a marriage being a happy long-term union or failing, either through a divorce or by living unhappy parallel lives.

The most convincing research in this area has been conducted by John and Julie Gottman and their colleagues at the Gottman Relationship Institute, which has been reported in such books as “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”. It used to be thought that marital partners mainly required good communication and conflict management skills to promote a happy marriage: indeed, much previous marital therapy focused on promoting communication skills including active listening described below. Having good communication skills may be an advantage, but many people (including many of our grandparents’ generation) could be considered to have relatively modest communication skills whilst having very happy marriages, and many people with excellent communication skills may end up divorced. This blog highlights principles and practices, largely drawing from the work of John and Julie Gottman and others, which have seemed most useful in offering relationship therapy. These principles can be taken to apply just as well to those in de facto or same sex relationships.

Active Listening Skills

Marital therapists have historically focused on the quality of the couple’s communication to address troubled relationships, commonly by encouraging “active listening”.

This process involves each partner practising ways of expressing and listening to their respective concerns, wishes, thoughts and feelings to promote feelings of connection between them and to heal disconnection. Partners would be encouraged to find a conducive time and setting to support a sense of relative safety (initially that might be a therapist’s consulting room), and be encouraged to communicate in dialogues rather than parallel monologues with an attitude of curiosity about the other’s perspective rather than judgment. Partners would be encouraged to take turns practising their capacity to speak clearly about their conflict-related thoughts whilst the other’s role would be to actively listen. The listener would then check that they had accurately grasped the intended message by paraphrasing what they understood their partner to be saying, and then directly checking to see that they had fully appreciated the underlying message their partner had intended to convey. For example, after paraphrasing what they believed their partner was wanting to convey, they might ask, “Have I got that?”, or, “Is there anything else?”. Then, when the speaker’s message was well understood, the listening partner would take their turn to speak about the issue being discussed. Each partner might also be guided to show appreciation for what their partner had shared.

There seems little doubt that such dialogue could support partners’ empathic attunement and feelings of connection with each other.

This is especially if each partner were indeed to willingly communicate in such a collaborative fashion about important issues which had aroused painful emotions, and if each partner’s expressed understanding of the other’s views were relatively accurate. But this might be a tall order! Such a process might be much more difficult than it seems, especially if the issues being discussed and underlying conflicts associated with them were to arouse deep or longstanding painful emotions. Discussing challenging topics with one’s partner can be difficult without feeling criticised. The challenge is greater if either partner has longstanding tendencies to avoid conflict.

Indeed, the Gottmans’ research suggests that marital therapy based on coaching in active listening skills tends to meet with little success in preventing separation and divorce.

Having good active listening skills is neither necessary nor sufficient for a happy long-term relationship. Even though the Gottmans’ own work revealed that they too spent considerable time coaching their clients in ways to improve their verbal communication and conflict management skills, they demonstrated that there were many other practical and more reliable ways in which partners could enhance their relationship whether their marriage was troubled or not.

Photograph: Lood Goosen

Key Features of Happy and Unhappy Marriages

Following extensive objective research with hundreds of couples, the Gottmans and their colleagues highlighted the key features which differentiated happy and unhappy marriages and which helped predict whether couples would experience ongoing happiness or separation and divorce.

They emphasised that a happy marriage appears to be primarily based on a deep friendship. This would be reflected in partners feeling connected to each other, feeling safe, and believing that their partner truly cares for them. Happily married partners would tend to support each other’s hopes and have a sense of shared purpose. Happily married couples do not necessarily have similar values or interests. They will still have disagreements and at times feel frustrated or irritated with each other. In particular, healthy couples relate in ways which demonstrate a “positive sentiment override”, meaning that each partner’s underlying positive feelings toward the other will help override uncomfortable or conflictual situations. They will also make effective attempts at “repair”, or active ways to improve the situation if there are lingering uncomfortable feelings. Under such circumstances couples may manage relatively well even with areas of conflict that are not easily resolved at all, recognising that the impact of such conflicts can be transcended as a result of their underlying respect for and appreciation of each other.

The Gottmans highlighted a number of factors that help predict divorce.

One is when couples typically have a harsh start-up to their arguments which may involve yelling, blaming, sarcasm or other more intense negative reactions. They found that the outcome of an argument can be predicted with 96% accuracy in the first three minutes (which obviously means that if an argument is not going well after three minutes it is usually best to discontinue at that point, at least until emotions have further settled!). The Gottmans identified four different types of negative interactions which were most destructive to marriage. Expressions of contempt were perhaps the most destructive. Such expressions include sneering, eye-rolling, name-calling, sarcasm and hostile humour. Other negative patterns included persistent criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling according to which a partner might block attempts at communication. Vicious cycles might develop such as a pattern of one partner criticising and the other being defensive or stonewalling. Regardless of one’s potential communication skills these reactions, especially when prolonged, tend to harm a marital relationship. When combined with harsh start-ups to arguments, they were highly predictive of divorce. Another predictor of divorce which is commonly associated with the negative interactions described above is “flooding”, which involves either partner feeling overwhelmed by intense emotions during their interactions. This will partly be reflected in very heightened levels of bodily arousal and distress and failed attempts at repairing a situation. Couples might then focus on the present and past negatives in their relationship, perhaps rewriting their history in an exaggeratedly negative light. They might then become pessimistic about their prospects of improving their marital situation. They may view their problems as severe, consider that talking over such problems will lead to little benefit and then start to adopt parallel lives with increasing feelings of loneliness. Under such circumstances there is understandably a greater risk of either partner having an affair, commonly leading to further hurt and alienation.

Strategies to Enhance Marital Relationships

Fortunately, the Gottmans and their colleagues have spent much time researching and describing ways of helping people enhance their marital interactions through such means as the following.

Enhance your “love maps” (or close personal knowledge and understanding of your partner):This means showing an active interest in the details of each other’s life such as by catching up with each other to discuss the day’s events. It also means knowing about each partner’s views and preferences in a wide range of areas as well as their joys, fears and stresses. Knowing each partner’s character strengths would be an additional valuable way of deepening each partner’s understanding of the other. A practical way of identifying each partner’s character strengths is to access the “Authentic Happiness” website developed by Dr Martin Seligman (see the first link on the links page of this website, or http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu), and accessing and completing the VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire, an objective way of identifying one’s most meaningful and enduring positive attributes. Recognising how each partner’s character strengths are apparent in everyday life, and sharing such views with each other, can have a particularly beneficial impact.

Nurture your fondness and admiration.

This relates to cultivating and appreciating the ways you like your partner and see them as being worthy of respect. Such feelings add to a store of goodwill that can help counter negative feelings and transcend conflict. This includes reminding yourself of your partner’s good qualities for which the Signature Strengths exercise described above can also be of particular benefit. In everyday interaction, nurturing one’s fondness is commonly reflected in putting a positive spin on things that your partner has said or done.

Turning toward each other rather than away.

This relates to the ways that partners attempt to stay connected and engaged in their interactions with each other, despite potentially competing demands or interests. The Gottmans described how partners may make “bids for attention”, or offer a comment, gesture, request or another attempt (which may be subtle) to engage their partner. In happy marriages, partners tend to notice and respond to such bids for attention, affection or support which further contributes to their store of goodwill toward each other, or “emotional bank account”. This is one area where active listening can indeed be helpful, but of most importance is perhaps the regular attempt to connect in even simple or mundane ways, such as chatting whilst eating a meal together. Making time for conversation with each other about the day’s events when reconnecting at the end of the day can be particularly helpful.

Let your partner influence you

Happy marriages will likely reflect a preparedness to share power which may be demonstrated by yielding to the other’s influence. Historically and culturally, women may have tended to manage this more readily: the Gottmans’ research shows that the majority of marriages in which men are not prepared to share power will likely end in separation and divorce. Men, in general, are also more prone than women to respond to a raised issue of conflict with escalating negativity. Therefore the onus may commonly be more on the husband to recognise that accepting his wife’s influence and appreciating her interest in asserting herself may bolster the marriage and strengthen their friendship.

Solve Your Solvable Problems

Some problems are more readily solvable whereas others are more likely to be enduring and require long-term compromise.

It helps to appreciate the difference, and yet in each case to look for at least some common ground. Common areas of conflict relate to money, sex, housework, children, stress spilling over from work, and conflict with in-laws. A number of such problem areas can be helpfully addressed through constructive dialogue and perhaps some compromise, especially if each partner shows a genuine understanding of the other’s views and interests and allows for them having different preferences. A win-win attitude helps. For example, conflicts about different attitudes to spending or saving money might be at least partly addressed by making a budget to bolster one partner’s sense of economic security, whilst planning to set money aside for spending on a trip which helps satisfy the other partner’s desire for freedom or adventure. Conflicts about housework and interest in sex are often assisted, at least in part, by the husband doing more housework!

Some problems might not ever be solvable in terms of allowing for a relatively full resolution and are therefore perpetual.

This might include partners having deeply rooted differences in personality attributes, lifestyle preferences or beliefs, e.g., each partner having very different ways of expressing emotions, very different preferences for amount of socialising with others relative to time together, or some fundamentally different beliefs about the best ways to raise their children. Addressing such conflicts may relate to accepting their enduring presence, but making various compromises or adaptations so that each partner feels that their respective views, interests and preferences have been acknowledged and that attempts have been made to optimally accommodate their core priorities. It can help to remember the theme of sacrificing to the relationship rather than to one’s partner. In addressing conflicts, whether ultimately solvable or not, it helps to manage the intensity of one’s own and one’s partner’s emotions by adopting a relatively soft start-up to discussions, helping contain your own and your partner’s level of emotional arousal (e.g. by considering your tone of voice) and making repair attempts.

Address intractable problems or “overcome gridlock”

Some problems may be particularly disruptive through being unsolvable and leading to repeated painful arguments and disagreement as a result of being based on unfulfilled dreams or deeper unmet needs. For example, one partner may wish to have children whereas the other doesn’t, there might be long-term conflict between one partner’s career aspirations and the other’s desire for more time together, or there may be fundamentally different attitudes to money, etc. In such situations, it helps to recognise and respect each partner’s deep wishes or dreams that may underlie their stance which may relate to past experiences in their family of origin (e.g. one partner was raised in a family with little economic security whereas the other felt stifled in their childhood environment, leading to very different priorities in saving for the future relative to funding an adventurous holiday to enhance one’s sense of freedom). It helps if such deep wishes or dreams are identified, openly acknowledged and respected rather than ignored or dismissed in which case conflicts based on underlying unmet needs are likely to painfully recur. When each partner’s potentially conflicting dreams are recognised and openly acknowledged, there may be scope to find some kind of compromise or common ground which revolves around each partner recognising their “bottom line”, or core areas on which they are not prepared to yield, whilst identifying ways in which they can show flexibility to also accommodate their partner’s non-negotiable areas. The problem might not be solved as such, but a compromise may be found which each partner feels they can accept whilst respecting the other’s deeper wishes.

Create shared meaning

This relates to developing a shared marital, and perhaps family, culture incorporating values that build further depth to a friendship through shared meaning. This may include developing shared rituals of connection such as how mealtimes, weekends or holidays are planned and shared; patterns of socialising and celebrating; and typical routines around watching TV, bedtime, etc. Meaning is also cultivated by considering the compatibility or sharing of various roles undertaken by each partner. Shared goals and values around such areas as child-rearing, career aspirations and connections with family or community groups and others are also relevant. Shared symbols which convey compatible philosophies or values can further provide meaning, whether in the form of photos, cultural or religious symbols or other objects or even repeated stories which reflect an underlying bond.

In summary, as described by the Gottmans, couples can go a long way to enhancing their satisfaction in their relationship by creating predictable, routine and happily anticipated daily ways of connecting.

Practical strategies include finding out something about each other’s day on parting, having a half-hour, stress-reducing conversation when reuniting and communicating genuine affection and appreciation in other ways each day. Such interactions cultivate and support the depth of friendship between marital partners in the longer term over and above any particular verbal or problem-solving or conflict management skills.


Photograph: Wu Jianxiong

Other Perspectives on Marriage

There appear to be increasing challenges to the traditional societal “ideal” of marriage and the expectation of people to “live happily ever after” in a single, long-term monogamous relationship.

This is reflected in increasing divorce rates over several decades, the prevalence of extramarital sexual liaisons (which research estimates suggest may occur at some stage in approximately 20% – some say up to half – of all marriages), a greater acceptance of varying relationship arrangements including same-sex and de facto relationships, and seemingly increasing questioning about the viability of long-term monogamous relationships, especially given the ageing of the population. It is increasingly common for individuals to have two, or three sequential long-term relationships in adult life.

Whereas the Gottmans and other marital therapists commonly emphasise the notion of connecting with each other in marriage, Esther Perel, a therapist and writer, emphasised the importance of balancing the goals of seeking intimacy and security in a relationship with allowing for novelty and adventure.

She elaborated on such views in her book, “Mating in Captivity” as well as when interviewed on the former ABC television interview program, Enough Rope, in an interview which can be accessed via the link, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/transcripts/s2058313.htm). She suggested that an over-familiarity with one’s partner could stifle sexual interest and passion in a relationship. The state of heightened lust, or what is known as “limerence”, typically lasts no more than two or three years in an exclusive long-term relationship. Esther Perel suggested that to retain passion in a relationship it was important to be able to continue to view one’s partner as an “other,” and to allow for each partner to relate positively to others outside the relationship. This might also include situations whereby each partner could acknowledge sexual attraction between themselves and another person outside the marriage, whether by acknowledging fantasies, flirting and even in some cases, accepting more open relationships. She contrasted the taboo against even consensual non-exclusive relationships with the seeming relatively ready acceptance of divorce. It helps for partners to be direct and accepting of each other in negotiating any such boundaries in their relationship, showing mutual respect whilst still hopefully allowing room for some adventure and novelty. Acknowledging attraction to others is, of course, more likely to be fraught with tension and conflict if the couple’s relationship does not already have a stable foundation reinforced by the kinds of connections described by the Gottmans. Most writers would agree on the potential benefits of partners at least being able to share fantasies and requests for playfully exploring different sexual experiences with each other, at least within the bounds of their relationship. The seemingly conventional expectation that marital partners retain an exclusive sexual attraction to each other throughout a lengthy lifespan might reflect an overly rigid expectation which could contribute to reduced passion in marital relationships and paradoxically lead to greater marital dissatisfaction and breakdown.

Whereas Esther Perel’s views about marriage and sexual relationships might seem unconventional and confronting, it is important for couples to consider the ways they allow themselves to differentiate from each other as well as to link and connect.

Partners can differentiate themselves by allowing themselves and their partner to cultivate different interests, to develop connections with others, and to express differing preferences and opinions. Indeed, we may be more likely to maintain or revive an interest in our intimate partner if we appreciate them as an “other”, including accepting that we don’t know all there is to know about them. Even in conflict situations, we might consider their contrasting views as a means to open ourselves to different or novel perspectives. Perel highlights that often people report finding a partner most attractive when they look at them from a comfortable distance such as seeing them play with their children, engaging in physical activity, or performing the work role or other role in which they are skilled. As Perel suggested, Considering the “otherness” of one’s partner may help a relationship grow and evolve in a manner where each partner might, in a sense, experience two or three relationships with the same long-term partner.

Engaging in Dialogue

Engaging in dialogue is key to constructive communication.

This blog, among other things, will hopefully serve as a discussion point for partners to have a worthwhile conversation about the ways in which they relate to each other. Many of the strategies described have been found to not only help address serious marital problems and decrease the likelihood of separation and divorce but also to enhance marital satisfaction in circumstances where couples are already relatively happily married.


Tips for a Happy Marriage (podcast)

Positive Psychology and Marriage (podcast)