How to Build a Stronger Marriage: 7 Tips from the Research

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“Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship, mutual respect and enjoyment of each others company.”

–John Gottman

I was taking my usual morning walk when I spotted an adorable elderly couple sitting on a bench, holding hands and enjoying the beautiful bay view. That image of lifelong love and affection pulled at my heartstrings; it’s the kind of scene we married people strive to live out in our own relationships. But a happy marriage that lasts until the end doesn’t just happen by accident. It takes hard work and a strong commitment. So, with the divorce rate being at an all time high, how do you end up as the couple sitting on the bench together instead of in divorce court?

Society Misrepresents Marriage

“The sound of your heart-it is the most significant sound in my world.”

–Edward, In Twilight

Society tells us we need love to be complete, but many people don’t quite know what real, healthy marriages and romantic relationships look like. When we compare our actual relationships to the ones we see projected in the media, it’s easy to feel like ours are falling short. Movies usually end just at the start of the characters’ romantic relationships. And the coupled up characters always appear to be experiencing bliss. Well, of course. The beginning is the exciting part! What the movies don’t show is what happens during and after the couple’s fights, when all the making up is over. What happens when the children are waking you up at all hours of the night, the dirty clothes are strewn all over the floor, and the pile of bills keep getting bigger? Movies distort the image of a romantic relationship, setting an unattainable standard.  They trick us into thinking you can change the “player” or drug dealer, turning him into a lifelong monogamous partner. The relationships and marriages portrayed by the media are unrealistic, working the angle that true love conquers all, is totally fulfilling, brings endless happiness, and involves zero conflict.

As people embrace the media’s view of love, it’s becoming more common for them to enter relationships and marriages based on a desire for happiness and personal fulfillment. When the initial romantic feelings fade, people think the love is gone. They become emotional subway stations, transferring from one relationship to the next. This can become very problematic, because it sets unrealistic expectations about sex, love, and relationship intimacy.

Gottman 101

Since 1973, Dr. John Gottman has studied what he calls the “masters and disasters” of marriage. Hundreds of regular people from the general public have taken part in Gottman’s long-term studies, which he designs to determine what makes marriages fail, what makes them succeed, and what factors give them great meaning. Based on the results of his studies, Gottman is able to predict with more than 90% accuracy which couples will make it and which won’t. Below are some of his top suggestions for how to keep your marriage strong.

•    Seek Help Early. The average couple waits six years before seeking help for martial problems (and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). This means the average couple lives unhappily for far too long.
•    Edit Yourself. Couples who avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics are consistently the happiest.
•    Soften your “start-up.” Arguments typically escalate when one spouse makes a critical or contemptuous remark in a confrontational tone. Bring up problems gently and without blame.
•    Accept Influence. A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. If a woman says, “Do you have to go out with your friends Friday night? My parents are coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready,” and her husband replies, “My plans are set, and I not changing them,” this can create some shakiness in the marriage. Gottman emphasizes the husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife, because research shows women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership occurs when both husband and wife accept influence from one another.
•    Have High Standards. Happy couples have high standards for each other from the beginning. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behavior from each other. The lower level of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple will be down the road.
•    Learn to Repair and Exit the Argument. Successful couples know how to exit an argument. After a fight, they repair by using attempts that include: changing the topic to something completely different; using humor; saying a caring remark (“I get this is a hard topic to discuss”); establishing common ground (“This is our problem.”); backing off (as Gottamn puts it, “In marriage, as in the marital art Aikido, you have to yield to win”); and offering signs of appreciation for each other along the way (“I really want to thank you for…”). If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break, and agree to approach the topic again when you’re both calm.
•    Focus on the bright side. When discussing problems, couples make at least five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship as negative ones. For example, “We have fun together” instead of, “You never want to do anything.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make frequent deposits to your emotional bank accounts.

Things to Remember When Keeping Your Bond Strong

“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”

-Mignon McLaughlin

A wedding wouldn’t be romantic if the vows included phrases like, “for right now” or “until things get hard, then I’m out.” Marriage begins with the promise to share your lives, but it’s not enough to just commit to forever on your wedding day. It’s a decision you have to make and commit to every day, especially when you’re in an argument.

All couples argue and fight, no matter how happy they are. No matter who was right or wrong, it isn’t enough to just forgive; it’s also necessary for both partners to LET IT GO. Over the years, small disagreements can pile up into one big mess if there are grudges being held. So once a disagreement is over and compromise has been reached, do everything you can to let it go. Use all of your power to never bring it up again. It isn’t fair to bring up an old issue during a new disagreement, long after your partner thought he or she was forgiven.

There’s nothing new about the advice that communication is essential in a strong relationship. Communication creates intimacy and trust, which keeps everyone on the same page about what’s going on in the marriage. Start opening up about how you’re feeling—from the small things that happened during your day, to the monthly budget, to your dreams for the future.  Keep up the light conversations as well as the deep ones; they’re both important for a healthy marriage.

Everyone needs a fan club to cheer them on, so fill that spot for your spouse.  Sometimes hearing that someone is proud of you and believes in you is even more important than being told you’re loved. Even if you think being critical can help your partner grow, it’s more important for you to be supportive. Make sure to support your loved one through the big events, such as job interviews, weight-loss, and promotions. But more importantly, make praise and compliments a part of every day. And be sure to say thank you. Whether your partner takes out the trash, gives the baby a bath, or washes the dinner dishes, be sure to acknowledge their contribution to the daily routine. It’s all worthy of your appreciation.

Marriage can bring about many challenges and opportunities for growth. At times, it can test your patience. As a married woman, I know how difficult it can be to implement the suggestions in this post, especially in the heat of an argument. But like anything worthwhile in this life, it takes work and a conscious commitment. So if you can’t control yourself during a fight, take time afterward to repair your bond. If you’re married, please share how you keep your marriage strong. I look forward to hearing from you.

Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

Article edited by Dr. Denise Fournier

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Showing 2 comments
  • Alie

    This was beautifully written and one of my favorite readings!

    • Doctor Ilene

      Alie, Thank you very much for your kind words. It means a lot!