The Healthy Marriage Quest
Everyone wants to have a successful marriage. Who gets married thinking, “This is probably going to end in a divorce, but let’s give it a shot?” When we get married, we envision growing old with our spouse and looking like one of those older couples walking hand in hand in the mall (you know, the ones you walk around because they are going so slow).
When it comes to marriage, the question is often asked, “What does it take to have a healthy marriage?” Depending on who you ask this question to, you will come away with various answers, book recommendations, lectures, and guidance that point you in many different directions as you seek to develop a healthy marital relationship. Sometimes all this guidance can be overwhelming and make a person feel like they should take a course before they even attempt to date someone, let alone get married.
So what can couples do? What if I said intellect before infatuation?
Love Conquers All?
With a culture so focused on romantic love, it can be easy to get lost in our desire to “fall in love” or “connect” on some deep emotional level.
This “romantic attraction” one feels for another individual can set a very high, unrealistic, and fleeting standard when it comes to measuring long lasting relationships. By defining a relationship’s success by a feeling we not only risk its success, but we place an extreme amount of pressure on the other spouse to “deliver” when it comes to making their partner feel desired, attractive, affirmed, connected, and/or wanted.
Couples that use this false standard need to stop and look at the facts. In America, 40-50% of marriages are predicted to end in divorce. Those that decide to remarry will have those numbers climb to around 60-70%. While those that marry for the third time will be facing a divorce rate between 73-75%.
These percentages make me wonder as a society if we have decided to start defining love only as an event, one that has to happen. This is dangerous because it means relationships are based solely out of feeling instead of building from a choice to a commitment and finally to a covenant. While it is important to note that emotional love has its place, it should not be the cornerstone to build your marriage upon. For if you choose to build there, when the storms of life hit you may find that all you need is not love.
True Love Thinks
So what can a couple do to have a healthy marriage? What if we ask the question differently, “What are the signs of an unhealthy relationship?” I touched on this in an earlier blog entitled “The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse”. Here I pointed out some warning signs Dr. John Gottman identifies in relationships that are moving toward failure (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).
By taking the time to plan and think through how to better handle situations of conflict, couples don’t risk creating/repeating bad habits or feeling as if the relationship is unrepairable. Gottman goes on in his work with couples to identify some steps that can be helpful in thinking through how you respond to conflict. One of these steps is using a softened start-up. If you use a softened startup, the discussion is likely to be productive because you are presenting your complaints without criticism.
If most of your arguments start softly, your marriage is more likely to be stable and happy.
A second step is to focus on hearing your spouse’s repair attempts. This means when a spouse tries to admit they were wrong or that they want to stop before things get worse you are open to hear what they are trying to say (i.e. “I really blew that one”, “Let me try again”, or “Let’s take a break”).
A third step is learning to self soothe. This can be anything from taking a break from a tense argument or doing something else (listening to music, go for a jog, or some relaxation techniques) so you can calm down and not escalate the conflict further.
A fourth step is compromise. Negotiation is only possible after you’ve followed the steps above — softening startup, repairing your discussion, and keeping calm. These prime you for compromise by getting you into a positive mode.
A final step is finding ways to be tolerant of each other’s faults. This can be difficult to do because it requires each spouse to identify areas where they are contributing to the conflict. By owning up to what you have done or not done, you can stop pointing out faults in your spouse and start working on the areas that you can change in the relationship.
Remember, you can only change yourself, you cannot alter your spouse. Conflict resolution is not about one person changing; it’s about negotiating, finding common ground and ways that you can accommodate each other.
By taking the time to think through how you respond to your spouse, you build a relationship based on effort and not just emotion.