5 Secrets to a Happier (and Stronger!) MarriageBy Zach Brittle
My wife and I like to say that we’ve been happily married for 16 out of 17 years. The truth is that year #7 was pretty rough and we almost didn’t make it. But rather than submit to the “seven year itch” we decided to get to work. We got into therapy which forced us to take a sober look at our relationship and do some serious soul searching about when and where and why it went off the rails.
The simplest explanation is that we forgot that we liked each other. We knew that we loved each other, but we’d gotten so caught up in the daily grind that we failed to protect our friendship. We’d gotten really good at taking care of everyone in our lives except each other. We’d become roommates, business partners, It’s a story I hear a lot in my work with couples. The friendship is broken, conflict is escalated (or avoided) and the big dreams you once held are dead. One day you wake up next to a stranger that used to be the love of your life.
It’s not a happy story, but it’s common enough. If this sounds like you, and even if it doesn’t, I want to tell you: There is hope. Dr. John Gottman spent nearly 40 years researching couples and discovering the patterns that exist in both healthy and toxic relationships. His book, 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, details a comprehensive and actionable theory for how to strengthen your friendship, manage conflict and create shared meaning together. The seven principles themselves require your attention and intention, but in the meantime, here are five secrets embedded in Dr. Gottman’s research that may help you achieve a happier relationship:
Small Things Often
If marriage is a journey, then it’s important that you’re oriented in the right direction. It’s way easier to make small efforts as you go than a major course correction when it may be too late. Small changes early and often can create big changes over time. Prioritize practical expressions of kindness daily. It’ll help you remember that you like each other.
Process is Everything
I believe that the end of therapy is when the couple can process the relationship without the therapist. This means that couples need to focus on HOW they talk to one another matters far more than WHAT they say. Process basically consists of knowing (a) what you’re feeling (b) why you’re feeling it and (c) what that feeling means. As you develop this skill, you will dramatically shift the quality of conversation in your relationship.
Most Relational Conflict is Not Resolvable
Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that roughly ⅔ of all relationship conflict is perpetual .This can be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it. My bias is that it’s a powerful secret to know that you literally can’t solve most of your issues...and that you’re not alone in that fact. The goal then is to solve your solvable problems and create dialogue around your lasting issues.
Understanding Must Precede Advice
Especially when it comes to perpetual issues, it’s critical to understand that “solving” is a bad strategy. Empathy and understanding is always the first step to resolution. Get really good at saying, “I can appreciate how you’d feel that way because…”. Start by trying to understand. Check if you got it right. Then try to understand some more. Understanding leads to safety. When you and your partner both feel safe enough to discuss your differing views on an issue, it opens up the door to creative problem solving together.
You Don’t Have to Have High Standards
Seven Principles. Five Secrets. It’s a lot to remember. The good news is that you can start anywhere. Anytime. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be today. Try a small act of kindness. Maybe a surprise gift. Maybe just say “thank you”. Dr. Gottman’s research revealed that even the simplest gesture can initiate a positive feedback cycle which builds trust and intimacy and, ultimately, happiness.
My marriage isn’t perfect. But the second half has been way happier and healthier than the first. I think there’s something to be said for struggling together. And I know that we’ve benefitted from working hard on practicing the 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. I’d encourage you to do the same. You can also try Dr. Gottman's 4-week Happify track, Make Your Love Last: The Science of Happy Marriages, for research-tested activities to try on your own.
If I can help, don’t hesitate to drop me a note at email@example.com or tweet me @kzbrittle.
Zach Brittle is a couples therapist in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and works closely with the The Gottman Institute as a regular contributor to the Gottman Relationship Blog. Connect with Zach at www.zachbrittle.com or @kzbrittle on Twitter.
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