Coming up in February we'll be celebrating love, but not all couples end up feeling like they’re on a long-lasting honeymoon. Family therapists say, however, there are tips couples can keep in mind to manage conflict, better pay attention and learn new marriage skills.
Watch the ratio. Lorna Hecker, a professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and director of the Couple and Family Therapy Center at Purdue University Northwest, says research indicates couples should keep a ratio of five or more positive interactions with a spouse for every negative one. She suggests putting emotional “money in the bank” by keeping the positives going in non-conflict times.
Embrace change. Remember that a quality marriage demands change, and to maintain a quality marriage, partners must learn new skills and practice them regularly, says Dr. Nathaniel Gilham, a professor at the College of Counseling, Psychology and Social Sciences at Argosy University in Chicago. “These include stepping outside of your comfort zone or regular habits in order to learn communication skills and empathy,” he says.
Pay attention. Notice the little things, Hecker says. Don’t assume what is going on in a partner’s life—ask.
Know the four horsemen. Avoid what well-regarded researcher John Gottman calls the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Hecker says. “Criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling, or shutting down,” she says. “If you have the 5:1 ratio I mentioned, conflict is much more easily traversed.”
Focus on respect. Just as important as love, respect is necessary for a healthy relationship, Gilham says. “Longitudinal studies have found that both partners in quality marriages lasting 20-plus years often feel respected, even when they have disagreements,” he says.
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Keep your connection going. Dr. Tina Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist and author of several relationship books including How to be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together, says it’s important to keep a strong connection. “Frequent communication, sex, affection, touching, understanding and concern for each other will keep the juice flowing in your marriage, and keep it from getting stale,” she says. “Brief separations will help you remember how important your connection is.”
Tolerate. The fact is, some problems are not solvable, Hecker says, and couples must learn to tolerate them. “So an in-law may be difficult, but they are not going away, and making it a point of contention is damaging,” she says. “It does not mean you need to accept hurtful behavior, but you do need to learn to manage feelings of dislike at times and not take them out on your spouse.”
Keep family issues away. Speaking of family, if a spouse has an issue with his or her own family, it’s okay to seek support from a partner, but not to let the family problem come between a couple. “While often overlooked, try to resolve your relationships with your family of origin,” Gilham says. “We often bring unresolved problems to our marriage that originated in the family we were raised in.”
Apologize. If couples breach the no-four horsemen rule during conflict, Hecker encourages the offending partner to apologize. “If you have a hard time apologizing for a behavior, or don’t think it is your fault, at least offer an olive branch by saying something like, ‘I am sorry we are fighting’ or ‘I hate it when we don’t get along,’” Hecker says.
Have a weekly discussion. What Tessina calls a “weekly State of the Union discussion,” this session is not meant to be a venue for arguments or complaints. Instead, it’s an opportunity to update each other on how things are going between the couple. “If you keep each other informed of both the good things and the problems on a regular basis, nothing will get out of hand or become too dramatic to solve easily,” she says. “This works every time with every couple in counseling with me who are willing to do it.”