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Making Marriage Last

People most often engage in behaviors they anticipate will lead to advantageous outcomes. We exercise and eat a balanced diet in order to maintain our health. We attempt to teach our children information, traditions, and customs with the expectation they will incorporate these into their daily lives (i.e., learn). We spend time with people we care about in order to build the relationship and to reap the rewards of intimacy. Yet, data suggests people regularly enter into one specific relationship which may not end in the best outcome: marriage. To be clear, my message is not that “marriage is bad” or that we should expect marriage to end poorly. Rather, we have much to learn about how we maintain this specific type of relationship.

The divorce rate in 2022 is approximately 45%. We have evidence that many partnerships are struggling. Thankfully, we also have longitudinal studies (i.e., studies regularly observing couples over the years) which have contributed to the science behind what makes marriages last. A 2012 study evaluated how partners respond to stressful circumstances, as well as their level of satisfaction with their relationship. The researchers found that on the most stressful days, spouses reported more negative behaviors toward their partners and less satisfaction with their relationships. Therefore, we have evidence that our small and infrequent interactions in the relationship can be damaging. This isn’t groundbreaking, but highlights that we must be more aware of how we interact when encountering daily stressors. The conclusion of this study argued the energy we need to foster our relationship was being consumed elsewhere. Therefore, we must identify the problem areas within a relationship if we are to equip ourselves to better handle them.

Research by the Gottmans (prominent psychologists studying marriage) regarding what harms marriages has revealed four specific issues: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. For starters, don’t be alarmed if you notice you or your partner has engaged in any of these behaviors. These are common! And the first step in making cognitive, emotional, and behavioral change is awareness.

Criticism attacks the core of your partner’s character. While that may not be the intent, criticism can both lead our partner to feel rejected/hurt and escalate the current issue! In an effort to counteract criticism (i.e., “You never think about me!”), we can gently and compassionately express a complaint regarding how we feel about particular behaviors (i.e., “I feel sad when you come home late. It’s important to me that we’re respectful of each other’s time.”).

Contempt represents an escalation of criticism in that we can mock, ridicule, or even be sarcastic toward our partner. Such an interactional style assumes moral superiority and stems from long-standing negative thoughts about our partner (e.g., “They don’t care about me. They’ll never get me. They don’t even want to understand me.”). Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce! We must challenge our harmful beliefs about our partner in order to resolve contempt.

Defensiveness is a response to criticism. When perceiving attack, we can also respond with attack! The antidote to defensiveness is accountability. This is not to say that we must agree with any and all statements/perceptions of us. However, we must examine our own responsibility in a situation in order to work through it collaboratively with our partner.

Stonewalling often emerges in response to contempt. It can be summarized as turning away, rather than turning toward your partner. If we shut down and literally stop communicating, we are stonewalling and shutting our partner out. Self-soothing can help us to effectively work through difficult conversations; sometimes we may need to take a break. Communicate that to your partner and return to the issue later when your emotions are less intense and you are more able to communicate effectively. Remember, your partner is with you because they enjoy interacting with you. Stonewalling and shutting them out tends to exacerbate difficulties in the relationship, rather than resolve them.

Finally, a marriage is like any other component of our lives. It requires nourishment and regular training. To maintain your skills in numerous professions, you seek continuing education. To become a better golfer, you practice at the driving range and on the course. You even care for your lawn and home via regular maintenance. How can we expect a marriage to thrive when we aren’t approaching it with a similar mindset? It’s helpful to learn new skills in how we communicate as our marriage ages with us. You are not the same person you were when you met your spouse…and neither are they! Finding new ways to resolve new disagreements in the relationship will not only help you resolve current issues, it will also help prepare you and your partner for future difficulties.

Dr. Schlairet utilizes Gottman therapy methods and regularly works with couples to help them improve their communication. Therapy allows us the opportunity to identify and resolve problematic patterns in our relationships (in a safe environment). If you are looking to build your relationship with your partner, Roswell Psychology is here for support.

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