Marriages can go through tough times, but they can often be repaired more easily than you think. The “honeymoon” phase in any committed relationship is not meant to last forever—sharing a life with another person requires a special set of skills that can be learned over time.
The seven ideas below, drawn from Dr. John Gottman’s four decades of research put into practice with Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman’s clinical methods, go a long way toward building the kind of relationship couples can rely on.
1. Seek help early
The average couple waits six years before seeking help for relationship problems (and keep in mind, half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years). This means the average couple lives with unhappiness or unresolved problems for far too long. If you feel there’s any sign of trouble in your marriage early on, seek help. There’s no shame in going to marriage counseling.
2. Edit yourself
The happiest couples avoid saying every critical thought when discussing touchy topics and they will find ways to express their needs and concerns respectfully without criticizing or blaming their partner.
3. Soften your “start up”
Arguments often “start up” because one partner escalates the conflict by making a critical or contemptuous remark. Bringing up problems gently and without blame works much better and allows couples to calmly engage in conflict.
4. Accept influence from your partner
In studying heterosexual marriages, we found that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.
For instance, a woman might say to her husband, “Do you have to work Thursday night? My mother is coming that weekend, and I need your help getting ready.”
He replies, “My plans are set, and I’m not changing them.”
As you might guess, this guy is feeling a bit defensive. A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows that women are already well-practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same thing.
5. Have high standards
Happy couples have high standards for each other. The most successful couples are those who, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behavior from one another. Low levels of tolerance for bad behavior in the beginning of a relationship equals a happier couple down the road.
6. Learn to repair and exit the argument
Happy couples have learned how to exit an argument, or how to repair the situation before an argument gets completely out of control. Examples of repair attempts:
- Using humor
- Offering a caring remark (“I understand that this is hard for you”)
- Making it clear you’re on common ground (“We’ll tackle this problem together”)
- Backing down (in marriage, as in the martial art Aikido, you often have to yield to win)
- In general, offering signs of appreciation for your partner and their feelings along the way
If an argument gets too heated, take a 20-minute break and agree to approach the topic again when you are both calm.
7. Focus on the positives
In a happy marriage, while 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, a happy couple will say “We laugh a lot,” instead of, “We never have any fun.” A good marriage must have a rich climate of positivity. Make regular deposits to your emotional bank accounts!
Written by John Gottman, Ph.D. for The Gottman Relationship Blog.