When I first got married, I’m pretty sure that everyone and their dog wanted to give me marriage advice. Some advice was practical. Some was silly. And some was just plain wise!
As the advice poured in, I began to notice a simple but common theme: communication. The need to communicate openly, to talk about emotions, to make decisions together, to speak kindly to each other — these and more came up as important needs to address in marriage.
Most people who gave me advice had little to no qualifications (other than being married themselves). But perhaps not surprisingly, research backs up the importance of communication in marriage! A 2014 study found that both how much couples communicate as well as how they communicate can really affect relationship satisfaction.
Through one longitudinal study, Dr. John Gottman found four communication patterns that can be really damaging to a marriage and even lead to divorce. Watch this *short video clip from the Gottman Institute for an intro to them:
No matter how wonderful your spouse is, you’ll probably always find things you could complain about. Maybe they forgot to take out the trash, maybe they leave their socks on the floor, or maybe they forgot to tell you they’d be home late. Whatever it is, you’ve probably had something come up that rubs you the wrong way.
While complaining isn’t the healthiest of practices, it can be outright damaging when you let it shift into the realm of criticism. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman explains that while complaining “focuses on a specific behavior or event,” criticizing “expresses negative feelings or opinions about the other’s character or personality”. A complaint would say, “I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash like we agreed.” On the other hand, a criticism blows up the issue by making it a personal attack, saying something like, “You never remember to take out the trash! I have to do everything around here.”
So how can we avoid this damaging criticism in our marriages?
The Antidote: Express your needs and feelings using “I” statements.
Instead of criticizing your spouse, try to let him or her know what your needs are. Next time you’re feeling frustrated about the garbage (or anything else, for that matter), say something like, “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed and it would really help if you could take the garbage out. Can we figure out a plan together?” It’s okay to tell your spouse what you need; what’s not okay is turning your frustration into an attack.
If criticism goes unchecked, it can turn into outright contempt for your spouse. Dr. Gottman says that when issues go unresolved in a marriage, you’re more likely to experience these negative thoughts that have boiled up.
In the garbage example, let’s say your spouse continues to forget to take out the trash. You started out complaining, then criticizing. As the issue isn’t addressed properly, you start to view your spouse differently. When your spouse tries to suggest a solution to the garbage problem, you just laugh and say, “Oh, like that’s going to change things! You’ll never step up and help.” This contemptuous response shows a level of disrespect and a lack of affection.
Clearly, contempt isn’t a healthy communication pattern to have. So what’s the best way to prevent contempt from seeping into our relationship?
The Antidote: Treat each other with respect and show appreciation.
Instead of rolling your eyes or answering sarcastically when your spouse suggests a solution, take a moment to acknowledge his or her efforts. Remember, your spouse is a person too and deserves the same respect you do!
I think most of us are familiar with the deadly horseman of defensiveness. It can be all too easy to respond defensively, especially if we’re feeling belittled or hurt. Being defensive is a natural way to respond to criticism or contempt in an effort to protect ourselves.
In the garbage scenario, a criticism such as, “You never remember to take out the trash!” may be met with a defensive response such as, “Well if you didn’t keep nagging me all the time about it, maybe we wouldn’t have a problem!” Defensiveness only escalates the problem and pushes blame onto your spouse.
But what can we do instead when we start feeling defensive?
The Antidote: Accept responsibility for your part.
This antidote takes a huge amount of humility. While it doesn’t always seem like it, most problems aren’t caused by just one person. Your spouse may be freaking out too much about the trash, but you can take a deep breath and acknowledge your part in the conflict: “I’m sorry, I should have taken out the trash today. I totally forgot.”
The last of the four horsemen is perhaps the most deadly. After a long time of repeated negative patterns, a partner can get really overwhelmed. In fact, one study shows that damaging communication can lead a partner to become emotionally flooded, leading the partner to try to avoid the conflict altogether. In order to steer clear of a total explosion, the partner may simply withdraw and disengage completely.
If this garbage scenario has been going on for long enough, along with frequent use of the other horsemen in communication, then stonewalling could become a problem. When one partner tries to bring up the issue, the other partner may turn on the TV or just tune out altogether.
While taking a break can be good, stonewalling isolates partners from each other and can get in the way of healthy and positive communication. So how can we overcome stonewalling?
The Antidote: Take a break and cool off, then come back to the conversation.
When a situation gets too emotionally charged, taking a break is a good thing. Let your spouse know you need to calm down a little, but that you do want to figure out how to solve the problem together. Odds are, a break will help both of you.
It turns out that no couple has perfect communication all the time — even those people who gave me marriage advice. But as you look for the four horsemen in your own communication and try to use the antidotes instead, your communication can improve. And better communication really just means a better marriage!
In order to really benefit from what you learned, how about some practice? This week, keep a log of the four horsemen in your marriage. Keeping track of when you fall into those patterns will help you be aware and start to make those changes.
The Family Good Things team would love to hear about your experiences! Comment below to let us know how this homework goes for you.
*Watch the rest of the video here for an explanation of the four horsemen and their antidotes according to the Gottman Institute.
Be honest: how many movies have you seen where the culminating event, the anticipated conclusion, or the “happy ending” was a wedding? Why is that? What is it deep within us that yearns not just for marriage, but for a tremendously happy marriage?
While we may believe that Aladdin and Jasmine (or countless other fictional couples) deserve marital bliss, do we believe that such a “happily ever after” exists in real life? And do you believe that this can happen for your own marriage?
For those who have a serious desire to improve your marriage (a noble goal even if your union is already good), let me first share a few helpful tips.
1. Remember that marriage is largely effort based.
One of the reasons that I love being a marriage educator is that we all have the ability to be a good spouse. You may notice that I often use the word “intentional” in my posts. If you truly want to improve your marriage, decide now (or recommit) to be more intentional in how much effort you give to this sacred relationship. This may require a change in priorities, a reduction in hobbies, or genuinely forgiving your spouse for their humanness. Have the courage to do so! You have the potential to make immediate changes that can bless your relationship.
Years ago I played basketball in high school. While I was a good shooter, I didn’t put as much effort into playing defense. I can still picture my coach exclaiming “Stewart, defense is 1% technique, and 99% ‘wanna wanna’!”
In some ways, marriage is similar. For instance, there are techniques that can help us communicate better, improve the management of our finances, and even argue in a way that is less damaging to the relationship (these techniques and more will be covered in future posts). But most importantly, you have to “wanna wanna” give the necessary effort to nourish your marriage.
2. Be patient with your spouse (and don’t nag).
Change can take time (for you and your spouse), so exercise a lot of patience! Admittedly, it may be easier to have patience with a spouse who struggles with punctuality than one fighting with some type of addiction. However, consider ways in which intentionally being more patient could bless your relationship.
Not only that, but nagging just doesn’t work! Recent research suggests that when one spouse begins to nag the other spouse begins to withdraw (and thus becomes even less likely to change their behavior). In fact, I am not convinced that nagging has even improved one single marriage or inspired one person to change their behavior It just doesn’t work!. However, I am aware of instances where the reduction of nagging has actually led to a change in the desired behavior.
3. Shoot for the stars!
I fear we sometimes set the bar way too low with regard to marriage. While it is an accomplishment, especially today, to be married for 50 years, should simply surviving marriage be our main objective? What about the quality of the relationship?
While expecting perfection in yourself, your spouse, or your marriage can be very damaging, the happiest couples not only expect marital happiness, but they intentionally work at their marriage until they have such happiness. You can too! The reward is sweet and so very worth it!
We’ve all heard the jokes about how short a child’s attention span can be, but is an adult’s really that much better?
Have you ever thought about how many times per day you use your phone? On average, that number is somewhere around 2,617 times a day.
I can’t even tell you how often I have reached for my phone while doing homework, or looked up from my beloved screen to notice that everyone around me is also staring at theirs. When was the last time you went out to dinner with a group of friends and no one touched their phone? Or the last time you played a game with your kids without also mindlessly scrolling through Facebook?
It’s like we think we deserve a break from life, or a reward for our 5 minutes of effort. But the question we really need to ask ourselves is, are we rewarding ourselves because we think we deserve it, or because we literally can’t help it?
Technology Addiction: Is That Even a Thing?
You bet it is. Addiction was once only considered relative to substances, but now it includes things like internet and smart phone usage, too. In a survey of 200 college students at Stanford University, 10% reported being fully addicted to their phone, and 34% considered themselves almost addicted.
In the same survey, 75% reported that they slept next to their phone, and 69% felt that they would forget their wallet before their phone. Almost half said they would consider losing their phone to be a “tragedy.”
If we take a look into the homes of Americans, we will see that 90% of households have at least one smartphone, desktop/laptop, tablet, or other media-streaming device. While this may not come as a surprise, nearly 20% of households have at least 10 of those devices. In some cases, that means there are probably more devices than people. Let that sink in for a moment…
What Technology Addiction Looks Like in Romantic Relationships
Dating in today’s world is a little different than it was 20 years ago. Sadly, too many of us have had those awkward conversations where we had to repeat ourselves because our date was distracted by his or her phone. It often feels like we can’t even carry on a regular conversation.
If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. There’s even a term to describe it! “Phubbing” is when a person ignores or snubs someone in a social setting by paying more attention to their smart phone than the person they’re with.
Unfortunately, this kind of behavior has become the norm. When we walk into a restaurant, it’s not uncommon to see couples physically sitting together but mentally existing in completely different worlds. We seem to be losing the very human connection that makes our relationships meaningful.
What It Looks Like in Families
In a poll of 1,240 U.S. parents and children, about 60% of kids ages 12-18 reported that they could not give up their smartphones, and 1/3 of parents reported that they argue about screen time with their children on a daily basis.
Spending 6-9 hours per day using digital media, kids and adolescents feel pressure to stay connected, incessantly check for notifications, and respond quickly to texts for fear of missing out (FOMO).
What kind of effect does all this screen time have on families? Sadly, not a positive one. Family relationships are weakening. Teens are isolating themselves even more than they were in the past. Children and parents alike need instant gratification and are becoming more concerned with self than with family.
Speaking of parents, if mom and dad are constantly on their devices, why shouldn’t their kids follow suit? The old saying “Do as I say, and not as I do” isn’t nearly as effective as we sometimes wish it was. We have to be careful and think about the example we’re setting for our little ones.
What It Looks Like in Society
At this point you might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah I get it. Technology addiction is bad for me. But is it really affecting society?”
Actually… yes. Addiction to smart phones and other devices are causing us to have shortened attention spans. Kids are having a harder time focusing in school, and adults are experiencing the same problem at work.
A more obvious issue is texting and driving. In a survey given in 2012, 75% of teenagers said that they text and drive, and 56% of parents also admitted that they check their phone while driving.
Lastly, we cannot ignore the effect that technology addiction has on mental health. Those who struggle with a technology addiction experience a high increase in anxiety and depression symptoms. Naturally, this affects their educational, professional, and family life.
What can we do?
Before you get too worried that I’m going to ask you to burn all of your smart phones and other devices, I want to be clear: I’m not saying technology is inherently evil. Technology is amazing and can serve many useful and wonderful purposes. The important thing to be aware of here is the danger of addiction that comes from using it too much.
So knowing what you now know, here are 3 simple things you can do to make a change:
- When you go on a date with your loved one, turn your phones off. You won’t believe how much more connected you will feel even after just one uninterrupted hour together.
- Set a limit on screen time for your kids AND yourself. Find more quality activities for your children instead, and be a good role model by abiding by the same rules as much as possible.
- Leave your phone at home and go for a walk or a jog. Regular exercise is not only great for mental and physical health, but it helps with concentration, as well.
Technology addiction is real and very much alive in the U.S. today. If we can pay attention long enough, we might just be able to improve relationships, strengthen families, and better society as a whole without ever touching a smart phone.
Generally speaking, husbands want to have sex more frequently than their wives. This probably doesn’t surprise you. But, you may be surprised to learn that this mismatch can actually strengthen your marriage.
Pop Quiz for You Wives:
Ladies, be honest, do you ever intentionally stay up later than your husband – under the guise of doing important stuff – though you’re secretly giving hubby enough time to fall asleep before you get to bed?
Or, notwithstanding persuasive evidence about the importance of marital kissing (see my article on the six second kiss) do you sometimes withhold your lips in fear that they may send an unintended message?
Maybe you routinely make not-so-subtle comments as you get into bed?
Monday – “Whew, I sure am tired tonight, that exciting Monday Night Football game drained me.”
Tuesday – “Those allergies seem to have returned in force, you really don’t want to kiss me right now.”
Wednesday – “I’ve got a busy day tomorrow, busy, busy, busy…need some solid REM”
Thursday – “I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with smallpox (if not something worse). I’ll understand if you want to sleep on the couch tonight.”
Friday – “…I’d love to, but I just ‘started’ this morning.”
Husbands, Quit Laughing – Your Turn for a Quiz:
Men, do you suddenly become quite a bit more helpful around the house when you are “in the mood”?
Do you find yourself frequently thinking about having sex with your wife, yet you forget other details about her – such as her birthday?
Are you surprised to find out that true intimacy includes much more than just sex? (If you don’t believe me, ask your wife.)
Supported By Research
These are clearly extreme stereotypes that likely don’t accurately describe your marriage. But, research does suggest that, generally, husbands desire sex more often (and often much more often) than wives.
Of course, your marriage may not follow the statistical “norm.” And, in some marriages, wives may want as much or more sex than their husbands. But for any couple with mismatched levels of sexual desire, what can be done? What should be done? And, how on earth can this actually strengthen a marriage?
Wouldn’t it be easier if men and women were created more equally with regard to sexual desire? Really, just think about the conflict and frustration that could be removed from marriage if both spouses were completely in-sync with regard to when and how often to have sex. In fact, wouldn’t marriage be easier if spouses were also hard-wired to spend money the same way, or if they preferred the same vacations, restaurants, and entertainment?
In short, yes, this would be easier. But on the other hand, we would be missing a fantastic opportunity for growth!
A Broader View of Marriage
If the purpose of marriage was individual and immediate gratification, then a sexual mismatch may seem disastrous. And, while I fear too many people see marriage with this “what’s in it for me” mentality, truly successful couples have a much broader view of marriage. These couples genuinely care about their spouse’s needs more than their own (inside and outside of the bedroom)!
Marriage, more than any other relationship, grants us the ongoing opportunity to overcome our selfishness by striving to put our spouse’s needs before our own. And the sexual aspect of marriage provides an ideal opportunity to be lovingly selfless.
Thus, in a very real way, couples that learn to bridge their “sexual mismatch” by openly communicating and tenderly compromising will become stronger as a couple!
Marriage is More Than Just Sex
While marriage consists of so much more than simply sexual satisfaction, I am convinced that a marriage cannot be truly happy if there is lingering frustration in this aspect of the relationship. I love this quote by Dr. Douglas Brinley:
Marriage is not just for sex, of course, but sex is a profound means of expressing love and commitment. It is designed to be a physical, emotional, and spiritual union; hence a high form of validation. Just as a good marriage increases sexual interest, so satisfactory sexual relations adds soul-binding emotional strength to marriage. There are few ways as powerful as the sexual union of a man and woman that are so expressive of mutual love.
How Healthy is Your Sexual Relationship?
The good news is that countless couples thoroughly enjoy their sexual relationship and view it as an important part of a healthy and happy marriage. The bad news is that, for too many couples, physical intimacy is a cause of stress, disappointment, and frustration.
So how are things going in your marriage? (This is rhetorical; please don’t email us with a response.)
I hope things are going well for you! However, some of you may be inadvertently guilty of sexual ignorance or sexual selfishness. For instance, do you know how often your spouse desires to have sex during a week or month? Likewise, do you know if your spouse is currently happy with the state of your sexual relationship? Do you two talk about this important aspect of your marriage? Are you genuinely concerned about your spouse’s needs and desires?
Remember, your sexual relationship has the potential to be a wonderful aspect of a healthy marriage. It can also be an area of disagreement, stress, and frustration. How we respond to the “sexual mismatch” can greatly influence our overall marital happiness!
I challenge you to sincerely ask yourself, “How can I be more selfless and less selfish with regard to our sexual union?” For some of you it may mean seeking sex less often out of kindness and love for your spouse. For others it may be accepting a spouse’s advances more often (and even initiating love making periodically). Whatever it may be, have the courage and kindness to act on those thoughts! Your marriage will be stronger for it.
And, because there are so many couples who silently struggle in this area, please take a minute and share this article through email and your social media channels. Together, we can help strengthen marriages!
Falling in Love While on a Chemical High
Do you remember how much time you spent with your spouse when you were first dating?
I’m guessing that you spent every possible moment together. Other “stuff” wasn’t as important as spending time with your new love.
Many students see their grades begin to slide when they fall in love. Similarly, work performance often suffers during this time.
Why is that?
As couples begin to fall in love they experience an initial “chemical high”. According to Dr. Pat Mumby “Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions.”
You remember those days right!? Sweaty palms, a racing heart, and when you were apart (which wasn’t that often) your thoughts were still centered on your guy (or your girl).
These chemicals (dopamine, adrenaline, oxytocin, norepinephrine) are actually quite useful in helping us fall in love as well as helping us desire to progress to courtship and marriage.
But, what happens when the chemical-levels drop?
This “high” doesn’t last though. After a few months, our body’s chemical levels return to a more normal level.
This is actually a really good thing- otherwise most of us would have flunked out of school or been fired from our jobs. The “love high” can be fun, but it is difficult to live a productive life in that chemically altered state.
But, does our love fade when this “high” is gone?
Well, it depends!
There are plenty of neglected marriages which leave both individuals riddled with hurt, disappointment, bitterness and anger.
By contrast, when couples choose to continue to prioritize their marriage (long after the initial “high”), then this relationship can grow into something much deeper and sweeter than anything experienced during the “chemically aided” beginning of their romance.
The Intentional Marriage
Before you were married, you were likely very intentional about spending time with your significant other. Sure, the “chemical high” helped, but by choosing to prioritize your relationship, you grew closer and had an ever increasing amount of love for each other.
However, according to William J. Doherty, PhD:
When we get married and especially after we have children, this reverses. Other things – the children, our work, our hobbies, even our religious involvement – become central and the marriage recedes to the background and only receives our attention when something is wrong.
Does this describe your marriage?
I hope not . . . but it might.
I have seen countless couples (even marriages between two wonderful people) who allow their relationship to fall into the background.
Valentine’s Day Vows
If your marriage is currently in the background, will you decide today to recommit to your sweetheart? Will you decide to prioritize him (or her) above all others?
Commit to prioritize your sweetheart about your career!
Commit to prioritize your sweetheart above your hobbies!
And, yes, even commit to prioritize your sweetheart above your children!
When describing this type of a marriage, Dr. Doherty noted that the happiest of couples have an absolute commitment towards each other and their marriage. He noted that happily married couples make these type of vows to each other:
- “Nothing will break us up.”
- “We will fight through whatever obstacles get in our way.”
- “We will renovate our marriage if the current version gets stale.”
- “If we fight too much or too poorly we will learn to fight better.”
- “If sex is no longer good we will find a way to make it good again.”
- “We will accept each other’s weaknesses that can’t be fixed”
- “We will take care of each other in our old age.”
He then concludes that in these happiest couples, these commitments aren’t simply made one time but are renewed over and over throughout a lifetime.
You on January 1st
“No really, this is the year I am getting into shape. I have purchased my treadmill, I have a pantry full of Gatorade, and I’ve downloaded an app on my phone to track my progress. I’m on fire (pronounced fiyaaa).”
Your Craig’s List ad on January 18th
“Gently used treadmill for sale (seriously, almost brand-new). Doubles as a clothes hanger – trust me I know. I will throw in a case of Gatorade at no extra
To quote Ned Ryerson from the 90’s movie Groundhogs Day, “Am I right or am right? Or am I right? Right?”
There is an 8% Chance That I’m Wrong
Okay, so actually I hope I am wrong and that the above scenario does not accurately describe your plight here in the first weeks of 2017. However, according to a 2013 Forbes article, only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolution. A 2015 US news article was slightly more optimistic noting that only 80% of New Year’s resolutions end in failure. But, a 20% success rate still represents a lot of failed goals. “Am I right?”…okay enough of that.
What You Already Know
You’ve likely heard great advice in the past about effectively setting goals. One of my favorite ideas is that of SMART goals – setting specific, measureable, assignable, realistic, and time-related goals. This is sound advice!
However, I want to share two other critical factors necessary to achieving meaningful goals.
What You May Not Know
Sometimes we just don’t care enough about achieving the goals that we set. If your goal was to lose weight in 2017 and yet by noon on the 1st you had already eaten 2 maple bars, an apple fritter, and a Bear claw, it would be a fair to ask how much you really wanted to lose weight. Similarly, if 10 days into the year you have a hard time remembering what your goals even were (I’ve been there 🙂 ), it is probably safe to assume that your heart wasn’t really in it.
In order for us to effectively reach our goals, we have to have passion for those goals. A lukewarm desire to change doesn’t supply us with the necessary fuel to do the hard work that is often required to meet these goals!
But, passion isn’t enough. It is my observation that most of us who set goals truly want to make those changes or improvements. But, passion or not, we often give up on our goals when life gets busy or when we encounter obstacles.
So, for us to actually meet our goals, we not only need the passion but we also need perseverance. Those who succeed often have a “no matter what” attitude. As a recently diagnosed pre-diabetic who has gone weeks now without any desserts, I know that we all have the capacity to persevere and do hard things!
So, yes, set SMART goals. But, recognize that without passion or perseverance you will likely fail in achieving your goals.
Dr. Angela Duckworth refers to this combination of passion and perseverance as grit (a new buzzword of the last few years). Her compelling research suggests that those who are consistently successful in reaching their goals have learned to develop grit. And, for those of us who don’t yet have grit, we can work to develop those characteristics.
Don’t You Run a Marriage Website?
What does all of this have to do with marriage?
Fair question! This article really has little to do with marriage… unless, of course, your goals are marriage related.
Allow me to speak bluntly!
You should always be trying to improve your marriage (even if you are already happy). A healthy plant today will be shriveled and dying within a few weeks if you stop providing water and sunlight. Conversely, a dying plant today can be rejuvenated with sufficient care.
I don’t really care if your plants live or die, but I do care about your marriage. So, please make a resolution (New Year’s or otherwise) to work on your marriage. Powerful goals could include any of the following:
- Strive to forgive and forget previous mistakes
- Shut off technology earlier and spend more time connecting with your spouse each day
- Hold hands and kiss like you did when you were newlyweds
- Take time to be more intentional with your marriage
You get the idea. I really do hope that you lose those 20 pounds, or pay down your debt, or whatever else your goals may be. The principles that I shared will help towards that end. But, not all goals are created equal. Whatever else you do, have 2017 be the year to improve your marriage!