Sometimes, the motivation can be spot-on, but if the target is off, the effort doesn’t matter. Drive east looking for a sunset, and even with a full tank of gas and broad-spectrum eyewear, the destination will never be reached.
In a more everyday example, there’s being happy in a marriage. It’s an often-said desire, achieved by some, but for many couples, it feels like an endless struggle, and people are left to wonder what’s wrong with their situation. But rather than a missed opportunity, maybe the problem is the wrong approach. As noted psychiatrist Frank Pittman once said, “Marriage isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you married.”
A healthy marriage, and do you have one? After 15 years of couples counselling, I have seen the common thread or topics that circulate between couples causing friction and chaos. However, I have also found a difference in how some couples can navigate seeming less emotionally stable relationship.
Sure they have the same arguments and at times are just as unhappy when it comes to in-laws, money, kids, jobs, etc. But one thing that sets these marriages above the rest is the key to understanding the deep friendship they have.
Whether or not you want to admit it, it’s likely that at some point in your marriage, you’ve wondered if your wedding is “good” in the first place. You know, probably during some horrible fight, when you probably shouldn’t be asking yourself a single serious question, but there you are, questioning the big stuff.
I’m no stranger to this question, mostly because I grew up with two parents who had what decidedly a bad marriage was—and I knew I just didn’t want to do whatever it was they were doing. Of course, when you Google “how do you know you’re in a good marriage” you get messages that are not always helpful. Most of the articles focus on psychological studies and stats—you know you’re in a good marriage if your therapist says so. There are countless message boards wherein at least one person attests that you’re in a good marriage if you never fight, or you always agree with each other no matter what. People say you’re in a good marriage if you never go to bed angry if you always do everything together if you let things go. The Internet seems to be especially concerned with figuring out if men are happy in their marriages, but less concerned with whether or not women classify their marriages as good.
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Table of Contents
- 1 Matches in Conflict Style
- 2 Dialogue With Perpetual Issues
- 3 Present Issues as Situational Joint Problems
- 4 Successful Repair Attempts
- 5 Remaining Physiologically Calm During Conflict
- 6 Accept Influence From Your Spouse
- 7 Building Friendship, Intimacy, and Positivity Affects Systems
- 8 What is a “Healthy” Marriage
- 9 Based On Trust And Commitment
- 10 Protect Your Time Together
- 11 Remember to Laugh
- 12 A lovely quote on marriage. Forgive and Move On
- 13 It’s Always a Work in Progress
- 14 A Healthy Marriage Seeks Help
Matches in Conflict Style
Most people fall into one of three conflict styles: validators, avoiders, and volatiles. If the ratio of positivity to negativity in conflicts was 5:1, the relationships were functional. However, mismatches in conflict style will increase the risk of divorce. The mismatches usually mean one person wants the other to change, but that person is avoiding change. The researchers did not find any volatiles and avoiders matched. They speculate it’s because they don’t get past the courtship phase!
Dialogue With Perpetual Issues
Gottman discovered that only 31% of couples’ disagreements were resolvable! This means the majority of conflicts were about perpetual problems, which was attributed to personality differences (even among similar temperaments). While active listening seems like a good idea, in theory, it almost never is practised or works in real-life settings, because if there is any negativity at all, the listener finds that hard to ignore and will usually react to it.
One of the biggest indicators for a successful relationship is having a “soft” start-up. This usually puts the pressure on women, since we are the ones who bring up issues in the relationship 80% of the time. The positive responses in these conflicts were from couples in relationships who used the gentler start-up. So remember to keep your sense of humour, and be sensitive to your beloved! Dialogue is necessary to avoid “gridlock” in conflicts, and remember, God created us uniquely, so rejoice in that!
Present Issues as Situational Joint Problems
Instead of blaming your spouse for your feelings of irritability and disappointment in the relationship, express how you feel, but then identify your needs. Be gentle in this conversation. Focus on what he or she is doing right, and acknowledge that first. Remember, you’re not perfect either, so don’t expect gratitude for your complaints.
Check out our post on What are the keys to a happy marriage?
Successful Repair Attempts
No one is perfect. After years of spending time with someone, you’re going to get on their nerves from time to time, and vice versa. This is a good thing! It helps us identify our areas of weakness beyond the shadow of a doubt, and remain humble through seeking the correction.
Your goal in a relationship is not to avoid these conflict situations or punish yourself when they happen, but rather process the damage done and make the repair. This point of repair is so crucial. Saying sorry alone is never enough. Work with your spouse in identifying those areas where you strayed, apologize for those specifics, and ask what you can do to make it up to them.
Remaining Physiologically Calm During Conflict
Once adrenaline is flooding our bodies, we are rendered incapable of empathetic conversation. Learn techniques and skills to self-soothe. When you sense your temper rising, either take a break or interject with some humour. Reach out to hold each other’s hands. Stop the negativity in its tracks. These skills will not only help you in your marriage, but they will help you as a parent when you teach your children positive methods of self-soothing.
Accept Influence From Your Spouse
Resist the pattern of turning down every request your husband and wife makes. Accepting influence means looking at your beloved’s point of view, and allowing their way, as long as it’s not immoral. This means stretching your comfort zone. So if your significant other asks for you to wake up early on a Saturday morning to pray in front of an abortion clinic, for example, try it, instead of making excuses or backing down.
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Building Friendship, Intimacy, and Positivity Affects Systems
This is where couples who practice Natural Family Planning have an advantage. There is already that regular built-in daily evaluation of how you’re going to spend your time together, and how you will show your love for one another. The issue isn’t whether you do love each other, but rather which way are you going to express it today? This just means keeping up the courtship all throughout the marriage. Learn to love each other well. Keep a greater ratio of positivity to negativity. Start those habits now, and you’ll have a seamless transition into marriage.
Some may have incorrect assumptions about what makes for a healthy marriage, especially those who haven’t grown up seeing many healthy marriages. Although every couple’s relationship dynamics are a little different, some characteristics are commonly found in healthy relationships. The following ten characteristics of a healthy marriage come from the respected research organization Child Trends.
What is a “Healthy” Marriage
Commitment. Spouses in healthy marriages are committed to each other. They are dedicated to the partnership and maintain a long-term perspective so that short-term problems don’t threaten the marriage.
In healthy marriages, both individuals are satisfied. About 90% of married people say they are satisfied with their marriage. This is not because their marriages are void of problems, but rather because both spouses are committed to persevering through both good and difficult situations.
Using clear communication to solve problems is one of the strongest indicators of healthy relationships.
Effective Conflict Resolution
Individuals who have established healthy marriages can resolve conflict effectively. Spouses who effectively overcome stress and conflict can avoid criticism, contempt, and defensiveness from their marriages.
Lack of Violence and Abuse
In healthy marriages, spouses never use aggression or violence to gain control over each other. This includes, but is not limited to, verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They also never abuse or maltreat their children.
Fidelity or Faithfulness
In healthy marriages, spouses are sexually and emotionally faithful to each other. On the other hand, infidelity is one of the most common causes of divorce.
Intimacy and Emotional Support
Intimate spouses, emotionally supportive, trusting, and caring have healthy marriages.
Friendship and Spending Time Together
In healthy marriages, spouses act like best friends and spend quality time together. Couples often have different hobbies, but a key indicator of a healthy marriage is that couples enjoy each other’s company and have a respect for one another.
Commitment to Children
Spouses who are both committed to their children tend to enjoy more enriching marriages.
Duration and Legal Status
Spouses in healthy marriages believe in the permanence of their relationship. They are more likely to stay together when faced with difficult life circumstances.
Based On Trust And Commitment
What does it mean to connect to your partner? How well are you and your partner emotionally connected and committed? Couples in a stable relationship feel distressed when the other seems unhappy, depressed, anxious or hurt. They are highly attuned to each other’s emotional energy. There is a high degree of trust. Awareness and the ability to think about others is present in this relationship.
One the other end, there are couples constantly struggling with emotional disconnect. There is a lack of mutual respect. Each partners mood and emotions are misaligned. One feels neutral and upset. The other partner is in distress. This will make it hard for the couple to make it the long haul in their marriage. Both are selfish in their attempts to work on keeping themselves happy, not invested in learning how to show compassion with each other.
These couples will feel constantly disconnected with issues of trust and feelings of personal attack of events not related. The couple assumes the worst and gets trapped in frustration, conflict, fear and anger. Both constantly have bad feelings towards each other. They are concerned with getting their way. Effective listening and communication are not present in these types of relationships.
Protect Your Time Together
This one is so easy before you have kids. When it’s just the two of you, and you’re free to go to the movies or eat quiet dinners that don’t involve chicken fingers whenever you want, it’s easy to stay connected. But after you have kids, it takes a little more effort.
Don’t forget to carve out time to spend together as a couple. Those kids that can take up every minute of your time will be gone one day, and you don’t want to look across the table at a spouse who’s become a stranger while you were busy driving carpool.
Take the time to sit on the couch at the end of the day and talk. Trade babysitting duties with another couple or sweet talk the grandparents and have a night out. Just make sure you don’t neglect the relationship that brought you the kids in the first place. Ultimately, a healthy marriage is the best gift you can give your children. It’s a legacy that they won’t even know to appreciate until they’re grown, but it shapes every part of their lives.
Remember to Laugh
Life is serious. There are bills to pay and problems to solve and kids to potty train. But don’t forget to laugh because, let’s face it, sometimes life is absurd, and I think we do better when we take some time to acknowledge it.
I’ve always said my husband’s saving grace is that I still think he’s hilarious. Not every day, necessarily, but often enough that I’m still glad he’s the one that comes home to me every day. Make each other laugh. And bonus points if you can do it and put an end to a stupid fight you were having a minute earlier.
A lovely quote on marriage. Forgive and Move On
Some of the biggest fights we’ve had throughout our marriage are the ones that come after one of us (usually me, if I’m honest) has let resentment build up over a lot of little things that then become a big thing. The next thing you know, we’re yelling at each other over the water bill, and that isn’t even the real problem because the real problem began a month ago when I thought he wasn’t helping me enough around the house and being generally selfish.
Your spouse isn’t a mind reader. And sometimes we need to follow the advice we give our kids and “use our words”. Let them know when something is bothering you or has hurt you when it happens, and not a month later when you’ve stewed over it until you’re ready to explode.
And then – this is a big one – forgive them. One of the biggest realizations I’ve come to over the years is that my husband is never intentionally trying to hurt me. He may say or do something insensitive, but never purposely wanting to anger me.
Forgiveness is a huge key to a successful marriage. When we hold onto resentment and anger, then any little thing can be like a match thrown on a gas can. Once you’ve truly forgiven them, you need to let it go. Because don’t we want them to do the same for us?
It’s Always a Work in Progress
Sometimes I hear about couples who are getting divorced after thirty-five years of marriage and always kind of feel like, “What’s the point?” because it seems like if you’ve made it that long, then you can stick with it for the duration.
But it’s a reminder that marriage is a constant work in progress. We never arrive at a finish line and declare that we have arrived and are victorious. It’s a daily promise to compromise and die to our selfish desires and remember that we live with another human who may drive us crazy because they only use half a paper towel and leave the other half on the counter, but that we vowed to love them for better or for worse until death do us part.
Sometimes the key to a successful marriage is working at it even when you don’t feel like it. It loves our spouse when they seem unlovable and remembering that we might not be a picnic to live with either some days.
Ultimately, God gave us this person because he knows our strengths and weaknesses, and where we are in need of a person who will refine, sharpen, and make us better than we would be if left to our ways. It’s not always easy, but in the end, it’s always worth it.
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A Healthy Marriage Seeks Help
Couples who are able to drop their ego and admit early enough into the marriage that needs help will have a greater chance of staying together. The couple commits to improving the relationship. One is not blocked off planning the divorce with an attorney on the side. Marriage and Couples counselling is about coming together for a common goal.
To build a deeper awareness and understanding, you must first know yourself. An understanding of who your partner is and who you are as an individual. Individual therapy and marriage counselling work hand in hand to accomplish this. The more you know yourself, the more emotional intelligence you have.
Counselling has many benefits. I stand outside of the system. I see the broken communication. Together in a collaborative team effort, we will learn to manage emotions, adjust dis-aligned or negative thinking patterns and learn how to find a lasting and authentic friendship that will flourish for years to come.