One of the greatest pleasures of my job is helping couples find ways to enjoy being married. When couples arrive for therapy, they are frequently angry at each other and sad. Life's ups and downs can take a heavy toll on a marriage. Healthy marriages withstand stress better and get stronger and closer through hardship. Work in therapy consists of eliminating unhealthy patterns and establishing healthy ones.
So what makes a marriage healthy? What is the difference between those marriages that bounce back from hardship and those that end in divorce? Over the years I have done some informal research on the topic. Eight keys or habits have stood out and seem to be common in healthy marriages.
Number one is the art of turning to their partner to solve problems within the marriage. Some people have a tendency to seek help from friends and family without ever expressing their needs to their spouse. Healthy couples seek soothing within the relationship and offer it to their spouse. Each individual also makes an effort to make it safe for their spouse to approach them. They withhold judgement and criticism and stay solution oriented.
Number two is the incorporation of some type of spiritual practice. A belief in a divine source and a trusting relationship with that source provides strength during times when problems are greater than the combined strength of the couple. The belief that there are stronger shoulders than their own helps couples weather major insults to the marriage, such as infidelity, the death of a child or financial problems.
Number three applies mainly to couples with children but childless couples can benefit to. Healthy couples put each other first. They make children fit into their lives instead of organizing life around their children. This may sound counterintuitive, but putting the marital relationship first creates a healthy structure for the family. The greatest gift a child can receive is two parents who love each other and model a healthy relationship. Children who are kept out of the middle and in their place have less anxiety and feel better about themselves. Children who are first in a family are set up to believe that the world revolves around them. They will be resentful and angry when they find out the harsh reality that they are not the center of the universe. Putting the marital relationship first reduces unhealthy alliances that put parents in the friend role with their children.
Number four is open and honest communication. Couples that don't communicate harbor resentments and create distance. A dangerous game of mind reading and jumping to conclusions ultimately leads to ugly arguments and one or both may seek support outside of the marriage. Couples who make regular time for each other to talk about problems or just to talk know what is awry and can usually brainstorm solutions. They give each other feedback and state their needs directly.
Fighting fair is number five on the list. During an argument couples may resort to attacking each other's character. “You are a lousy mother”. “You're a loser”. “You never do anything around here”. These kinds of attacks will almost always provoke a counter attack and escalate out of control. Fighting fair means that topics are identified one at a time and the person who has the problem, identifies what he or she would like to have instead. “I- statements” are used and responsibility is taken for thoughts and feelings. The conversation must remain present focused. Past failures must not be dragged into the discussion.
Number six is the art of stroking. Healthy couples highlight what they love about each other and give compliments freely. They make an effort to tell each other how much they love one another and how lucky they are to have one another. Stroking needs to be sincere and not focused on any particular outcome.
The seventh attribute is a sense of humor. Healthy couples make each other laugh. They create fun. They see the humor even in the most challenging situations. Laughter is a natural antidepressant and can turn a bad mood around quickly.
Number eight is to not take things personally. People in healthy marriages realize that they are not responsible for the behavior of others. They know that the world does not revolve around them. When blamed or criticized they can find the truth of the matter and admit it, even if it is minuscule, without getting defensive. They avoid the pouting, sulking, or raging that someone who blames others for their unhappiness may demonstrate.
The above mentioned attributes and skills are not the only ingredients of a healthy marriage. They do however seem to be highly effective. They are not difficult to learn and they seem to have made a huge difference to many couples. Ask yourself how many of these habits you practice and talk to your spouse about the list.