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Monrovia Marriage Therapistby Megan Lundgren, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

In this holiday season, many couples may escape to vacation getaways for relaxation and a taste of luxury. But should couples consider making their vacation plans a little more adventurous if they want to spark intimacy in their relationship?

In her long-term study on 373 married couples since 1986, Dr. Terry Orbuch has found that passionate attraction (defined as arousal, excitement, and mystery in relationships) unsurprisingly spikes in the beginning stages of relationships. Racing hearts, twitterpated feelings and a feeling of being fully alive are the hallmarks of couples who are freshly in love.  Exciting as the sensation of passion might be, this physiological and emotional intensity is often not continuously sustained in relationships through years of commitment – in fact, Dr. Orbuch’s study found that passion in relationships tends to wane after about 18 months (5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, 2009).

So, how can you cultivate attraction in your relationship?

In his bestseller, Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, Dr. Terri Orbuch suggests engaging in arousal-producing activities to replicate the adrenaline-surge of early relationships. “Going on a vigorous hike or a roller-coaster ride, parachuting out of a plan, and watching a scary movie [are] almost like fooling your brain that the arousal produced is really due to your relationship,” says Dr. Orbuch.

After adding novel activities like deep-sea fishing and zorbing to the ideas for date-night, couples may feel exhilarated but insecure, asking themselves if authentic and sustainable passion can truly return to their relationship in more meaningful ways.  Feeling disconnected or stale in relationships is one of the most frequently stated reasons for seeking couples therapy at our counseling practice.  Is there hope for mutual engagement and interest in long-term relationships?

The answer to this question rests on a buzzword in the field of relationship psychotherapy: “self-expansion”. Self-expansion is a term that was popularized by psychologist Arthur Aron to describe when relationships add excitement or interest in one’s life. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times on self-expansion by relationship writer Dr. Tara Parker Pope, this process is ignited when “individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experience”.

While self-expansion certainly occurs in the midst of new and exhilarating experiences, Parker Pope notes that research by Dr. Aron and Gary W. Lewandowski at Monmouth University reveals that individuals can experience self-expansion and personal growth in both dramatic and ordinary moments. When spouses introduce their partners to new groups in their community, or share an insight from a podcast, or try a new food, they are participating in new experiences that expand their perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Aron’s research found that couples who experience more self-expansion in their relationship have more commitment and satisfied relationships than those who do not: Dr. Aron asked one set of couples to engage in mundane activities together and another set of couples to participate in silly or novel experiences together. The couples who had engaged in silly activities rated their relationship as more satisfying than the couples who had participated in mundane activities together. It seems that cultivating new thoughts, interests, and activities may be integral to sustaining thriving relationships.

Another related term for self-expansion dubbed by Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vriie University, is “the Michelangelo effect”: a phenomenon that occurs when “close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals,” writes Dr. Parker Pope. Over time, couples “eventually adopt the traits of the other – and become slower to distinguish the differences between them,” writes Parker-Pope. “It’s not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage; instead, they grew in it.” When one’s partner introduces  one to a new philosophy, characteristic, or activity, eventually those qualities become intertwined in one’s own life experience. Two become one.

“People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person,” Dr. Lewandowski says to Parker-Pope, “If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.” Those individuals who practice intentional self-expansion through taking advantage of educational opportunities, novel life experiences, developing skills, serving their communities, and widening social circle are not only cultivating a well-rounded and fruitful life but are increasing the potential for a thriving relationship with potential partners.

Research that reflects the importance of maintaining interest in relationships through self-expansion suggests that individuals may opt to reconsider the current approach to finding a romantic partner. Popular dating sites like Match.com and Eharmony.com have reinforced the idea that individuals should seek to date someone who is most similar to oneself. However, Dr. Aron’s research suggests that perhaps individuals may benefit by instead prioritizing another set of qualities: curiosity, flexibility, and an adventurous spirit.

Would you like one of our couples Therapists at Relationships For Better to help you and your partner explore ways to sustain attraction in your relationship? Contact us here!

 

References

Parker-Pope, T. (2011). The Happy Marriage Is the ‘Me’ Marriage. Retrieved May 27, 2015.

Tartakovsky, M. (2013, January 30). 5 Steps to a Successful Marriage. Retrieved May 27, 2015.

   

By: Megan Lundgren, LMFT

Did you know that women initiate divorce in nearly twice as often as men? A paper published in 2000 by Margaret F. Brinig and Douglas W. Allen entitled “These Boots Are Made for Walking”: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women reported data (Table 1, p. 128) from several studies across the United States regarding the percentage of instances where the woman had filed for divorce. According to these studies, women initiate divorce in 68.9% of cases.

The fact that women are more likely to file for divorce may be surprising to readers because women also appear to be highly invested in their marriages: in Why Most Divorces are Initiated by Women (2012), Cathy Meyer notes that women buy the majority of books about relationships and initiate most marriage counseling. And yet, wives are more likely to file for divorce despite that divorce tends to have more financial and social consequences for women.

In the bestseller His Needs, Her Needs Willard F. Harley reflects on the reasons why women file for divorce: “The most common reason women give for leaving their husbands is mental cruelty…but the mental cruelty they describe is rarely their husbands’ efforts to drive them crazy. It is usually husbands being indifferent, failing to communicate, and demonstrating other forms of neglect.” In other words, women feel the strain of distance and isolation in marriage.
Relationship researcher and author Esther Perel shares a similar sentiment about the primary issues in modern marriages in a March, 2014 interview by Slate Magazine: “It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.” Perel continues by reflecting on how the “merged” life that has become a norm for today’s marriages stifles experiences of growth and intimacy in relationships, which contributes to feelings of dissatisfaction.

Social Isolation

A popular notion about divorce is that it is predominantly triggered by conflict or marital crises. And yet, the contributing factor in many disillusioned marriages may be succumbing to a more insipid threat: social isolation.

Therapists at Relationships For Better, a Marriage Counseling center in Monrovia, California (www.RelationshipsForBetter.com) have noted that community support seems to increase relationship resilience. As a result, therapists at Relationships For Better have encouraged couples in premarital counseling to prioritize the development of marriage support networks.

Couples therapy and psychological literature are often helpful tools to address feelings of disconnection in marriage. Through therapy, couples often learn how to identify their feelings, communicate effectively, and tend to pain that arises from unmet expectations.

However, often couples delay treatment of relational issues through couples therapy because they aren’t sure whether feelings of disconnection is a valid reason for seeking professional help. Sadly, couples may react to cultural stigmas around psychotherapy being relegated to people who are “crazy” or for couples “on the brink of divorce.” By promoting societal support of mental health services and education about psychological issues, couples may be more likely to seek support before the patterns of disconnection contribute to feelings of hopelessness in the marriage.

Rapid therapeutic assistance for couples experiencing distance in their marriage is one avenue for decreasing risks for divorce, but perhaps society may consider how current American cultural ideals about marriage and social trends towards isolation may be aggravating feelings of disconnection in marriage.

Imagine a couple sitting on a leather couch in a serene office. As they hold one another’s hands and sneak tender glances at one another, they reflect on having “no major issues” and are simply fulfilling their church’s requirements for premarital counseling. The wife lovingly reflects,  “My fiancé is the only person I can trust. He’s everything to me. If we just rely on each other, everything will be ok.”

Or will it? As described in a previous Theravive article on the importance of community in healthy relationships titled “Is Social Isolation Affecting Your Marriage Today?” (February, 2015), marriages in which spouses rely on the support of their spouse in the absence of other community supports may be at-risk of divorce. Consider the rapid changes in community support over the past twenty years: Individuals tend to interact more often with friends on social networks than in-person, workers often telecommute, and fewer Americans attend church or other religious gatherings. All of these cultural shifts may increase feelings of social isolation. Pair this phenomenon with a romanticized American narrative that true love means not having a need for anyone but one another, as reflected in nearly every tv show, movie, and magazine, and one may begin to perceive the pressure that these cultural shifts have placed on today’s marriages.

Put simply, individuals may enter a marriage with the hopes and expectations that their spouse will meet their needs for emotional and social support because insular relationships have become both a cultural norm and an ideal.

Since women are often emotionally invested in nurturing a healthy marriage and often have intensely-felt and frequent needs for meaningful connection with loved ones, wives may feel more acute pain during seasons of relational distance in marital relationships. Rather than reinforcing trends of wives divorcing their husbands in hopes of finding a more intimate relationship with another partner, society may consider taking some of the pressure off of marital relationships by encouraging couples to widen support networks.

Instead of romanticizing insular marriages that are hot in the beginning but quickly cool with feelings of disconnection, perhaps readers may begin to promote the idea that couples need to look outward: marriages are benefited by the involvement and support of their family and friends.

 

Sources:

Brinig, M., & Allen, D. (2000). “These Boots Are Made for Walking”: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women. American Law and Economics Review, Volume 2, 126-169.

Harley, W. (2011). His Needs, Her Needs. New York City, New York: Revell.

Lundgren, M. (2015, February 2). Is Social Isolation Affecting Your Marriage Today? Retrieved April 27, 2015, from http://www.theravive.com/blog/post/2015/02/02/Is-Social-Isolation-Affecting-Your-Marriage-Today.aspx

Meyer, C. (2012, June 24). Why Most Divorces Are Initiated By Women. Retrieved April 27, 2015, from http://divorcesupport.about.com/b/2012/06/24/why-most-divorces-are-initiated-by-women.htm

Rosin, H. (2014, March 27). Why We Cheat. Slate.

Saad, G. (2014, November 13). Do Men or Women File for Divorce More Often? Psychology Today.

   

 

Is it possible to be deeply committed to your spouse and intensely desire one another throughout the years?

Recall your first crush: the exhilarating high, the twitterpated racing heartbeat, and the rush of insecurity about whether they felt similarly about you. In her bestselling book Mating In Captivity (2006), Esther Perel suggests that the excitement you felt was likely a response to a combination of attachment to that desirable person and anxiety about the risk of losing their affection.

To cope with the anxiety inherent in infatuation, couples may agree to make a commitment. Commitments in relationships tend to create a sense of security for those involved, and are often a welcomed opportunity to give oneself over to one’s beloved. Marriage is often perceived to be the ultimate commitment in a romantic relationship because it vows to sustain the union despite emotional turbulence: “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”

The Passion of Adventure

The consistency of a long-term marital relationship may increase the relationship’s sense of trustworthiness, but might it simultaneously diminish desire?  The relationship’s reliability provides comfort, but it also could also chip away at the intense high that results from the initial insecurity of attraction. Although married couples tend to have more frequent and varied sex than unmarried couples (National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviors, 2010), a common complaint in marital therapy is a loss of robust sexual passion.

Humans tend to defend against anxiety through attempts to control. However, control extinguishes passion. Consider this: if you knew that you and your spouse would have sex every other day for the rest of your lives, would you feel secure? Possibly. But desire thrives with mystery: adventurous pursuit with unknowable elements. C.S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves (1960), “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one.”

Risk and Predictability

The challenge with maintaining passion in marriage is not just that individuals become intimately familiar with their spouse: the challenge is that predictability often requires an absence of risk.  How can couples maintain both the relative security of a loving commitment, and the thrill of possibility in a relationship? One approach is recognizing and accepting that two separate, complex and changing people exist in the marriage, each with their own set of desires.

Marital psychotherapist David Schnarch contends that independence contributes to passion in committed relationships in a 2012 interview by Pam Weintraub in Psychology Today: “Marriage can’t succeed unless we claim our sense of self in the presence of another.” Schnarch suggests that the route to passionate marriage is differentiation: the process of engaging in intimate relationship and yet maintaining a wholly separate identity. According to Schnarch, over-dependence on one’s spouse squelches desire.

In response to the need for increased self-sufficiency in passionate marriages, Schnarch recommends that couples work on four areas of personal development: operating according to one’s own deeply held personal values, handling one’s own emotional life, not overreacting to challenging situations, and persevering through failure to accomplish one’s goals. When spouses resist the urge to conform to one another, they have the opportunity to experience self-validated intimacy. Through maintaining their own self-worth and managing their own challenges rather than constantly depending on one another, Schnarch observes that spouses increase their respect for one another and “open enough space to get closer and provide room for passionate love to return.”

Getting to Know Your Spouse

Is it possible that some spouses may not know each other as well as they perceive? In the attempt to create safety in a relationship, individuals sometimes categorize and caricaturize each individual’s personality or mannerisms with short-hands like, “he’s the dreamer, I’m the doer,” or “ she’s the social butterfly, and I’m a loner.” There is a sense of control involved in creating a static identity for one’s partner – and oneself. Individuals may willingly enter into these identity contracts wherein they suppress feelings or needs that exceed the allocated roles in relationships because predictability begets trust. However, in their quest for stability, these categories stifle authentic relationships and limit each partner’s perceived abilities.

The truth is, humans are not static characters. Particularly when they are challenged through intimate relationships, humans are complex, emotional creatures who grow and change. When married couples allow one another the freedom to express their unique and changing perspectives, needs, interests, imaginations, skills, and feelings, those committed relationships are able to experience the mystery and risk that underlies desire: authenticity and individuality abounds and excitement is reignited.

“Desire is fueled by the unknown, and for that reason it is inherently anxiety-producing,” notes Perel. Rather than defending against anxiety through rigid roles and rituals in marriage, Perel suggests embracing anxiety as a valuable aphrodisiac. Will increasing honest self-assertion in your relationship potentially increase conflict? Probably. When two complex, differentiated, whole individuals honestly express their constantly-transforming opinions and feelings to one another, conflict is certainly more likely – as is the likelihood of personal growth and passion.

Benefits of Committed Relationships

One benefit of committed relationships is that there may be safety for space and differences without risking the loss of the relationship. In marriage, couples can take advantage of opportunities for personal reflection and exploration without the degree of jeopardy within a less established union. Perel notes that couples report increased desire for their partners when they see them from a distance. Individuals who allow themselves to readjust to the individuality and “other-ness” of their spouse allow for longing in the relationship to thrive.

Psychoanalyst Mark Epstein writes in Open to Desire (2006), “our willingness to engage the mystery of the other person keeps desire alive.” When individuals in a relationship lose a sense of their individual identities, sometimes in response to a well-meaning intention to serve each other’s needs, curiosity in the relationship wanes.  Tending to one’s own well-being through the development of friendships, interests and goals is associated with passion in romantic relationships, according to research by Daniel O’Leary published by Scientific American in 2013.

In addition to self-sacrifice, what are other barriers to independent expression in marriage? The risks of rejection is a significant hazard.  In a 2012 Spirituality and Health interview, renowned researcher and author Brene Brown was asked, “Why should we foster vulnerability in our relationships?” Brown reflects, “There can be no intimacy – emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy – without vulnerability. One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and, asking for what we need. Vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together.”

Embracing Complexity

When couples maintain the space for each person’s autonomy, including openness to honest expression of complex and changing needs, emotions, and life experiences, mystery and passion flourish. In marriage, unified commitment begets trust, and untamed growth and individuality begets desire.

Perhaps the key to cultivating desire in marriage is to promote each person’s confident self-expression and accept change. Inspired to imagine fresh perspectives and vulnerably share their desires, couples may re-learn how to long for one another.

Through attending and participating in relationship therapy, couples have the opportunity to explore how marital commitment and passion can coexist when the relationship has room to breathe. Esther Perel makes this point succinctly: “Fire needs air.”

 


Sources

Perel, E. (2006). Mating in captivity: Reconciling the erotic the domestic. New York: HarperCollins.

The book of common prayer, and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church, according to the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America; together with the Psalter or Psalms of David. (1945). New York: Church Pension Fund.

Reese, M., Herbenick, D., Fortenberry, D., Dodge, B., Sanders, S., & Schick, V. (2010, January 1). National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior. Retrieved February 12, 2015.

Lewis, C. (1960). The four loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Weintraub, P. (2012, May 1). How To Grow Up. Retrieved February 13, 2015.

Epstein, M. (2006). Open to desire. New York: Gotham Books.

Bouris, K. (2013, November 27). Brene Brown: How Vulnerability Holds the Key to Emotional Intimacy. Retrieved February 12, 2015.

Seppala, E. (2012, February 12). Discovering the Secrets of Long-Term Love. Retrieved February 13, 2015.

Esther Perel: The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship [Motion picture]. (2013). USA: TED.com.

   
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By Megan Lundgren, Licensed Marriage and Family TherapistMonrovia Marriage Therapist

After the bride and groom have spoken their wedding vows, declaring that they will love, comfort, honor and keep one another in sickness and in health, the Officient will often address the congregation:

“Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in marriage?”

“We will!” the congregation responds.

Could this be the most significant moment of the wedding day?

As it turns out, supportive communities are essential in sustaining a healthy marriage.

Establishing communities of support around marriage has significant impacts on the ability for the marriage to sustain itself. In September 2014, a striking research paper by economists Andrew M. Francis and Hugo M. Mialon revealed that there is a significant correlation between wedding size and risk of divorce. Francis and Mialon’s study indicated that couples who elope are twelve and a half times more likely to divorce than couples who have a large wedding with over two hundred people in attendance (A Diamond is Forever and Other Fairytales, 2014).

Lest you assume that the couples in the study with large weddings simply enjoyed ample financial resources which benefited their marital satisfaction, consider this: Francis and Mialon’s study also determined that the more money couples spend on their wedding, the more likely they are to later divorce.  “Having a large group of family and friends who support the marriage is critically important to long-term marital stability,” writes Randy Olson, research analyst.

In 2013, a longitudinal study on divorce trends by James Fowler reflected similar findings, indicating that couples with more friends in their social networks were less likely to divorce than those who only had a few friendships (Breaking Up is Hard To Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing It Too, 2013). Fowler reflected, “A strong, supportive friendship network protects a couple’s marriage by making it easier for individuals to weather inevitable marital stresses.” 

Although large support networks clearly appear to be a factor in decreasing risks for divorce, the demographics of social networks are also apparently relevant. Fowler’s study made waves because the findings also revealed that divorce may have an element of social contagion. The researchers found that the divorce of a friend or close relative increased the likelihood that a couple would get divorced by 147 percent. When individuals learn about their peers’ experiences of divorce, those individuals are more likely to identify the potential benefits of divorce for themselves.

What does this mean? Married couples may need communities that support their relationship in order to be sustained: “Marriages endure within the context of communities of healthy relationships and within the context of social networks that encourage and support such unions,” says Fowler.

Is it possible that attending to your friends’ marriages could benefit your relationship as well? According to Fowler’s research, most definitely.

The problem is, many American married couples are isolating themselves. In her 2012 bestselling book on marriage research entitled For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope writes, “Throughout history, family, friends, neighbors and coworkers have been important sources of social, personal, and financial support to married couples. But today, many people view their husband or wife as the primary person they turn to for support.” Parker-Pope’s reflections are supported by research by Sociologist Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian who have found that married couples are less involved with their families and peers than singletons: married couples are less likely to visit or call their relatives, and are less likely to socialize with neighbors or assist friends in need (Marriage: the Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, 2007).

Interestingly, this trend of social isolation is not reflected in same-sex relationships. In her analysis of relationship research, Parker-Pope identifies same-sex couples as having a strong peer support network and are more involved in their communities (possibly to compensate for a lack of acceptance or support from family members). “In many heterosexual relationships, the husband and wife take an insular view, focusing most on each other and their children – often to the detriment of their relationships with extended family and friends. This ends up putting an enormous amount of pressure on husbands and wives to be ‘everything’ to their partner,” writes Parker-Pope.

So far, research has taught us that having a large network of supportive peers may benefit the longevity of marriage relationships. We have also learned that heterosexual couples are becoming increasingly insular and thus are less likely to seek involvement in their communities. Let’s now explore the particular reasons why a supportive peer community may be essential to the health of a marital relationship.

1. Friends help couples gain perspective on their marriage. 

“When you’re inside a marriage, it’s easy to focus on the points of friction and the minutiae of daily life,” noted Katherine Rosman in her 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal titled, Why Friends Help Strengthen A Marriage. Friends may provide relief from marital stress and opportunities to reflect on the relationship’s overall health, value, or meaningfulness.

2. Friends help couples see “the good” in their spouse.

“When a friend says to me, ‘I saw Joe and your daughter at the park and she has him wrapped around her finger,’ my focus is drawn past dirty socks left on the floor and onto the fact that I married a terrific guy who is loved by many,” says Rosman. Friends may remind us of the strengths, assets, skills, and virtues that spouses bring to a marriage.

3. Friends give couples examples of inspiring relationships.

Many couples do not have the resource of an intact and healthy marriage modeled by their parents. Even couples who do aspire to the marriage of their parents may find themselves at a loss for how to sustain a marriage in the ever-changing culture and demands of the modern day. Friends may provide couples with a personal and relatable model for a healthy marriage.

4. Friends place couples in social contexts that facilitate bonding.

Weddings, karaoke parties, dinners out on the town: whether social engagements with peers are fun, fancy, or adventurous, they tend to break up mundane routines and foster memory-making.  Couples may be energized by the encouragement of friends to live life fully together.

5. Friends provide couples with additional supports so that they are not solely reliant on their spouse.“When I first got married I had a vision of a union of two people who realized that they needed nothing in the world but each other. As I’ve grown older, I see more nuance…I have a career, kids, a home, siblings and all the attendant dramas. I can’t rely on Joe to be my sole counsel for all that, just as I cannot be his,” concludes Rosman. Friends may take the pressure off of couples to fulfill one another’s every need.

The tendency of American heterosexual couples today to focus their attention inward may seem romantic at first blush. However, research reveals a different narrative: it takes a village to keep a marriage happy. When couples begin therapy at my therapy private practice, one of my first questions is often, “Who else supports your relationship?” It is imperative that couples find confidants who are committed to upholding their marriage, for worse or for better.

 

Are you ready to work on your marriage through Couples Counseling?

Book a Couples Therapy session by calling (626) 272-4908 or clicking the “Book Your Session” tab at the top of the page.

Looking forward to connecting with you and your loved one soon!

 

Megan



References

Francis, A., & Mialon, H. (2014, September 15). ‘A Diamond is Forever’ and Other Fairy Tales: The Relationship between Wedding Expenses and Marriage Duration. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2501480

Olson, R. (2014, October 10). What makes for a stable marriage? Retrieved from What makes for a stable marriage? (Randal S Olson) http://www.randalolson.com/2014/10/10/what-makes-for-a-stable-marriage/

Parker-Pope, T. (2011). For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed. New York City: Plume.

Gerstel, N., & Sarkisian, N. (2006, January 1). Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy.

Rosman, K. (2011, July 3). Why Friends Help Strengthen a Marriage. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304490004576422323560214658

Rogge, R. (2013, December 1). Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/81/6/949/

   

What can you do to have a happy marriage?

The answer might surprise you.

Although many Americans are familiar with the most commonly cited causes of divorce (e.g., communication, financial stress, etc), the contributors to a happy marriage are less publicized. Perhaps this cultural fascination with divorce is influenced by the shock-value of what have now become notorious divorce statistics: about 41% of first marriages end in divorce.*

The statistics on marital satisfaction are no less dismal: only one-third of individuals are happily married.** So should couples resign themselves to the eventual reality that they will be unsatisfied in their marriages or divorced?

There’s hope for couples. Here’s why:

In a popular article published in The Atlantic in November 2014, Emily Esfahni Smith revealed research completed by the famed marital-researcher Dr. John Gottman that indicates two practices that buffer couples against unsatisfied and unsuccessful marriages:

Kindness and generosity

Dr. John Gottman learned that couples who act with kindness and generosity in their marriages are significantly more likely to remain happily married, and those couples who act with contempt or “stonewall” their partners by ignoring them are significantly more likely to be unhappily married or divorced. Before exploring the importance of kindness and generosity in marital satisfaction further, note the significance of Dr. Gottman’s research: after years of studying marital satisfaction, Dr. Gottman’s “Love Lab” can predict divorce with 94% accuracy.

So how did the couples in Dr. Gottman’s Love Lab practice kindness and generosity with one another? Dr. Gottman’s wife and research partner, Dr. Julie Gottman, reflected to Esfahni Smith that the highly satisfied couples looked for opportunities to express their appreciation for their partner or express respect. The distressed couples, on the other hand, did not give their partners ‘the benefit of the doubt’: they focused on where their partner was failing and expressed criticism.

Practicing kindness and generosity does not necessarily come naturally in relationships. It may be tempting for couples to focus on the their partner’s short-comings, or ignore their partner due to feeling frustrated or over-whelmed. Individuals in relationships may feel justified in their anger or disappointment with their partner and may feel that the most effective method in coping with those feelings is to express them directly (through criticism) or indirectly (through passive aggression, such as sarcasm or ‘the silent-treatment’).

However, what Dr. Gottman’s research indicates is that there is a clear benefit to marital satisfaction when individuals intentionally practice responding to their spouse with positive regard.

In other words, focus on the good.

Chances are, there is something that your partner does that you appreciate. Did she plan a family vacation? Did he remember to pay the bills on time? One commonly heard refrain in couples counseling is that couples feel that their partners “already know” how they feel. But, do they really?

A common communication error in romantic relationships is assuming that one’s partner can mind-read: “I shouldn’t have to tell you how much I love and appreciate you – you should know that by now!” The truth is that individuals sometimes have the need to hear words of affirmation in order to establish security in their closest relationships. In Dr. Gary Chapman’s national bestseller, The 5 Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate, Chapman writes, “Verbal compliments, or words of appreciation, are powerful communicators of love.” Although the practice of affirming your spouse may begin as a selfless effort, Chapman notes that “It is a fact, however, that when we receive affirming words we are far more likely to be motivated to reciprocate and do something our spouse desires.” As you might recognize, this cycle of affirmation and reciprocation would likely result in exponential increases in relationship satisfaction.

In addition, identifying and verbalizing your spouse’s valued traits may benefit your happiness by reminding yourself of the truth of your words. Again, this process of focusing on the positive and expressing gratitude about your partner may not come easily to couples at first. The first barrier to positive-thinking about our relationships lies in our perception of reality. Author Jane Porter writes in her FastCompany.com article, How to Rewire Your Brain for Happiness, that focusing on positive experiences is often a discipline because our brains are hard-wired to focus on negativity as a protective mechanism. “Realistic thinking means noticing the good things that happen to us as they occur and letting ourselves experience them.”

Once individuals train their brain to focus on the positive elements of their relationships, they may increase their marital satisfaction further when they verbalize their appreciation to their spouse. Porter cites the reflections of neuropsychologist and author Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: “The brain is old-school,” says Hanson. “It’s like a cassette recorder. You record the song by playing it.” When individuals verbalize their positive feelings for their spouse, the information moves from short-term to long-term memory domains in the brain, and the result is potential for increased marital satisfaction.

So, what helps marriages thrive?

Kindness and generosity. Seeking the good in your partner and expressing your appreciation. In short, don’t stop seducing your spouse.

Complimenting, encouraging, attending to each other’s needs, and verbalizing respect are common in the early stages of relationships when couples experience a twitterpated excitement for one another. However, as time passes, couples may become complacent and forgo opportunities to strengthen their marriage through expressions of kindness and generosity. The adrenaline-surge provided by new relationships may energize investment into their relationship, and as the ordinary, simplified, or routine patterns of relationship set in, kind and generous practices may wane in their frequency.

Needless to say, the pattern of ignoring your partner’s positive traits and fixating on their faults is problematic for sustaining marital satisfaction. In fact, according to Dr. Gottman couples who have a ratio of fewer than five positive interactions for every negative interaction are likely to later get divorced.

Will intentional, frequent practices of kindness and generosity transform your relationship into a happy marriage? According to today’s research, the answer is ‘perhaps’. And this may be easier said than done.

To support your practices of kindness and generosity in your marriage, I have compiled a short list of examples of how you may enact these practices in your current relationship:

  • Focus on the characteristics that led you to fall in love with your partner. Was she a great listener? Did he have excellent work ethic? Compliment your spouse and express your appreciation for these traits.
  • Consider your spouse’s ability to provide for your family through work or household contributions. Did she work overtime to help cover the cost of Christmas gifts? Did he do the dishes? Affirm their hard work and sacrifice, no matter how small.
  • Identify one way that you could lessen your partner’s stress. Would he be soothed by a homemade meal? Would she feel relaxed by decompressing with a good book at the end of a long day? Seek ways to give your partner a hard-earned break to show that you care.

How are you planning on demonstrating kindness and generosity in your relationship in the next few weeks? I’d love to hear your ideas!

 

* 41% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2006).

** In addition to the 50% who get divorced, 10-15% separate, and 7% more are “chronically unhappy” (The Science of Happily Ever After: The Science of Enduring Love by Ty Tashiro)