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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)

   

There are lots of reasons why couples may choose to come to therapy: premarital counseling, frequent conflicts, communication challenges, infidelity, or parenting stress, just to name a few. But I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a common issue that couples often don’t seek help for, but perhaps should:

 

Distance.

Feeling alone despite being in a marriage.

In other words, feeling like they are more like roommates or business partners than spouses.

 

Time and time again, couples have referenced distance in their marriage as a contributing factor to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in their relationship. And yet, it seems that many couples don’t seek counseling for distance in their relationship until this issue has festered into more severe or debilitating challenges in marriage.

 

A couple years ago I saw the movie Hope Springs with my mother (fun fact: my mother and husband both have Masters degrees in the field of Mental Health, along with multiple members of my extended family. Gives new meaning to the study of marriage and family!) In the movie, a couple of retirement age (played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) participates in couples therapy in order to reconnect in their relationship.

One reason why I appreciate this film is that it highlights discomfort as a significant barrier to change. The awkwardness is palpable when the couple attempts to change old habits of distancing in the relationship. Their habits of sleeping in separate bedrooms, maintaining rigid boundaries, and avoiding all forms of intimacy are safe: they are well-practiced and predictably stable.

And yet, there is a saddening loss of love and life in their relationship. Ultimately, the wife summons courage to invite her husband to sex therapy, risking the loss of familiarity and security:

Kay: “It feels like Arnold and I aren’t going towards anything anymore. I want a real marriage again.”
Eileen: “I think for that to happen you would have to risk everything just to shake things up.”

What is Hope Springs really about, in my humble opinion?

Bravery.

What holds us back from looking at our spouse in the eyes and vulnerably telling them about our feelings and needs? Fear.

What holds us back from confessing our insecurities and our fantasies? Fear.

What holds us back from asking for help from a mental health professional when we don’t understand why we feel so alone? Fear.

Couples sometimes succumb to the fear of rejection and failure when they perceive distance in their marriage, and understandably become paralyzed. However, sometimes couples acknowledge their feelings and needs, and find the courage in themselves to ask for help.

In what may be the most uncomfortable bedroom scene of all time, observe how simple acts of risk, courage, and hope facilitate healing:

 

Did you see the subtle bravery? I find it inspiring.

Are you feeling brave? Connect. If you need help, give us a call.

 

-Megan Lundgren, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

(626) 272-4908

   

Recently a Marriage and Family Therapy colleague named Katherine Welch directed my attention to a musical artist named Amanda Palmer who writes raw, soulful songs about relationship dynamics.

In Palmer’s piece titled, The Bed Song, Palmer describes a couple that progressively becomes more distant throughout the course of their life together:

Now we’re both mostly paralyzed
Don’t know how long we’ve been lying here in fear
Too afraid to even feel
I find my glasses and you turn the light out
Roll off on your side
Like you’ve rolled away for years
Holding back those king-size tears

The individuals in the relationship mirror one another’s fear of vulnerability, and yet both individuals are longing to be truly seen and known.

At the end of the song, Palmer concludes with this emotional plea:

And I finally ask you, “What was the matter?
Was it a matter of worse or of better?”
You stretch your arms out and finally face me
You say, “I would have told you

If you’d only asked me.”

 

Powerful lyrics.

Can you relate with the desire to be in an intimately close relationship, or the ache of a distant marriage?

I practice couples therapy because I feel that there’s hope. In the words of Katherine Welch, who recommended this song to me: “This doesn’t have to be the story’s ending.”

The couple in Palmer’s sorrowful song may have had a painful history that hindered them from trusting other people.  Or, they may have not had the communication skills to verbalize their feelings and needs, perhaps because this practice was not modeled by their own parents when they were young. Or possibly ,they didn’t value their own feelings and needs enough to consider them worth sharing.

Regardless, these are issues that can be discussed openly, honestly, and vulnerably in the safe context of couples therapy.
Its never too late for healing and intimacy in your closest relationships.

Relationships rarely change without effort. And yet, the cost of stagnation in relationships is a gradual but devastating loss.
In The Bed Song, neither individual took initiative to change their relationship. They allowed the habit of guarding and restricting their emotions to slowly deteriorate their marriage.

Day to day, they chose the illusion of safe distance over the risk of self expression. And as a result, they silently suffered.

Through therapy, individuals and couples learn how to speak with courage. They learn to take risks with their therapist’s help, and often they see change in their lives as a result.

Are you ready for change? Are you feeling brave?

Communicate your needs.

If you need help, you can schedule a session with one of our Marriage and Family Therapists by calling (626) 272-4908 or going here.

You are not alone.

Next week, I’ll be continuing our discussion of intimacy and distance in marriage by exploring the themes of Hope Springs, a 2012 movie about a couple’s journey through therapy starring Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carrel.  Stay tuned!

 

   

Megan_Monrovia_Therapist

Megan Lundgren is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and supervises the team of Therapists at Relationships For Better. Megan co-owns Relationships For Better with her husband of 9 years, Daniel. Together, Megan and Daniel are focused on helping individuals and couples thrive in their closest relationships. Megan earned B.A.s in Psychology and Educational Ministry from Seattle Pacific University, graduating Magna Cum Laude. Megan and Daniel both received their Masters in Marriage and Family Therapist from Fuller Seminary and Graduate School and recently welcomed their son into the world.

Erika_Monrovia_Therapist

Erika Forsyth is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with years of experience providing counseling to teens, individuals, couples and families. Erika earned her B.A. from Princeton and completed her Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from Fuller Seminary and Graduate School. Erika and her husband are expecting a daughter.

Justin_Monrovia_Therapist

Justin Little is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with a passion for Restoration Therapy, a form of therapy that assists individuals and couples identify and change the thoughts that contribute to pain in their relationships. In addition, Justin also has experience treating individuals struggling with addiction. Justin earned his B.A. at Azusa Pacific University and completed his Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy at Fuller Seminary and Graduate School. Justin and his wife have a daughter and live in Monrovia.

Johny_Monrovia_Therapist

Johny Thompson is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with a vision for bringing hope to individuals, couples and families who need support in the midst of their challenges. Johny has completed two Masters degrees: a Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy and a Master of Theology, both from Fuller Seminary and Graduate School. Johny is in the process of receiving ordination in the Nazarene denomination, and provides treatment to people of all faiths and backgrounds.

   
  • Joseph Kim - March 8, 2016 - 10:38 pm

    Hello!

    My name is Joe, and my fiance Wendy and I are seeking to go through pre-marital counseling in April.

    Just a little about me, I’m a Fuller alumni, recently stepped down from pastoral ministry, and am Korean American. Wendy and I hope to go through pre-marital counseling sessions in order to better understand our strengths, differences, potential future and current conflicts, and to gain self-awareness, and grow in our skills in conflict management, as disciples of Jesus.

    Questions:

    1) I wished to ask if you would accept Anthem Blue HMO insurance, by chance?

    2) If Anthem Blue HMO is not accepted, what is your pricing? I’d like to inquire if there is any sliding scale for your pricing?

    3) Is there a set number of sessions that your pre-marital counseling entails? We are looking for 4-5 sessions, if possible. Any details on the length of each session, the total number sessions, and the frequency of meetings, would be appreciated!

    4) Do you have evening, Saturday, Sunday appointments available?

    Looking forward to hearing from you!
    Thanks so much!
    -JoeReplyCancel

You’ve seen his portrait at the top of this website for the past month. You’ve wondered about him. And now, you finally get to meet him!

Johny Thompson is our newest Marriage and Family Therapist Intern at Relationships For Better! Johny is known around our graduate school as an “all-around good guy” who is personable, warm, and trustworthy. We are so excited to have him on our Therapy team!

Johny_Thompson_Therapist_Vertical_0001

Hi there,

My name is Johny Thompson, and I am a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern with a passion to see people thrive. I graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena with a Masters of Science in Marital and Family Therapy in 2012 and a Masters in Theology and Ministry in 2014. In addition to my schooling and clinical experience, I am a certified Family Wellness Instructor and have had extensive specialized training in a marriage and family therapy model known as Restoration Therapy.

The services I provide include:

  • Individual, Couple and Family Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Educational Groups
  • Teaching Seminars

And, my particular areas of interest include:

  • Helping families through seasons of distress, including divorce;
  • Equipping parents with tools and insights for effective parenting;
  • Working with premarital couples and couples working through relational conflict towards deeper love, trust and intimacy;
  • Walking with individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, grief (loss of life, relationship, health, etc…) and issues having to do with transitions in life or faith.

One of my greatest passions in life is helping families, couples, and individuals move forward towards experiencing more satisfying and nurturing relationships and finding a place of greater personal wholeness and peace. This happens, in large part, as individuals become aware of destructive patterns of belief and behavior and gain the insights and tools needed to allow them to begin to engage in restorative patterns of love and trust with self and others.

As you make the very important decision of who to choose as a Therapist, it would be my honor and privilege to come along side you as you journey towards restoration.

Sincerely – Your advocate,

Johny

-

Johny Thompson, MFTI

818.640.6622

Johny@RelationshipsForBetter.com