Revised on December 22, 2019.
It’s about time I wrote something about how to make a marriage better. As I was looking through my blog posts over the last few years, it occurred to me that I’ve kinda been a Danny-Downer. Sure, I write a lot about serious stuff, but I’ve haven’t written enough about what the research says about how to improve an already good marriage.
I’ve written a lot about skill-building and Generative Conversations, but research has shown that for relatively happy marriages there are some fast, effective and incredibly easy ways to make a good marriage… even better.
I make that crucial distinction because, sadly, I don’t believe that these solid research-based tactics will have a significant impact on a deeply troubled marriage. You’ll get there with good couples therapy. But to run with these 5 notions right now might be putting the cart before the horse.
Want to make a marriage better? These 5 ideas are food for your marital souls…but it’s not bread and water. This is caviar and champagne.
There is no single idea about how to make a marriage better that is more powerful than cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
Think about it. You have a good marriage. Somebody loves you and does things for you.
What’s really amazing is what the research says about gratitude. We’re not talking about something you should do every day. Or even every week.
New research shows that gratitude is such a profound force that all that is required is for you to feel gratitude for a few minutes every month!
Several studies have found that focusing on gratitude builds deep emotional bonds between partners. Gratitude is so incredibly powerful that it can create a virtuous “the More the More” cycle in your marriage.
This is how you maintain what Gottman calls a Positive Sentiment Override.
Just a few minutes a month gratefully reflecting on the merits and benefits of your marriage will tend to your positive feelings for your partner. In turn, your partner will pick up on your positive sentiment, and reciprocate.
“Gratitude is not just saying thank you—it has a much broader definition. Gratitude is wonder and appreciation. It is savoring instead of taking things for granted. It is looking on the bright side of setbacks. It is fathoming abundance and counting blessings. It is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry, and irritation. Gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today.” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky
All I’m asking you to do is set an alarm on your Smartphone to go off once a week. You pick the day and time.
When the alarm goes off, remember and reflect list two or three things your spouse has done for you lately, and feel a sense of gratitude for their actions. Gratitude doesn’t discriminate. Gratitude works well with noticing small kindnesses and little courtesies. They picked up your dry cleaning, or they brought you coffee. Feel the gratitude for a moment. And then just move on with your day.
We can all get pretty smug and self-righteousness during an argument. We’re pretty sure that our partner is totally wrong.
Instead, of digging in… try this instead.
Just after you get gridlocked into “I’m right …you’re wrong,” vividly imagine you are a benign, loving, but a neutral third party who only wants the best for both of you.
You can make a marriage better by getting out of your head once in a while.
How would they view what actually happened? What would they think about what you said and did? What greater good would they desire for both of you?
There was a recent study of 120 married couples in the Chicagoland area that explored the merits of this brief mental shift. The results of the study were interesting. Imagining the perspective of a benign, neutral third party significantly elevated overall marital satisfaction. And all it takes is a minute or so for you to do this when you get stuck.
The Chicago couples who did this didn’t put all that much effort into it. Maybe a minute or two each month. To be fair, these couples squabbled just as often, but after using this intervention, they had more marital satisfaction and they were far less resentful of the fact that they weren’t on the same page.
This is what the Buddhists call “Loving Compassion.” This concept is also closely related to what Gottman calls “admitting mode.”
You make a marriage better by experiencing brief moments when you can benignly see your part in it all….you’re just that much closer to forgiving your partner and yourself… for just being another Bozo.
We work a great deal with cases where one or both partners have Developmental Trauma.
As a result, some of us have a really hard time accepting appreciation, gratitude, and compliments from our partners. Spouses with Developmental Trauma were dealt a lousy parental hand.
These spouses often have low self-esteem and consider themselves to be fundamentally undeserving and unlovable. Learning how to interrupt this “stinkin’ thinkin'” would help these couples improve their intimate bond.
A psychologist at Renison University College in Canada developed an intervention for spouses who have trouble accepting their partners’ compliments. If you’re one of those partners who squirms at the first sign of a compliment here’s what you can do.
After hearing a compliment from your spouse, take a slow deep breath, and engage in some positive self-talk.
But not any old positive self-talk. The instructions are very specific. Explain to your self in rational, objective terms why your spouse bestowed a compliment. Then reflect on the significance of the compliment to your overall relationship.
It’s a shift in your mental context. Make a marriage better by engaging a different part of your brain to harness your capacity for abstract thinking.
Your brain has an automatic reaction to praise about any given behavior. You can dismiss it as a “one-off” too easily. But abstract thinking is different, and it will be more resistant to your habitual self-critical reactions.
You don’t need a researcher to confirm that happy couples tend to do more affectionate touching than unhappy couples.
But what researchers have learned is that the brief act of touching itself is quite effective at making couples feel closer—so effective, in fact, that it’s likely to work even if your partner knows that’s why you’re doing it.
Make a marriage better with physical contact. Touch is quick, easy, and powerful.
Psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University did a study on the power of touch with couples.
They discovered that partners had an increased sense of trust and security just after a moment of physical contact, even though they were fully aware that their spouse was simply following the specific instructions of the research assistant.
Touch works no matter what the context. The late, great Candace Pert was nicknamed the “Goddess of Neuroscience.” While a grad student, Candace discovered the opioid receptor in the human brain after being explicitly told to stop looking. her male boss got all the credit of course.
Candace thought hard about human emotions. And she was wildly enthusiastic about the power of human touch.
“We’re not just little hunks of meat. We’re vibrating like a tuning fork — we send out a vibration to other people. We broadcast and receive. Thus the emotions orchestrate the interactions among all our organs and systems to control that.” Candace Pert
We’ve all had the experience of giving our partner information about some minor accomplishment or inconsequential victory. What typically happens?
Usually, there’s little or no or no eye contact. You might hear a listless “that’s great, hon.” and that would be the end of it.
Our feelings are not particularly hurt. It’s no big deal. The subject of conversation shifts and life goes on.
But…it’s a missed opportunity.
Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that celebrating your partners’ minor accomplishments is incredibly beneficial. It increases overall marital satisfaction, trust, and intimacy.
This is directly related to Gottman’s intervention called “The Stress-Reducing Conversation.”
We all know that we have to be there when things are tough for our partner. But research also tells us that we benefit greatly by celebrating the small everyday accomplishments as well. This is a brief and powerful way to make deposits in our partner’s emotional bank account.
None of these ideas involves any heavy lifting. They only take minutes. You don’t even have to do them every day. And, best of all, they are all grounded in solid research. Making a good marriage even better is a helluva lot easier than making an unhappy marriage better.
Don’t get me wrong. Working with serious marital problems is what we do best here at CTI. Once you break the gravitational pull of hurt and resentment, once you really start to get serious traction…it does get much easier.
I offer you these 5 ideas to prove this point. If you work at it… not only does your marriage get better…keeping it that way is much easier than you think. And if you want even more ideas on how to make a marriage better, seek out a good couples therapist.
I’d like to thank Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D. He is a professor in the psychology department and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois for compiling this research. He is the director of Northwestern’s Relationships and Motivation Lab The RAM Lab. Check out his great work at EliFinkel.com.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.