Creating a Long-Term Happy Marriage

Over the past several decades much research has gone into what makes a happy long-term marriage. Noted researchers like John Gottman, Alan Booth and Paul Amato have made some conclusions that to the average observer may seem common sense on the one hand and some that would seem erroneous on the other. For example, Gottman studied hundreds of video tapes of couples interacting about marital concerns and found that happy, stable relationships have a preponderance of positive interactions. He found that the most stable relationships had a ratio of five positive interactions for every negative interaction.  In other words, happy couples have mainly positive interactions.

While most persons would quickly agree with that conclusion, another finding may surprise many people. Gottman found that it’s not disagreeing per se that is problematic to a relationship, but how the couple disagrees. In fact, 25 years of studying couples interacting led Gottman to conclude that a moderate dose of arguing is even good for the relationship. For example, if the husband disagrees by belittling his wife or showing contempt for her, the relationship suffers, but if he disagrees by stating how he feels and why in a way that does not return negative affect in kind, the relationship is strengthened by the disagreement.

In his book Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work, Gottman states that happy couples need more than good communication – they need to accept that irreconcilable differences will emerge and not waste effort trying to change them. Happy couples focus on changes that can be made and overlook the irreconcilable differences. Happy couples prioritize their issues and spend time on issues they can resolve.

In their longitudinal study of marriage following the same couples for more than 20 years, Alan Booth and Paul Amato found that happy couples have both a high level of commitment and a high level of independence. In other words, happy couples maintain strong bonds, but allow each other to grow individually.

New research reported at the American Psychosomatic Society Annual Meeting stated that happy marriages are linked with health, including the ability to recover from surgery and minor injuries. Happy couples have more humor in their lives, are more relaxed, and handle stress better. Improved physical health is a by-product of a satisfying intimate relationship. In another recent study, it was found that happy couples insolate each other from work stress. A happy marriage actually improved the blood pressure reading of those in stressful job situations.

Other researchers have found that happy couples have a strong spiritual grounding. Spiritual well-being promotes caring, sharing and empathy for the partner’s feelings.

Suggestions for creating and maintaining a happy relationship:

  • Create a relationship with a great deal of positive interactions. The little things matter. Give compliments and show appreciations for the small things. Giving just two small complements a day may change the whole tone in the marriage.
  • Respond to your partner’s anger by staying calm. Keep on the positive side. Maintain a five to one ratio of positive to negative interactions.
  • Fight fair. Stay on one topic at a time. Don’t bring up past unresolved issues.
  • Use “I statements” to say how you feel. I statements take responsibility for how one feels and allows the partner to respond in a positive manner.
  • Avoid making “You statements.” Beginning a sentence with “you” implies blame. For example, saying “I feel hurt when you don’t spend time with me” will get a better response than saying “You never spend time with me because you don’t value our relationship.”
  • When things heat up, take a short break. A short break can give time to regroup and look at the situation from a different perspective.
  • Talk when children are not around. Have time for “adult” conversations.
  • Choose battles wisely. Some things cannot be changed. For example, you cannot change your partner’s personality, but you may be able to influence some of his/her decisions.
  • Make time for your partner. Do some activities together on a daily basis.

About Dr. Roberts

Dr. Roberts has worked for the past 25 years in the field of Child and Family Development. He has a PhD in Child and Family Development with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. He also has an EdS degree in Counseling and the MDiv degree in Theology. He directed the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Appalachian State University, Chaired the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Long Beach State, and chaired the Department of Child and Family Development at San Diego State University. Dr. Roberts is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Georgia and had his own practice before starting his long career in higher education. Dr. Roberts also holds the title of Elder in the United Methodist Church.
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