Making Your Marriage Work

Half of all the couples marrying today will end in divorce. In previous generations it was not surprising to hear that a couple was celebrating their twenty-fifth, thirtieth, or even fiftieth wedding anniversary.

Will any of the current generation celebrate these milestones? What can people do to increase the probability of a long and satisfying marital relationship?

Since both sexes are equally able to perform nearly all of the tasks required in a marriage, neither has to depend on the other for these abilities. Even the issue of having children no longer is necessary for marriage. People can choose to have children or not and can have children without having a partner. Even adoption is possible for single individuals. Therefore, the very basis for marriage changes from fulfilling certain functions to fulfilling emotional and psychological needs.

Psychologist, Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein, co-author of The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts, identified nine “psychological tasks” as the pillars on which any marital relationship rests:

  • Separate emotionally from one’s childhood so as to invest fully in the marriage and, at the same time, to redefine the lines of connection with both families of origin.
  • Build togetherness based on mutual identification, shared intimacy and an expanded conscience that includes both partners, while at the same time setting boundaries to protect each partner’s autonomy.
  • Establish a rich and pleasurable sexual relationship and to protect it from the incursions of the workplace and family obligations; it is the second part of this task which must not be overlooked or taken for granted.
  • (For couples with children) Embrace the daunting roles of parenthood and to absorb the impact of Her Majesty the Baby’s dramatic entrance into the marriage. At the same time the couple must continue the work of protecting their own privacy
  • Confront and master the inevitable crises of life and maintain the strength of the marital bond in the face of adversity and create a safe haven within the marriage for the expression of difference, anger and conflict.
  • Use humor and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation.
  • Provide nurturance and comfort to each other, satisfying each partner’s need for dependency and offer continuing encouragement and support.
  • Keep alive the romantic, idealized images of falling in love, while facing the sober realities of the changes wrought by time.

Psychologist Dr. Howard Markman at the University of Denver believes that “Love and commitment to the relationship are necessary for a good marriage, but they are not enough. What are needed, on top of that, are skills in effective communication and how to handle conflict.” Dr. Markman, along with Dr. Clifford Notarius of Catholic University of America, studied 135 about-to-be-married couples. “How you handle conflict is the single most important predictor of whether your marriage will survive,” according to Dr. Markman. These researchers found that certain behavior patterns usually signaled an impending collapse in the marriage:

  • When either partner — although it is most often the male — withdraws from conflict.
  • The tendency to escalate conflict in the face of disagreement and the inability to stop fights before they get ugly.
  • The tendency to invalidate the relationship by hurling insults at each other. Dr. Markman says, “one ‘zinger’ counteracts 20 positive acts of kindness.”

In addition to the suggestions already made, the following additional ideas have been culled from the literature on what makes for a successful marriage as well my clinical experience with hundreds of couples. Be Realistic. Couples often go into marriage with idealistic notions of what marriage is all about. Each individual should make clear what their explicit and implicit expectations are and clarify these expectations such that they are clearly understood by one another. Where there are discrepancies, a mutually satisfying compromise must be reached.Do Not Take One another For Granted. This can be a killer for a relationship. It usually occurs sometime after the honeymoon period. A regular “state of the union” check-in with your spouse as to how s/he is feeling about the relationship can help avert resentment build-up. Communication Skills. Being able to communicate is one of the greatest assets in any relationship. Being able to articulate our thoughts and being certain that the listener understands what you wish to say take considerable practice. Communication requires both good transmission skills (articulation) and good receptive skills (listening). Without both, communication will be at best difficult. The next time you want to discuss something important with your spouse, follow the following steps:

1. Arrange for a convenient meeting time rather than trying to have a discussion on the fly when it is likely to be interrupted.
2. Find a “talking stick” (any small object will do). So long as one person is hold the stick, that person also holds the floor. Once the stick is passed, it becomes the other person’s time to talk. This technique prevents interruptions.
3. Express your point, and then, passing the stick, ask your spouse to repeat what you said so that you can be certain that you were at least heard. If your partner is not able to repeat what you said or you do not feel understood, repeat your point until you are satisfied.
4. The listener’s job during this exercise is to be certain you understand and communicate that understanding to your spouse before you comment on the content of what you are being told.
5. Once your partner feels heard, then it becomes your turn to comment and be heard.
6. Continue this process until resolution, passing the “talking stick” and alternately being in the role of transmitter and receiver.

This approach, often referred to as “active listening,” once learned can prevent misunderstandings and serve to keep emotions under control. It is difficult to react emotionally if you are truly listening and have to communicate understanding before you get a chance to react.Regular Meetings. There are two types of meetings that can facilitate communication: a business meeting and a date night.

  • Couples often find that scheduling regular business meetings, just as one would do in a business partnership, to discuss the business of the marriage is helpful and indicates that the marriage is a high priority in their life.
  • Date night is one evening each week set aside for the purpose of emotional connecting. No business matters are discussed. Each partner takes responsibility on alternative weeks for planning the date, just as they might have done during courtship.

Keep the Romance Alive. Maintaining the romance in a relationship is vital to the vibrancy of the relationship. Once folks marry they often become quite lax in this department. They allow business, chores, and children to get the way of their romantic life. In a busy life, especially if there are children, it takes considerable effort to maintain romance.

Develop Sexual Skills. People believe that having sex is just “doing what comes naturally.” Believing this is like thinking that world-class ballroom dancers are simply born — no rehearsals, no practice, no innovation, no experimentation, and no mistakes. Good lovers are made, not born.

Be Complimentary. It costs nothing to compliment your partner and it sure feels good to receive them. We are often chary about paying compliments to our mates, letting them know that we think they are pretty/handsome, smart, clever, well-dressed, kind, a good parent, etc.

Show Appreciation. Another small thing that feels good. Thanking your partner for making dinner or taking out the trash, picking up clothes from the dry-cleaners, and in general letting him/her know that s/he is appreciated can go along way in creating a caring environment. Couples are very quick to criticize one another when chores do not get done, but they are very remiss when it comes to showing appreciation.

As you can see from the foregoing, maintaining a contemporary marriage is no easy task. It requires hard work. To think that a successful marriage — that is a relationship between two people that is fulfilling, enhancing of one’s sense of self-esteem, emotionally gratifying, nurturing, and supportive — can be achieved by merely living under the same roof without investing effort and time, would be naive thinking. Some individuals believe that marriage should be easy, and if it is not, they think something is wrong. Marriage, like any other worthwhile endeavor, requires patience and practice. When there is difficulty, it may require outside help. Just as a business may require a consultant, so too might a marriage. Today’s marriages are more than just two people living under the same roof. They are complex and dynamic entities that become even more complex as children enter the picture. For then there are additional dynamics that must be incorporated into the mix. Maintaining a marriage is one of our most significant challenges.

Mr. Kishore is a Maryland Divorce Lawyer and Divorce Mediator, whose goal is to help people maximize their potential and achieve their goals.

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