Many people hope that one day they will be lucky enough to get married and build their ideal future with a partner that will be with them for the rest of their life. Some recent research indicates that married people are more satisfied with their lives compared to those who remain single. Interestingly, this same research study with data from over 300,000 individuals in the U.K. also found that when people refer to their spouse as their best friend, they were twice as happy as people who didn’t (Grover & Helliwell, 2017). As you can imagine it is much more difficult to divorce someone that you consider to be your best friend. Marriage can provide you someone to share your hopes and dreams with, to start a family with, and someone to lean on when you feel no one else is there to support you. But how exactly does that happiness and support form in the first place, and how can you be sure that you are with your soulmate? Much has been written about the idea of “soulmates” in recent years, and we have written about this idea repeatedly on this blog, but it’s important to recognize the difference between settling and just being realistic about a marriage partner. How can you be sure that the person that you say, “I Do” to will be just as committed to you, as you are to them? When we choose to put our whole heart into a relationship (specifically marriage) we certainly don’t want our romantic partner to say “Maybe I Do” to a relationship we are expecting to last (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004).
In a 2002 study performed by John Gottman and Robert Levenson, they found that there are two types of couples: “masters” and “disasters.” The “master” couples are the ones which are happily together and are stable. The “disaster” couples, on the other hand, had either already broken up or were unhappily together. The Gottman’s followed these couples in their study and used their physiological responses to measure what group they fit into. They found that couples who had more intense physiological responses during their initial meeting with them, (ex. their heart beat faster than normal, palms easily sweat, hostility, etc.), the more likely they were to be unhappy in their relationship when they met again for the study three years later.
John Gottman developed an idea called, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” He found that these “disaster” couples tend to use four types of behaviors during conflict which can cause distress in the relationship. In fact, they have found that these “Four Horsemen” (or four styles of unhealthy communication) were good predictors of divorce within the marriage. These four behaviors are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling. Below, is a video from The Gottman Institute which explains each of these behaviors and good alternatives for relating to your partner.
In an outstanding 2017 article by John and Julie Gottman (which is free to access by the way), they discussed their research which they have conducted over many decades, to discover what makes relationships last. In addition to overcoming “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” the Gottman’s also created The Sound Relationship House Theory, which includes crucial principles for couples to have a happy and healthy relationship together. Listed below are each of these principles, starting with the foundation:
- Build a love map: The Gottman’s define love maps as a “road map” of who your partner is on the inside. They have found that couples who are able to recall stories and memories of their spouse are very in tune with who their partner is, which results in these couples turning out to be very strong together. To increase the love map of your partner, try to ask questions about them that you may or may not already know. You may be surprised at how much more you have to learn about your spouse!
- Share fondness and admiration: This principle is based on being able to have a positive view of your partner and treating them with respect. Instead of searching for what your partner is doing wrong, look for the positive behaviors instead and put an effort into appreciating them and communicating affection towards them.
- Turn towards instead of away: There are times when your partner is going to express a need for connection with you, and they will want to have you there for conversation, physical touch, support, etc. This is also referred to as a “bid for connection”. They are trying to let you know that they want to have some type of connection with you in that moment. As a response, spouses have been found to either turn towards or turn away. Turning away from your partner means that you are giving them no response, and their bid for connection is not satisfied. Turning towards your spouse, however, means that there is at least some type of response. Being able to acknowledge your partners needs for connection and turning towards them is crucial in any relationship. Putting an effort into listening to their needs shows your spouse that they are being heard and that they are wanted.
- The positive perspective: A huge part of having a positive perspective in your relationship is letting your partner influence you. While this may be tough for some people, allowing your partner to influence you and help you make decisions and choices has been shown to positively affect your overall marital happiness.
- Managing conflict: Conflict is inevitable for any couple. As difficult as they may be to get through, being able to confront and process these conflicts will make the conversation much more constructive and meaningful.
- Don’t try to convince your partner of your point of view until you can successfully state their point of view. Doing this takes quite a bit of patience and listening from both parties, but will go a long way in the end.
- When there are past emotional injuries that have not been fully processed, they have the potential to hurt the relationship time and time again. When bringing up these past conflicts in an effort to process them together, be sure to understand each other’s perception in the situation.
- Julie and John Gottman have found that sometimes there are perpetual issues which are much more difficult to solve for couples. These conflicts are so difficult because neither partner wants to “give in” to the other and give up their deeper purpose or meaning of the issue. They have found that the “masters” of relationships know how to accept their partners personality in these situations and discuss and understand each other’s hidden dreams and agendas.
- Make life dreams come true: Being a part of a relationship means that you need to be willing to listen to your partners dreams and values. Listening to each other and doing your best to support these aspirations are a huge principle in this theory because it digs even deeper into the concept of knowing one another’s love maps.
- Create shared meaning: Being able to create a shared meaning is the last principle in this theory and is one which continues to bring a couple even closer than before. Having children, celebrating holidays a particular way, working towards retirement, all involve two people coming together for one common goal.
Marriage can challenge even the most competent people who are relationship focused. Marriage isn’t meant to be easy and is something that should be worked on every single day. Find ways to support, love, and communicate commitment to your partner. Before “pointing your finger” at your partner for their shortcomings, find ways that you can personally improve to be more patient and kind. Learn to appreciate and acknowledge the efforts of your partner, even if they do not always meet all of your personal expectations. Although marriage can take a lot of work, it can lead to some some of the greatest happiness to be found in life. If you make your marriage your top priority, and always remember the commitment you made when you said “I Do,” then your marriage can blossom and become your own happily ever after.
- Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2017). The Natural Principles of Love. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 9, 1, 7-26.
- Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2002). A two-factor model for predicting when a couple will divorce: exploratory analyses using 14-Year longitudinal data. Family Process, 41, 1, 83-96.
- Grover, S., & Helliwell, J. F. (2017). How’s life at home? New evidence on marriage and the set point for happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-18.
- Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25, 496-519.