And they lived happily ever after. This sentence closes many of the stories we often read in just a few minutes. In reality, between the beginning and end of a love story lie years of experiences and events which, at times, can be more difficult than they seem.
In any situation in life, each of us carries baggage shaped by the environment in which we grew up, the role models we had, the experiences and events that left their mark on us, and our worldview—including our views on marriage.
Which view do we take with us into marriage?
Is it the one modelled by commercials, movies, and stories that promote the kind of love to which all good and beautiful things come naturally? The view that says once we have found true love, any effort on our part can cease? When problems inevitably come, such a simplistic paradigm has an equally simplistic solution—divorce. Of the vows we make on our wedding day, we remember better the part about “for better” and less, or not at all, the part about “for worse.”
As much as we would like it to be the case, marriage is not just sunshine and roses.
This is why a correct view on marriage is important. This can stop the seed of divorce from being sown as a quick-fix when marriage difficulties come, even before becoming a family. One finds such a view in the Scriptures, through the words of the wise Solomon: “Two are better than one… If either of them falls down, one can help the other up…though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Difficulties, problems, misunderstandings, contentious discussions, and conflicts may all arise in the life of the family. When they do, it is of utmost importance that our gaze turns to God and to the plan He has for each of us and for our relationship. When each of the partners in a relationship draws closer to God, this inevitably leads to them drawing closer to one another. God is the third strand of the cord.
A classic myth
The fact that marriages fail because of faulty communication, extramarital affairs, or different interests and personalities, is a myth. Actually, something breaks in the relationship before the aforementioned difficulties arise. It is the foundation of the relationship, setting us up to go in one direction or the other, that determines our reactions and choices. The basis of a happy marriage is a strong friendship. An abundance of positive emotions is created from this, which reduces the risk of uncontrolled conflicts.
On the other hand, the main predictor of failure in a marriage is represented by the moment in which one of the partners is flooded with negative emotions, which appear as a consequence of certain interactions involving critique, contempt, defensiveness and the denial to communicate or express one’s emotions.
We’re getting married! Do we need to do anything after that?
To maintain a healthy and stable marriage, you must look after it. No one from the outside can offer this service to you. A healthy marriage does not come for free. It is not in itself wrong to imagine that the relationship after marriage will continue without one having to make as much effort as before. But the vision often changes with time, and so it is useful to know the way we are likely to react to the unpredictable, and how we can successfully manage change. This would enable us to further enjoy and remain as satisfied with our relationship as we were when we chose to say “I do” with our whole hearts.
The 7 principles of a happy marriage
John Gottman is known for his research regarding marital stability and divorce prediction. Gottman is one of the authors of the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and the father of the Gottman method. The Gottman method is based on developing friendship between partners so that shared meaning can be created. The purpose of this is for the partners to learn to live with the differences between them and not allow these differences to ruin their relationship.
Gottman compares marriage to a 2D house. We start with the two pillars of the house: trust and commitment.
A state of trust exists when a man knows his partner is acting and thinking in order maximise his interests and benefits, not just her own interests and benefits. In other words “my partner takes care of me and has my back.”
Commitment means believing (and acting based on this belief) that your relationship with the other person is a life-long journey, for better or for worse. This means that, should difficulties appear, the partners will work together to deal with them.
The foundation of the house is made of a strong friendship, which is realised by means of the following steps: building the maps of love, sharing affection and admiration, turning one’s face towards the other rather than one’s back, and the partner’s influence. After the stable foundation of the relationship has been created, the couple can advance to making sure that the relationship is in a safe, healthy, and fulfilling place by finding solutions to the problems that can be solved, overcoming gridlocks, and creating a shared sense of meaning.
1. Building the maps of love: Strength resides in knowledge. The better the partners know and understand each other, the easier it is for the bond between them to be maintained as time goes by. How well do we know our partner’s past, concerns, stressors, joys, and hopes?
We might think that this stage is exclusively performed in the period of courtship, or the initial friendship. But things change, life is unpredictable, and people can change, too. It is important to keep up to date with these changes in the relationship, so that we are always aware of as many aspects of our partner’s life as possible. To feel known and understood counts for a lot when it comes to maintaining happiness.
Here are a few ideas which can lead to constructive conversation: “Name two of my closest friends”; “What am I most afraid of?”; “Name one of my preoccupations or concerns”; “Name two of my aspirations, hopes and wishes”; “What medical problems do I fear?”; “What is your view about expressing feelings, especially sadness, anger, fear, pride and love? Are any of these difficult to express or to see them expressed for you? What is the basis of your view on this?”
2. Sharing affection and admiration
This stage is focused on the intensity of the affection and level of respect in the relationship. To consolidate love and affection, one must express appreciation and respect.
Of course, this was done at the beginning of the relationship, which led to marriage. Love and admiration, however, can be fragile, except in the case in which both partners are aware of the importance of these qualities and continuously practice them. Expressing affection and admiration prevent partners from becoming estranged. When we are aware of and appreciate our partner’s qualities and strengths, it is easier for us to manage disagreements within the relationship.
We can think of our partner’s qualities (loving, funny, organized, caring, calm, responsible, protective, etc.) and the moments or situations in which we discovered that they had them. We should continue to look for, see, and appreciate them. Here we can also include discussions on the relationship’s history. What were your first impressions of each other? What led to the decision to get married? Why him, why her? Also, discussion about one’s view of marriage can fall into this category. Why do some relationships work and others don’t? What is or was the state of your parents’ marriages? Are there similar or different factors than the ones present in your own marriage? What have been the happiest moments in the relationship for each of you? How has the relationship changed over time?
3. Turning one’s face towards the other rather than one’s back
For good growth, strengthening and consolidation of a marriage, partners need to be able to affirm their needs, and be aware of the important moments in their partner’s life and of their answer to these moments. The small moments of daily life are actually the basic elements of the relationship.
The emotional connection occurs at the beginning of the relationship, and it is important to keep this connection throughout the relationship. Here we can include talks, time spent together (meeting each other at the end of the day and discussing how each other’s day went, going shopping, making a shopping list, volunteering, attending church together, travelling together, cleaning the house together, walking to or from work together).
Hopefully, these discussions with our partners will be sprinkled with genuine interest, empathy, expressions of affection, and validation of emotions. Where there is respect, there is the possibility to appreciate the other person’s point of view even if you do not agree with it.
4. The partner’s influence
This particularly refers to the openness and willingness to listen, to discuss the other person’s opinion and to accept it when we are faced with the choice.
A few affirmations can reveal the level we are at when it comes to this aspect: “I can usually learn from my partner when we disagree,” “My partner usually has good ideas,” “I try to listen respectfully even when I do not agree,” “I can listen to my partner but only up to a certain point,” “I can usually find something from my partner’s position to agree with.”
The willingness to share power and to respect the other person’s point of view is a condition for compromise. For this reason, accepting our partners’ influence helps us deal with marital conflicts better. Faced with disagreements, acceptance is the cornerstone of success.
5. Finding solutions to the problems that can be solved
When they are open to the other’s point of view, partners have a good basis for solving any kind of differences or disagreements.
When problems appear, which is almost inevitable, it’s worth paying attention to the following aspects: we may complain, but not cast blame; we should use sentences which begin with “I” instead of “you” (“I’d like it if you listened to me” vs “You do not listen to me,” or “I feel neglected” vs “You don’t care about me”), as it’s useful to describe what you feel is happening rather than evaluating the situation and judging; it’s useful to express ourselves clearly (“I would appreciate it if you cleaned up” vs “You left a mess on the table after using it”); it’s good to be polite (adding phrases like “Please”, “I would appreciate it if…”); it is important to appreciate our partners and not let discontent pile up.
Already having a solid foundation for the relationship, as described above, when faced with problems, our attitude will be naturally constructive. Resolving conflicts is not about changing our partners, but about negotiating, finding the common ground and ways in which everybody is happy with the chosen solutions.
6. Overcoming gridlocks
We should make sure that the relationship resides within an atmosphere that encourages each partner to speak honestly about their hopes, values, beliefs, and aspirations. In this situation, we are there for each other, and contribute the best we can to our partners’ development, the fulfilment of their dreams, or to overcoming any obstacles encountered.
In this stage we should broach those subjects that cause persistent problems. Although these are more difficult, once well managed, they contribute to the couple’s fulfilment and happiness.
We can use phrases like: “Tell me about this. I would like to understand what that means to you,” “What do you think about this problem?”, “How do you feel about this?”, “What do you want?”, “What do you need?”, “What do these things mean to you?”, etc.
7. Creating a shared common meaning
We should share values, dreams, and life philosophies with our partners.
Here we can include discussions about family rituals. “Should we or should we not dine together?”, “What is the significance of the weekend?”, “What are the rituals regarding holidays? How were these in our family of origin and how do we wish for them to be now?”
A discussion about roles is also important. Having similar visions about parenting roles, for instance, or the values we deem important enough to be passed on to our children, helps one acquire meaning and significance in one’s marriage. Some questions related to exploring these roles are: “How do you feel in your role as a husband/wife?”, “What does this role mean in your life?”, “How did your father and mother see this role?”, “Are there similarities or differences? How would you like this role to be for you?”
Then, it’s important to talk about personal objectives. Part of what makes life significant is the goals we are trying to achieve. Sharing these goals with our partner and working together to achieve them can be a way to enrich our relationships. “What is your life’s objective?”, “What would you like to accomplish in the next five or ten years?”, “What role does spirituality play in your life?”, “How was this in your family of origin? How should this be in our own family?”
A challenge overcome, a relationship solidified
Each principle mentioned above has a role to play in fulfilling a marriage and enriching a relationship. We know that problems may occur. The goal is to know how to approach them, and how to make healthy choices so that our relationships grow with every challenge we overcome.
Why have a healthy and realistic view on marriage?
The thought that we could divorce our partners at any time could be a comforting one. We know problems may occur, but we will be ready to walk out the door. In this article, I aimed to explain another possibility to approach problems, so that we are aware, even before marriage, that this possibility exists and that it can give our family life meaning and significance.
Love is totally worth it
Loving and being loved in a secure environment is worth it. Supporting and being supported when needed, appreciating and being appreciated, knowing there is always someone beside you, to work together, develop, learn things from each other, fix, build, and grow, is a profound comfort. All this enables joys to be multiplied, and difficulties to be halved.
Mădălina Caraveţeanu holds a B.A in psychology from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the University of Bucharest, and a Masters degree in clinical psychology, psychological counselling and psychotherapy, from the Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca.