‘The Marriage of Figaro’ courtesy of TheIntelligencer
Despairingly, he looked at her, shook his head, and asked, “Whatever happened to us? We don’t laugh any more; we used to always be laughing!”
With contemptuous expression and voice, she retorted, “Yes, but not at the same time.”
This one line from a classic moment of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers illuminated Basil and Sybil Fawlty’s entire relationship.
Is a happy, long-lasting marriage really still possible? Well, I suppose we’ll find out in fifty years. Of course, if you’re being abused and bullied, your spouse has defaulted on ‘the deal’ (remember ‘to love and to cherish’?); no one should stay in an abusive marriage. But our ‘throw away society’ sometimes causes perfectly good relationships to be too quickly discarded because they don’t seem ideal.
How ironic that the recent obsession with ‘personal fulfilment’ – the importance of oneself at the expense of others – has resulted in more people feeling unfulfilled, sad, and lonely. Marriages crash and burn, spouses are upgraded to newer, ‘better’ ones. Have commitment, duty, and responsibility been abandoned at the expense of happiness?
Happy marriages for greater health
To some, marriage may seem old-fashioned, but research repeatedly shows that people who stay married to one partner are the happiest (1) and that married people are statistically happier and longer-lived (2) than their unmarried counterparts.
Fortunately, we now know why some marriages work and some don’t, what happy marriages should avoid, and what actions need to be encouraged for healthier and happier marriages.
Certainly no marriage is perfect, but many are happy. There are difficulties in happy marriages, but there is also an enduring sense of ‘us’, not just ‘you and me’. If both of you heed these strategies, who knows – maybe in fifty years you’ll be telling me about all the health, psychological benefits, and happiness you enjoyed.
Secret 1) Keep your relationship expectations realistic
As wonderful as it is to be romantic and see the best in your partner, you need to be able to except some imperfections over the (hopefully many) years with your spouse. In the initial throes of passion, the object of our romantic focus may seem perfection personified, but then we discover their ‘feet of clay’. For the marriage to last after this point, we need to see beyond personal failings and foibles – after all, no one is perfect. Now and again, all marriages need work; expecting it all to be perfect and effortless creates disappointment (as unrealistic expectations always do).
Idealize your partner, by all means – whilst remembering they are human.
Secret 2) Send these relationship-ruining riders on their way
Some happily married couples argue passionately. Other relationships experience fewer arguments, but suffer severe damage when they do happen. What’s different?
It’s how – not whether – you argue that determines your marriage’s likelihood for long-term survival. After spending almost two decades studying couples’ interactions, American psychologist John Gottman can now tell with up to 95% accuracy which couples are heading towards relationship breakdown and which are likely to stay together, simply by listening to the first five minutes of a contentious discussion.
Gottman highlights four relationship-rotting factors that he rather dramatically calls the ‘Four Riders of the Apocalypse’. They are:
1. Contempt: Displayed by face pulling, cursing at and insulting your partner, and basically acting as if you are revolted. Gottman and his researchers in Seattle (3) found that the relationship’s days were very likely to be numbered if contempt was a regular feature of the initial phase of a disagreement. Women who showed contempt whilst their husband talked were six times more likely to be divorced two years later.
2. Defensiveness: “Why are you looking at me like that? Don’t pick on me! What’s your problem?!”
“…I only offered you a cup of tea!”
Being overly defensive is another major predictor of future relationship breakdown. If one partner begins yelling as soon as the other broaches a subject and behaves as though they’re being threatened or attacked, and this is a continuing and repeated feature of the couple’s interactions, then the relationship is in crisis. Being defensive prevents communication and severs intimacy.
3. Don’t criticize, do compliment: Critical partners risk irreparable damage to their relationship. This doesn’t mean you should never complain if your spouse upsets you, but a simple complaint is much less damaging that criticism.
Criticism attacks the whole person, their core identity (even if that wasn’t your intent); a complaint is instead directed at one-off behaviours. For example: “You are such a lazy £”*tard!” implies they are always like that and it’s a fundamental part of their identity. Whereas “I thought you were being a bit lazy today! That’s not like you!” is time-limited and more specific.
Some people believe they are trying to ‘improve’ their spouse by constantly pointing out their faults. Even if the intention is good, the consequences are not. Public criticism is humiliating (for both partners), but saying nice things when in company is a wonderful thing to do.
People in happy marriages feel appreciated, loved, and respected. Spend more time reminding your spouse of their talents, strengths, and what you love and like about them. No one likes to feel they are under constant attack.
4. Withdrawal or ‘stonewalling’: Emotionally withdrawing or stonewalling, ‘closing your ears’ or ‘shutting off’ when your partner complains is another huge breakdown predictor. Men are more likely to stonewall, whilst their wives were generally more critical. Male biology is less able to cope with strong emotion, so men may instinctively use stonewalling in an attempt to avoid entering arguments or becoming highly aroused.
The partner may ‘switch off’ to withdraw during conversations or ultimately ‘escape’ by spending more and more time away from the relationship. The danger lies in the stonewalling pattern becoming permanent and that partner using this strategy to isolate themselves from potentially positive parts of the relationship.
Everyone needs space, but never responding to emotional issues leaves the other partner out in the cold.
Surprisingly, even if only one of these ‘riders’ is a regular participant in disputes, the relationship’s outlook is poor. Does your marriage contain any of these ‘riders’?
And how else can you make your marriage happier?
Secret 3) Know what not to talk about and when to stop talking
Younger couples often want to ‘dig deep’ to unearth all their ‘issues’, to be entirely open with one another, and to ‘talk everything through’.
However, studies of elderly couples happily married for decades show that they often don’t listen very closely to what the other says when conveying negative emotion. And they tend to ignore their own feelings about the relationship unless they decide that something absolutely must be done. This threshold is set much higher than in younger couples.
So the typical advice columnists’ plea to ‘air issues’ and get ‘everything out in the open’ doesn’t actually contribute to healthy long-term relationships. Agreeing to disagree and knowing what subjects to avoid is a key relationship skill.
Another key feature of arguments within long-surviving relationships is the habit of changing the subject once the discussion has ‘run its course’. The ‘quick shift’ decreases the experienced amount of negative emotion and reduces the chance for later rumination. It also conveys, “We can argue and still get on with each other.” Thus, the argument is contained, stopping it from contaminating the entire relationship.
Disagreements need to be ‘one-off specials’, not long-running serials. And don’t forget that fun is also vital…
Secret 4) Maintain a 5:1 good to bad ratio
According to Dr Gottman, stable marriages experience five good interactions for every not-so-good one. A ‘good’ interaction might be a loving hug, spending a fun afternoon together, or a pleasant chat about a movie; anything positive. ‘Bad’ interactions include rows, disagreements, or disappointment.
So make efforts to honor the 5:1 rule. Following the next tip will help this work even more.
Secret 5) Learn to read (love) maps
Remember the old Mr. and Mrs. TV show? (I think it may have been updated.) The basic idea was this: One partner went behind a soundproof screen whilst the host asked the other partner questions about their partner’s life and preferences. For example: “Where in the world would your wife most like to travel?” or “What drink would your husband most likely order in a restaurant?” The idea was that the more the answers correlated, the stronger the relationship. And research seems to support this.
Having a good ‘love map’ means knowing your partner’s tastes, aspirations, which of their co-workers they like or dislike, and so on. Stronger bonds are created by knowing the details of your partner’s inner and outer life (whilst allowing for some privacy). One woman I worked with didn’t know the name of her (underappreciated) husband’s company and one husband couldn’t tell me the name of their family dog! (Much to his wife’s consternation: “He shows no interest!”)
For better relationship navigation, strengthen and update your love maps.
Fostering a happy marriage is a wonderful way to ensure long-lasting contentment for you both. Ask your partner to read this, as well, so both of you can follow these tips.
Then the two of you can enjoy learning what not to do to maintain a happy marriage by watching Fawlty Towers DVDs.
Mark Tyrrell is a Guest Blogger for PickTheBrain, therapist, trainer and author. He has created many articles and audios on self help and personal development, including many on relationship problems and marriage.
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(1) In a paper called, “I just want to get married – I don’t care to who! Marriage, Life Satisfaction and Educational Differences in Australian Couples”, doctoral candidate Shane Worner of Australian National University reported that married people are happier than unmarried people. Worner surveyed 5,000 Australians, asking them to rank their level of happiness on a scale from one to ten, then inquired as to their marital status. In general, Worner found that married men are 135% more likely to report a high happiness score than single men. In contrast, married women are only 52% happier than their unmarried counterparts. Another UK-based study found that both married men and women were happier than non-married, but women more so than men.
(2) Professor Robert Kaplan, who led the study, said: “A variety of studies have shown that unmarried adults have a higher probability of early death than those that are married. Accumulated evidence suggests that social isolation increases the risk of premature death.” The findings are based on national census and death certificates of nearly 67,000 adults in the USA between 1989 and 1997.
(3) Dr Gottman has studied couples for over two decades at his ‘love lab’ in Seattle.