A functioning marriage protects its spouses from life’s turbulences and maladies. But marriage, too, needs protection.
A week doesn’t go by without the publication of a new study on how marriage boosts our health. Guaranteeing a stable and lasting source of affection, solidarity and collaboration, a functional marital bond strengthens the immune system, protects from diabetes, stress and even increases the chances of surviving a heart attack.
Notwithstanding, even the best marriages tightrope on delicate equilibriums, and they in turn need protecting. Why do some marriages work, while others are so blatantly destined to failure? It depends on the strategies the couple comes up with. And some, without even knowing it, possess the secret to marital bliss.
Nobody knows this better than John Gottman, professor of Psychology at Washington University and founder of Seattle’s Love Lab in the 80’s. Gottman analysed couple psychology and physiology for 40 years, identifying some “best practices” which are followed in functioning marriages: here are his seven guidelines.
- Enhance your love maps.
What’s our partner’s life philosophy? What are his/her dreams and ambitions? The first step to loving a person is knowing them. Happy couples have extremely detailed love maps, complete with all the significant notions of their significant other.
- Nurture your fondness and admiration.
This is the paramount principle. If we don’t believe our partner deserves respect and consideration, how can we build a lasting relationship with him/her?
- Turn toward each other instead of away.
In marital life, small gestures of affection are what matters, not the theatrical excesses you see on TV. A pleasant chat over breakfast, a phone call to ask how they’re doing, a shopping trip together. The small, everyday things that allow us to connect on an emotional level and create a “bank account of feelings” for the couple.
- Let your partner influence you.
A happy couple works as a team, in which each player always considers the other’s point of view and opinions. One must search for a common ground, and take decisions together. Letting our partner influence us doesn’t mean letting them take the wheel, but respecting both components of the team.
- Solve your solvable problems.
According to Gottman, there are two types of marital problems: the ones you can solve, and the ones you can’t. It’s important for the couple to learn to distinguish the two. Solvable problems are related to a situation, without underlying conflict. To solve them, Gottman proposes the following 5-step process. 1) Start in a gentle manner, without criticism nor disdain. 2) Suggest and accept “attempts at repair”, i.e. any possible conciliatory gesture to reduce the tension. 3) If the tension is too high, suggest a 20-minute break. Go for a walk, listen to music, anything to help you relax. 4) Find a compromise. Gottman suggests each partner draw two circles: a small one inside a bigger one. In the former, each should write a list of their non-negotiable points. In the latter, those he/she is prepared to compromise on, and find a common ground. 5) To find a compromise, one must be tolerant and accept one’s partner’s defects.
- Overcome gridlock.
Some marital problems will never be solved, and one must just learn to live with them. To do this, one must progress past the stand-off, to a dialogue. A stand-off occurs when each partner thinks the other doesn’t recognise or respect a desire of theirs. The first thing to do to face the problem is understanding which is the conflict-causing desire. When it has been identified, talk about it. This will certainly not solve the conflict (if it is truly unsolvable), but at least it will make it less painful. According to Gottman, a marriage isn’t broken by irreconcilable differences, but by how the couple faces them.
- Create shared meaning.
Marriage should not be whittled down to procreating and sharing expenses, it must have a spiritual dimension. This translates to having couple habits (Saturday morning jogging at the park), rituals (every time we go to Paris, we must dine at that restaurant!), myths, that is the stories, true or imaginary, a couple tells itself and others. Happy couples can be spotted a mile away: they have this aura of family culture that includes both of their dreams.
Life is hard and challenging, and marriage is the best defence against its slings and arrows. But, gosh, is marriage hard and challenging, too!