5 key skills to preserving a healthy relationship
By Seth Wharton
I’ve been married for seven and a half years. Not a record by any means, but not bad, either. Most marriages never get this far. I’d like to say I’m an uncharacteristically awesome husband, impervious to boredom, endlessly romantic and able to discuss feelings without the faintest wisp of frustration or embarrassment.
My wife might read this, though, so I’ll be honest: I owe my good marriage to a few skills I’ve learned over the years. They’re not all easy, but you can start to hone them while you’re dating and make the transition to marriage much easier.
Be willing to forfeit: the win-win strategy
Disagreements are inevitable — as unavoidable as Tuesdays or the common cold. They don’t have to be acrimonious, though. And I’ve learned that in marriage the choice is often to win or to be happy. Being harsh and critical in an argument is only going to hurt feelings and alienate your partner. That’s fine if you want to rule the roost, but if you want to love and be loved, you’ve got to care for your partner’s feelings, especially when you’re fighting.
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“When there’s a lot of goodwill, it’s amazing what you can say and still feel good about each other,” says Catherine Hastings, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lancaster, PA.
Hastings sees couples become polarized in their disagreements, with neither person willing to yield. The problem, she says, “is the idea that there has to be right and wrong in an argument. And there really doesn’t.”
Get to the point, nicely
I can be a little sensitive sometimes, and not in the sweet and caring way. Usually in the don’t-talk-to-me-about-my-shortcomings way. Lots of couples struggle to discuss the big issues that can rend a marriage in two. Who wants to talk about money management, family relationships and child rearing (to name just a few) while you’re falling in love? These don’t come up easily when you’re sipping coffee and eating molten chocolate cake.
“People are not direct enough,” says Jane Barton, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Knoxville, TN. “Indirect communication can be really damaging.”
She says that couples need to find ways to discuss the touchy subjects before they get married instead of hoping that marriage will fix any conflicts. It won’t. You may find yourself legally and emotionally bound to someone with a wicked online gambling habit or who thinks children respond best to pain.
Take money habits, for instance. “With the economy the way it is and things in the news, it would be an easy thing to bring up on a date,” she says. You can also learn a lot by watching your partner. “Is she shopping at Barneys and really shouldn’t be?”
The point is not to criticize your partner and attempt to rein in his or her habits. You want to know if his or her decisions are in line with your values. If you’re honest with yourself about your needs, you’ll know if conflicts are on the horizon.
“Don’t take on the task of teaching a person or being anyone’s personal therapist,” says Barton. “Identify what you feel and share it.”
Recognize that there is an “I” in marriage
My wife and I are a team, talking, sharing and negotiating most decisions together. We’re individuals, too, though, and we don’t lose sight of that. We encourage each other’s goals and ambitions because we don’t feel threatened by them.
“Healthy relationships have room for that — his interests, her interests,” says Hastings. After all, she points out, “if you’re not able to address your own needs, no one else is going to do it for you.”
Be a copycat
Finding that mix of individuality and teamwork isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s essential. We simultaneously let each other be who we are while being influenced by each other. I had to learn to argue kindly, for instance, giving up the notion of the win. My wife somehow already knew that when we met.
John Gottman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who has studied relationships for more than 30 years, written several leading books about marriage and is the executive director of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, WA. According to Gottman, one of the key components of a successful marriage is that the husband allows the wife to influence him. While women in general tend to be influenced by men without much emotional difficulty, men are often resistant. A man who allows a woman’s ideas and attitudes to impact his own is creating an equal exchange within the marriage.
And, as Hastings points out, you should learn to appreciate the difference. Each of you has strengths and weaknesses. Learning to let the strengths come through, no matter whose they are, makes for a better team.
Be positive — it’s not just a blood type
One of my wife’s greatest strengths is a generally positive outlook. Allowing her to shape the spin on a situation isn’t always easy, with my undeniable knowledge that the world is ending. But slowly, over the course of our marriage, I’ve become willing to see through her eyes.
“People need to learn early on,” says Barton, “that there are always going to be problems. There’s always going to be stress, somebody gets sick or somebody dies, and that’s part of life.” Successful couples, she says, dwell on the good times and not on the bad.