Ask any happily married couple you know, and they will tell you that the cliche adage “Marriage takes work” only touches the surface of what’s truly required in a lifelong commitment.
It’s more than simply hard work that makes a marriage successful; there are certain habits that transform a marriage when they become a natural part of the relationship. As author Stephen Covey explains in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, people who have the ability to change their life for the better live by habits that help them solve problems, adapt to challenging changes, and make the most of opportunities. The same can be said of highly effective married couples.
It’s true that no two marriages look exactly the same, but there are a few common threads among those highly effective, happy couples. In fact, with the help of marriage experts such as Dr. John Gottman, Howard Markman, and a few others, we can identify seven habits shared by those marriages that thrive and stand the test of time.
01. They consider and understand personality differences.
Lawrence Stoyanowski, Certified Method Trainer for the Gottman Institute and a Marriage and Family Therapist, finds that, “The majority of differences in a relationship are personality differences.” He says, “It's not that we married the wrong person. It may just be that we have different personality styles.” Stoyankowski explains that, if we don’t understand where our partner is coming from it can be easy to interpret every annoyance or frustration as an intentional act of war. But oftentimes we have no intention of driving out partner crazy, we are just doing what we do. “For example, to one person, it's really important to be on time. For the other person, five or ten minutes late is no big deal and doesn’t mean any disrespect,” Stoyankowski explains.
Highly effective couples take the time to get to know who their partner is and how they tick. They learn The Five Love Languages, they know one another’s Myer’s Briggs type, and maybe even one another’s Money Personalities too. They do this so they can have a conversation with one another, feel understood, and find common ground. By learning about our partner’s tendencies and natural personality traits, we can “understand how to complement each other's differences—not conflict with each other's differences,” shares Stoyankowski. He advises, “Remember your partner is not wrong, they are different!”
02. They express sincere interest in one another.
“Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely,” wrote Dale Carnegie in his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Just as we desire our friends to be interested and engaged in our lives, we should aim for the same within our marriages.
Dr. John Gottman, marriage researcher and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, found the happiest couples responded to their partner’s attempts at conversation and connection 86% of the time. On the other hand, couples in the lowest level of happiness only responded 33% of the time.
When we fully engaging in our spouse’s world and interests, we create a deeper connection of love and togetherness.“Responsiveness has been proven in the research to be a key characteristic of stable happy relationships,” shares Kristin Kuiper LMSW, Certified Gottman Couples Therapist. Kuiper suggests that one way we can be responsive to our partner is by regularly asking open-ended questions. Forming good open ended questions only takes a bit of practice. “Instead of ‘How was your day?’ you can ask, ‘What was the best part of your day?’ suggests Kuiper. “Or instead of ‘Do you want to go out this weekend?’ ask, ‘What would be relaxing for you this weekend?’ This is a simple change that can help build connection in your relationship over time.”
03. They repair negative exchanges.
It can be difficult to offer your partner love and attention during or after emotional tension, but Dr. Gottman says that successful repair attempts—that is, words or behavior that prevents negativity from escalating out of control—is one of the most vital aspects of a healthy marriage.
“Gottman’s research has shown that varying degrees of negative exchanges between partners are present in all relationships. The danger is when these exchanges occur repeatedly without any attempts to repair,” shares Adam Smithey, PhD, Certified Gottman Therapist and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
So how can we make repair attempts in our marriages? Smithey notes that when things go awry, “Highly effective couples take the time to make a repair by stopping action, acknowledging what went wrong, and attempting to take a different path,” explains Smithey. The attempts can be silly facial expressions or even serious verbal cues. Smithey also suggests, “This may be as simple as saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just said that. Can I take that back and try again?’” We may be surprised how often our partners are willing to have a do-over.
04. They develop shared meaning.
Strong couples begin their relationship with shared meaning, a term Dr. Gottman defines as shared values, history and life perspectives. Gottman finds that shared meaning reduces conflict and improves the speed and success of resolutions.
Highly effective couples work to continue to develop shared meaning over time, throughout life’s ups and downs. We can encourage shared meaning through praying or meditating together, retelling your love story, or discussing your life dreams and direction.
“One of the most important ways to create shared meaning is to do rituals—both formal and informal,” shares Stoyanowski. He mentions that rituals can be smaller special moments like “how we leave each other in the morning, how we connect with each other, our bedtime rituals, and even how we eat dinner.” Turning off the TV and putting away cell phones during a meal, for example, creates a more positive, connected experience.
05. They empathize.
Happy couples take the time to empathize with their partner when they disagree or have differing points of views. When a spouse is experiencing difficulty or discussing something important to them, it’s critical to try to take their side by attempting to understand them—even if we don’t completely agree. “Taking your partner’s side requires each individual to postpone their own point of view and empathically look at their partner’s world from his or her perspective,” shares Steven Hardebeck, LPC, Gottman level 2 trained therapist.
Hardebeck says one way to accomplish this is by slowing down responses. He suggests, “Instead of jumping right into a response when your spouse says something disagreeable, try asking questions that will deepen your understanding of what your partner is feeling or experiencing. Try questions like “How is this situation affecting you?”, “I think I am beginning to understand you, could you say more?”, “Does this remind you of something else from your past?” Taking your partner’s side doesn’t mean you have to agree or adhere to their perspective, but it does demand we get out of our own perceptions, walk around to the other side of the room and see it from their side.”
06. They communicate their needs.
Rather than keeping their spouses guessing or hoping they’ll magically discover their inner needs, effective couples communicate their needs in the relationship. Bob Funaro, Ed.D, LLP, Marriage Counselor, offers helpful advice on how to communicate our needs lovingly in a marriage, “Avoid giving lectures: be honest, direct, and clear in expressing one's needs—not long winded. And stick to one subject at a time. Confusion arises when several topics are on the table at the same time.”
Funaro also suggests that when a conversation is completed, to “clarify and summarize what was expressed to be sure both understood the need and the resolution of the need.” When we ensure that what we heard matches with what was intended, we improve the chances of the expressed need being met in the future.
07. They celebrate and appreciate the positive.
Married life, and life in general, can become a hurried series of milestones, events, and to-do lists. Pausing to recognize, celebrate, and appreciate the good in our partner and our marriage adds flavor and joy to each passing day.
Howard Markman, co-author of Fighting For Your Marriage and director of the Center of Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver has discovered, “We’ve found that the positives are more and more important. It turns out that the amount of fun couples have and the strength of their friendships are a strong predictor of their future.”
Markman tells Verily that happy couples protect and preserve their positive connections in a variety of ways. “They go on fun dates without talking about problems, they talk as friends and sit next to each other, whether it’s at a baseball game or on a roller coaster,” lists Markman. “They touch each other lovingly under the table cloth and they tell each other how lucky they are to be with each other. And, finally when they’re together for fun, sensual times, they put their phones away and focus on each other.” Markman’s research has found that couples who celebrate regularly have higher levels of intimacy, commitment, and satisfaction.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wells Photography