Marriage affords the opportunity for us to enjoy our lives together with a partner. It is a whole life, life long relationship. By whole life, I mean that partners are intimate with one another and are one another’s confidant. They entrust themselves to one another. They love and care for one another. They grow together as they navigate the path through life. And together they create purpose in their lives with friends, families, and the larger community.
Now we know there are often challenges along the way in supporting a satisfying marriage. It is a higher level of functioning than single life. From a practical point of view, marriage is like running a little business together. There are plans to form, decisions to make, finances to work out, property to maintain, work loads to be distributed. Partners will need to develop skills in sharing control, communicating, and problem-solving together. But from the personal point of view, partners want to share an emotional experience together. And in order to do that, they need to be attuned to one another. They need to experience empathy, be shown consideration, feel valued, share affection, and enjoy time together.
For couples to appreciate, admire, and revere one another, they must develop an interdependent relationship in which each partner is known, respected, and supported as an individual. Now usually it starts more easily. As in the early relationship between the parent and very young child, the boyfriend and girlfriend idealize one another, freely lavish affection, and literally coo with one another. The oxytocin is flowing! It is a very dependent relationship.
But just as the adolescent strives to separate from the parent and to individualize, so too do the man and woman become zealous in protecting their individual heritage once they’ve entered into a committed relationship. This is a counterdependent stage in development for both the child and parent as well as the husband and wife in which the power struggle can become very turbulent if not tumultuous.
But finally, as the young person and his or her parent find their way to enjoying a relationship with one another as two separate individual adults that includes mutual regard and affection, so too can the husband and wife learn to relate lovingly with one another in an interdependent relationship.
Partners are able to enjoy their marriage then when they appreciate one another as individuals, are attuned to one another, show consideration, communicate well, and share affection.
Of course, we are all imperfect. Sometimes we may be short with our partner. We may be presumptuous or insensitive. We may lack empathy or patience. We might struggle to communicate clearly or to problem-solve well. Sometimes partners become critical towards one another. And then there are various ways we may react. We may strive to invalidate our partner’s assertion. Or we may respond with counter-accusations. We may overreact emotionally, withdraw, or argue. Arguments may increase in the level of tension, volume, or frustration, and a plethora of other offenses, past and present, may be presented to prove a point or to express fury. Partners may become increasingly more extreme and rigid in reiterating their own views until finally they turn away from one another.
With his extensive research on marriage, John Gottman describes a range of strategies for managing marital distress. One very helpful approach is for the couple to observe together the experience of grievance, hurt, and conflict that is common to all marriage. By dialoguing from a perch above the fray, partners can create a shared experience in understanding and tending to one another’s needs and feelings without assigning blame. In this way, couples can protect their love for one another while working together to solve problems.
Now this can be challenging, but there are other strategies that can be helpful.
On the front side of this effort to dialogue constructively, a slow startup in expressing concerns can be very effective in minimizing defensive reactions which escalate quickly into conflict. When one partner approaches the other suddenly and harshly, distress is almost certain to ensue.
On the backside of dialogues that have gone wrong, research shows that partners do extend efforts to repair their rifts. Efforts to restore the relationship include gestures of kindness shown by one partner towards the other. But there are differences among couples in relation to when these repair attempts are received. Partners are more likely to receive one another’s repair attempts when there is a store of good will and benevolence in their relationship.
Additionally, in happy marriages, partners are able to cope successfully with problems that are transient or situational without maligning one another’s character. With mutual respect and affection, they engage in active listening, effective collaboration, and successful problem-solving. And in interacting with one another, they are careful to share “soft” rather than their “hard” emotions.
Hard emotions such as anger, disgust, irritation, or resentment create distance, and the emotions that bring couples together go unexpressed.
Soft emotions such as hurt, fear, sadness, or loneliness reflect one’s vulnerability and the desire to feel emotionally close and connected to one’s partner.
Nevertheless, one of the greatest difficulties in any marriage is the challenge in coping with the “unsolvable” problems. Arguing repeatedly over unrelenting differences can understandably cause great distress. But an approach in which change is balanced with acceptance can be very helpful. Sometimes, our struggle to eliminate discontent does more to keep it center stage when less resistance would actually do more to minimize its impact.
There are differences in a marriage in relation to which it can be more helpful to focus on managing the surrounding emotions rather than relentlessly pursuing a solution. And some areas of disagreement may not even need to be resolved.
Happy couples are as able to cope well together with the unsolvable problems as they are effective in addressing the solvable ones . They are tolerant and accepting of one another. They seek to understand and care for one another rather than working forever to change one another.
In summary, several strategies work effectively to help cultivate, nurture, and protect a happy marriage:
Work with one another to solve problems from a perch above the fray
Avoid harsh startups.
Avoid criticism that implies there is something wrong with your partner or that puts yourself on a higher plane.
Receive repair attempts from one another.
Create greater intimacy by using soft rather than hard emotions.
Distinguish between solvable and unsolvable problems. Carefully manage your emotions surrounding unsolvable problems. Focus more on understanding and appreciating one another than on changing one another.
And remember that marriage is a union blessed by God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to inhabit your love for one another. God encourages us to love, even to “bear with one another.” (Col. 3:13)