The Taconic Counseling Group

Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D.

Long Lasting And Satisfying Marriages: A Guide To Enhancing Your Relationship

       People live longer, visit the doctor less often and report that their lives are more satisfying if they are in a long lasting and satisfying relationship.  This article will discuss some of the ways you can enhance your relationship with your partner.

       We pick our partners on two levels.  On a conscious level our choice reflects what each person considers desirable or undesirable qualities in the other.  She is warm and caring.  He is also caring and not controlling.  On an unconscious level our choices are influenced by significant relationships that began much earlier, in infancy, and continued during our development.  Our decisions are influenced by our relationship with each of our parents and by our parent's relationship with each other.  A child's earliest attachment strongly influences how he/she views all future relationships.  The nurturing, love and comfort given or withheld by parenting figures affect how adults view his or her future partner. Questions such as: Will she be there when I need her?"  " Will he behave in a loving manner?"  and the anticipated answers are based on early  experiences.  A choice of spouse embraces both the goodness of the love received and the residual experiences of unfulfilled needs. While these may be some of the underlying reasons for the choice of a partner, we all do want to feel happy and gratified with the partner we choose.  So here are some important things to know about how relationships can be nurtured to endure.


       All relationships will have good moments and difficult moments. It is the
ratio of the positive to the negative interactions that counts.  There are two core principles to guide us in strengthening our significant relationships.  First, it is important to know that it is not the presence of fighting that leads to divorce but rather the absence of positive interactions.  People, even in good marriages, do have conflict.  However, it is the absence of positive interactions that leads to a growing distance and an erosion of positive connection resulting in disengagement.  Thus, knowing how to foster positive interactions in a relationship is important.

       Second, it is the important to keep the emotional environment of your relationship
safe. Whatever conflict does occur will likely have some anger associated with it.  It is crucial that this anger not lead to contempt and subsequent withdrawal and disengagement.  How couples argue and handle the inevitable disagreements is essential to maintaining the overall positive regard necessary to sustain marriages.  Thus, it is essential that your relationship maintains a safe environment when conflict occurs.  Whatever anger does happen, and it will, try not to say it with a sneer.


There are few gifts that a couple can give each other more precious than the joy that comes from feeling known and understood.  Your partner's knowledge of you makes you feel loved. If offered in positive ways, you contribute to your partner's sense of well-being.  Keep in mind the relevant information about your partner's life. One remembers the major events in the other's history.  Know your partner's tastes and preferences. She knows how he likes his coffee or tea.  He knows if she wants French fries or a salad.  They know each other's goals in life, each other's worries, and each other's hopes.  The more you know and understand about each other, the easier it is to keep connected as life swirls around you. 
If you do not know about something, ask.

Remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities.  Be sure to tell your partner about them.   It feels good to have our partner validate one's good qualities.  Not only does it feel good to you when you remember that you picked a good person, it also feels good to your partner to feel validated.  Warm feelings come easily when we feel recognized for our strengths.  If you maintain a sense of respect for your spouse, you are also less likely to act disgusted with him or her when you disagree. Fortifying your fundamentally positive view of your spouse and your marriage, in this way, is a powerful buffer when bad times hit.  Because you have this reserve of good feelings you can look past some of your partner's irritating habits and avoid cataclysmic thoughts about separation and divorce each time you have an argument.

In daily conversations couples either respond
with interest to each other's opening comment or turn away.  So, one spouse might say did you notice how dry the grass is and the other can respond by either acknowledging your partner or ignoring the question.  Stay aware of the importance of responding to your spouse's comments on everyday matters such as grocery lists, car repairs and neighbors.  Idle chatting can represent being connected.  Doing chores together , eating breakfast together, reading the newspaper together, exercising together, playing games, asking about your spouse's day are all examples of turning toward each other.  Life and relationships occur in the ordinary, not just on special nights or on vacations.

The most stable marriages are the ones in which partners do not resist power sharing.  For example, when a husband accepts his wife's influence, his open attitude heightens the positive in his relationship by strengthening his friendship with his wife.  This deceases the occurrence of power struggles because your spouse is open to learning.   Many people resist the impulse to say fine, or it's up to you because they fear that an easy going attitude will weaken their distinct individuality.  Being easy going when you can be, however, does not eliminate those times when you need to make your own strong opinion known.  In fact, it can make it more likely that your opinion will be heard, too.

Marital conflict falls into one of two categories.  Either the conflicts are solvable or they are perpetual.  The solvable conflicts can be settled by focusing on the particular problem and talking about your thoughts and feelings about that issue.  Your spouse can change if he/she feels basically accepted as a person.
Stay focused on the issue and not your spouse's personality.  If you feel criticized and not liked, it is difficult to change your position. Typical solvable problems can center on work, money, division of labor, and child rearing differences.  However, many marital conflicts fall into the category of perpetual problems, issues that keep coming up for reconsideration and do not seem to go away.  These problems can vary from couple to couple. The perpetual conflicts will be a part of a couples' life forever. Perpetual problems are based on one's deeply felt underlying belief system.  They usually arise from basic differences between the couple.  One can feel the deep seated tension when these sticky issues emerge.  These differences need to be identified and discussed. Topics such as loyalty, family responsibility, practicing one's religion, can be considered sacred to an individual and thus not necessarily amenable to change. Since Perpetual conflicts do not disappear, a couple needs to accept the differences in each other and work together to live with these difficulties. The danger in not communicating about conflicts is the emergence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. The work in marriage is learning to live with these issues and figuring out a strategy to accept these differences.

In working out solvable problems, it is essential to create an emotional environment in which it is safe to talk about important personal matters.  When your spouse raises something important learn to hold back your reaction to what he/she is saying until he/she has finished and then talk about your own views.  This takes work.  Keep in mind, your own desire to enhance your relationship.  Criticism, interruption, taking over the other is not the way to get your partner to change
.  The fewer the criticisms the better.  Below are some suggestions to help communicating during conflicts.

  1. Soften your startup.  Soften your approach.  Make it devoid of criticism and contempt.  If you go for the jugular, the result will be war or retreat rather than any kind of meaningful, productive discussion.


2.     Learn to make and receive repair attempts. When your partner makes an overture of conciliation, even if it is hard, recognize it and appreciate it.  You can still make your point, but your partner is trying to keep things safe for both of you.


3.     Take time outs.  If the argument is too out of hand and you are feeling over-whelmed, stop the discussion before exploding, imploding or withdrawing.  Don't storm out. Take a 20 minute break and do something self- soothing.  Then come back again to talk.


4.     Compromise.


5.     Be tolerant of each other's faults.


Create both informal and formal ways to be together.  It is more common for people to know they need a night out, a date, or a weekend together.  However, they may not think of the details of ordinary moments.  Make a list of the transitions of the day and decide as a couple how to enact them.  For example, separating for work or school, meeting at the end of the day, meal times, bedtime, dates and getaways, love making and vacations.  A regular evening tea, or glass of wine, or a game can become a precious shared moment if you both create it.

Marriage is not just about splitting chores raising kids and making love.  It can also have a spiritual dimension. This is not necessarily religious.  Rather, it has to do with the fact that human beings tend to create meaning in their lives.  Each individual has an inner life. 
Creating a shared inner life together, a marital culture rich with symbols and rituals, and a deep appreciation for the roles  and goals that link you is important.  Discussions of dreams and hopes, sharing a walk or a beautiful sunset, or simple thoughts about how life could be can develop a spiritual dimension that deepens and enriches your relationship with each other.  These can develop a spiritual dimension that deepens and enriches your relationship with each other.

      The creation of a long and successful marriage takes understanding and work on the part of the individuals, both on themselves and on their relationship.  The more you are aware about your own thoughts and feelings, and of your partner's needs, the more you will be able to make conscious choices about your relationship.

Maria-Alba Fisch Ph.D.
                     Judith Wallerstein Ph.D.
                     John Gottman Ph.D.