We fall in love, get married, have children and raise a family. Over the years, love deepens, the bond strengthens, but our feeling of marital satisfaction waxes and wanes.
During the "bad times," there is more arguing and blaming, less sharing and touching, fewer moments of joy and appreciation. But we weather the storms, and some 50 percent of us do stay married.
What most couples don't realize, say marriage experts, is that there are things they can do to ensure better times than worse, to make riding out the storms smoother and easier.
Marriage is like a beautiful garden, says Renee Colclough Hinson, Ph.D., executive director of The Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment. "It requires skill and constant attention. If tended to, it will thrive, but if neglected, it will wither and die."
It Takes Work — For All of Us
"You mean I have to work at it?" Yup. "There is no couple that doesn't have to work hard at improving their relationship," says Sallie Foley, MSW, author of Sex Matters for Women and an instructor at the University of Michigan. Believing that the good times will continue to roll on their own is setup for disappointment and disillusionment, she adds.
The fact is that all marriages have problems that cause conflict and strain the relationship. Among the most common problems:
- Money. There never seems to be enough, or if there is, one person is upset about how the other spends it.
- Sex. It's the reason 45 percent of couples seek marriage counseling. Usually, one partner desires sex more often and on different terms than the other.
- Work. Partners have different role expectations about who does what within and outside of the home.
- Children. Couples may disagree over how to raise and discipline children.
Positive Communicators Fare Best
These problems won't lead to marital meltdown if you can talk about them constructively with your partner.
John Gottman, University of Washington psychology professor and founder of The Gottman Institute, has videotaped more than 3,000 couples to try and isolate the conditions that make relationships thrive or fail. He's found that when discussing a problem, an unhappy couple starts out by criticizing a partner's behavior. Then comes an attack on the partner's personality or character, followed by expressions of contempt — a particularly corrosive factor. Naturally, the attacked partner goes on the defensive, prompting a counterattack. A fight ensues, and needless to say, the problem is neither directly addressed nor solved.
By contrast, happy couples use five times more positive behaviors in their arguments than negative ones, Gottman has found. For instance, they draw on humor to relieve tension and pepper the conversation with expressions of affection to maintain calm.