10 Secrets of a Successful Marriage - How to get more "for better" than "for worse"

By Julie Buen-Chown

What keeps couples together and marriages successful is to some degree a mystery, however, here are 10 straightforward strategies to take out some of the guess work.

You remember the man you married: Mr. Right made you laugh, looked glorious in a tight T-shirt and left you humming Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine!" as you bounced out the door each day. Has he been replaced by Mr. I-Don't-Want-to-Talk-About-It?

Ah, wedded bliss. It isn't (sadly) a thorn-free bed of roses, but a lifelong commitment requiring effort, sacrifice and - sometimes - teeth-gritting patience. Not to mention a whole lot of love.

You may not have the kind of marriage country singers croon about, but you can if you treat your partner like a best friend and your problems as challenges requiring gentle diplomacy, says John Gottman, world-renowned researcher and coauthor of 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. Based on those two principles and by studying thousands of couples at his Seattle-based love lab, Gottman has developed 10 love lessons that strengthen the ties that bind. 

He says that when small, positive behaviours, such as expressing appreciation or honoring each other's dreams, are frequently repeated, they can put a marriage on the high road to happiness.

Two of Canada's most noted psychologists agree. Along with Gottman, Gordon Neufeld, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of the best selling Hold on to Your Kids, and Sue Johnson, a leader in the field of couple therapy and a psychology professor at University of Ottawa, offer their advice. 

  1. Complain constructively
    Do happily married couples grumble about each other? You bet they do. But presentation is everything. If you seethe silently, build up steam, then blow like Mount Vesuvius, your beloved will feel like the target of a personal attack, explains Johnson. "When a spouse is angry and complaining, we feel threatened on a deep level by the one person on whom we depend," she says.

    Fix It: Rather than stockpiling grievances and resentment, deal with problems immediately using clear and specific language. Keep your cool and describe the issue as you see it, but avoid sweeping statements. "Before you say anything, visualize holding your partner's hand, then talk about the things that are difficult," suggests Neufeld. "If you lose that feeling of being connected because you're furious, bite your tongue."
  2. Share your concerns
    You've heard about the elephant in the living room: big issues that are impossible to ignore, like a massive mammal. Men avoid issues by dismissing them (think irritating in-laws); women fret. "Men think they're cooling things down, but it makes women feel minimized," says Johnson. The outcome: two emotionally separate lives that put your relationship at risk.

    Fix It: "Don't be secretive about how you feel," advises Neufeld. "If you swallow your feelings, you lose intimacy." Set aside time to discuss the problem and lay some ground rules. One talks; the other listens. He may ask questions to clarify, but not to disagree or problem-solve. Once you're done, he recaps your points. When he understands your position, reverse roles. "We advise couples to practise telling each other what they are feeling and what they need," says Gottman, "even if such expression brings conflicts to the surface."
  3. Be a little selfish
    A new baby. A bigger mortgage. Family illness. You dig deep, find inner strength and juggle stress, commitments and finances - all out of love. But long after the crisis passes, you're still (by now resentfully) giving 110 per cent. Sure enough, your sense of injustice builds a wall between you. "Women often give and give," says Neufeld. "If you give until you resent it, you'll feel imprisoned."

    Fix It: Just say no. And say it often enough that your yes carries weight. "So although it may sound crazy to people who value hard work and devotion to family, our advice is this: You need to be a little more selfish," says Gottman. Schedule "me" time for your interests and "us" time to reconnect. "When responsibilities mount, such 'indulgences' are usually the first to go," he observes. "But outlets like these...provide you with the energy you need to navigate hard times."
  4. Break the cycle
    Criticism is a lonely creature, but sometimes it shares a bed with defensiveness and contempt. Before long, you've got a problem of biblical proportions. "With so much criticism and contempt in the air, neither partner feels like talking about things that really matter to either of them," says Gottman.

    Fix It: State your problem neutrally, without criticizing, insulting or digging up old bones. Tell your partner what you need ("I want to feel respected") rather than what you don't ("Don't call me names!"). When he responds, don't be defensive but listen carefully and ask open-ended questions ("How can we achieve this?"). Finally, thank him for listening to you.
  5. Fulfil your dreams
    Jack shouts at Jill, "All I ever do is work, and when I come home, you're at me!" Jill has heard it before but can't make sense of it. Why? Like a foreign film, Jack is speaking another language. Here's what his subtitles might say: "I used to dream we'd take a year off to travel. I'm sad because now that we can afford it, we aren't doing it." Even the most contented couples find some dreams sidelined or ignored, but when it becomes permanent, says Gottman, frustration festers. "Until dreams and feelings are recognized and honoured, the conflict is going to keep resurfacing."

    Fix It: Take turns talking intimately about your dreams, hopes and aspirations, then think of ways to be flexible about investigating them. It may be your deepest desire to slap on a Tilley hat and take an Indiana Jones vacation. But rather than circumnavigating the globe on a raft, consider a compromise, such as short, exciting trips that accommodate your spouse. In short, find ways to foster the spirit of each other's dreams.
  6. Support each other
    First, there was a little black cloud. Then, the taciturn stranger moved in. Where did your happy spouse go? According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, he may have joined the eight per cent of adults who face major depression in their lifetimes. Or maybe it's temporary: setbacks at work, a death in the family or unrelenting stress has made him moody and harder to read than Sanskrit. Either way, if you're on the receiving end, his frustration and resentment can be frightening because it feels like an attack on you, says Johnson.

    Fix It: Listen compassionately, find support for both of you and leave counselling to the professionals. "A lot of people get into giving advice, but the research shows that's the absolute worst thing you can do," warns Johnson. "Your partner will see it as threatening." If your glum spouse becomes angry or critical of you, remember it's the gloom-and-doom talking and remind him of your needs.
  7. Communicate with clarity
    You don't ask your partner for much. Empty the dishwasher, maybe clean out that landfill of a garage, right? Right?! "No one wants to nag," comments Johnson. "But if your partner isn't responding and you can't get through any other way, you do it." And the more you do, the more he digs in his heels. (Memo to husbands: According to Gottman's research, a husband who considers his wife's advice has greater influence in his marriage because his wife feels respected and will respond to her husband's wishes, too.)

    Fix It: Get his focused attention, then let him know in neutral language what you need ("Could you clean out the garage?" rather than "Oh my gosh! What an unholy disaster!") and when you need it done ("By tomorrow"). Each of you should try to remain open to each other's ideas and to compromise. If he can't do as you ask immediately, for example, at least secure his good intentions for the future. "If he can tell you he's on side with you, it's not a confrontation anymore," says Neufeld.
  8. Calm your anger
    Annoyance, irritation or fury - call it what you will. Regardless of whether anger is directed at you or you've got your own issues to burn, it can be painful, nerve-racking and disruptive for all involved.

    Fix It: Calm down, take a step back and recast your indignant anger ("You're so selfish! You never think of me!") into personal frustration ("I'm hurt and upset that my needs aren't being met"). Anger is natural, says Neufeld, but it can be damaging if it eclipses love. Talking about frustration instead of anger "doesn't imply blame and resentment," he says, and so will be better received. "Express how something upset you, how it didn't work for you."
  9. Take time together
    Forget Happy Families. These days, it's more like Busy Kids and Exhausted Parents. "Once the kids arrive, it feels as if your entire life is booked," says Gottman. "Problems arise, however, when couples use their parenting obligations as an excuse for neglecting their relationship with each other."

    Fix It: Start with a date night, such as a walk through the park or a beer at the pub. Practise turning toward your partner when he makes a bid for connection. If you're feeling out of sorts after a bad day and he brings you a glass of wine, for example, don't stay silent (turning away) or point out that you didn't want it (turning against). Accept the gesture, smile graciously and say thanks.
  10. Appreciate the differences
    You wait for sales; he buys on impulse. You tidy-as-you-go; he prefers the science-experiment approach to housekeeping. Both are ongoing issues that, despite efforts to renovate each other, just won't go away.

    Fix It: Happy couples openly discuss their ongoing points of dispute, thereby making them more manageable, according to Gottman's studies. Make dialogue rather than problem-solving your goal, remembering that the issue - not your partner - is the problem. There are no right and wrong solutions. Above all, accept that the problem may never go away, but you can still be happy together.

Love Tip:

Keep a mental list of qualities you admire in your spouse, whether it's his goofy sense of humour, his integrity or his manly forearms. "Fondness and admiration are the perfect antidotes to contempt," says Gottman. If you're tempted to find fault during an argument, "Look for evidence that your partner is getting it right." Ask him to do the same for you.