Want a Happy Marriage? Be Nice, Don't Nitpick
True Compatibility Doesn't Exist, so Shrug off Little Conflicts
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario
Thermostat settings. Dirty socks. Toothpaste caps. Our little habits make our spouses crazy. But no two people are ever truly compatible, so quit nitpicking each other, relationship experts advise. Save the battles for the big issues -- and you'll have a happy marriage.
Susan Boon, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, teaches classes in interpersonal relationships. A few years ago, she picked up the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work, by John Gottman, MD, psychologist, relationship researcher for 30 years, and founder of The Gottman Institute in Seattle. Ever since discovering the book, Boon has recommended it to her students.
Secrets of a Happy Marriage
Long-lasting, happy marriages have more than great communication, Boon says. "Dr. Gottman brings up something no one ever talks about -- that irreconcilable differences are normal, that you just have to come to terms with them, not try to resolve the unresolvable. On some level, that should have been obvious, but it hasn't been," she tells WebMD.
Most marriage therapists focus on "active listening," which involves paraphrasing, validating, affirming your spouse's feedback, says Boon. "That's all well and good and may help you get through some conflicts in a less destructive way. But, as Dr. Gottman puts it, 'you're asking people to do Olympic-style gymnastics when they can hardly crawl.' Many people will fail at those techniques. Research indicates that most people are dissatisfied with the outcome of marital therapy, that the problems come back."
In happy marriages, Boon points out, couples don't do any of that!
Instead, you must be nice to your partner, research shows. Make small gestures, but make them often. "The little things matter," says Boon. "What a happy marriage is based on is deep friendship, knowing each other well, having mutual respect, knowing when it makes sense to try to work out an issue, when it is not solvable. Many kinds of issues simply aren't solvable."
Learn how to identify issues that must be resolved, that can be "fruitfully discussed," she notes. "Learn to live with the rest. Just put up with it. All you do is waste your breath and get angry over these things that can't be changed. You're better off not trying to change them. Work around them. Commit to staying together, even though this is something you don't like."
A long-lasting, happy marriage is about knowing your partner, being supportive, and being nice. Research shows that, "for every one negative thing you do, there must be five positive things that balance it out," Boon tells WebMD. "Make sure to balance the negatives with positives. Your marriage has to be heavily in favor of the positives."
While it sounds easy -- and while it can be easy -- this commitment to being nice is no small matter, Boon says. "You have to do nice things often. But it's harder to be nice when the heat is on, when you're really angry, or when something has happened for the 15th time. Nevertheless, the balance must be heavily, heavily stacked in the positive, to have a happy marriage."
Also, couples must stay in touch with their special ways of repairing the relationship, Boon says. "It can be humor; it can be whatever helps diffuse the escalating heat. In happy marriages, couples naturally do this. They deflect the anger, and get back on an even keel."
A Happy Marriage Means Respecting Spouse
It's true, research has shown that couples in satisfying, happy marriages have more positive emotions in their interactions -- including discussions of problems, says Shae Graham Kosch, PhD, director of the behavioral medicine program in community health and family at the University of Florida at Gainesville.
Kosch has been married (to the same man) for 32 years. She has counseled unhappy couples just as long.
"Most marital conflicts don't ever get resolved," she tells WebMD. "There are always issues around in-laws, children. Solving the problems doesn't really matter. What's crucial is keeping things positive. You have to accept the other person's perspective, have an appropriate discussion without getting critical or blaming."
Other tips from Kosch: Men in good relationships don't react emotionally during conflicts. Men in bad relationships are more likely to withdraw from the discussion. They might actually leave the room, look at the ceiling, or tune out the conversation. Wives in negative relationships also get entrenched in their particular viewpoint and ultimately feel greater anger and contempt.