“We feel stuck.”
“We’ve grown apart. We don’t have fun with each other anymore.”
“We have the same fights over and over.”
“We can’t communicate well.”
“We love each other, but we don’t know how to make this marriage work.”
These are some of the concerns we hear from couples who come to our offices for counseling. They feel discouraged and defeated and want something better in their relationships.
Relationships are hard. Yet as Christians we know that it is worth the effort to establish and maintain healthy relationships because we serve a relational God—a God who created us to have a personal, intimate relationship with himself and others.
God’s intention to have a special relationship with us is evident in the biblical account of creation. God spoke most of the world into existence. He commanded, “Let there be,” and most of his creation came into being. However, when he created man, God used intimate means. He “formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Derek Kinder, in Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, describes the act of breathing into man’s nostrils as “warmly personal, with the face-to-face intimacy of a kiss.”
God also created us to be in close relationships with others. After creating Adam, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Again, God used an intimate method to create this “helper.” He fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam responded, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23).
Although we were created to have intimate relationships with God and others, when sin entered the world our relationships were also affected. In his poem “Marriage,” Wendell Berry puts it this way:
I turn against you,
I break from you, I turn to you.
We hurt, and are hurt,
and have each other for healing.
It is healing. It is never whole.
Even though our marital relationships are “never whole,” there are some things we can do to improve them.
John and Julie Gottman (see sidebar) draw on 40 years of research with over 3,000 couples to provide strategies for improving relationships. Researchers observed couples and identified some as “masters” in their relationships. The “masters” were those who enjoyed long-lasting marriages and where each spouse reported marital satisfaction. From these couples, researchers identified behaviors that promote healthy relationships.
The purpose of this article is to share some of the information couples in therapy have found to be especially helpful. If you regularly implement one or two of these ideas, you will be taking steps toward becoming a relationship “master.”
The Gottmans’ research identified that those who were masters in their marital relationships flourished in three main areas: friendship, managing conflict, and creating shared meaning.
The foundation of a strong marriage is friendship. Research indicates that having a solid friendship is positively correlated with long-term marital happiness. Couples who practice regular acts of friendship create positivity in their relationships so that when the inevitable marital conflicts and other stressors occur, they are able to maintain a positive perspective that sustains the relationship. Despite the busyness of daily life, relationship “masters” intentionally nurture their friendship. So what are some things that you can do to build your friendship?
First, take the time to know each other. The Gottmans refer to this work as “enhancing love maps.” Ask questions, listen to the answers, and remember what you’ve learned. What does he like and dislike? What is she worrying about and looking forward to in the coming week? What makes him laugh and cry? How does she feel about a recent accomplishment or disappointment? Note how God knows us as a model of how important it is to know each other: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways” (Ps. 139:1-3). Become an expert on your partner.
Second, nurture fondness and admiration. Look for the positive qualities and actions of your spouse and then compliment or thank your spouse. Share a character trait you admire in your partner and an incident to illustrate it. For example, “You have a great sense of humor. Yesterday, when I came home from work crabby, you made me laugh and helped me regain perspective.” Take a moment to remember what it felt like to receive a compliment or words of appreciation from your spouse. Make it a practice to do more of that for each other.
Finally, turn toward each other instead of away. When partners’ requests for attention and connection are positively responded to, the friendship grows. So when you’re in the middle of cooking and your spouse asks for a hug, stop for a moment to give a hug. Or respond when your spouse asks you a question or asks you to come and look at a bird, something the kids are doing, or a magazine article.
Conflict in a relationship is natural and functional. It helps us to know that something is wrong and provides an opportunity to make changes that allow us to better love and understand each other. Couples who are relationship “masters” also experience conflict; however, they manage it better—at least most of the time. For these reasons, the Gottmans talk about “managing” conflict rather than “resolving” it.
There are two kinds of marital conflict: solvable problems and perpetual problems. Solvable problems are those where a couple finds a compromise that works for them. It’s wonderful when this happens!
However, most problems in a marriage are perpetual problems. When the Gottmans observed couples over time, they found that 69 percent of the problems couples argued about continued to be present year after year. This was true even for the “masters.” Perpetual problems occur because of fundamental differences in personalities, interests, lifestyles, and needs. In his 2016 New York Times article “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” Alain de Botton says that every human we may choose to marry “will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden, and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them.” He concludes that “the person who is best suited to us is . . . the person who is good at disagreement.”
Many couples have benefited from learning that perpetual problems are not an indicator of a bad marriage or poor problem-solving skills; they are simply the predictable result of two people—inevitably different in some ways—living together. The goal of addressing perpetual problems is dialogue, acceptance of each other’s differences, and creating understanding such that there’s a lighter mood around the problem: “Oh, here we are again, with this familiar problem.”
Sometimes when couples attempt to manage conflict, they inadvertently cause further harm to the relationship. The Gottmans identified specific skills for managing conflict, including these:
First, avoid criticism. Attacking your partner’s character and/or blaming them for the conflict reliably escalates the situation and makes it less likely that your partner will respond favorably. There is nothing wrong with voicing a complaint; just make sure you say it in a way that your partner can hear. To that end, use what the Gottmans refer to as a “softened start-up.” Tell your partner (1) how you’re feeling, (2) about a specific behavior, and (3) ask for what you need: “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the mess in the kitchen. Can we figure out a plan to clean it up?” Research has shown that how the conversation starts is a strong predictor of how it will end. If you bring up an issue in a harsh way, 96 percent of the time the discussion will end that way. And if you bring it up in a gentle way, 96 percent of the time, the discussion will end similarly.
Second, avoid defensiveness. When hearing a complaint, it’s easy to take the innocent victim stance (“What are you talking about?”) or to counter-attack (“Well, you . . .”). Instead, take responsibility, if even for a small part of the problem. Be honest about what you are accepting as your responsibility: “I agree; you’re always right,” isn’t likely to be a helpful response. “I know that my need for neatness can feel rigid sometimes,” is more likely to encourage dialogue that may lead to compromise.
Third, learn to make and receive repair attempts. No one does conflict perfectly. You will make mistakes; your spouse will make mistakes. When you recognize, for example, that you’re being critical or defensive, make a repair attempt: “My reactions were too extreme. I’m sorry.” Or “Let me say that in a different way.” Or “Can we take a break so that I can calm down and think?” And when your spouse makes a repair attempt, make every effort to accept it. Ephesians 4:2 reminds us, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (NLT).
Create Shared Meaning
There are many ways to create shared meaning in your marriage; we will identify two. First, take the time to discover your individual and shared goals and then honor them. Spend some time pondering, “When we are 80 years old, what do we want our family and friends to say we stood for in this life—both as individuals and as a couple? What are our individual and shared values? What are our individual and shared dreams?” Considering these questions and sharing them with each other in a supportive, non-judgmental environment can forge a strong connection.
To create and honor each other’s personal goals, it is helpful to follow the imperative in Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Encourage your partner to have life dreams rather than solely focusing on attaining your own. Ask each other, “What are your personal dreams and goals?” “What are your interests, gifts, and passions?” Allow your partner to pursue interests that are not your own and support their gifts; allow them to be who they are. Dream, plan, and work together as a team; nourish a sense of “we-ness” where each is open to collaboration.
Second, couples benefit from intentionally creating rituals of connection. These rituals require making time and space for each other in the midst of busy schedules. They are customs or traditions that each can count on and look forward to. Creating daily, weekly, and yearly rituals prioritizes the relationship and ensures that it is nurtured.
Daily rituals may include giving each other a kiss before leaving the house, sitting down to family dinners, giving each other a hug or back rub at the end of the day, or saying “I love you” before falling asleep. A weekly ritual recommended by the Gottmans is a date night that includes time to talk and check in emotionally with each other. Annual rituals include planning a vacation together and creating traditions for celebrating anniversaries or holidays. Establishing these or other rituals of connection helps maintain the health of your relationship.
Pray for Each Other
Finally, we encourage you to pray for your spouse. A 2017 Washington Post article by Thomas Burnett reported on research conducted for over two decades by Frank Fincham and his collaborators. Summarizing the research, Burnett stated, “Praying daily for one’s partner has been linked to numerous positive outcomes: increased relationship satisfaction, greater trust, cooperation, forgiveness and marital commitment.” If you are wondering how to pray for your partner, consider using the prayer given to the research subjects:
Dear Lord, thank you for all the things that are going well in my life and in my relationship. Please continue to protect and guide my partner, providing strength and direction every day. I know you are the source of all good things. Please bring those good things to my partner and make me a blessing in my partner’s life. Amen.
Taking the First Steps
Regularly implement some of the ideas presented in this article to take steps toward becoming a relationship “master.” We encourage you to
- Identify two things that you will do to make your marriage healthier.
- Identify your personal reasons for wanting to have a better relationship with your spouse. There are many good reasons to want a healthier marriage. What are some of those reasons for you?
- Remember that marital relationships, among others, are a place where we can practice what Jesus asks of us—“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). One way to show love is to pray daily for each other.
Although our marriages are “never whole,” there is healing. We can work toward becoming relationship masters through intentional effort, trusting that God will honor and bless our efforts.
Gottman, J.M. & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Crown.
Questions for Discussion
- What are some popular ideas of an ideal marriage? Are these ideas realistic?
- Which of the various ideas listed, either for practicing friendship, managing conflict, or creating shared meaning, resonated the most for you? Why?
- How helpful are the suggested conflict management skills? Can they be applied to contexts outside of marriage?
- What were some of the ways and times you have prayed for loved ones in your life?
- What one or two things you will take away from this article to implement in your relationships?
About the Authors
Cheryl Cooper is a counselor and marriage and family therapist who works with individuals, couples, and families. She worships at Lakeside Community CRC in Alto, Mich.
Cynthia Kok is a licensed psychologist providing psychotherapy to couples and adults. She worships at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.