Make Love Last

It’s hard to believe that after those lofty vows of marriage, a relationship could break up because of something as mundane as dishes left in the sink or the protocols of reading in bed. Yet even the most evolved relationships get snagged in the pettiest of disputes. And the current recession only makes things worse, warns Stephanie Coontz, marriage historian and author of Marriage, a History (Penguin Books, 2005). “During economic stress, we tend not to notice what’s going well and what our partner does that makes life easier. We only notice the irritations,” she says.

As the downbeat comments start to build up, you find yourselves going into negativity override, and the default mode of your interactions becomes the blame game. That’s when the fights start to escalate—within the situation-specific “you didn’t take out the trash” remark lurks the global “you never do your share” accusation. Harshness and contempt often incite regrettable words and actions. Each partner is then left alone to lick his or her wounds, no one dares revisit the turf voluntarily, and the feelings that had been ignited are left to smolder until the next blowout.

Monica and Ian Mathews of Madison, Wisconsin, who struggle frequently in their marriage and say they are on the verge of separating, are all too familiar with this scenario. “When we fight, we’re already stressed out, we are running out the door, and we haven’t been communicating for a while,” Monica says. “I’ll usually start with a not-so-skillful intro, and then Ian will get very quiet, which makes it worse.”
It’s a classic disaster pattern, the snowballing of defensiveness, criticism, and lack of communication, and it can suck the lifeblood out of a relationship. That’s the bad news. The good news is that unhappy couples can learn to emulate happy ones by adopting their simple strategies—praise, humor, and affection—even under duress.

John Gottman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington who is renowned for his work on the “masters and disasters” of marriage, has developed a practical—in fact, quantifiable—approach to couples therapy. It applies pattern recognition to measuring and predicting marital stability or the likelihood of divorce. “What he found,” says Coontz, “is that it’s not the negative things that make or break a relationship. It’s the ratio of five positive acts of appreciation, love, and respect to every one negative occurrence.”

Doesn’t sound too hard, does it? But when was the last time you gave your significant other five compliments in a single day? You can probably remember effortlessly the last time you let rip at least one criticism (constructive, of course). It may sound a bit facile to believe that the secret to familial harmony is piling on the praise, but statistics are hard to dispute (see “The Numbers Game” on page 75). So we talked to a few experts and some of our own “master” and wannabe master couples (no disasters here) to come up with a simple game plan to help your relationship stay strong even when you feel like you’re losing your foundation.

Express your appreciation
Think of positive interactions with your partner—laughing together, holding hands, committing intentional acts of kindness—as small deposits made to your joint emotional bank account. You want to have a substantial amount of positives in reserve to buffer the withdrawals made by criticism and conflict. This is the single most important thing you can do to nurture any relationship (try it with your kids too). Consistent kindness, especially in the face of conflict, creates a currency of gratitude and goodwill. And you might be surprised how much you need appreciation. Adam Philips, a London-based psychoanalyst, suggests our wish for praise might be even stronger than our wish to be loved or understood.

Unfortunately, it seems like we grudgingly resist praising those we love. “Most people feel that criticism works, and they do it for their partner’s good,” says Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD, cofounder of The Hendricks Institute, a conscious-living learning center in Ojai, California. “In fact, it’s the No. 1 relationship killer.” She’s a strong believer in the five-to-one ratio—sharing five positives for every negative—but finds that very few couples really know how to achieve it. “We need to learn how to customize appreciation and find out how our partner likes to receive it: Some like public displays, others like written notes, others respond to gifts and gestures.” Sometimes the most powerful expression of appreciation highlights the habitually overlooked—the things your partner does but doesn’t draw attention to.

Do damage control
Gottman’s research shows that positivity, especially during fights, is one of the strongest predictors of a relationship’s longevity. Even though being affectionate during an argument sounds nearly impossible, therein lies the secret to connubial bliss. Women tend to initiate the exchange, says Gottman, but they do so harshly, launching in with a rebuke that is a general criticism, such as, “You’re so lazy—you never help with the chores.” Rather than attacking your partner’s character, try starting with a situation-specific comment, like, “I get really frustrated when you pile your dishes in the sink.” If and when tensions escalate, that is the time to turn toward your partner, both literally and figuratively, rather than away. Use humor, affection, interest, and empathy to help you connect with what your partner is feeling. Hendricks recommends trying to say something you genuinely appreciate about your partner in that moment, even if the only thing you can come up with is that the person is still with you.

Turn on the attunement
Real appreciation requires a fundamental cognitive shift to see and praise what is, rather than rue what is not. To make this shift, you have to clearly see the emotional backdrop—made up of learned reactions, fears, and inner struggles—against which you and your partner act out your relationship. “When we’re able to observe our reactions, we’re better able to modulate them,” says Timothy Stokes, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Boulder, Colorado, and author of What Freud Didn’t Know (Rutgers University Press, 2010). “If we can’t see these reactions, the fight-or-flight response usually takes over.” That’s what Gottman refers to as “flooding”—the amped-up feeling when your cortisol lets loose, blood pumps, and face flushes. It’s not a particularly receptive state. The brain, to conserve energy, shuts down, limiting perception and new information. What kicks in instead, says Stokes, is some version of an old, almost primal memory of feeling fundamentally threatened.

For Stokes, the flood of these old emotional memories acts like blinders, getting in the way of our ability to be present with our partner. But once we come to terms with our own hot spots, we also become more aware of when our partner’s reactions seem over the top, hinting at a deeper hurt. “Our assumptions about the situation change, and we can more compassionately tune in to how the other has been hurt.” We learn to sense just how far to dig down and when to move on, navigating the tricky terrain of the heart with heightened awareness and compassion.

Cultivate curiosity
One common denominator of couples headed for divorce is a lack of curiosity about each other’s inner lives, says Gottman. So try to build a map of your partner’s world—likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, quirks and peeves. By learning to see your spouse in all his fullness, completely autonomous from you, you slowly familiarize yourself with an equally valid reality that is not your own. You find something in his story that you can understand, even if you strongly disagree with it.

Joseph Prunty, of Philadelphia, attributes his marital success to the curiosity he and his wife share about what makes each other tick. “It gives us an entry point to each other’s motivations—intellectual, emotional, and to some degree spiritual,” he says. “I need that for camaraderie’s sake: the shared experiences, the pursuit of mutual goals, the feeling of teamwork.”

Accept influence
To have a true partnership, both parties must be open to accepting influence from the other, explains Gottman, and women tend to do this more naturally than men. Yes, it’s the “C” word—compromise—and for such a mild word, the experience can be shockingly torturous, as if ceding ground equals personal invalidation. “Choosing what’s good for the relationship over one’s own thoughts and feelings, doing what works instead of what you want, is the way to openness, growth, and positivity,” says Robyn Walser, PhD, coauthor of The Mindful Couple (New Harbinger, 2009). For Prunty, that means learning to live with the dishes his spouse leaves in the sink, while for Ian Mathews, it means listening to Monica process more than he feels the situation warrants.

When all else fails, humor can work miracles. So can being the first to say, “I’m sorry,” even if you feel your partner had been in the wrong. But as for the special sauce that makes a marriage juicy, vital, and satisfying, it seems praise and appreciation work any day. Counting the ways that you love someone isn’t just for maudlin Victorian poets; numbers and romance, it turns out, make passionate bedfellows.

Elizabeth Marglin would like to thank her husband for always cleaning the kitty litter.

The Numbers Game
96% The chance that, once an argument begins harshly, it will stay that way or just get worse.
50% The frequency with which people in unhappy relationships miss their partner’s positive attempts at connection.
80% How often the woman brings up issues in the relationship as opposed to the man.
69% Amount of fights that bring up old, unresolved issues.
25 The number of separate studies that confirm a drop, often quite steep, in marital satisfaction after the transition to parenthood.
4 Number of years children of divorced parents have their life expectancy shortened.
40% How much more money married men make compared to single guys.
62% The number of people who rank sharing household chores third in importance for what makes a marriage successful—just below good sex and faithfulness.
78% The number of unhappy marriages repaired within five years.
Sources: University of Washington; Gottman Institute; Stephanie Coontz; Child Development; The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher; Pew Research Institute; Psychology Today