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How to Have a Good Marriage (If that's what you want)

The noted marriage therapist, Dr. John Gottman, has described what he calls "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" in marriage communications that he says significantly increase the probability of divorce. These are: 1. Criticism of the partner's character rather than the specific behaviors that bother you; 2. Expressions of contempt and disrespect towards the partner; 3. Defensiveness in an argument with the partner; and 4. Stonewalling or refusing to respond at all. While all couples use these tactics occasionally, Dr. Gottman says, repeated use predicts divorce with a high probability.

As an alternative to telling couples what not to do, I'd like to describe "The Four Horsemen" of a good marriage; attitudes and behaviors that can significantly enhance your marriage satisfaction. If you do these things you can improve your marriage; if you don't like the results you can always return to using Dr. Gottman's "Four Horsemen."

  1. Compassion. Having compassion for other people, including your spouse, has been shown to lead to significant mental, even physical, benefits. Compassion has been defined as an attitude of shared suffering with other people coupled with a desire to reduce that suffering. It is the basis of the Christian Golden Rule and a central teaching in Buddhism. Those who practice compassion tend to have less stress and to be happier. Those who practice meditation often meditate upon compassion. And sometimes we are the most difficult person for whom to have compassion.

  2. Forgiveness. People who readily forgive others (even their spouse!) tend to have better interpersonal relations and to be happier. Such an attitude also encourages others to forgive them. Apologize when you've done something wrong; it is one of the best predictors of forgiveness being granted to you. Research has even shown that forgiveness benefits the forgiver more than the offender. Indeed the "Lord's Prayer" might be reworded to say, "Forgive us our trespasses to the extent that we forgive those who trespass against us."

  3. Understanding. None of us can ever truly understand another person; the motives and developmental history that shaped their behaviors towards us and others. But we can try. To the extent you can begin to understand your spouse, you may be able to see how what (s)he did may say more about him/her than about you. All of us tend to personalize; thinking a spouse's anger towards us is because of us, not them. Sometimes we are just angry or upset in general and take it out on those closest to us because it's safer. You can even link Nos. 2 and 3 because it has been said, "To understand all is to forgive all." So the closer we can come to understanding the closer we can come to forgiving. An aid to understanding is non-judgmental, non-defensive listening. A good marriage therapist can help in this.

  4. Acceptance. There are just some things about our spouse (and other situations too) that we cannot change and therefore must accept. Much as we might like to have it otherwise, they are different people than we are and have different ideas and ways of operating in the world. Often the differences that attracted them to us in the first place are the very things that bother us the most later. The Alcoholics Anonymous slogan says, "Change the things we can, accept the things we cannot change." A wise marriage therapist said, "In marriage you can either be right or you can be happy — but not both." Many things simply are not worth arguing about. Arguing will solve nothing and polarize everything. Acceptance too has been linked to better mental health.

So try these suggestions on an intimate partner and watch the results. You can also investigate each topic in more depth to enrich your life.

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D., ABPP

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