Wedding Advice

What really makes a marriage work?

Research indicates you can get mad as hell or avoid conflict altogether. But the positivity must outweigh the negativity by five to one.

If you are worried about the future of your marriage or relationship, you have plenty of company. There’s no denying that this is a frightening time for couples. More than half of all first marriages end in divorce; 60 per cent of second marriages fail. What makes the numbers even more disturbing is that no one seems to understand why our marriages have become so fragile.

In pursuit of the truth about what tears a marriage apart or binds it together, I have found that much of the conventional wisdom–even among marital therapists–is either misguided or dead wrong. For example, some marital patterns that even professionals often take as a sign of a problem–such as having intense fights or avoiding conflict altogether–I have found can signify highly successful adjustments that will keep a couple together. Fighting, when it airs grievances and complaints, can be one of the healthiest things a couple can do for their relationship.

If there’s one lesson, I’ve learned in my years of research into marital relationships–having interviewed and studied more than 200 couples over 20 years–it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim “we never fight” is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.

Although other dimensions are telling about a union, the intensity of the argument seems to bring out a marriage’s true colours. To classify a marriage, in my lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, I look at the frequency of flights, the facial expressions and physiological responses (such as pulse rate and amount of sweating) of both partners during their confrontations, as well as what they say to each other and in what tone of voice they interact verbally.

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Marriage isn’t an arbitrary sequence of events: there are common principles that influence relationships that work well and those that don’t. So what are those key principles that make the marriage work? I believe there are essential factors in good long term relationships:


‘It is not good for man to be alone’. And yet so often I hear of stories of loneliness and aloneness in people’s relationships. There was the example of the hard-working couple, two careers, two young children, lovely home, every convenience, gadget and tool you could want, supportive extended family, generosity to family and friends but so very, very desperately unhappy.

What had gone wrong with the fairy tale life, they both thought they were working so hard for? In the busyness of their lives, there was hardly a moment for each other, and the moments they did have were spent arguing. Somewhere along the line, they had stopped doing what friends do.

So what is it that friends do?

  • Make sure that they communicate
  • Make time for regular dates
  • Give each other respect
  • Value their partner’ s/friend’s input and influence.
  • Deposit regularly into each other’s emotional bank accounts.
  • Pursue common interests- goals, fun, values
  • Share intimacies (and for couples – romance)

All these attributes of friendship and more are the common glue that keeps relationships working even in the tough times. We need to Like the person we live with, and Like the person, we have become, (most of the time) not just love them.


This second essential factor reminds me of the story of a couple who thought they had to split up because they constantly had fights. On exploration, the fights weren’t particularly out of the ordinary, but a comment from the husband alerted me to the underlying expectation. He had been one of a large happy Christian family. He said he had never seen his parents fight and that he thought good Christian marriages never had any conflict. So because he and his wife were arguing, he thought there was something very wrong, and maybe they were heading for the divorce courts. He, at least, had no model for conflict resolution from his family of origin. On reflection, he supposed that maybe his parents took their disagreements ‘behind closed doors’, but this didn’t help him to know how to handle conflict in his marriage.

For relationships to survive and strengthen it is essential to be realistic that conflict inhabits all relationships and being willing to learn how to handle it together and handle our own subsequent negative emotions, Most couples who come for counselling are struggling to resolve conflict in one form or another. It is inevitable that there will be conflict and that without some conflict, our relationships will not flourish; they will become boring, lifeless and vulnerable.

Most of us don’t have good conflict resolution skills, so early in our relationship, it can be very important to get know our own (i.e. your family’s) conflict style as well as our partner’s and how they differ. I am yet to see two people in any marriage who have the same skills, so understanding the differences and finding ways to communicate are imperative- eventually coming up with a style that works for both of us.

John Gottman, who has researched and written on marriage for many years, divides marital conflicts into two types: solvable and unresolvable. He states that 69% of all disagreements are unresolvable, so somewhere in our arguments we are going to have to come to terms with accepting what we cannot always get what we want and get on with our lives. Most of us know (but too often forget) the prayer: Lord helps me to change the things I can change, accept the things I cannot and give me the wisdom to know the difference.

Another important understanding after a conflict situation is the making and receiving of repair attempts. In strong marriages, both individuals make an effort to repair any perceived damage to their friendship and relationship, and the other acknowledges and receives the repair attempt. ‘Making up’ can be part of deeper intimacy and understanding in healthy relationships.

Enhance your love maps

Love is in the details. That is, happy couples are very much familiar with their partner’s world. According to Gottman, these couples have “a richly detailed love map — my term for that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life.” You know everything from your partner’s favourite movies to what’s currently stressing them out to some of their life dreams, and they know yours.

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Nurture your fondness and admiration 

Happy couples respect each other and have a generally positive view of each other. Gottman says that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship. If these elements are completely missing, the marriage can’t be saved.

Gottman includes a helpful activity to remind couples of the partner they fell in love with called “I appreciate.” He suggests readers list three or more of their partner’s positive characteristics along with an incident that illustrates each quality. Then read your lists to each other.

Turn toward each other instead of away

Romance isn’t a Caribbean cruise, an expensive meal or a lavish gift. Rather, romance lives and thrives in every day, little things. According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

For instance, romance is leaving an encouraging voicemail for your spouse when you know he’s having a bad day, Gottman says. Or romance is running late but taking a few minutes to listen to your wife’s bad dream and saying that you’ll discuss it later (instead of saying “I don’t have time”).

Gottman acknowledges that this might seem humdrum, but turning toward each other in these ways is the basis for connection and passion. Couples that turn toward each other have more in their “emotional bank account.” Gottman says that this account distinguishes happy marriages from miserable ones. Happy couples have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts, so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushion conflicts and stressors.

Let your partner influence you

Happy couples are a team that considers each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you isn’t about having one person hold the reins; it’s about honouring and respecting both people in the relationship.

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Solve your solvable problems

Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t. Couples need to determine which ones are which.

Sometimes, though, telling the difference can be tricky. According to Gottman, “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational, and there’s no underlying conflict.

Gottman devised a five-step model for resolving these conflicts:

In step 1, soften your startup, which simply means starting the conversation without criticism or contempt.

In step 2, make and receive “repair attempts.” Gottman defines repair attempts as any action or statement that deescalates tension.

In step 3, soothe yourself and then your partner. When you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let your partner know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break. (That’s how long it takes for your body to calm down.) Then you might try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualizing a calm place. After you’ve calmed down, you might help soothe your partner. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.

In step 4, compromise. The above steps prime couples for compromise because they create positivity, Gottman says. When conflicts arise, it’s important to take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Here, Gottman includes a valuable exercise to help couples find common ground. He suggests that each partner draw two circles: a smaller one inside a larger one. In the smaller circle, make a list of your nonnegotiable points. In the bigger one, make a list of what you can compromise on. Share them with each other and look for common ground. Consider what you agree on, what your common goals and feelings are and how you can accomplish these goals.

In step 5, remember to be tolerant of each other’s faults. Gottman says that compromise is impossible until you can accept your partner’s flaws and get over the “if onlies.” (You know the ones: “If only he were this” “If only she were that.”)

Overcome gridlock

Gottman says that the goal with perpetual problems is for couples to “move from gridlock to dialogue.” What usually underlies gridlock is unfulfilled dreams. “Gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other,” Gottman writes. Happy couples believe in the importance of helping each other realize their dreams.

So the first step in overcoming gridlock is to determine the dream or dreams that are causing your conflict. The next steps include talking to each other about your dreams, taking a break (since some of these talks can get stressful) and making peace with the problem.

“The goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt, so the problem stops being a source of great pain,” Gottman writes.

Create shared meaning

Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together — a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become,” Gottman says.

And that’s what it means to develop shared meaning. Happy couples create a family culture that includes both of their dreams. In being open to each other’s perspectives and opinions, happy couples naturally come together.


You might not consider yourself a spiritual person; however, anyone who seeks the deeper meaning of life, and not a life focused on personal pleasure, operates out of a spiritual sense. For many, this desire is expressed in a commitment to a specific faith tradition. Here one joins with others to worship God and work for the common good.

Although being a person of faith is not essential to making your marriage work, it’s a bonus. Certainly, good people throughout the ages have had happy marriages, and not all of them have been religious. But it helps to have faith principles to guide you and a faith community to encourage your commitment.


Finally, healthy relationships commit to and invest in ongoing growth and learning. If we hear the question ‘are we there yet?’ we would have to answer ‘No’. Neither our individual lives not our relationships are static. We are creative beings and marriages that last are constantly changing and growing, sharing goals and expectations, adjusting to circumstances, learning from experiences and other relationships, seeking out answers to challenges and allowing ourselves to become more intimate. It could almost be said the main goal of growth is intimacy – emotional, physical and sexual.

I think too often we see marriage as the goal in itself, the day of our wedding the pinnacle of success, rather than the start of the journey, the beginning of a relationship that is new and exciting but also unknown. I believe we all have great expectations of marriage and want to be happy, but anything with big expectations requires commitment and investment, marriage no less than anything else. But it is that commitment and investment, which make us better individuals and make our marriages a successful journey.

One of the hardest challenges facing marriage is the breaking of trust through an affair. But even an affair can initiate growth. I can speak of a couple who, following the birth of their first child, successfully negotiated the pain and hurt of an affair. It was not easy, it involved a period of separation but as they were each thrown into a place where they had to look deeply inside themselves, test their values and reassess their integrity they were each able to make a decision to recommit to their marriage vows and re-invest in their relationship. Three years down the track, they and their relationship have grown, and they can face new challenges with more wisdom and maturity.

Can you see areas in your own life where you have let commitment slip or stopped investing? Is your marriage (and any other important relationship) worth some reflection and assessment? No matter what the state of your relationships, they can all benefit from a ‘going back to basics’. What made them work in the first place?

Commitment and investment reflect your integrity and nearly always is responded to in kind.

Go ahead, try it again. I am sure it will be worth it.

If this article has prompted you to act or raised any concerns, it may be helpful to talk with a relationship counsellor or trusted friend.

This is why it’s so important to listen to your heart and intuition and make sure that you don’t stay in a relationship that makes you feel dead on the inside simply because that’s what society and everyone around you expect you to do. Your peace of mind, health, happiness, and well-being are more important than anything else. So stay happy!

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