What is a healthy marriage? This is an important question to answer in light of all the information we see and read (including on this blog) about a “healthy marriage.” Benefits touted often include, better physical health, less depression, better outcomes for children and so much more. How wonderful these benefits are, so how can we know what a healthy marriage is and how to achieve that standard in our own lives?
Research done on this topic (see Moore et al., 2004, and NHMRC website http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org) resulted in this list…
• commitment to each other over the long haul
• positive communication
• ability to resolve disagreements and handle conflicts nonviolently
• emotional and physical safety in interaction
• sexual and psychological fidelity
• mutual respect
• spending enjoyable time together
• providing emotional support and companionship
• parents’ mutual commitment to their children
Let’s take a look at these one by one…
Commitment to each other over the long haul. This one is fairly straight forward. A marriage, by definition is a commitment to be together ” until death do us part.” Making the choice to stay together through all of life’s challenges is one of the most important things you can do to achieve a healthy marriage. That said, this takes hard work, skills, trust and love to achieve this kind of staying power.
Positive communication. Communication in marriage is a skill (or rather a set of skills) you can learn. Effective talking and listening, braided dialog, say-it skills, these are all essential elements of successful communication.
Ability to resolve disagreements and handle conflict nonviolently. This is what we, at Power of Two would call shared decision making. Disagreements and conflict are absolutely inevitable in a close personal relationship like a marriage. The key factor successful couples, happily married couples, get right is the way in which these conflicts are handled. Having win win decision making skills create a platform to address differences in preference, choice of activity, meal etc. Beyond even the day to day, these skills can be used to make choices about the bigger things in life, having children, career choices, where to live and so on. The essentials of win win decision making are the ability to look at the underlying concerns, not just what you want or don’t want but what is driving those feelings, what’s behind them. What are you trying to accomplish. Once you dig into those feelings and thoughts, you can develop solution sets that will satisfy the most significant concerns from both parties.
Emotional and Physical Safety in Interaction. This one is pretty straight forward. Physical and emotional safety is paramount. Creating a plan for anger management is critical for avoiding fights and saying hurtful things that can tarnish your feelings for one another. Emotion regulation is a key part of a healthy marriage. Any interaction that makes you feel unsafe is not acceptable.
Sexual and Psychological fidelity. A marriage is a contract, it is an agreement to be committed to one person. To come home, even when things are difficult. It is also an agreement to put effort into your physical and emotional connection. Living a life together over the course of many years will have ebbs and flows in sexual attraction and level of interest. In addition, children, stress, personal habits and other realities of life together can make keeping the spark alive a challenge. Couples who are able to navigate these ebbs and flows successfully and stay physically and sexually connected are likely to have a happier marriage.
Mutual Respect. This one is a little more grey than the others. What does it mean to have mutual respect? What does it look like day to day? Most marriage researchers agree that a ration of 5:1, positive interactions to negative interactions lead to mutual respect. 10:1 is an even better ideal. This means for every one negative comment, snipe or rolled eye, there should be 10 positive interactions. Loving physical touch, kind words, a thoughtful gesture or an offer to help are wonderful ways to increase the positivity and warmth.
Spending enjoyable time together. Couples who are happy in their marriage spend time together. Just like the saying, “children spell love T-I-M-E” Giving time to your spouse is a gift to your marriage. Finding activities you find mutually satisfying and doing those activities on a regular basis will lead to more connectedness and intimacy. This doesn’t have to mean dates or spending money either. Even doing an errand together can be enjoyable and a great way to squeeze in some time.
Providing emotional support and companionship. You spouse is your partner through all of life’s ups and downs, understanding the best way to support your spouse when they need it is an essential ingredient in a healthy marriage. Learn what makes your partner feel supported and offer that support. On the flip side, help your partner understand what makes you feel supported.
Parents’ mutual commitment to their children. Obviously not all marriages involve children. When children are a part of your life as a couple, not only is a healthy marriage a benefit to you, it is critical for the development of healthy and happy children. When one partner is actively engaged in caring for and raising children without the support and effort from the other resentment can fester and trickle into other aspects of the relationship. How both partners play a role in child rearing is not set in stone and every couple needs to come to an understanding together, the important part is the skillful attention given to that aspect of the marriage.
A healthy marriage is one of life’s great pleasures. No ones life is free from pain, suffering, conflict, turmoil and challenges. Navigating those experiences with the love, support and care of another person by your side is a supreme gift.