Healthy Marriage. What does that look like?

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?

healthy marriage

Research done on this topic (see Moore et al., 2004, and NHMRC website 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… Continue reading Healthy Marriage. What does that look like?

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Should you change your name when you get married?

Kate Winslet is marrying again and has announced that she will not be taking on her new husband’s last name. With a name as famous as hers, this seems like a no-brainer. Yet the question is vastly complicated. Should you, would you, or did you, change your name upon marrying?

A recent survey of Facebook users showed that women are again taking on their husbands surname after a long decline in the practice. In partnership with The Daily Beast, Facebook looked at the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79. Facebook found that 65 percent of the survey group in their 20s and 30s changed their names. Even more women in their their 40s, 50s, and 60s changed their names — 68 percent, 75 percent and 80 percent, respectively. Continue reading Should you change your name when you get married?

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5 positive communication strategies for couples

Nobody is born knowing how to communicate well in a relationship, and, unfortunately, we tend to pick up a lot of bad communication strategies from our parents, friends, lovers, and the media. It’s easy to say, “Just don’t get so mad and yell at your partner!”, when really, it’s quite hard to change emotional habits–and few marriage help books tell you how to do so. Here are five concrete communication strategies you can practice that will noticeably improve the atmosphere in your home. And you don’t have to try to master them all at once! Pick one at a time to focus on for a week or two. You will see results in the way your spouse responds to you and the greater ease in which you resolve conflicts. Continue reading 5 positive communication strategies for couples

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What do your marriage vows say about you

Marriage vows are an important part of the wedding ceremony. While they aren’t verbatim a contract, they set the tone for what you want to get out of and are willing to give to your marriage. Your vows should reflect who you and your spouse are as a couple, and individually. With the popularity of non-traditional ceremonies rising (it seems like everyone is trying to one-up each other with originality!) it may seem stressful planning your vows.

Take a deep breath and check out these recommendations. Continue reading What do your marriage vows say about you

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How to beat the top 5 relationship problems

Every couple has their unique strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, there are a few major relationship problems that underwrite almost every marriage. If you’re finding yourself fighting, feeling distant, or otherwise “off” with your spouse, check out these top 5 common underlying problems and see if addressing them might get your marriage on track again.

1. Communication

You’ve probably heard many times “communication is key.” And it’s true. All of the below relationship problems rely on effective communication skills. Unfortunately, this isn’t something we’re taught how to do. Common communication mistakes include refusing to talk, nagging, sarcasm, using angry or accusatory language, and using “you” and “yes, but.” The symptoms of bad communication include feeling ignored, anxious, frustrated, or out of touch with your partner. Continue reading How to beat the top 5 relationship problems

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The best articles of the week: on making decisions

This week I found some amazing articles on making decisions and how choice impacts our lives and mental state. Julie Jeske talks about changing your mind about big decisions, James McNulty challenges our notions of turning the other cheek, and a California study questions whether our choice in marriage partners really leaves us any happier than an arranged marriage. Be prepared to have your mind changed!

You Can Always Change Your Mind–Part I via Julie Jeske

You and your partner will face making decisions in your lives, and the stress of the big choices can put considerable strain on your marriage. Julie Jeske offers some fantastic advice: You can always change your mind. In fact, “by feeling like you always have to “get it right” you can sometimes be so paralyzed by fear of “messing up” that you don’t take any action.” It’s not always easy, convenient, or cost free, but you can always change your mind. Next week Julie will go over how to fix a relationship if you feel like changing your mind about your marriage, and I’ll be definitely reading along. Continue reading The best articles of the week: on making decisions

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Money and marriage: Should you keep separate checking accounts?

Marriage is the union of two lives into one–at the same time, maintaining independence and autonomy is an important part of a healthy relationship. How does money and marriage factor in? Wall Street Journal blogger Rachel Louis Ensign tackled this controversial topic last week. Her article features interviews with couples, lawyers and financial advisers who have found that sometimes not sharing everything can be the best situation for the marriage.

I was surprised to read in a follow up post that some commenters had been extremely critical of this idea, even accusing spouses who split up their assets as “definitely NOT a couple” and asking “Why even get married in the first place? Marriage is about trust and compromise, two people as one.” Continue reading Money and marriage: Should you keep separate checking accounts?

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More Tips from Dr. Heitler: Shared decision making as a Couple

Marriage partners are in a sense yoked together. Couples, therefore, need skills for shared decision making and communication. Many couples mistakenly believe that each decision must end in one of them “winning their way.” While this may get things done, it leads to resentment and negativity in the relationship. If they can choose together when to turn left and when to turn right, neither of them will feel compromised, dominated, or controlled by the other. Instead, each shared decision just enhances their loving partnership.

Shared decision making necessitates that couples look deep into why each wants what they do. Often we get stuck on the way Use shared decision making to avoid fightssomething is to be done–this is only the surface level of the decision. As soon as couples see themselves preferring different plans of action, they switch from launching a tug of war over their preferred solutions to exploring the concerns that underlie each of their preferences. As they come to understand their own and their partner’s underlying concerns, then they can look for a solution. They can then use shared decision making to form a plan of action responsive to all the concerns of both of them.

Let’s take an example:

Louise and Chad, who are recently engaged, are discussing where they want to live after marrying. Louise wants to move to Montana; Chad likes living in Arkansas, where they both live now. Chad, on realizing they were beginning to argue over the issue,  switched into “win-win” mode. He asked Louise what about Montana appealed to her. This question switched the discussion from a struggle over who would get their way to an exploration of both of their underlying concerns. Louise explained that she loves the wide open spaces of Montana and wants some day to live on a small ranch. Chad’s concern was whether he would be able to find work outside of the state where he had always lived. Their solution was to agree that Chad would explore job openings in Montana. If a job there looked possible, then he’d be glad to move. A month of monitoring job postings in his field and there it was–a perfect job for Chad, and a move to the state she loved for Louise.

In Power of Two and my marriage help books, we call this shared decision making process the “Win-win Waltz” and it is very much like a dance with each partner giving, taking, and ultimately working in unison. Also like a dance, it requires patience and practice to learn. Next time you find yourself butting heads with your spouse, try taking a first step and delving deeper into their underlying concerns. This is also a very useful tool for shared decision making outside of your marriage. Try it at work, with your friends, and with other family members!

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Am I depressed? Solving marriage problems through mental health.

Have you ever wondered, “Am I depressed?” Most people will experience depression at some point in their lives. At the same time, many may feel the symptoms of depression without recognizing it as such. Depression is a sliding scale of emotions, thoughts, actions and chemistry – depression can be a mild sense of being “off” to a debilitating experience. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Lack of energy/physical fatigue
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling an indescribable “dark cloud”
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Increased irritability
  • Crying and unexplained sorrow
  • Unexplained aches and pains

If you experience any of these symptoms for a period of two weeks or longer, it’s a good time to ask yourself, “Am I depressed?” Recognizing depression is the first step to addressing it. Step two is exploring where your depression comes from. A marriage can be both the trigger and casualty of depression. This is the story of Bonnie, a real patient of Dr. Heitler:

Bonnie is a stay at home mom of two young children. She is a strong, creative woman who enjoys spending time with her kids and is usually very positive and energetic. Lately she has been feeling tired and has a hard time being enthusiastic about anything. She finds herself criticizing herself: “Your house is so messy,” “Why can’t you keep track of anything,” “You look old and worn out.” She is uncharacteristically snappy and irritated with her children.

One night she and her husband have an argument. She is unhappy that he works so late at his new job and comes home too tired to interact with her. She is so excited to see him and she feels abandoned. Her husband snaps back: “I’m doing this to support the family! I can’t risk asking for fewer hours. When I come home, you hover over me and the kids are so worked up…I need to relax, I can’t take it.” Bonnie drops the subject.

Interestingly, Bonnie hadn’t wondered “am I depressed?” while experiencing these dark times. Is Bonnie depressed? Yes. Is she depressed because she feels abandoned and is fighting with her husband? Well…yes and no. Depression, Dr. Heitler writes, is rooted in an imbalance of power. We feel depressed when we feel powerless. In Bonnie’s case, part of her depression stems from feeling powerless over her lonely situation. Her husband has dominated the conversation while she defers to his criticism and needs.

Depression is a common result of dominant-submissive conflict resolution. Many people believe that an argument is resolved when you have a winner and a looser. This belief comes from the mistaken idea that

Am I depressed? Depression comes in many forms

power is the same thing as control, specifically, having control over another person. In fact, power is the ability to get what you want, but not by definition at the expense of those around you. Truly powerful people are able to reach satisfying solutions that also satisfy others – win-win solutions.

In reality, when you solve a conflict with a clear “winner” and “looser,” you don’t solve anything. Especially in marriage, a pattern of winning and loosing will lead to depression in the submissive spouse. 

To help Bonnie get the root of her power imbalance, Dr. Heitler used a visualization experiment. You can try this, too.

First she asked Bonnie, “If you could be angry at anybody right now, who would it be?”

“My husband,” Bonnie replied.

“Close your eyes and image the last argument you had with your husband. Picture you two together. Now, who seems bigger.”

“My husband,” Bonnie replied again. “He’s huge. He’s towering over me.”

“Ok, now I want you to look up in this scene and see above you a light powder sprinkling down on you. It could be green, or gold, or like snowflakes. As it falls on you, you find yourself growing, like Alice in Wonderland. Tell me when you’ve stopped growing.”

“Ok, I’ve stopped”

“And where are you now? How big are you.”

“I’m towering over him, at least four times as big.”

“Now that you’re so big, you can look down and see things you couldn’t see before. What can you see about him now?

Bonnie reflected for a minute. “He’s all puffed up. He’s not really that big, he’s puffing himself up like a puffer fish.”


“Because he’s scared…and he’s covered his ears because he doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying”

“Why is he scared?”

Bonnie thought again. “He’s scared because he thinks that I’m telling him he’s a bad person. But I’m not, I know he’s a good person. I know he works late because he feels anxious about supporting the family.”

With this insight Bonnie was able to have another kind of conversation with her husband. This time, she brought the subject up delicately, talking about her feelings and clarifying how much she respected and appreciated him. Together, they came to a surprising solution.

Bonnie is a highly educated woman with a lot of drive and she realized that staying home all day with the kids wasn’t stimulating enough for her. She was feeling bored and frustrated, which contributed to her feelings of powerlessness and led her to get worked up when her husband came home. Bonnie decided to go back to work part-time. She found she was excited to see the kids again after her morning’s work and less frantic about seeing her husband when he came home. Also, the extra income she brought in allowed her husband to be more assertive about setting limits for his hours at work.

Power imbalances in marriage can come from one spouse dominating through aggressive behavior. In the worst case scenario this domination comes from violence and insults. At other times, as in Bonnie’s case, the imbalance lies more in one spouse deferring and “giving up” (this becomes easier the more depressed he or she already is). Usually the situation has aspects of both dynamics.

Just as both spouses contribute to the depression of one, both must be part of finding a solution. Whether or not your answer to “am I depressed?” directly involves marriage problems, it is imperative that you go to joint counseling as part of the treatment. It may surprise you that getting individual counseling for depression leads to a higher chance of divorce.  This is because as one spouse may make progress they other may be left behind. Both spouses should progress together.

Your counseling sessions should give you the tools to find the root of depression and work through it while providing skills to face similar problems down the road. Remember, you and your spouse are a team! That is a huge strength. Working through depression in marriage will leave your marriage stronger, wiser, and closer.

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4 common relationship communication problems

Watching dogs interact can teach you a lot about human behavior, relationship communication, and how to make a relationship last. This Thanksgiving my family convened and my Grandparent’s house for a few days. My new dog, an energetic and sweet 10-month-old mutt named Laika, got to meet the Grandparent’s 12 year-old fox terrier, Molly. Needless to say, chaos ensued.

At the same time, in between all the barking it was fascinating to watch the two dogs work our their relationship. They got along relatively well when there was nothing much going on. Then, as soon as food or human attention came into the mix, the teeth came out. Each doggy wanted a piece of the pie (literally). Molly the terrier was clearly an alpha female and was born this way. She would preemptively nip at Laika whenever she felt her status or access to the preferred good was threatened. Laika wouldn’t really engage in the fight, but neither would she run away yelping. She would just stay put until the yapping, snarling Molly tired herself out and/or got what she wanted.

Molly and Laika were having major relationship communication problems that they solved the dog way: barking, biting, snarling. Luckily for us humans, we can use words to make ourselves better understood. At the same time, I saw many of the same problems between the dogs between some human relationships during the Holiday. We all have instinctive personal styles of conflict resolution, and often times they lead to confrontations that leave with both spouses feeling rotten.

My Thanksgiving experience reminded me of one of my favorite PO2 produced videos about Conflict Resolution. Check out the clip below for insight into your own fighting style and more effective ways to communicate with your spouse.



Which of these 4 conflict styles sounds the most like you and/or your spouse?:

1. Do you ever just give up when you disagree? If you consistently feel that your desires are just not worth the fight, you are yielding. Yielding can lead to low, simmering negative emotions like depression and resentment.

2. Do you delay tough discussions or avoid sensitive topics? This is freezing. Freezing builds up icy walls of stress, tension, anxiety and emotional distance.

3. Do you default to bickering, arguing or even fighting when you disagree? That’s the ‘fight till you win’ strategy. This can can develop into controlling behaviors, and verbal or even physical abuse. Also, fighting often results in one partner yielding, and, as noted above, yielding has bad emotional consequences.

4. Do you feel that your relationship issues are all hopeless and you are tempted to invest your time and energy elsewhere? That’s called flight. In the worst case, you can flee to addictive, numbing behaviors such as alcohol or gambling; at the very least, the problem never gets solved.

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