Have you had the gutters cleaned on your house lately? How about weeding and lawn mowing? Maybe you have had to fix a leak or repair a crack in the wall. Your house, in order to stay in good working order needs regular maintenance. Failure to take care of those tasks and your house is likely to suffer and eventually fall into disrepair, the same is true for the relationships in your life. Regular relationship maintenance will keep the love alive and the investment in your relationship strong. So what’s needed to sustain a healthy relationship?
Relationship maintenance refers to regular behaviors that are engaged in by partners in an effort to stay together. The more relational maintenance you engage in as a couple the better your chances of longevity in the relationship. Researchers Laura Stafford and Daniel J. Canary identified a set of five general relationship behaviors that when engaged in regularly increase the quality of the relationship.
For all of us who spend time carefully picking out our words: it turns out words are the least important element of face-to-face conversations. Communication skills are not so much what we say, as how we say it. In fact, our words barely register in the listeners brain. This doesn’t mean that the words aren’t important; rather it’s how we successfully set the stage for those words that determine how and whether they are heard. “Effective communication is based on trust, and if we don’t trust the speaker, we’re not going to listen to their words,” writes Huffington Post bloggers Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg on their new book, Communication Strategies.
So what are the most important communication skills to establish trust?
1. Gentle eye contact
“Gentle eye contact increases trustworthiness and encourages future cooperation, and a happy gaze will increase emotional trust,” write the authors. The most important of communication skills is to maintain eye contact–while avoiding staring, which comes across as aggressive can make others feel uncomfortable.
2. Kind facial expression
The subtle facial expressions that cue others in on our emotions are largely unconscious. People can pick up on faked smiles and will react with suspicion. Try putting yourself in a kind, happy frame of mind first. Your inner state will glow through and make others more receptive to your words.
3. Warm tone of voice
If your tone of voice doesn’t match what you are saying, your listener will experience confusion. This can weaken trust, communication and cooperation. Speak in low, slow tones to communicate your compassion.
4. Expressive hand and body gestures
Speech evolved from hand gestures, and much of our comprehension is still linked to visually drawing or acting out our words with our hands. Gesticulating is also key among communication skills as it signals animation and involvement in the conversation.
5. Relaxed disposition
Your stressed body language will tell your listener that something is off and trigger defensiveness. A defensive mind is the hardest to persuade. Relax and try calming exercises such as taking three deep breaths if you start to feel too worked up.
6. Slow speech rate
“Slow speech rates will increase the ability for the listener to comprehend what you are saying, and this is true for both young and older adults,” writes Waldman. “Slower speaking will also deepen that person’s respect for you.”
A listeners brain can only recall about 10 seconds of dialog. Try speaking in short bursts with only one or two points at a time. This will lead to what Power of Two calls “Braided dialog,” when both speakers work together to intertwine their thoughts and increase comprehension and mutually satisfying outcomes.
8. The words themselves
Last but certainly not least are your words. Now that you’ve set up the emotional and physical tone for the conversation, your spouse is ready to listen to and absorb what you have to say. Make sure you’re saying the right thing! PO2 has a some communication in marriage tips such as how to approach sensitive subjects and avoid hidden negativity in your conversations. Check ’em out!
Last November I wrote about the Divorce Reform Coalition. The aim of this movement is to revamp our no-fault divorce laws. Before divorcing, couples would be required to undergo marriage counseling (funded by the state) and wait for an 8-month “cooling off” period. This is in hopes of saving a relationship that doesn’t have any major dangers and could benefit from therapy. The movement has been picking up steam lately, and publicity.
Last week, Huffington Post contributor Pauline Gains wrote an article criticizing the Divorce Reform Movement’s proposal. Gains’ complaint is that mandating therapy won’t do any good in saving a relationship that is done for.
To [mandatory counseling], I say: Really? Making it harder to divorce will convince those who have fallen head over heels with the secretary, who can’t agree on anything, or who are just plain incompatible, that they should stay married?
And to that argument, I say: You’re right. There are some situations where a couple is better off divorced (read “should I get a divorce?” to find out more). Some relationships are, for better of for worse, over. Counseling will not make these people love each other again, stop abusing each other, or repair the deep emotional wounds that have broken their union.
Gains’ mistake is that these marriages are not the ones that marriage reform advocates are targeting. In fact, extreme and irreconcilable marital problems make up only a small fraction of all reported reasons for divorce.
It’s the little things that make a great marriage, and it’s the little things that are the leading cause of divorce. The most commonly cited reasons for divorce are: lack of communication, difficulty resolving conflicts, feeling distant or “out of love”, and disagreement over finances. Of course when you’re marriage is experiencing these problems, it can feel like it’s the end. At the same time, all these issues have the potential to be resolved via counseling.
Contrary to Gains’ belief, saving a relationship is possible in most situations. You can learn the skills to communicate, increase positivity and make mutually satisfying decisions. This is the foundation for Power of Two online program. It’s supported by numerous studies and years of data that show counseling has a significant impact in marital happiness (a new study just came out Tuesday!).
Of course, instead of having to work on saving a relationship, it’s always better to learn solid marriage skills before you start having problems! In the second half of her article, Gains makes this very proposal: “Instead of trying to fix miserable marriages, why not try to teach people how not to be miserably married in the first place?” She proposes that all high school students take a course in Family Systems as a graduation requirement. Family Systems is a college class taught by psychiatrist and family therapist Murray Bowen. The ideal curriculum would teach students psychology of relationships, problem-solving and common pitfalls, and how to navigate their own thoughts and feelings with those of others.
I think this is a great idea. We teach elementary students “life skills” classes where they learn how to be active listeners, share and get along with each other. The goal is to prepare them to be functional members of their class. Why does this formal social education end there? Childhood through teenagerdom is where we learn the foundations of how to interact with others. Teaching a course on psychology, relationships, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence would be invaluable for young adults for all their future relationships, romantic and otherwise.
I think we should take this idea very seriously. What do you think?
With many therapists and psychology experts now writing blogs (including our own Dr. Susan Heitler on Psychology Today) there is a full and growing pool of marriage help online. Dr. Terri Orbuch, who writes regularly for Huffington Post, published a great article yesterday about how to maintain a healthy relationship while separated from your spouse. There are many reasons happily married couples might be separated. One or both spouses may be deployed in the military; an employer may send one away for a contracted period of time; one may choose to go live with a special needs family member in order to provide care. Orbuch focuses on the idea that in challenging economic times such as this one couples are often split up as one spouse takes a far off job to support the family. This will provide many new challenges for a marriage, but with the marriage help online available such as Orbuch’s advice, there is no reason you can’t still have a great relationship.
There are even some good things about being separated for a brief while. You’ll have time to focus on your own plans and needs which can often get lost while living intimately with another person. This can be time for personal exploration and growth. It’s also true that distance makes the hearth grow fonder, or at least more appreciative. Having your spouse absent can be a reminder of all the good things about him or her that you take for granted. Your moments together will seem more precious. Plus, after all that time apart your reunions can inspire extra passion in the bedroom and perhaps reignite a sluggish sex life.
Many of Orbuch’s recommendations focus on how to communicate with your spouse. Before you leave, be sure to sit down and work out the parameters of the separation. Talk openly about your concerns, desires, and needs. Making sure you are both on the same page will make facing all other problems much easier, and prevent many from arising.
Orbuch encourages spouses to keep up a frequent and regular flow of communication. Skype, text, email, write or call each other at least once every day. Share the details of your day from frustrations at work to the great restaurant you found down the street from your sublet. Sharing as much as you can will help you feel connected to each other’s lives. Orbuch especially recommends talking openly and honestly about the people you meet and hang out with while away. This is important for how to deal with jealousy. Leaving details out will only leave room for your spouse to guess and imagine situations. Even if everything is innocent, it’s better not to let worries creep in.
Last but I think most importantly, Orbech says to continue to make plans together and schedule visits. Just because you are living apart doesn’t mean you can’t still dream, plan, and live your lives in tandem towards your mutual goals.
America has the highest divorce rate in the industrialized world, and a lot of people have been trying to figure out what to do about that. One idea of how to save a marriage is the Parental Divorce Reform Act, a new proposal drafted by a group of psychologists, lawyers, social workers, and other health professionals, intended to reduce the number of unnecessary divorces among couples with minor children. The act is based on a bevy of findings about the negative repercussions of divorce, most taken from the 8-decade Longevity study. For example:
• Parental divorce has negative impact on children’s longevity, standard of living, and physical and mental health
• Divorce has a negative impact on the divorcing parents’ mental and physical health
• One third of divorcing couples stated that they would be open to reconciliation and couple’s counseling if it were easily available
The act proposes that couples with children take a mandatory marriage education course and then wait an 8-month “reconciliation period” before going through with the divorce. The requirements would be waived in any case where domestic abuse or illegal activities were involved. You can read more about the details of the proposal here.
Obviously this is just one suggestion of how to save a marriage and has a long way to go before being enacted into law. But it sparks some interesting discussion. Henry Gornbein, a family law specialist, wrote an editorial on the law and its provisions for the Huffington Post. Gornbein supports the law and at the same time brings up some concerns. As mentioned above, the 8-month waiting period is waved in cases of domestic abuse. But how does one define domestic abuse? Power dynamics between couples is often uneven and each relationship has it’s own nuances. For example, he writes,
(3) What about situations where there has been a history of threats and coercion, but without actual physical violence?
(4) What about a situation where one spouse is using intimidation towards the other?
(5) What about the situation where there is emotional abuse, but no physical abuse?
(6) What if one spouse is using the children to relay messages or putting the children in a very uncomfortable position, but there is no physical abuse?
(7) What if one spouse is using economic abuse towards the other by failing to disclose assets, or keeping control of the finances?
These are all import aspects of abuse that often go ignored by those inside and outside such situations. This is certainly an issue that lawmakers and advisors will be thinking about if the proposal goes further.
Gornbein’s second concern is the cost of the mandatory divorce reconciliation program. This will supposedly be self-funding through increases in the cost of marriage licenses. However, as one commenter on the post pointed out, professional counseling services are often very expensive and this fund would soon run out. Well now…Power of Two would be an excellent solution to this problem! The Power of Two program is affordable, easily accessible (3 out of 4 Americans have internet access as of 2005), and provides a unique balance of personalized coaching and go-at-your-own-pace control.
As married couples, what do you think should be done about the divorce rates in the USA? Would you be open to mandatory marriage counseling before divorce?
This month has been full of public infidelities. On top of Governor Schwarzenegger’s affair(s), congressman Anthony Weiner has just owned up to tweeting racy images of himself to several young women. Weiner admitted that had been carrying on “inappropriate” relationships via text and email with many women although he had never met them in person. Unfortunately, tales of marital infidelity like this may seem like a worn out story by now. What may surprise you to know is that Congressman Weiner hasn’t even been married a year. He and his wife were wed in July 2010.
It’s hard to imagine newlyweds having to deal with something like cheating already. They are supposed to be madly in love, right? These are the “good years”! “In some cases, newlyweds want so badly for things to be perfect that they ignore warning signs, both in themselves and each other,” couples therapist Emily Gordon explains in this Huffington Post article. Being with another person is complicated. Marriage can be daunting and bring up complex emotions. No matter where you are in your relationship, it’s important to keep the communication lines open about your expectations, desires, and needs. And there’s no wrong time for couples counseling. The skills taught through Power of Two can help committed couples get their marriage started on the right foot. And if infidelity does come, there are resources to help with surviving an affair.
So what do you think? What other misconceptions about newlyweds have you’ve noticed from your own experiences?