Marriage is a work in progress and both partners need to recognise that. There are really no “secrets” to happily-ever-after. Find out the practical things you can do every day to strengthen your marriage.
WORDS RACHEL KWEK
No matter how long it has been since you both said your ‘I dos’ to each other, marriage will always be a work in progress.
Nurture Your Love and Admiration for Each Other
Dr Gottman, the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, writes that “fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance”. They lay the foundation for turning towards each other and prevent either spouse from turning critical or contemptuous when conflicts arise.
You may say, “Of course we love each other! That’s why we are married.” But while love and respect may sound deceptively omnipresent in any marriage, it is easy to lose sight of them amid the challenges in and out of the marriage. Think about why you love and respect your partner regularly and let him know exactly how you feel. Thinking and talking about these positive things about each other revitalises your relationship and contributes to what Dr Gottman calls positive sentiment override, which simply means the good emotions outweigh the negative ones. Daniel Koh, psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, says, “Little gestures like holding hands and maintaining eye contact when talking to each other bring you closer. Love does not need to be always sexual in nature. Showing love need not be expensive too.”
While it is unrealistic to expect that there is all good and no bad in a relationship, maintaining an optimistic view of your relationship keeps you focused on the positive thoughts and empowers you to support each other in adversity. During tough times, the positivity that you have built up over time are like burning coals that keep you warm during winter and like vitamins that build up your immunity to fend off illness.
Build Love Maps
Few things can be worse than not knowing who you married. I’m not just talking about what food he likes and which football club he supports – the kind of stuff his colleagues would likely know too. Beyond these, do you know what his deepest fears are? What makes him anxious? What are his quirks? What makes him tick? According to Dr Gottman, emotionally intelligent couples have richly detailed love maps. Billy Chan, a marriage counsellor at Eagles Mediation and Counselling Centre, explains that a love map of your partner includes the hard facts as well as in-depth knowledge of his inner psychological world. “You know everything from your partner’s favourite movies to what is currently stressing them out to their life dreams, and they know yours,” he says. Couples who do more things together also tend to know their spouses better.
The first step in building your love map is to pay attention to your partner. Be interested in his work, hobbies and accomplishments; ask him about the progress of the project he was eagerly preparing for. Take notice of what signals he is sending with his words and body language to gauge how he is feeling. Consistently make efforts to build on this knowledge. It has been widely reported that contrary to popular belief, many men actually stray not because of sexual temptation, but because they were seeking attention and emotional support which were lacking in their marriages.
However, knowledge, in this case, can be a double-edged sword. Use your love map against your spouse and you lead yourself down the slippery path of eroding the trust in the relationship. The upside of this intimate familiarity with each other’s world is that it helps to manage challenging times such as the arrival of a first baby or a job change. Isn’t it nice that he can order your sandwich the way you want it and you pre-book tickets to his favourite band’s concert because you learnt they are in town?
Turn Towards Each Other Instead of Away
Turning towards each other is like building a shared emotional bank account. In turn, your emotional “savings”, just like any goodwill you have built up over time, can act as a buffer in times of stress. Koh points out how easy it is to make use of daily situations like meal times and bus rides to connect with each other. “Leave the phone aside and focus on each other.” One of the best ways to turn towards each other is to talk about how the day went at the end of the day. When talking, show genuine interest and affection. When he complains about the client at work, empathise and let him know that you are on his side. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything he does or say, but validate his emotions first; telling him why you actually disagree can come later when he is calmer. If he wants to share some good news and you happen to be in a hurry, acknowledge it and tell him you would love to hear about it later in the day. Be mindful about offering unsolicited advice or opinions, though, which may undermine the conversation. He may just need you to listen, but sometimes, advice may be all he wants.
The point is to make use of opportunities to connect with each other – whether to cheer him up on a bad day or simply to share with him how delicious your lunch was. Chan shares that the fundamental process of turning towards each other is to develop an awareness of how your partner communicates what he needs and what he doesn’t, and to then use this knowledge to respond to your spouse.
By staying in touch with what happens in other areas of your partner’s life, it helps manage stress outside the marriage, thus preventing it from spilling into your relationship. To make these sharing sessions constructive, have them when both of you want to be engaged. Keep tabs on your emotional account, be honest with yourselves and use it to improve your emotional connection. However, remember it is not a scorecard; don’t let what you do for each other turn into quid pro quos.
Create Shared Meaning
It doesn’t matter that you and he have different personalities. If you are happily married but find that something seems to be amiss, a deeper sense of shared meaning could be what you are looking for. You form profound mental and emotional connections between you and your spouse when you create shared meaning together.
Koh points out that spending quality time together is important and one way to do that is to do things together. Buy groceries, watch a show or hiking – whatever floats your boat really. If you happen to have similar interests, good for you!
Another way to create shared meaning is to find a common dream – this can be anything from building a home with two children to being able to retire comfortably before the age of sixty. It can be tangible or intangible; something of a process or more of an outcome. Whatever your dream is, make sure it is something that both of you can identify with. Being as specific as you can in narrating your dream also helps you visualise it and makes it easier to plan the steps to take towards achieving that dream. Well, have as many dreams as you want. The more meaning you share with your spouse, the more you will feel in sync and happy in your marriage.
Having created shared meaning in this realm of yours, you will come to appreciate the deep sense of understanding that will have you laughing at the same things without exchanging a word. It will be the glue that holds you together as you go through the daily grind and what motivates you to work together to resolve issues when the going gets tough. A common dream helps put the things in perspective so every obstacle becomes an opportunity to grow together.
A solid friendship based on mutual respect and love is the crux of a healthy marriage. It lays the foundation for turning towards each other and creating shared meaning. If you are best friends with your spouse, both of you are more likely to feel optimistic about each other and your marriage and assume positive things about your lives together. Involve your partner in taking these steps towards a healthy and fulfilling marriage.