Many of you have written to me asking what I think about this The Atlantic article, “Masters of Love,” that has been making the rounds in cyberspace. The article shares some key research by one of my research heroes, John Gottman, and his wife Julie, about how to get to “happily ever after” in marriage and what can distinguish between marriage “masters” and “disasters.”
I was thrilled when I read the article and found that much of the Gottmans’ research confirms mine. My conclusion in The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, and theirs in their work, was that highly happy couples have worked toward high degrees of kindness and generosity in their marriages.
In reading this piece, I’m only wistful about one thing. I love the Gottman’s work about how to get to happiness in marriage, but I wish they weren’t (ironically) perpetuating the incorrect bad-news myths about a high level of divorce and marital unhappiness at the same time! Because one of the other key things I found in my own research is that people generally have to believe there is hope for a happy marriage in order to keep going.
By contrast, the incorrect notion that most marriages aren’t happy isn’t motivating: it is demoralizing. When a happy marriage seems like a one-in-a-hundred possibility, people give up trying these success strategies (like kindness and generosity) way too early.
And as I found in my investigative study of the true state of marriage (see The Good News About Marriage), that hope is there! Far more people enjoy their marriage than the myths would have you think – about 80% have happy marriages! And for those who aren’t there yet, it is possible to get to a happy marriage. As the Gottmans’ findings confirm, getting there is often a lot more simple than people think.
When I share my findings on what those simple actions are– such as being kind — the push-back from some readers is, “Well of course we should be kind! But how do I do that when my spouse makes me so frustrated or upset?”
And I totally get it. Negativity can be a tough battle to fight… but it is not an impossible one to win, once you put your mind to it. You just have to be the boss of your feelings.
Do you have an irritation about something your spouse just did? Instead of focusing on that (understandable) irritation, think about something good they did as well. If your husband made a messy lunch for the kids and left all the crusty dishes in the sink again, force your thoughts away from the grumble grumble as you wash the dishes. Instead, as you look at the crusty pizza crust on the pie plate, picture him putting the pizza in the oven while he does those funny cartoon voices with your three-year old. Think about how sweet he is as a dad, how much he loves the kids, and how much they love being with him. Then when you’re done with the dishes, give him a big hug and tell him “Thank you for making the kids’ lunch. I love how sweet you are as a dad.”
As you choose to focus on the positive, as you choose to speak kindly, as you choose to practice generosity in the small things, you will find that the irritation wasn’t as big of a deal after all.
What about if a situation is truly hurtful though? The same approach applies. Even when you need to have a difficult conversation, focus on what you can appreciate, first. And when you get to the hard stuff, you can choose to speak with respect and gentleness, using words that don’t wound your spouse instead of accidentally-on-purpose saying those things that you know will hurt them as much as your spouse hurt you. Thankfully, the more you use words of respect, the more you’ll feel that sense of respect rising up within you, even when there are very real issues to address.
In other words, as you let kindness and generosity flow through your communication and actions, it is far more likely that, in time, you’ll find happiness in your marriage flowing right along with it.
Do you want Shaunti to share these life-changing truths at your church or event? Inquire about Shaunti speaking, here.
Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriagesand her newest, The Good News About Marriage. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.