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Making Marriage Work

by Dr. Donald Denton, LPC
edited by Dr. Nedra Voorhies, LPC


Men, seem to be creatures of the moment when it comes to intimacy, and may think a bunch of quickly purchased roses or a dinner at a restaurant will make up for months of neglect. Women, being creatures of memory when it comes to intimacy, are very likely to enjoy the roses and dinner but remind their husband that such things will not make up for hours spent with the remote, with the mouse, with the smart phone or with the guys or at work. The husband is just as likely to remember, but not speak about, comments and conduct that have pushed him away or that indicate his wife is doing single-entry bookkeeping: remembering all of his faults but failing to remember his genuine efforts at intimacy and the times he felt pushed away.
Nonetheless, there are things women and men can do to increase intimacy. This is especially important when children enter the picture, since research shows that marital satisfaction drops with the birth of the first child - and with each successive birth. Research also shows that the burden of this task typically falls to one member of the marriage, the wife. This is a recipe for criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. These Four Horsemen of Marital Apocalypse as identified by Dr. John Gottman will ultimately take us to where we don't want to go.


More about those Horsemen in a few moments. But first here are some suggestions that are obvious but that are easy to forget. These actions should be foundational in any marriage. The most important suggestion is this: these ideas have double the value when the husband takes responsibility for planning and executing these tasks. These are not "just one more thing I have to do." These are "the most important things I have to do."
Searching the Internet for the phrase "Keeping the Spark Alive" will generate over 8 million hits. A short review for the book Keeping the Spark Alive: Preventing Burnout in Love and Marriage by Ayalya M. Pines makes this point: "It doesn't say a lot that's new; it simply gives old problems new names;" as though this is a problem! We are neither the first generation to have these problems and there is no "cure" for them - there are only very time tested ways of "caring" for one another so that when the stress, fatigue and even boredom of marriage comes along, there is a framework to talk about the problem and a foundation of caring that acts as a keel for the ship of matrimony when the really huge storms come along, e.g. major spousal illness, a child's illness or delinquency, job loss or bankruptcy, or infidelity in all of its many incarnations. I've brought along a handout from one of these sources and added note: these things have even more impact when planned by the man in the marriage.
Now about those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in marriage. These four will corrode and ultimately destroy a marriage by poisoning the well of happiness and the scent of delight which leads to genuine intimacy. The first Horseman is criticism . Men hear this horseman's hooves whenever his wife says, "Honey, we need to talk!" What follows is typically a list of things he hasn't done and typically lets the second Horseman, defensiveness , out of the gate. Defensiveness wears many saddles from 'I forgot' and 'you didn't tell me' to an outright counter-attack of 'yah, but what about when you did....' Few people want to get close to someone who has just blamed them for some personal or familial failure or with someone who has just counter-attacked with an escalating voice. The husband who comes home and immediately critiques what the mother-who-works-at-home has not yet done is equally liable to let the horses of criticism and defensiveness out of the stall.
Here are some antidotes for these two Horsemen. When something isn't going well or there is a concern, try a soft start up at a time when you can really converse about the problem. Don't try and sandwich it in between mouthfuls of dinner or just before going to sleep. Be clear, be factual and stay on the topic. "When you do / say / (fill in the blank), I feel (fill in the blank)," is a good formula. Don't rehash all the history around past failures (gunny-sacking) and if he brings up one of your failings, say something like, "I'm perfectly willing to talk about that once we've gotten this out of the way. Right now I need us to resolve (fill in the blank). If we run out of time, I'm willing to set up an appointment in the next 36 hours to talk about your concern."
If your husband has a legitimate concern, don't be a weasel about your schedule or responsibilities unless you're willing to grant him the same grace. Say simply, "You're right. I let that slip." Most husbands I have talked to complain their wives "never" take responsibility for what they've failed to do. "She's never wrong," is the most common complaint I hear. While not likely to be factually true, the perception is devastating for any hope of intimacy.
When these two Horsemen have been in your pasture for a while, they breed two foals who, when they reach full adulthood, truly signal the marriage is in trouble and intimacy becomes a fleeting memory. The third Horseman is contempt. It takes a lot of criticism and defensiveness to give birth to this one, and much more to feed it. Ultimately contempt prompts us to see our spouse as a failed human being, not just poorly skilled in some tasks. Contempt finally leads to the fourth Horseman, stonewalling . This horseman appears when criticism and defensiveness have reached a point where communication is nearly impossible. Its' signature is the elevated pulse, the folded arms, being buried in computer solitaire, or simply leaving the room without any effort to respond.
These two Horsemen give ground grudgingly. The primary antidote for contempt is to remember the "why's and who" of marriage. Recovering those memories and rediscovering the person you married - and allowing that person to rediscover you - can eventually put this horse and rider back in the barn. Stonewalling requires the most work. It involves using strategies to actually lower our pulse rates, open up our posture and find ways to soothe our limbic systems so that we can begin to listen clearly to our spouse.


So to recap a bit. The number one strategy to keep a marriage vital is to devote quality time to your spouse. This involves forethought and planning of time together as well as daily application of the balm of appreciation. This is not, as they say, rocket science. It is, however, time-tested over the millennia in marriages that span the decades. The research is clear: couples who turn toward their spouse, accept the influence of their spouse and build a foundation of friendship with their spouses stay married 86 percent of the time; those who do not only stay married 31 percent of the time.
Time together and a willingness to give one's spouse the benefit of the doubt, including speaking to them with the same respect we offer co-workers or insist our children show toward other adults, salves the wounds of neglect and the harried pace of life. It turns out that those "little things" are not so little after all. Candy, roses and even diamonds are appropriate for special times. But it is ordinary time spent together in friendship that makes marriage work.

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