Every year, thousands of Australians divorce. Most of them believed they’d be together forever, and many fought valiantly to save their marriages. At Three Seas, we counsel couples every day, advising them how to stay together, minimise conflict, increase communication, and improve intimacy. We’ve found that some skills matter more than others when it comes to keeping your marriage together. Sure, you can talk about communication and love, but these are amorphous concepts. To really create a marriage that stands the test of time, here are the skills you need to master.
Quit Trying to Be Right
Study after study has demonstrated that defensive behaviour destroys marriages. If you respond to every complaint with a complaint of your own, dismiss your partner’s concerns, or silently delight in the biting insult you just hurled in your spouse’s direction, then you’re spending too much time trying to be right. You might feel like you’ve won every fight, but you’ll soon be divorced if you keep up this behaviour. Rather than contemplating what you can do to win or vent your anger, consider what your ideal outcome is, then think about how to get it.
For instance, if your wife tells you you’re not helping out enough around the house, consider your ideal outcome. Odds are good it’s an end to the conflict, and the fastest way to achieve that is to ask your wife what you can do differently. This may mean admitting you’re not always right, but it will also mean staying married.
Learn How to Listen Without Judgment
When was the last time you really listened to your spouse? If you’re anything like most couples we treat, you spend a lot of time responding to what you think your spouse has said, not what he or she actually said. Master the art of listening without judgment or defensiveness, though, and you’ll have fewer conflicts. You’ll also have more to talk about.
To hone this skill, ask your spouse to clarify when something sounds aggressive or you don’t understand. And don’t fly off the handle if he or she initially attacks, since remaining calm can induce your spouse to tone down the rhetoric and retreat. For example, if your husband begins screaming that you’re irresponsible with money, ask him to clarify, then reflect to him his concerns to show that you understand them. In many marriage conflicts, simply acknowledging and addressing the conflict is enough to cause that conflict to dissipate.
Master Sincere Apologies
Everyone makes mistakes, even you. Many couples, especially those in high-conflict marriages, behave as though their partner’s failings mean they don’t have to apologise. The man whose wife cheated might feel no obligation to apologise for calling her names. But all hurtful behaviour warrants an apology, and if you’re unwilling to apologise, you may soon find yourself splitting up your family and possessions. To give a sincere apology:
- Acknowledge what you did wrong. Speak in the active voice. Not, “I’m sorry you were hurt,” but “I’m sorry I hurt you.”
- Tell your partner what you plan to do to avoid the behaviour in the future.
- If the behaviour was especially egregious, plan on several apologies, and don’t forget to reassure your spouse regularly.
- Don’t give backhanded apologies such as “I’m sorry you misunderstood me.” Apologise for your behaviour.
Do Something Loving Every Day
Everyone wants to feel special, but if you’re waiting for your partner to step up to the plate and become a master of romance, you’re doing it wrong. Model what you want by doing something loving for your spouse every day. It can be something small, like making her coffee or bringing him flowers, but the key is to repeat a kind action every day. People who do nice things for their partners have happier marriages, and report more positive feelings about their spouses.
In the early years of your courtship, things were more exciting because you were just getting to know your spouse. But your spouse hasn’t stopped growing and evolving, and neither have you. Asking lots of questions can help you get the conversation flowing, and may even help you get to know your spouse on a deeper level. Practice asking as many open-ended follow up questions as possible when your partner speaks. These questions enable you to steadily unearth parts of your partner you might never have otherwise known about.