Marriages, like all relationships, and like all living things, need to be nurtured. When we get stressed, we may forget to do and say the things that help our spouses feel connected to us. Some simple concepts, practiced regularly, can really make a difference.
John Gottman, a well-known researcher and author on the topic of successful marriages, says that it is the ratio of positive to negative acts in a marriage that makes all the difference. In other words, if we look at our exchanges throughout the day, hopefully we will see that we are saying or doing 5 positive expressions of love, respect and appreciation for every 1 criticism.
This is sounds really simple, but is harder to put into action than we may think. A good way to begin is to start using “I messages” rather than “you messages”. For instance, rather than saying, “You are such a slob! Why don’t you pick up your socks!”, you might try saying, “I get frustrated when I come in the family room and see dirty socks lying on the floor. Could you please keep them picked up?”. That’s still a criticism, but the phrasing makes all the difference in the world.
Fitting in those compliments is even more important. When you think about how rushed and stressed our lives are, especially these days, it can be hard to stay in a positive frame of mind about ourselves, let alone our partners. But we need to, for our sakes and for theirs. This idea is similar to cultivating “an attitude of gratitude” in general, only it is specific to your spouse. Start a habit, now, of finding positive things to say, and say them frequently. Remember, if we’re going to keep that ratio of 5 to 1, we’re going to need a lot of positives if we have anything critical we want to say as well.
Like any new habit, this one will take time to develop. Don’t be surprised if you start out great, and then slip, or even forget all about it, in a few days. What should you do then? Start over! Start over every time you slip, from now until forever. This is good advice in general.
What if your spouse doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t change their behavior? Doesn’t matter! This part is about focusing on your behavior, and there is a lot of freedom in that. If we do something hoping that someone else will change, we give away a lot of power to them. If we focus on trying to change ourselves, it is much simpler. Believe me, if one person in a relationship changes, the other will change in one direction or another eventually. But the main point is to improve our behavior, because that is something that we can control.
Does this sound like “be the best you can be?” I guess it is, but that’s always the way in behavior change. Find something that you need to improve, and do it. If nothing else, you’ll feel better about yourself. Then open your eyes, look hard for some positive change, and express your appreciation. Let me know how it works!