In all aspects of life, communication is key. But in a marriage, if there’s a communication breakdown, it can bring the whole thing down. As such, it’s vital for couples to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, however, that’s usually a lot easier said than done.
“The number one thing is that people want to be understood and they want to feel like their emotions are being valued,” says Jonathan Robinson, a couple’s therapist and author of the new book More Love, Less Conflict: A Communication Playbook for Couples. “And when that doesn’t happen, marriages start to have problems. I never have couples come into my office saying, ‘We really understand each other, that’s why we want a divorce!’ But of course the opposite happens all the time.”
But how can couples start on that road to understanding and better, healthier interaction? Here are eight traits that all happy marriages share.
They Do Daily Appreciations
A simple note, text message, or compliment can go a long way in a relationship, Robinson says. Just letting your spouse know that he or she is appreciated and that their efforts aren’t going unnoticed can help them to feel validated and understood. “The number one correlation with happiness in couples is the number of appreciations they give to each other,” he says. “We forget to do daily appreciations.”
They Listen Actively
As your grade school teacher likely chided you about, there’s a difference between “hearing” and listening.” This is a big part of a happy marriage, too. In order to fully take in what your spouse is saying to you, Robinson recommends what he calls ‘empathic listening,’ which means listening and responding not with solutions or options but with such phrases as, “I can see that you’re upset because…” That level of understanding can help husbands and wives diffuse arguments relatively quickly. “It’s hard for couples to do this because they get triggered so easily, and they don’t know this skill,” says Robinson. “So it’s really important that they practice it with small things before they get triggered. So that, when they’re triggered, they’ll still be able to do it.”
They Write Down Criticisms
No matter how things are going in your marriage, good or bad, if you criticize your spouse aloud, there will be flare-ups. That’s why Robinson recommends writing down some things about your partner that might rub you the wrong way and presenting them to your partner. When criticisms are presented in this fashion, your partner can take them, process them, and formulate an answer, rather than just firing back a retort.
“I usually have couples do that once every three months so it doesn’t get overwhelming. Just say, ‘These are some of the things I’m having a hard time with,’” Robinson says. “Complaining and shaming your spouse into trying to change does not work. I think direct criticism is to be avoided completely. But if you need to say something, do it in written form.”
They Practice Positivity
Research shows that happy couples who practice a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative behaviors are more likely to be happy and healthy. Robinson does agree that that sentiment has shown to be true, but also acknowledges that very few married couples realistically practice that. However, he says that saying positive statements out loud on a regular basis helps build equity in a relationship and can be key in diffusing arguments down the road.
“It’s really important to have those positive statements,” he says. “It’s like money in the bank. So that, when you need to make a withdrawal because of life circumstances or stress, you have something in the bank to withdraw from. And if you don’t say positive statements on an ongoing basis, then your marriage can easily go bankrupt.”
They Embrace the Power of the Time Out
A marital disagreement can go from a spark to a five-alarm blaze with one wrong word. To keep that from happening, Robinson recommends putting the brakes on a disagreement before it gets out of hand.
“If you see you’re getting hot and heavy and upset, use the phrase ‘red light,’” he says. “That’s a signal that you should take minutes to just quiet down and say nothing and calm down. By the time you’re back after two minutes, you’re more likely to be in the rational part of your brain and not be upset.”
They Make Contact
Don’t underestimate the power of simple gestures. You can say a lot without saying a word just by holding hands or giving a hug. “All these things are really important, because in this culture, we don’t have enough physical touch,” says Robinson. “So I have couples do that every day. And it’s not to be overlooked.”
They Use “I” Statements
What you say during an argument matters. When you do argue with your spouse, try and shift the focus by not casting blame and saying, “You did this” or ‘You need to fix this’ and instead use “I” statements. “When you use ‘you’ statements, they feel blamed and their ears turn off,” says Robinson. “So, when you use ‘I’ statements, you avoid that. You can take responsibility by using a statement like, ‘One way I see I contributed to this upset is…’ What you’re trying to do is not have your partner become defensive and ‘I’ statement or taking some responsibility helps with that.”
They Ask Questions
Yes, you might have been married a long time, and perhaps dating longer before that, but you’d be surprised to know that there’s still probably a lot to learn about your significant other. Robinson recommends getting curious. “I have various exercises in More Love, Less Conflict,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just asking questions like, ‘What was the highlight of your week?’ or ‘When did you feel the most close to me this week?’ or ‘What’s something that you’d like from me?’ or ‘What’s something that would make things even better?’ Very simple questions that keep the love alive and keep understanding there is very useful.”