When I meet with couples for therapy, one of the best predictors of how well the therapy will progress is the way they talk about their early years together. If, despite their current struggles, they can reminisce fondly about these times, it’s a promising sign. It means that they can step outside the moment’s frustrations, disappointments, and anger to capture more positive feelings. By strengthening this ability, they can regain and build up their positive feelings in the moment.
You can strengthen and be happier in your marriage with these four tips:
Value the strengths in your relationship. You may love each other’s sense of humor, appreciate how your personal strengths balance each other, or believe that you are a strong couple because you agree on basic morals or religious practices. By having a positive view of the parts of your marriage that you think are most important, you will feel happier with each other. However, because people and circumstances change, it is also very important to be flexible with this. For instance, if your normally calm spouse becomes more anxious as they face significant stressors, you might shift your focus from valuing their laid back nature to valuing their persistence in caring for the family.
View your spouse’s weaknesses or imperfections in a benign or caring way. By viewing your spouse’s weaknesses or annoying habits in a positive light, you can neutralize their impact. For example, while Melissa was frustrated every year when Scott forgot their anniversary, she was not too upset because she knew he was a more spontaneous kind of guy – like when he jumped out of the car at a red light one day to buy flowers for her from a street vendor.
Highlight your spouse’s positives while keeping your complaints specific. Although feeling positively about your spouse is important, it is also essential to address problems when they arise. However, the way you do this is key. When you keep your complaints specific to behaviors, not generalizing to your spouse’s character, then the tension tends to remain relatively small – or at least does not overshadow the whole relationship.
For instance, you might say, “When you talk on about your day and don’t ask me anything about mine, I feel like you don’t care about what’s going on for me.” This keeps the problem focused on this one behavior. You can still generally have a positive feeling toward your spouse; and your spouse can similarly still feel appreciated. By contrast, you are more likely to aggravate negative feelings by stating a global critique of your spouse, such as, “You are an incredibly insensitive person.”
Actively nurture the positive in your relationship. When life is going smoothly (or you just have a calm moment together), make a conscious effort to enjoy your relationship. Offer your undivided attention over dinner, make plans to go out rather than just hanging around at home again, or buy your spouse a surprise gift for no reason other than to see them smile. By doing this, you will build up good feelings that can carry your relationship during difficult times that might otherwise lead to a more troubled future.
Viewing your partner in a more positive light comes more easily to some people than it does to others. But everyone – even those blessed with the natural gift of being optimistic – can benefit from practicing a more positive way of being with their partner. When you and your partner learn to do this more, your marriage will flourish in the moment and in years to come.