Building a healthy marriage, like building and maintaining a home, means having a lot of tools in your toolbox to make repairs. The more tools you have, the better equipped you are to fix something that goes wrong in the relationship. But how do we gain these tools when relationship repair doesn’t come naturally to us? For us, we’ve gained a wealth of wisdom by observing other healthy couples in our lives.
Research suggests that couples who are friends with other couples have better marriages. We’ve found this to be true among our diverse group of coupled friends. Because we got married in our late 30s, we have many friends our age who have been married a long time, some as much as 20 years. We love chatting with them about our varying paths to relationships, sharing the challenges we’ve faced and the ways we’ve navigated them. Each of us has a dynamic that is uniquely ours, which allows us to learn from each other by talking about how we handle conflict, romance, and intentionality within our marriages.
We’re friends with one couple that excels at expressing opinions and navigating disagreement. When we were driving with them once, they disagreed on the route to take to our destination. With friendly voices, both of them expressed their opinions and their reasons for wanting to go their respective ways. After a few minutes of discussion, one of them readily yielded and the decision was made with no hurt feelings.
Like them, we’re pretty good at accepting each other’s influence. What we’re learning from them, however, is how to disagree without being defensive. Both of us are conflict-avoidant, so sometimes we suppress our opinions or let our emotions build up until they become disproportionate to the issue.
Disagreement, we are learning, does not necessarily equate to conflict and can be handled respectfully without criticism or defensiveness.
Another couple we know are are masters of fondness and admiration. Whenever the husband’s wife walks into a room, we’ve observed the way he beams at the sight of her and warmly greets her. This might be typical for newlyweds, but they’ve been married for decades. That kind of enduring fondness looks simple up front, but it takes daily intentional effort.
We’ve made a habit of kissing each other first thing in the morning and before we go to bed. It’s a good start, but we’re learning that we need to find more ways to express fondness and admiration for each other throughout the ordinary days, weeks, and months of life. That means being more proactive about complimenting each other, expressing gratitude for the things we do for each other, and using nonsexual touch to express love and intimacy throughout the day.
A third couple we’re friends with is perhaps the most amazing model for us. Despite the ups and downs in their relationship, complicated by personal struggles, they have remained committed to their relationship and to each other. They are persistent in reading about relationships and attending workshops to gather more tools to strengthen their marriage. Few couples have modeled intentionality the way that they have.
Whenever we find ourselves falling into cruise control, we’re reminded that even the best relationships require regular maintenance. And so we continue to practice Gottman methods and seek out other resources, such as the #staymarried blog and podcast.
It’s not just the healthy couples we watch. We’ve gleaned a lot by watching those who struggle in relationships as well: couples who regularly show contempt for each other, or ones that get defensive or critical when they argue. One of our friends, who got divorced a number of years ago, had a stonewalling wife who refused to work on the marriage when it got rocky.
From our experience, the better we get at spotting and naming The Four Horsemen in other relationships, the better we get at avoiding them or using an antidote to repair the situation should they arise in our relationship.
Our marriage has improved just by befriending and surrounding ourselves with other healthy couples. Each marriage has its own set of tools for success, and if we take the time to observe other couples and talk with them about their own methods for maintenance and repair, we can learn from them and expand our own toolboxes, which improves the quality of our relationships.
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The Khalafs started their blog, Modern Kinship, to share their journey as a Christian same-sex couple and encourage others who feel called to marriage. Their faith brought them together and remains the cornerstone of their marriage. Constantino works for a non-profit dedicated to building bridges between the Church and the LGBTQ community; David is a fiction writer specializing in adventure and fantasy stories. They live in Portland, OR, where they spend most of their time drinking coffee, attempting to eat healthy, and occasionally sipping whisky.
Originally published at www.gottman.com. Want to improve your marriage in 60 seconds or less? Over 40 years of research with thousands of couples has proven a simple fact: small things often can create big changes over time. Got a minute? Sign up for The Marriage Minute here.