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Wilburn: Focus on cornerstones for a strong marriage

POSTED: January 4, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Pause for a moment and think about your marriage.

What thoughts come to mind - how do you feel about your relationship?

Your marriage may generally provide great happiness and satisfaction for both of you. Or, because of high levels of conflict and unfulfilled expectations, your marriage may be a source of great anxiety and frustration.

Another possibility is that life for you and your spouse has become so hectic that you never seem to be able to connect with each other as you once did.

If these situations sound familiar, you are not alone.

In 2006, Hall County had 1,119 couples walk down the aisle and 872 couples file for divorce. This means we nearly had one couple divorce for every one couple who married!

It is obvious that many people do not get married and live "happily ever after." However, marriage continues to be an important goal for most Americans.

In fact, more than 90 percent of adults will get married at least once in their lifetime.

Most spouses start out full of hopes and dreams and are truly committed to making their marriage work. Yet as the reality of living with a less-than-perfect spouse sets in and the pressures of life build, many feel less romantic and do not find as much satisfaction in their relationships.

All marriages change over time, but with hard work and dedication, people can keep their marriages strong and enjoyable. How is it done?

Consider the positive aspects of your marriage.

What are you doing that works well and brings you and your spouse joy and happiness? If you have a satisfying marriage, chances are that your relationship has high levels of positivity, empathy, commitment and acceptance. A look at each aspect helps uncover the good in a dedicated marriage.

Positivity

John Gottman, one of the nation's leading experts on marital relationships, has found that the main difference between stable and unstable marriages is the amount of positive thoughts and actions spouses engage in toward each other.

Through careful observation of hundreds of couples, he has come to the conclusion that successful spouses have far more positive than negative interactions. If there is too much negativity - criticizing, demanding, name-calling, etc. - the relationship will suffer.

However, if there is never any negativity, it probably means that frustrations and grievances are not getting air time and unresolved tension is accumulating inside one or both partners.

The key is balance between the two extremes. There are many ways to foster positivity in a marriage: Be affectionate, truly listen to each other and be playful.

Empathy

This means understanding a person's perspective by putting oneself in his or her shoes.

Many researchers have shown that empathy is important for relationship satisfaction. People are more likely to feel good about their marriage when they perceive that their spouses truly understand their thoughts and feelings.

Commitment

When two people are truly dedicated to making their marriage work, despite the unavoidable challenges and obstacles, they are more likely to have a relationship that lasts.

In most Western cultures, individualism is highly valued. But if it is not balanced by a concern for the needs of others, it can easily lead to selfishness in marriage. However, when spouses are committed to investing in their marriage and are willing to sacrifice some of their own preferences for the good of the relationship, they usually have high-quality marriages.

Acceptance

Everyone wants to feel valued and respected. When people feel that their spouses truly accept them for who they are, they are usually more secure and confident in their relationships.

Often, there is conflict in marriage because a partner cannot accept the preferences of his or her spouse and tries to demand change. However, research has shown that change is much more likely to occur when spouses respect differences and accept each other unconditionally.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Her Family Ties column runs in Sunday Life on the first Sunday of each month. Contact: 770-535-8290.



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