Nurture the Friendship in Your Marriage

By Nancy Gump, MA, MFT

Couples, young and old, may be interested in knowing that fighting alone is not an indication of future divorce. The research of  Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington indicates that it is not whether couples fight, but rather what strengths exist in the connection between them that determines the likelihood of divorce. The presence of humor during arguments, repair attempts afterwards, and the ability to notice and respond to one’s partner’s ways of reaching towards the relationship are key indicators of longevity in marriage. The creating and sustaining of friendship and shared meaning are the primary necessities for a strong marital foundation.

Dr. Gottman believes that traditional marriage counselors, who focus primarily on communication skills, are neglecting the bigger picture, and that good communication alone will not save a marriage. He believes couples need to learn to build on their friendship, and to separate their solvable from their unsolvable problems. He stresses the importance of therapists teaching couples how to work with the unsolvable, perpetual conflicts that every marriage has. The key here is to think in terms of coming to dialogue rather than to resolution.

So how do you know if you are working with a marriage therapist who can really help? Your therapist may not use Gottman’s language or terms. But he or she is effective if you feel you are getting to know your partner better, and coming to understand his or her life goals and dreams better. If you are learning how to show appreciation to your partner, and if he or she is doing the same, it’s a good indication that you are moving closer. Slowly but surely, you can change the atmosphere of your home from one of loneliness and distance to one of mutual appreciation, love and respect.

This foundation of friendship can really help when it comes to working on those perpetual conflicts. To clarify, let’s take a hypothetical couple – John and Mary. They have an ongoing disagreement about how to spend the little leisure time they have on weekend nights. Both of them work, but Mary gets off earlier and does most of the cooking and caring for the kids after school. Her idea of a good time when the weekend comes is to get a babysitter, and go out to dinner, dancing or a movie with John. She doesn’t mind being the one to find the sitter, but she hates the feeling that she must drag John away from home on Saturday night. She resents that she has to beg to get him to go out. John on the other hand, longs to just let down and hang out at home when the weekend comes. He enjoys a family meal, and watching a rented movie with Mary after they put the children to bed. He’s tired of Mary’s complaining that he’s a couch potato. He works hard and can’t understand why she has to criticize, and why she can t just enjoy cuddling and watching a movie on the couch with him.

John and Mary’s therapist can help by teaching them to stop the blame, and to talk openly about their differing dreams within this conflict. Here’s what John might learn about Mary: She grew up with a single mother who worked full time and was exhausted on evenings and weekends. On the Saturdays she didn’t work, she had to do shopping, laundry and other household chores. Mary longed for special attention from her mom, and to go on some fun outings with her when the weekend came, but it rarely happened. There wasn’t money or time for such things. As a result she felt unimportant. She vowed that when she grew up, she would have a marriage where her partner enjoyed taking her out, and treating her to a special time to show his love for her. Mary’s dream within this conflict is to feel special and to be shown appreciation for the hard work that she does day in and day out.

What could Mary learn about John and his dream within this conflict? John grew up in a very traditional family where his dad worked full time, and his mom cared for him and his siblings and for their home. On Saturday nights they had a family tradition of having a meal and playing games together as a family. It was a very happy and secure time, and the highlight of his week as a child. He vowed that he would recreate this same sense of warmth, security and closeness in his own family when he grew up. Staying at home and having leisure time with his wife and kids fulfills his dream of a peaceful and harmonious family life. It helps him to know he’s loved when his wife and kids want to spend time at home with him.

Once John and Mary have gained some understanding of the other’s dream within this conflict, navigating their weekends will be easier. There will more than likely be a willingness on the part of each to express love for their partner by accommodating the other’s dream at least some of the time. It will help them to feel like better friends once they have their partner’s respect and good will around this perpetual conflict of how to spend weekend leisure time. John will always prefer being home on Saturday nights, and Mary will prefer going out. That’s okay – it’s not the conflict, but the inability to navigate it that causes couples to become polarized and marriages to end.