Merely spending time together doesn't cement a marriage, but there's strong science suggesting that sharing new experiences, celebrating a partner's successes and offering empathy and the right kind of support when needed can help make a marriage last.
Couples with good support from family and friends and good coping skills do better getting through such ordeals as job loss, which can tear marriages apart. The best way to handle the bad behavior that arises with such stressful events is "try to realize that when your partner behaves badly, they're not always going to be that way, and it doesn't represent what they're really like," advised Art Aron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who with his wife and longtime collaborator Elaine Aron, specializes in the study of close relationships and what it takes to make them work.
|You Got Communication Training Before Tying the Knot|
Among the top predictors of marital success are communication skills that allow husbands and wives "to handle conflict and support each other," said Aron. He's a fan of premarital skills training, the kind that clergy members often encourage for prospective brides and grooms. "The evidence is that 10 to 20 years later, people are doing a lot better in their marriage. They're less likely to be divorced, less likely to be unhappy," Aron said.
Couples who have been together for years may want to consider marital enrichment courses that "also have been demonstrated to make a difference." He cited collaborative work at UCLA from Thomas Bradbury , a psychology professor, and Benjamin Karney , a social psychology professor, who have studied and designed experimental programs to prevent marriages from falling apart in their early years.
|You Make Time to Stave off the Boredom Trap|
Although some of the romantic ardor early in a marriage naturally wanes with time, that doesn't mean the passion need die out, says Aron. Couples who regularly make time for "doing exciting, novel and challenging things" have happier marriages, whether they're taking classes together or bungee jumping. He suggests that they set aside date nights: "If they do it every week, it's good for their marriage. It enriches and enlivens."
Aron has devoted more than two decades to studying how shared experiences that create a positive, excited feeling yield "more satisfaction, more love, more closeness and marital happiness." Even planning those activities can be exciting, he said. Aron co-authored a study in the journal Psychological Science in March 2009 that looked at relative amounts of marital boredom or excitement in the seventh year of marriage and how that played out by the 16th year of marriage.
"Boredom undermines closeness, which in turn undermines satisfaction," he and his co-authors wrote. However, excitement in relationships leads to closeness that "in turn promotes satisfaction in the long term." Sharing in novel, exciting activities, "can reignite relationship passion by associating the excitement with the relationship," they said, concluding that "benefits may be long-lasting, for both husbands and wives."
|You Have Similar Styles of (Constructively) Arguing|
Sure, the early years of marriage may be relatively blissful. But over time, disagreements can open rifts in a marriage, particularly when partners have divergent styles of handling conflict. Having one spouse handle disagreements in a constructive way while the other withdraws is a recipe for marital discord, according to findings drawn from the Early Years of Marriage Project, conducted at the University of Michigan. Study author Kira Burditt reported lower divorce rates where both partners employed constructive strategies to handle conflict, according to findings appearing in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
|You Watch Out For Each Other's Mental Health|
Maintaining mental health is important to marital success, scientists find. A married man or woman's own anxiety or depression can be a powerful predictor of marital satisfaction, as can his or her spouse's depression, according to a 2004 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology from Lauren M. Weinstock and Mark A. Whisman, psychologists at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They studied 774 couples, most in their early 40s, who had been married an average of about 16 years to assess how much a partner's marital satisfaction is influenced by his or her own mental health and by that of a partner. A spouse's depression may reduce marital satisfaction through the toll it takes on the healthy partner. Past studies found that "people living with a depressed person report feeling burdened in numerous ways and feeling upset by the person's depressive symptoms," they wrote. If either partner suffers from depression or insecurity, "the best thing they can do for the relationship is get therapy," Aron suggested.
|You Don't Try to Offer Too Much Support|
Sometimes more is better, but marriage specialists say it's definitely possible to overdo it when offering support to your mate. Sometimes the right type of support is more appreciated than the quantity.
Too much support – often delivered as unwanted advice, is "at least as detrimental, if not more detrimental" to a marriage than providing too little support, according to Erika Lawrence, director of the University of Iowa's Center for Couple and Family studies, and graduate student Rebecca L. Brock. They published findings from their study of 103 newly married couples surveyed for five years in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2009. In a related study appearing in 2008 in the journal Personal Relationships, Lawrence, Brock and a half-dozen co-authors analyzed survey responses from 275 newly married couples.
They found that wives derived more marital satisfaction from a husband's attempt to offer support – even if he wasn't successful. Husbands, however, got more marital satisfaction from their wives providing the right kind of support, which, depending upon circumstances was physical comfort/emotional support, a boost to their esteem, information, or supportive actions. The study authors suggested that their findings might lead marriage counselors to encourage couples they counsel to address the way each perceives the adequacy and quantity of support they get from the other partner.
|You Trim the Tree/Light the Menorah/Perform the Fast Together|
Everyone has heard that the family that prays together stays together. Turns out that couples who share in religious holiday rituals, especially traditions passed down through the generations, are likely cementing their marriages. The holiday commemorations give them "the opportunity to reaffirm their beliefs and relationship," concluded Syracuse University psychologists Barbara H. Fiese and Thomas J. Tomcho. They studied religious holiday traditions among 120 couples who'd been married an average of nine years with one child in pre-school. Husbands' marital satisfaction was more strongly associated with the meaning of rituals like decorating their homes or lighting candles for holiday celebrations, they reported in the Journal of Family Psychology in December 2001. Wives' marital satisfaction was more closely bound to the routines involved in the holiday celebrations.
|You Celebrate Each Other's Success|
Acknowledging and celebrating a spouse's successes, from a job promotion to little things like finding lost keys, can be more powerful than supporting him or her when things go badly, Aron said, citing studies from research psychologists Shelly Gable, an assistant professor at UCLA, and Harry Reis, a professor at the University of Rochester, into the relationship benefits of sharing good news.
Aron recently followed their advice when a journal that accepts a tiny percentage of submissions agreed to publish one of his wife's research papers. He turned her email acceptance into a poster that he attached to the front door, "so that when she walked into the house, she would see that poster. It was wonderful!" He said the positive effect of sharing in this way "even carries over to friendships, which benefit a lot when you celebrate each other's success."