Couples are often embarrassed when they come to counseling and begin to describe the problems they are facing. They say something like, “These issues seem so small when we actually describe them.” But it’s the small things that hurt a marriage, and at the same time, it’s the small things that can make your marriage stronger.
Here’s my list of five small things that when faithfully practiced, will keep your marriage strong:
1. Don’t stop verbalizing your appreciation for your spouse for his or her actions. We do this early in our relationship, but over time we begin to take a lot of the small things for granted. We just expect them. When they happen, we say nothing. When they don’t happen, we go negative and complain. Don’t get caught in that cycle. John Gottman’s research on strong marriages says that a strong marriage requires about 20 positive and affirming exchanges a day. Not all of them have to be verbal–it can just be a shared look.
2. Give a title to the bad times in your marriage. Jan and I married young and had a really tough go of it for about 10 years. We were committed to each other, so divorce wasn’t an option. We have named that period in our marriage, “the great tribulation.” What that has done for us is that we don’t relive that period–we simply refer to it by name. On the other hand, it is very important to talk about the good memories you have experienced together. Even go back to the good things at the beginning of your relationship. I know couples who have been married a long time, and every anniversary they watch the video of their wedding. Do the same with other great times in your family–watch the videos, or just reminisce together.
3. Never side with the “enemy.” It is so easy to end up siding with the “enemy,” and we don’t even know how we do it. Here’s how it often happens. One of you starts venting about a work situation, or a family situation, and the other one tries to balance the problem by explaining the possible motives of the “enemy.” Don’t go there! If he’s upset about his boss, simply validate what he is expressing. Be his supporter, don’t try to explain his boss. And if a husband can hear his wife’s stories about her bad day with the kids, he needs to just listen and sympathize–don’t try to fix it!
4. Develop small rituals you can do with each other. You probably already have some. What’s your ritual as one of you leaves the house? A kiss, a quick hug and “good bye?” Good. That’s an important ritual. I suggest that couples develop the ritual of spending 15 minutes after dinner just staying at the table and talking about their day. No problem-solving here, just casual conversation like they’d have with a friend at lunch. This keeps the marital friendship alive and well.
5. Do the little things that have meaning to your spouse. We often do for our spouse what is meaningful to us, and all too often that little loving behavior is totally missed. Talk together about what your spouse is doing for you that really connects, and what behaviors or words they could add that would feel special to you, and encourage your souse to do the same. Make them small, positive, and specific, and do one more than you’re already doing each day. The feelings of love are built on the behaviors of love.
Question: Which of these five little things are you already doing in your marriage?