How to grow a healthy marriage
By Dr. Brenda Wade
When Stephanie and Matt came to me for premarital coaching, they sat down on the love seat in my office, holding hands and glowing with love. I asked what they wanted to get out of their counseling and Stephanie replied, “I read in one of your books that there are two-thirds fewer divorces among couples who get premarital counseling. We love each other and we want to stay together, so here we are.”
“And both of us come from divorced parents,” Matt chimed in. “I remember all the traveling back and forth, feeling awkward, sad, and angry all the time. I use to get in fights almost every day at school. It was all I could do because I didn’t understand why I felt so bad.”
“We don’t want that.” Stephanie said firmly. “We’ve already read several books. What else do we need to do?”
“Thank God you’re here,” I replied. “It’s much cheaper to do some work up front rather than try to fix your relationship later when negative patterns are more ingrained. I have to tell you, I was a trained scientist before I became a clinician so brace yourself, you’re about to learn the science of love.”
Yes, that’s right. Scientists like John Gottman of the University of Washington and Alan Leavitt of the University of California, Berkeley have shown that there are specific factors that lead to lasting love. But the flip side is also true; there are behaviors that will destroy your relationship. Good and bad, these factors will determine if your marriage has a fat love bank account or if you’ll end up emotionally bankrupt. Following is a summary of what I shared with Stephanie and Matt over the next eight weeks of their premarital counseling that you can start putting to use right away.
The major factors that contribute to marital bliss versus martial bomb is whether you use the four A’s or the four C’s as the basis of your relationship. ‘The four what?’ you’re probably thinking. Let me break it down for you.
The C’s: criticism, coldness, contempt, combativeness
- Criticism means looking for what’s wrong or focusing on the negative. We all know what it’s like to be criticized and it’s not fun. Why do this to your loved one?
- Coldness equals withdrawing affection, love, positive attention, and/or sex. Did someone turn down the temperature?
- Contempt is behaving as if your partner disgusts you, including eye-rolling, sarcasm, speaking in a contemptuous tone or using contemptuous words such as “that’s a stupid idea,” or “you need help.”
- Combativeness is using either attacking or defending as a way of communicating. Attacking is “You are the problem, you never call, you should change.” Defending is “I’m not the one causing problems, I do all the work,” etc.
I cringe even writing about the four C’s, just imagine how it feels to live with them! Research shows that couples who use the four C’s as their primary means of communication, have an 81 percent–let me repeat that–81 percent chance of being divorced within five years. The four C’s are what we would technically call emotional or verbal abuse and they are withdraws from your love bank account. But wait, help is on the way!
The A’s: affection, admiration, appreciation, acceptance
- Affection equals words, gestures, tones or touches that convey love and caring.
- Admiration are words such as, “Wow, you look as attractive now as the first time I saw you,” or “you are always ready with great ideas to make our life better.”
- Appreciation equals giving thanks for your partner and the contributions they make to you and your life. Remember when you didn’t have a partner and longed for one? Now show that they are here, show them some appreciation!
- Everyone longs to be accepted for their true selves. To express acceptance means to love the core of who your partner is, what they stand for in the world, and even their quirks and little annoying habits. This doesn’t mean you don’t strive to grow and evolve and become better people, but it does mean no nagging about habits or your pet peeves unless it crosses the line and become a C or a real hazard to you, your partner or your relationship.
Making the A’s a daily practice automatically eliminates the C’s, thereby depriving them of any opportunity to rear their C-shaped little heads. Research shows that we develop new patterns in our brains the more we repeat something. So go forth and build those love patterns and your love bank account will never go bankrupt, it will always be full.
Not surprisingly, after implementing the A behaviors above into daily practice and working to eliminate those nasty C’s, Stephanie and Matt are now celebrating their second wedding anniversary and expecting their first child. In a note they sent me recently, they say they practice the A’s like a new religion. Adopt these behaviors and you too will grow a healthy, steadfast marriage.
Dr. Brenda is a regular on NBC’s Today Show and CNN as a psychology expert. She has been featured on shows such as Oprah and Good Morning America, and as the host of the nationally syndicated Can This Marriage Be Saved and the national PBS Pledge Special Power Choices. Dr. Brenda is also founder of the Love and Money Summit. For more information on Dr. Brenda’s books Power Choices, Love Lessons, and What Mama Couldn’t Tell Us About Love or on her upcoming workshops, check out www.docwade.com.