Habits for a Healthy Relationship – by Alyssa McElwain, PhD Univ. WY

Alyssa McElwain, PhD, CFLE, Asst. Professor Dept of Family & Consumer Sciences, UWyo

Are you ready for what happens after the rings and reception? As you look forward to a lifelong commitment, it’s easy to feel a mixture of excitement and nerves.  You have probably heard the odds about divorce and you’ve probably heard that relationships take work. Love isn’t always enough to sustain a marriage.

What do people do in healthy, long-lasting relationships? To answer that, I have to share the knowledge and wisdom of my go-to guru on healthy relationships & marriage. Dr. John Gottman is a therapist and researcher who has studied couple relationships for decades. This man can actually predict divorce. He doesn’t have a crystal ball; he has identified the destructive habits that cause marital demise. Most importantly, he figured out the key habits people engage in on a regular basis to do work in their relationship. These habits are effective–we have decades of research to prove it. The great thing is these habits are things you can do right now, on a daily basis, to help your relationship thrive over the years.

So, what’s the secret? Put simply, couples in happy long-lasting relationships are best friends and treat each other accordingly. That foundation of friendship means that partners know about each other’s current lives. Here’s the key with this one: the person you marry will change. Perhaps in small ways, but maybe in major ways. For instance, if you become parents together, that role will change your worlds in big ways. It’s important to keep yourself updated on your partner’s life of which you share a large part. Dr. Gottman calls this concept “Love Maps.” He stresses the importance of knowing your partner’s inner world by having regular conversations about their life. What is their favorite way to spend their time? What is their biggest fear? What personal improvements are they trying to make? What’s going on with their friendships? Answers to these questions give you a mental picture of your partner’s world. We’ve all probably heard a person regretfully say, “we just grew apart,” or, “I just don’t know who they are anymore, they’re not the person I married.” Keeping up-to-date on your “Love Map” is just one way to prevent that from happening and keep a strong foundation of friendship.

Best friends listen to one another and deal with conflict in a generally respectful way. Part of listening to one another involves including your partner in big decisions. Dr. Gottman found that partners (men especially) who accept influence from their partner have greater satisfaction in their relationships. Accepting influence means including your partner in major decisions, valuing their opinion, and listening to their ideas. Want to buy a new car? Thinking about applying for a new job in another town? Talk about the decision with your partner.

Now, on to that sticky subject of conflict — in any discussion about healthy relationships, it’s bound to get some attention. Did you know that happy couples fight as much as unhappy couples? Yes, you read that right. Research shows that it’s not how much you fight, it’s how you fight that counts. Contempt, criticism, and explosive anger will all eat away at that foundation of friendship. Unfortunately, our biology works against us when we face conflict. When you become angry or emotionally aroused, your brain is actually flooded with chemicals that render you useless in solving problems and seeing your partner’s point of view. It’s easier said than done, but the best thing to do when you’re emotional or angry is to take a break and come back to the conversation when you are both calm and have a clear mind.

Happy, long-lasting couples don’t just deal with conflict when it arises, they do so much more to express appreciation and affection. John Gottman found that stable, happy couples had a ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction. That is, these couples still argue, say snarky things, or snap at one another. But, they also share inside jokes, hug, laugh, listen, and compliment each other more than they fight. It’s like filling up your love bank account with positive experiences so that when you take a withdrawal, you’ll be okay.

Like many things in life, you get out of marriage what you put into it. The hard work that goes into a lasting marriage pays off. Satisfied couples are happier, mentally and physically better off, and (especially men) are likely to live longer. Happy couples also make better parents. Notice that the key word in those statements is happy. Unhappy couples don’t fare so well. It’s not simply being married that is beneficial–it’s being in a satisfied, emotionally connected relationship. So, as you look forward to a lifetime together, keep in mind these habits for a healthy, happy relationship.

Recommended Resources:

Check out the Gottman Institute and their “Card Deck” app

“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman

For new parents: “And Baby Makes Three” by John Gottman

About Alyssa McElwain …

Alyssa McElwain, PhD, CFLE is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences at the University of Wyoming. Dr. McElwain received her M.S. in Marriage & Family Therapy from Purdue University in 2008, and her Ph.D in Human Development & Family Studies from Auburn University in 2015. Her approach to teaching her classes at UW includes active student participation & discussion, including role playing activities and critical case analyses. “Step into one of my classes and you will clearly see that teaching is my passion,” Dr. McElwain writes. “I strive to provide an engaging educational environment where students actively participate in their learning. My belief is that learning can and should be fun. I also believe the best learning occurs when people work hard and practice using the information they are learning.” To learn more about Dr. McElwain’s professional & personal pursuits, visit her website, https://alyssamcelwain.weebly.com/

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