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Keeping Marriage Good for Your Health

A New York Times article titled “Is marriage good for your health?” recently caught my attention. It detailed the history of research into the effects of marriage on personal health as well as some of the most recent findings, such as:

  • couples who were more negative and hostile when they argued or discussed contentious topics had the weakest immune-systems during the research period
  • the most hostile couples (during arguments) had wounds (skin wounds inflicted for the study) that took two days longer to heal than those of “couples who had showed less animosity while fighting”
  • divorced or widowed people had worse health than people who had been always been single

How to Keep Your Marriage Healthy

So the question is, how do you create and maintain a marriage that benefits your health? Here are a few tips that we’ve seen work over the years.

  1. Prepare for a healthy marriage. While it may sound obvious, many couples don’t build a strong foundation of love, support, and partnership before they tie the knot. Using tools like the Marriage Vow Workbook can help you put your relationship on strong footing before you head down the aisle.
  2. Learn to communicate effectively. Again this seems like common sense to most people, yet few take the time to actually do it. Whether you see a counselor, take communication classes, or use books like Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, find tools to help you and your partner communicate with compassion and honesty.
  3. Take time to heal wounds you inflict on each other. No matter how good our intentions or developed our skills, we will do things that are unloving and harmful to each other. Practice forgiveness and other ways of healing old hurts rather than letting them fester. Based on the research it seems this will be good for your physical health and well as the future success of your marriage.

Do you have specific ways you keep your marriage healthy? If so, we’d love to have your comments. Let’s learn from each other and make all our relationships even better.

“If you learn to how to manage disagreement early, then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”

~ Linda J. Waite, University of Chicago sociologist and an
author of one of the studies cited in the NYT article

The art of giving and receiving praise

Why is it that giving sincere praise is so challenging for so many of us—even (or perhaps especially) to our significant other? Is this a lost art in our culture, or have we humans always operated like this?

What is so difficult about praising someone for something they’ve done, whether the act was seemingly insignificant or really huge, say, holding the door for you when you have an armload of files or, perhaps, creating world peace in our time. “Thank you. I really appreciate your kindness. That was very thoughtful of you.” Is that truly so hard to say?

But acknowledging someone for something they’ve done seems relatively easy compared to praising another for who they are and what they mean to us. I might graciously thank Shonnie for cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, but how often am I willing to tell her how much I appreciate who she is and how glad I am that she’s in my life when she’s performing no action at all?

And accepting praise is just as difficult for many of us. How many times have you seen someone let an acknowledgment ricochet right off rather than take it in? “The counselor of the year award goes to Mary Jones, who is one of the most valuable and loved staff members in our organization. Let’s have a big round of applause for Mary!” And Mary reacts, “Aw, shucks, folks, it weren’t nothing.” Many might consider this humility. I suggest, however, that such a reaction is really self-deprecation and demonstrates and inability to authentically value oneself.

Frankly, I think we humans thrive on praise; it nourishes us, tells us we’re on the right track and let’s us know we’re appreciated by those around us. Sincere acknowledgments can also remind of us of who we are and what we’re about in this world.

A four-step program for giving your partner praise

  1. Notice when your significant other does something you really appreciate.
  2. Clear the chatter in your mind. You don’t have to say just the right thing. You won’t lose points in the relationship game. In fact, you’ll probably gain them, though that’s not the primary objective here.
  3. Be sincere in your acknowledgment. Speak from your heart.
  4. Give your partner an ample opportunity to take in your praise before moving on. If you think he or she has deflected it, you might gently ask, “Did you get what I just said? I really meant it.”

A three-step program for accepting praise

  1. When your partner (or someone else) is acknowledging you, stop for a moment, breathe deeply and take in the meaning of the words being spoken.
  2. Accept what is being said as the truth.
  3. Smile and say “thank you.”

Below are five tips from on giving sincere praise from Gretchen Rubin at . Useful in your all your relationships–friend, family, co-worker and romantic.

Five Tips for Giving Good Praise
by Gretchen Rubin

Be specific. You read this in a lot of parenting advice: praise means more when it’s specific than when it’s general. “What a beautiful painting!” is less gratifying than “Look at all the colors you’ve used! And I see you used all your fingers with the finger paints. You’ve really made your picture look like a spring garden!” This is true, for adults, too. “Great job,” is less satisfying than an enumeration of what, exactly, was done well.

Acknowledge the actor. The Big Man has a habit of saying something complimentary without acknowledging that I had anything to do with whatever result he’s talking about. For example, with this household project, he looked around once and remarked, “This really turned out well.” As if some deus ex machina had wrought these changes overnight. Aaargh.

The effusiveness and time spent in giving praise should be commensurate with the difficulty and time-intensiveness of the task. If a task was quick and easy, a hasty “Looks great!” will do; if a task was protracted and difficult, the praise should be more lengthy and descriptive. Also, you might bring up the praise more than once.

Remember the negativity bias. The “negativity bias” is a well-recognized psychological phenomenon: people react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. For example, within marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. So if you want to praise someone, remember that one critical comment will wipe out several positive comments, and will be far more memorable. To stay silent, and then remark something like, “It’s too bad that that door couldn’t be fixed,” will be perceived as highly critical.

Praise the everyday as well as the exceptional.
When people do something unusual, it’s easy to remember to give praise. But what about the things they do well every day without any recognition? It never hurts to point out how much you appreciate the small services and tasks that someone unfailingly performs. Something like, “You know what? In three years, I don’t think you’ve ever been even an hour late with the weekly report.” After all, we never forget to make a comment when someone screws up.

Give in or give up — one will radically improve your relationship

“It is important to know the difference between giving in and giving up.”

~ Brad Brown, co-founder of The More to Life Program

In our partnerships, be they romantic or platonic in nature, we are in a dance. There is give and take as we negotiate the steps of effective relationship. Many of us learned to relate in an adversarial way where someone wins and someone loses. If you’re like me, you might have even perfected the art of giving up simply to avoid the conflict that seemed to erupt when a disagreement occurred between two strong-willed people. Or you may be afraid to “give in” believing that it’s a sign of weakness or lack of conviction. But like the quote reminds us, there is a difference between “giving in” and “giving up.” Living that difference can transform your relationships.

Giving in versus giving up

  • Giving in creates space between you and another person; it’s an opening to step into. Giving up creates a void where you’ve disappeared; negative feelings occupy the void.
  • Giving in brings you closer to your partner. Giving up is the same as running away.
  • Giving in is admitting that you aren’t the sole authority. Giving up is abdicating your personal power.
  • Giving in is equivalent to saying, “You’re important to me. Let’s find a way to connect/work together.” Giving up is equivalent to saying, “F— you. I don’t care about our relationship.”
  • Giving in is moving toward your partner and seeking to reconnect. Giving up is pushing back and distancing yourself.

How to give in in your relationship

My guess is that many of you reading may be thinking, “Okay, this makes sense, but I don’t know what ‘giving in’ would look like or how to do it.” So here are a few ways you can practice giving in.

  • When you’re in a disagreement, giving in can mean not getting in the last word, refusing to continue trying to “win,” or simply, and honestly, saying, “You’re right.”
  • When you are personally feeling stuck, upset, scared, frustrated, angry, giving in can be telling the simple truth about how you are feeling and what’s going on for you. Giving in can also mean saying, “Help. I really need ‘x’ from you right now.”
  • Switch from your habitual ways of being in your relationship. If you tend to take the lead, choose instead to step back and let your partner play that role. If you generally are the task master, put away the “to do” list and instead seek to be spontaneous and playful.

While giving in may seem radical or odd at first, as you practice, I think you’ll find that it’s one of the best ways to make a positive impact on your relationship. I’d be delighted to hear about your experiences with this experiment.

Resolve to create a better marriage in 2008

Most people I know make New Year’s Resolutions an individual thing. If you want your marriage to be better, however, it’s best if you both resolve to make changes instead of making this a solo act. That doesn’t mean you both have to make the same resolutions. It simply means that you’re both committing to doing your part for the health of your marriage. Based on my experience, here are suggestions about two areas to consider for improvement — changes in these areas can profoundly alter your relationship for the better.

Past = resentment and grudges. 2008 = forgiveness and growth. Resolve to forgive each other for those hurtful things that we all sometimes do in our relationships. Let go of hurt feelings, talk about the pain, offer and accept apologies, then choose a new path forward.

Past = busyness and lots of “priorities.” 2008 = slowing down and reserving time for the relationship. Resolve to hold your marriage as sacred and give it the time and attention that it needs to thrive. Instead of waiting for special moments to say “I love you” or to give a gift, do things to show that any moment is a special moment in your relationship.

“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”

~ Wayne Dyer

May 2008 be a truly magical year for you and your beloved. May all that did not serve you in the past be gently left behind. May those dreams which you deferred now blossom and grow in the light of a new year. May you find more joy, love, and peace in the journey to come than that which you already have known. Happy New Year!

Gratitude strengthens our relationships

Gratitude is something Bruce and I consciously bring into our lives on a daily basis. At the evening meal we each express gratitude for one or more things that happened or simply were during the day. It might be something “small” or “big” for which we’re grateful. We might give thanks for something that is “positive,” or we may even notice gratitude for something we perceived as “negative.” Some days our words of thanks flow easily from hearts filled to the brim with appreciation. Other days we might really have to think about what we actually feel grateful for. Regardless of how easy or hard it is for us to identify that for which we are thankful, we have maintained this practice for over 5 years. I believe that gratitude has made our relationship even stronger than it would be without this thankfulness ritual.

Meister Eckhart quote about gratitude

How gratitude enhances our relationship (and can enhance yours too)

  • Gratitude infuses a relationship with positive energy. When we feel grateful for our lives, we tend to be more loving, thoughtful, compassionate, and supportive. Gratitude is a spark that lights many other warm and soothing fires.
  • Gratitude makes the “bad” times less troubling. Even when we do hit rough patches in our relationship, our commitment to find things for which we are thankful helps to pull us out of the blues.
  • Gratitude helps our love grow deeper. Along with our practice of giving thanks each evening, we verbally acknowledge each other (and then ourselves personally). Though we do have grievances with one another, our focus on what is working and what we’re truly grateful for helps strengthen our connection.
  • Gratitude becomes a positive foundation for the rest of our lives. Since we focus our relationship on gratitude and what’s already working, we tend to carry that same outlook with us into our work, our play, and our other important relationships. Having a gratitude practice as a couple means that we both have the practice as individuals.
  • Gratitude helps us keep the peace. It’s easy to get caught up in the ravenous energy of modern American culture and find ourselves yearning for more and better things. By noticing that which we are already so blessed to have, our cravings subside and we realize how happy, satisfied, and fulfilled we already are.

I would be grateful to know about your experience with gratitude, especially in the context of relationship. How has it changed your connection with your partner? With yourself? What roadblocks to gratitude do you find? What most profoundly evokes your gratitude? Please use the “comments” area to share or trackback to this post from your site.

Gratitude Quotes

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity. . . . Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

~ Melody Beattie

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.”

~ Albert Einstein

“We can spend a whole lifetime enjoying various benefits and not appreciate their value until we are deprived of them. How many lovers boldly contemplate separation, fondly imagining that they have had enough of the beloved. And yet as soon as they actually experience separation, they burn up with longing.”

~ Jami

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.”

~ Mary Jean Iron

Verbal communication — It’s what you say and how you say it

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

~ Edward R. Murrow

One of the greatest challenges all couples face centers around communication, because nearly every interaction involves communication of one sort or another. As one of my college professors in speech communication used to say, “you cannot not communicate.” So if we’re always communicating–verbally and non-verbally, intentionally and unintentionally–it’s important to be mindful of how our communication is being received. Let’s start by considering the messages you send verbally, through your words, tone of voice, and other qualities of speech.

Evaluate your verbal communication

While words only account for approximately 7% of the meaning people ascribe to your communication, tone of voice accounts for 38% of the meaning. So, it’s obvious that to be a successful communicator, you need to be aware of your verbal cues and clues (e.g., everything from words to sighs, moans, grunts).

  • Inflection refers to ups and downs in talking. Inflection helps you signal to your partner what’s important and may even indicate your emotional state (especially combined with volume and pitch).
  • Volume indicates the degree of loudness to your voice. Again, volume can indicate your energetic involvement with a topic and gives your spouse clues about your temperament and mood.
  • Pacing deals with your rate of speech or the speed of your talking. Matching your rate of speech and your intensity to that of your partner creates rapport and connection.
  • Word choice of course means what words you use to convey your message. Though words may have specific definitions, our lifetime of experience with a word means that our meaning for the word and someone else’s meaning might be quite different.
  • Silence refers to those gaps in our conversations. (Though silence is “non-verbal” it’s the absence of verbal communication, that’s why I’ve included it in this list.) Allow room for your partner to absorb what you’ve said and give yourself the space to take in what he/she is communicating to you.

As you engage in the next conversation with you partner, bring these aspects of verbal communication into your awareness. Are your choices enhancing communication or bringing about a disconnection? See what subtle changes you can make to connect with your partner and communicate in a productive, honoring, and meaningful way.

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”

~ Rollo May

Marital bliss — One couple’s formula for 24 love-filled years

If you want some great, tested advice about how to make your relationship thrive, read What Has Made it Work? Wisdom from The Happiest Couple I Know a post by our good friend, Adrian Deal. In it she shares the practices of her uncle Mike and aunt Kathy. Below are the 10 habits they’ve used to cultivate their happiness through the years.

  • We Only Made Two Promises
  • We Don’t Expect Things From Each Other
  • We Let Go of Jealousy
  • We Treat Each Other as True Friends
  • We Don’t Tease
  • We Build and Cherish Private Traditions
  • “That’s The Wrong Answer!”
  • We Make No Deals
  • We Assume We Won’t Fulfill All Needs
  • We Hug Often

Shonnie’s observations: I think their light-hearted way of saying, “That’s the wrong answer,” is a great way to diffuse the tension of potentially sticky situations. It’s a gentle way of redirecting the conversation without making it easy for anyone to feel guilty. Not having expectations is also a great way to avoid conflict and minimize one’s chances of being “let down.” Equally valuable is not teasing and this is a conversation Bruce and I have from time to time. Though swaddled in the guise of “just joking,” teasing often has an unloving or dishonoring message at its core.

Bruce’s observations: I don’t know what Mike and Kathy’s two promises were, yet it’s clear that they’ve made it simple to be intentional about their commitments to one another. Bravo! Plus hugging is a great way to stay connected–physically, emotionally and spiritually. A practice I learned from David Deida: When I sense a disconnection between me and Shonnie, I hug her, really hug her so that our hearts are physically close, and without words I let her know that I love her deeply, that all is well, that I’m with her all the way.

Yeah for Kathy and Mike for making their first 24 years so fantastic. Here’s best wishes for the same kind of bliss over the next quarter-century.

Podcast — Prevent negative energy from turning into trouble

icon for podpress  Standard Podcast [4:59m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

A tiny snowball at the top of a mountain starts to roll down the slopes. As it rolls, it accumulates more and more snow, becoming a gigantic snowy boulder that will crush anything in its path.

Have you ever had that kind of “snowball effect” in your relationship, where many tiny annoyances soon roll into one huge argument? My guess is that you have (or you at least know someone who has). I’m also guessing that you would be happy to have fewer such “snowball” situations from now on.

The good news is that we each have personal warning signs that alert us to relationship “danger ahead.” In this podcast (5 minutes), I share an example of one of my warning signs and how knowing it kept Bruce and me out of a deep dark hole.

How to prevent a negative situation from getting worse

  • Know how you feel when you’re in a negative situation — Perhaps you feel a tightness in your chest, your breathing is more rapid and shallow, or your head starts to ache. Learn what signals your body sends to tell you that something’s not right.
  • Know your personal “warning signs” that danger lurks ahead — You might hear that certain tone in your voice or notice that judgmental thoughts are zooming through your mind. Become adept at recognizing that your fuse is wearing out and you’re getting close to your explosion point.
  • Learn how to diffuse negative situations — You can simply stop talking, take some deep breaths before talking again, or even ask for a time out. Find effective ways to disengage your negative energy so that you can stop a downward-spiraling conversation from gaining any more momentum.

“The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.”

~ Dale Carnegie

What habits or practices do you use to keep negative situations from spiraling downward into trouble?

Recipe for a healthy and delicious marriage

“You don’t have to sit on top of a mountain to discover what is right for you. You always know in your heart what you need to do. But you do have to ask yourself if you’re willing to make choices. Put yourself in a position where you’re making choices about your life, rather than letting other people make those choices for you. That’s what balance is all about.”

~ Liz Dolan

In my book, Live the Life You’ve Imagined, I have a chapter titled, “Create Your Ideal Life Recipe,” where I offer ten questions for contemplation. Though I wrote this book for an individual to use, I think that these same questions can be powerful and illuminating for a couple as well. Below are the ten “ideal life recipe” questions adapted for couples. I encourage you to answer them individually (i.e., write your perspective on the answer) then talk about what you’ve written.

What ingredients make your relationship rich & rewarding?

  1. Picture of a raspberry cake in the makingWho are we?
  2. What are we passionate about?
  3. What qualities do the people we admire possess?
  4. What do we need to be our best?
  5. What nurtures, renews, or inspires us?
  6. Who do we want in our life?
  7. Where or when do we feel limited,
    shut down, or sapped of energy?
  8. Do we have enough time just for us?
  9. How do we know that we are valued, appreciated, and loved?
  10. How would we live if we knew we would die one year from now?

Once you have your answers and have talked together about what you’ve discovered, there’s one more key–ACTION. Choose just one area/item that you’d like to more fully realize in your marriage and start taking steps to create that new reality. If you’re willing to share what you decided, or what you discovered, feel free to use our comments area (you can even be anonymous if you like).

One skill is essential to a lasting, happy marriage

What’s sure to happen to couples who’ve been together for a long time? Things will have occurred over the years that they didn’t like. Yep, it’s true, even the happiest of twosomes get irked, irritated, upset, angry, frustrated, and just plain annoyed with each other. Ask any honest couple and they’ll confirm this fact. :-)

No big deal, right? If couples “clean up” these relationship disconnections as they go along, they’ll be good to go. If, however, like most people, the couples sweep the poop under the rug, before too long they’ll be separated by a big pile of stinky stuff. So, if you plan to be with your honey for a long, loving lifetime, you must both become experts in forgiveness.

A good marriage is the union of two good forgivers.

~Ruth Bell Graham

What does forgiveness mean?

In Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All, Gerald Jampolsky, M.D., wrote that, “From the perspective of Love and Spirit, forgiveness is the willingness to let go of the hurtful past. It is the decision to no longer suffer, to heal your heart and soul. It is the choice to no longer find value in hatred or anger. And it is letting go of the desire to hurt others or ourselves because of something that is already in the past.”

The way to God is through forgiveness here. There is no other way.

~A Course in Miracles

When is forgiveness needed?

Based on my own experience in relationship, forgiveness isn’t just for rare occasions. Though my preference is to never have big issues to forgive in my relationships, there are plenty of everyday “infractions” that keep me from feeling totally connected to the people I love. While it may seem petty, I’ve found that most people harbor grudges over “trivial” matters (whether they realize they’re doing so or not).

Here are few areas to look at in your relationship to see if resentments are building up:

  • Money – Has your partner done anything with money that you feel angry about?
  • Sex – Has your partner ever been “too tired” when you were in the mood (or vice versa)?
  • Habits – Does your partner do anything that you get irritated or annoyed at?
  • Decision making — Does your partner always agree with what you want to do?
  • Time – Are you ever upset about how your partner wants to spend her/his time?
  • Communication – Does your partner ever say things you find irritating, unloving, or mean-spirited?
  • Life – Is there anything your partner has said or not said, done or not done that you felt annoyed, irritated, frustrated, or upset by?

In relationships, “resentment” is the real four-letter word.

~Brad Brown

How can you tell if forgiveness would help?

If you want to have a loving, connected, fulfilling relationship my advice is this: Anytime you don’t feel loving, connected, or fulfilled in your relationship, forgiveness might be your solution. Here are a few clues I’ve seen in myself, and those I work with, that indicate it’s likely time for forgiveness:

  • You talk to your partner with a negative tone of voice (whether you sound snotty, snooty, condescending, critical, or bossy).
  • You call your partner names (even if you say “I’m just joking”).
  • You complain about your partner to friends or family.
  • You are gruff or non-responsive with your partner.
  • You physically withdraw from your partner.
  • You emphasize things your partner does “wrong.”
  • You claim (aloud or to yourself) your superiority.
  • You avoid spending time with your partner.
  • You react quickly and harshly for even “minor” annoyances.
  • Your primary communication with your partner is stiff, cold, grumpy, or terse.
  • You are sarcastic, argumentative, or defensive.
  • You are highly sensitive to anything “bad” your partner does.

Life is an adventure in forgiveness.

~Norman Cousins

How do you forgive?

If you’re new to the practice of forgiveness (based on what I see in our world right now, I dare say that we’ve got a lot of rookies on our forgiveness team), there are some great resources to help you learn.

So, there are my thoughts on forgiveness and why it is a skill you must master if you want to have loving, lasting relationships. I welcome additional resources as well as other opinions or questions you have. Please feel free to add your thoughts in by clicking the “comments” area at the bottom of this post.

Forgiveness creates a world where we do not withhold our love from anyone.

~Gerald Jampolsky