What is the best advice for married couples? What do couples need to do to make their relationships strong? I answer these questions from the point of view of a clinical research psychologist, having conducting more than 20 years of studies with thousands of married couples. In contrast to many popular books on relationships that are currently available, my advice is not “one-size-fits-all.” Relationships are complex, and every couple is unique. This means that good advice for one couple may be bad advice for another. To give good advice to married couples, I need to ask them three basic questions.
Question 1: Is your relationship mostly satisfying, or is it currently distressed?
At one point or another, well over half of all relationships go through a stormy season of distress. If you are happy with your partner, then realize you have something precious and take good care of it. If you are experiencing some distress, the first step is to determine whether you are experiencing a major relationship trauma. Major traumas includes things like: (1) problems with alcohol or other drugs, (2) physical violence in the home, (3) one partner no longer wants to stay in the relationship, (4) an affair, and (5) problems with clinical depression. These types of traumas demand immediate attention, and they need to be addressed (possibly with professional help) before a couple can make progress in other areas of their relationship. Of course, couples can become distressed without a major trauma. The good news, here, is that when couples make a commitment to work together on their relationship, and if they stick with it for a sufficient period of time, it is relatively common for unhappy relationships to recover.
Question 2: What do you do to make things good in your relationship?
Most relationships are naturally exciting when they first begin. If a couple wants to maintain a lifelong partnership, however, each partner needs to take responsibility to do things that make the relationship strong and healthy. These are the things you do, and the contributions you make, to keep your relationship fun and rewarding for both you and your partner. This takes work, and will not always come naturally. In addition, it requires negotiation. The things that are important for one person may not be important for another, and each couple needs to decide for themselves what they value most. Are you intentionally doing things that make your relationship good for both you and your partner? If yes, then keep up the good work. If, however, your efforts do not seem to be paying off, or if you are not sure what to do, then my advice is to discuss these issues with your partner. Or, if you are simply not making a sincere effort in this area, it would be good to figure out why. Often, couples lose motivation to work on their relationship when they have problems with an unresolved conflict. In this case, an important piece of the equation is to develop better conflict management skills. This leads us to the third question.
Question 3: Are you using conflict as a tool to make your relationship better?
Notice that this third question is not asking whether you have conflict in your relationship. Indeed, all relationships experience conflict from time to time. What is important, then, is not how much conflict you have, but rather, how you manage the conflict you do have. Conflict is actually essential for producing intimacy in a relationship – without it, a relationship would be dry and shallow. When a conflict is resolved well, it brings two partners closer together, it results in a deeper, shared understanding between them, and it produces mutual respect and appreciation. Unfortunately, when conflict is not managed well, it can tear a relationship apart. So, what does it take to manage conflict?
There are four basic parts to good conflict management. These include (1) being aware of your true underlying concerns during conflict, (2) managing emotion, (3) using good communication, and (4) monitoring your thoughts. If you are not familiar with these four basic parts of conflict management, the first step is to learn about them.
Also, when you have conflict, it is important to get feedback on how you are doing in each area. The same thing would be true for an athlete in training for an important sports event. Several different skills are needed to become an outstanding athlete, and an athlete needs continual feedback from a coach to develop these skills. Each athlete may have different strengths and weaknesses. A coach helps the athlete know what is working well, and where he or she needs improvement. In this way, the athlete can create an individualized training program that capitalizes on strengths, builds up weaknesses, and produces the best results possible. The same thing is true for developing good conflict resolution skills. Couples develop the best skills if they get feedback on how they are doing in each area. In this way, they can create an individualize plan on were to focus their efforts. Just like an athlete in training, results do not happen overnight. It takes time to build outstanding conflict resolution skills. It is possible to become highly effective at resolving conflicts with your partner, but this requires getting repeated feedback over a long period of time, and it requires making a long-term effort toward honing and refining your skills. For couples that invest this effort, the payoff can be great. These couples are able to resolve their conflicts, and this leads to greater intimacy, better communication, and a stronger relationship.
See the post: Four Areas of Conflict Resolution
The Couple Conflict Consultant provides a large resource bank of information on conflict resolution, and it offers thorough, scientifically-based assessments and feedback. You can learn more about the areas of conflict resolution, assess your skills, develop an individualized plan, and track your progress over time. Everything is provided entirely free of charge as part of my research program. If you have not yet tried it, all you need is an e-mail address to begin.