By BARBARA MARTIN
How do I become better friends
with my spouse?
Last month I walked through the dangers of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling (the four horsemen) in regard to dealing with disagreements in marriage. This month, I would like to answer the question as to how to build friendship in a marriage.
Here is a statement that seems fairly obvious: People who are happily married like each other.
That doesn’t mean they never have a conflict or strong differences of opinions; but there is a true fondness and admiration, which is at the core of a good marriage. Last month I talked about how contempt can do deep damage to a marriage, but here is a greater truth: Fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt.
John Gottman, an author and marriage researcher, says, “If you maintain a sense of respect for your spouse, you are less likely to act disgusted with him or her when you disagree.”
If you find that your fondness for your spouse is waning, one way to regain this is to remind yourself of how valuable your spouse is to you. I find that, with my husband, it is valuable to remind myself regularly of character traits that I genuinely enjoy about him. (“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8)
It is often easier, sad to say, to tell myself the things I don’t like or am unhappy with; but if I want to strengthen my friendship with my husband, I need to feed the positive thoughts rather than the negative thoughts. One way to do this is to remind yourself of the feelings you had in the early days of your relationship. By spending time focusing on these, you can remind yourself of the reasons you fell in love and married your spouse.
When my husband and I dated, we took long walks around Belhaven sharing our dreams; we talked about what we liked and didn’t like, our fears and hopes. It was a time of bonding for us. When I wasn’t with him I missed him. My fondness and admiration for him grew deeply over the time we were together. Many couples find that recalling their past together can help recharge their relationship in the here and now.
Gottman says, “I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well.” By reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities, even as you deal with the things they have or haven’t done, you can help stop the critical contempt that can creep into a marriage over the years.
A good question to ask yourself is: How often do I actually think about why I cherish my spouse, and how often do I talk about this with him or her? When you do this, your friendship bond is strengthened. When your friendship is strengthened, it makes it easier to address the problem areas in your marriage and hopefully make some changes so resentment won’t be fed and grow.
Here are a few questions that might help you think about the history of your relationship.
◆ How did you meet and what was it that attracted you to your spouse?
◆ Which do you remember as being your best dates and why?
◆ What are some of the highlights of your relationship when you were dating or first married?
◆ What are the positive memories of your wedding and honeymoon?
◆ As you look back over the years of your marriage, when did you feel the most connected?
◆ Have you stopped doing the things that brought you pleasure in the early years of your relationship?
◆ What have been the happiest times in your relationship and why?
The goal of these questions is to grow your fondness and admiration for your spouse. Yes, there will be times of conflict in a marriage, and resentment can begin to set in — but do you want to feed this or do you want to find a way to grow the friendship you once had?
I also know there are times in marriage when the conflict is so high that this seems almost impossible to do. This is a good time to seek help from a professional.
Barbara Martin, LPC, LMFT, clinical coordinator of the Counseling Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, has her own private practice at RTS.