What’s the Key to Relationship Health? (Hint: Not Marriage!)

Smiling man carries laughing woman on his back through rainDoes marriage actually bring happiness? It seems several studies support the notion that wedlock helps people live longer, happier lives. Anecdotally, couples experiencing relationship issues even say things like, “Things would be so much better if we could just get married.”

Business Insider recently published an article, titled Happy, Lasting Relationships Rely on Something Way More Important Than Marriage, that cites research debunking this theory. After weighing the evidence, author Erin Brodwin writes, “It turned out that couples who were best friends and lived together were just as happy as couples who were best friends and married.” All of which suggests friendship is a stronger predictor for relationship health than marital status.

This reminded me of the couples I work with who demonstrate severe marital distress. So often I find myself saying to them, “Forget working on the marriage for now. We have to figure out how to help you become friends again.” By the time they arrive in therapy, their contempt and disdain for each other far outweigh the love they once shared.

How do I know this? Here are some common traits these couples share:

  • They define their marriages by their problems only
  • They struggle to identify any positive qualities in their mates
  • They recall few to no positive memories of the other
  • They demonstrate little to no respect for their partners

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman writes, “… happy marriages are based on a deep friendship” (p. 19). He notes that mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company is at the heart of a happy marriage.

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My spouse and I have experienced an array of life experiences that brought the good, the bad, and the ugly to our 20-year relationship. A family member once asked me, “You guys always seem so happy. How do you do it?”

Without hesitation, I responded, “Respect. I have so much respect for him, I would never mistreat him.” Now, that is not to say I show up as a perfect partner, but rather my anger—when it arises—does not become a global dislike of him.

Overall, Brodwin concluded studies indicate the greater predictor of happiness was the quality of the relationship itself. So whether you choose marriage or a long-term commitment, how do you maintain high quality?

In my 2014 article What Makes Marriage Work, I cite four key areas to maintaining harmony in a marriage. These include:

  • Show high regard for your partner
  • Behave in trustworthy ways
  • Fight fair
  • Laugh ’til you cry

Couples sometimes tell me they exercise these qualities in their friendships but not necessarily in their marriages. Gottman notes, “Over time, anger, irritation, and resentment can build to the point that the friendship becomes more and more of an abstraction” (p. 27).

Maintaining a strong friendship bond with your partner does not exclude you from having conflict in your marriage. It simply weakens your levels of contempt for each other. You are more likely to give your best friend the benefit of the doubt.

How can you develop a best friendship in your marriage? In addition to practicing the four bullet points above, you can:

  1. Express daily appreciation for the other. If negativity typically clouds your relationship, make the effort to look for the good in your spouse.
  2. Do something nice for your spouse, such as making the morning coffee one day or leaving a note on their car. Make them feel special “just because.”
  3. Be a helpful partner. Participate in shared responsibilities so you can both feel like you support the same team.
  4. Laugh together frequently. Watch funny movies, play fun games together, or go out to a comedy club. Shared laughter can strengthen your bond.
  5. Listen attentively to your spouse’s stories, even if you’ve heard them before. Give them greater attention than you would a casual friend.

According to Brodwin’s article and the evidence it cites, when you see your spouse or partner as your best friend, you experience higher levels of self-esteem and are happier overall. So if you are married, find ways to treat your partner like your best friend. And if you are single, take this information forward with you should you choose to pursue a healthy relationship in the future.

References:

  1. Aristone, C. (2014, March 13). What Makes Marriage Work. Retrieved from http://www.myintimaterelationship.com/
  2. Brodwin, E. (2016, April 20). Happy, lasting relationships rely on something way more important than marriage. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/does-marriage-make-you-happier-2016-4
  3. Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press
  4. Siegler, I. C., Brummett, B. H., Martin, P., & Helms, M. J. Consistency and Timing of Marital Transitions and Survival During Midlife: The Role of Personality and Health Risk Behaviors. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2013; DOI: 10.1007/s12160-012-9457-3

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  • tilly

    tilly

    May 3rd, 2016 at 8:35 AM

    I try to do something nice for him every day and he reciprocates. And it makes you sooo much more appreciative of the person that you have in your life when you know that with everything that they do they do it with BOTH of your best interests at heart.

  • Cam

    Cam

    May 3rd, 2016 at 11:39 AM

    But we have been told for years that being married is the best thing for our overall health! Not true now? After all the years so many of us have invested? I’m just joking I wouldn’t change married life for me for anything, but you know that there will be people looking to use this as an excuse. Truthfully though, marriage was the absolute best thing for me. It stabilized my life in a way that nothing else ever could have.

  • sammi

    sammi

    May 4th, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    I have a lot of friends who think that one little argument is the end of the world. Like they base the success of the relationship on how little they argue. But I feel like I should be able to tell my husband anything and we as adults won’t just throw in the towel on all the years together just because we happen to disagree.

  • Brad

    Brad

    May 5th, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    What good is any relationship if you are constantly either being brought down or focusing on bringing that person down>

  • carson P

    carson P

    May 7th, 2016 at 5:29 AM

    What? Not marriage? But we have always been told that this is healthy for us, to be married!

  • ram d

    ram d

    February 9th, 2018 at 2:19 AM

    There are two ways to get out of a problem first is accept what’s happening and see the positive and choose a peaceful state of mind and second fight against it be miserable and struggle against the universe. There are a lot of things we fail to accept like rejection. Because the concept of acceptance is easier
    came across a girl with an eyesight problem and how she faced rejection with her marriage proposals because of it.

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