University of Wyoming Extension
College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Maintaining a Happy Marriage
First, define "happy"
Being happy as an individual or as a couple is hard work at times! No person is happy all the time and for couples, as well, it is normal to have periods of unhappiness, conflict or stress. Sometimes one partner is happy when the other is not so happy. (If this happens a lot, or because one benefits at the other’s expense, that’s not so good).
The image of marriage that we are constantly bombarded with by the media is one of constant marital bliss. Marriage doesn’t make you happy…keep you happy…or help you avoid troubles. If being happy all the time is your goal, you're are doomed to failure!
It is more helpful to think in terms of how satisfying and fulfilling your marriage is over the long run and for both people and those around them. Periods of struggle and working through differences in your marriage can actually increase the satisfaction and intimacy in your marriage.
Characteristics of Satisfying Marriages
Partners in satisfying marriages tend to:
- Individually accept responsibility for their behavior and self-esteem.
For example, they avoid blaming and do not expect their partner to make them happy.
- Identify and align their personal and marital goals.
For example, their spouse's happiness is as important as their happiness.
(See Expectations Fact Sheet).
- Choose to encourage each other. For example, they avoid criticizing and instead affirm what's 'right' about their partner.
- Communicate their feelings with honesty and openness. For example, they share their feelings with, 'I feel' statements (See Communication Fact Sheet).
- Listen empathetically when feelings are expressed. For example, they listen with their ears and their body language, (See Listening Fact Sheet)
- Seek to understand the factors that influence their relationship. For example, they ask their partner what they need from them to be fulfilled.
- Demonstrate that they accept and value each other. For example, they consistently say and do things that communicate affection and love to their partner.
- Choose thoughts words and actions that support the positive goals of their marriage. For example, they do what they say they will do.
- Solve marital conflicts together. For example, they talk regularly to identify and resolve even the small problems (See Conflict Resolution Fact Sheet).
- Commit themselves to the ongoing process of maintaining an equal marriage. For example, they set aside time to spend with their partner in growth-oriented activities. (Sperry & Carlson, 1991)
Sit down with your partner. Together, decide on some Ground Rules for sharing together.
Helpful ground rules might include:
- Setting a time and a limit for sharing. You can always sit down together again, but once the time is up, stop!
- Eliminate distractions during this time. Turn off the TV and the phone. Put down the paper and find something to occupy the kids.
- One person should talk at a time. Some people find it helpful to have an object that is passed back and forth. The idea is that you can only talk when you are the one holding the object.
- Listen while the other is talking. Show you are listening by making eye contact and repeating back to them what you have heard, in your own words, to make sure you have understood.
Reflect on what you think a happy marriage is like. Reflect on what a satisfying and fulfilling marriage is like. Do these two images coincide? To what do you attribute the differences? How have these ideas changed in the time you have been together? Share this with your partner.
On a scale of one to ten, each rate your own behavior on how well you exemplify the ten characteristics of a satisfying marriage. What is each of you doing well? Where could each of you improve? Compare your lists. Do you agree with each other's ratings? What one thing could make the most difference for you in your marriage during the next week? How can you focus on this and get what you need this week?
You may be interested in the following books to further your learning about marriage and communication:
- We Can Work it Out: How to Solve Conflicts, Save Your Marriage, and Strengthen Your Love for Each Other, by Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman, 1993, New York: The Berkley Publishing Group.
- Fighting for Your Marriage, by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan L. Blumberg, 1994, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by John Gottman, 1994, New York: Fireside.
- Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples, by Harville Hendrix, 1988, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
Developed by Stephanie Forness, UW graduate student and Ben Silliman, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service Family Life Specialist