Relationships are vital to human existence. Eliot Aronson, the prominent psychologist, as well as many other noted scholars in the field believe we are primarily “social animals” and this is rooted in our DNA. Books in the academic world and especially in the genre of self-help are in abundance on relationship advice, and detail what makes for a healthy interpersonal connection versus those that are more non-adaptive in nature.
The purpose of this article is to identity what contributes to relationships, especially in marriage, that optimize a positive bond in contrast to those that create discord, unhealthy patterns, disorientation and a lack of safety, security and self-worth. It is important to mention, given the current state of marriage with an accompanying lack of mutual commitment, high divorce rates and a decline in belief more broadly about the sacred quality and value marriage brings to life, that marriage is under assault and not viewed with the seriousness it deserves. So we hope to also correct this devalued perception of marriage by offering some time-tested strategies to revitalize both the centrality of marriage and the immeasurably restorative effects it has on both partners in their overall growth as individuals while becoming a “collective voice” in all aspects of their lives. Another observation worth mentioning is that marriage needs to include many different facets or even more precise “foundations” for it to be sustained in a sensitive and intimate way: the psychological, physical, emotional and at the core spiritual. Without these components working in harmony, marital life can become routine, chaotic and complacent.
Our own experience as clinicians who happen to be married to one another and conduct “conjoint marital therapy” (which will be elaborated in more detail below) attests to our strong mutual conviction that marriage needs to be rooted in the following “givens”: chemistry that is not simply physically based, being challenged in a constructive way to bring out each other’s potential, prosocial communication and a sense of authentic connection.
Before spelling out the strategies that promote “the ties that bind,” we would be remiss not to highlight and describe the effectiveness of “conjoint marital therapy.” The premise of conjoint marital therapy is that a male and female clinician meet with the couple and conduct either pre-marital counseling or marital therapy. In this way both individuals in therapy feel they have an ally and the balance of the therapy has greater congruence and generates feelings of being both accepted and understood. Our own clinical experience attests that it is more powerful and effective compared to the traditional and standard one therapist working with the marital dyad. Sadly to say, this type of conjoint therapy is more rarely practiced for a variety of practical reasons. Having said that, our hope is that we can begin to promote this as genuine modality of doing evidence-based relational therapy.
In order to translate the conceptual foundations discussed above into an action plan replete with strategies to enhance marriage and keep it vital, passionate and strong, the following objectives need to be at the forefront:
Be empathic and showing unconditional positive regard to one another. Avoid critical, condescending and controlling comments. Allow your partner to express their thoughts without interruption.
Having an open heart and mind to listen, learn and share.
Accepting differences and complementarity.
Communication should be intimate and meaningful.
Sharing core values, in spite of having different interests.
Having a degree of mystery, curiosity and novelty can be enriching to the relationship.
Increasing self-awareness as individuals and as a couple to break the cycle of unhealthy patterns.
To verbally and non-verbally express fondness, affection and admiration.
Making oneself vulnerable increases trust that builds over time.
The couple uses language that connotes togetherness, not separateness—such as “we,” “us” and “our”—instead of “I,” “me” and “mine.” The words you choose matter, the tone of voice and even facial expressions make a huge difference
Schedule a date night, at least every other week (i.e., a picnic, a walk…etc…).
A good relationship is not free of conflict; it’s how you resolve the conflict.
Happy marriages significantly reduce depression, anxiety and hopelessness.
At times, one has to step out of one’s comfort zone.
Marriage is built on sincerity and authenticity.
Saying you’re sorry, being remorseful and committing to change shows strength, not weakness.
Forgiveness goes a long way to rebuild and repair.
Self-sabotage, although it might be unconscious, needs to be confronted and rectified for a marriage to thrive and move forward in a positive direction.
Feeling safe and secure are central to marriage and create stability and equilibrium.
Seek professional help if necessary.
Treat each other as a priority and do not take your partner for granted.
Intimacy is critical in many different areas of the marriage and should be consistent.
Marriage should promote enlarging one’s perspective on life and seeing the world from a wider lens.
Be transparent, self-disclosing, trustworthy and loyal.
It is important to be attentive, present and engaged.
Cherish your partner and demonstrate that you can be counted on and nurture gratitude.
Never threaten to leave the relationship, as it is destructive and most challenges are surmountable.
Marriage takes hard work and it is not uncommon to confront rough patches along the way. We have attempted in this article, not to spell out in an exhaustive way all the challenges couples face but, to touch on the cultural decline of marriage and ways to restore its primacy. Our sages say, “Treat your wife as a queen and she will treat you as a king.” Obviously, this is an ideal. The assumption behind this being that where there is mutual respect and dignity between husband and wife there is shalom bayis. The Maharal writes that a wife needs to feel secure and safe and a husband desires to feel a sense of completion from being married. In summary, this may sound simplistic, but a “happy wife is a happy life.”
Dr. Michael E. Portman, MSW, DPhil, LCSW, ACT. Email: [email protected]
Anna Ostro-Portman, MSW, LCSW. Email: [email protected]