Divorceproof Your Marriage
With about 1 out of every 2 first marriages ending in divorce, is there a single piece of advice that would help couples not only divorceproof their relationship but also make it more contented? (Steady but stale is not the same as hearty and hale.) We asked leading marriage gurus for their advice, and the experts agreed the answer's right at the top of the alphabet: The letter "A" is not just for affection; it's also for appreciation.
Based on years of research, "the best single predictor of whether a couple is going to divorce is contempt," says relationships expert John M. Gottman, who, with his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, directs the Gottman Institute in Seattle. Contempt goes beyond criticism or name-calling (as hurtful as those can be) to a you're-so-beneath-me tone of haughty superiority. "My favorite example is correcting someone's grammar when they're arguing with you," says Gottman, whose most recent book is 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage.
The antidote? Cultivate what Gottman calls "a culture of appreciation." Happy couples, his numerous studies have found, "develop a habit of mind where they are scanning the environment for things to appreciate and moments to communicate respect and just all this positive stuff."
Decency. One way to do that is to "live by the stranger standard," says Michele Weiner-Davis, marriage therapist, author of Divorce Busting, and founder of Divorcebusting.com. "Like letting someone with only one item go ahead of you in the supermarket line," she says, "bring home to your spouse the decency and kindness you would show to someone you just met."
This isn't to say that arguments won't happen-all marriages have intense ups and downs. But when they do, rather than nitpicking, try a little tact with some perspective thrown in for good measure. "Do something that doesn't come naturally to us-give credit to what's working," says Weiner-Davis. "Celebrate the small, positive things in the relationship, notice and comment on what's going well." It's not just that positive reinforcement-not criticism-"is the best, fastest, most efficient way of changing someone else's behavior," she says. When partners feel valued, they are less inclined to jump to negative conclusions when something goes wrong ("He forgot my birthday, he really doesn't care"), and more likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt ("It's been so hectic around here, I forgot it myself").
And if all couples followed that advice? Says Weiner-Davis: "I'd be out of a job."
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.