Making Marriage Work.
Four strategies to help couples maintain a successful connection throughout the years.
Money problems. Lack of communication. Conflicting career needs. Ongoing disagreements. These are just some reasons that almost half of marriages in the United States end in divorce. And while the divorce rate in Jewish communities tends to be lower, it has escalated greatly in recent years. And the largest increase in divorce rates is among couples aged 50 and above. Their divorce rate has doubled in the past 10 years!
As a licensed therapist and psychology professor for over 30 years, I have witnessed first-hand the escalating divorce rate in Jewish communities. It is becoming more common for me to have a newly married student one semester, and not two semesters later, that same student is now a divorcee. And we all have friends or colleagues, couples who have so much in common – so much nachas – and their marriages can’t go the distance, yet the oddest matches can remain together, celebrating their differences, for 40 or 50 years.
How can we combat this trend and stop the escalation of divorce in our community? Below are four strategies to help couples maintain a successful connection throughout the years.
1. Cultivate a Culture of Respect and Positivity
A famous study by Robert Levenson and John Gottman in the 1970s showed that couples who have long-lasting relationships have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative behaviors. In other words, we should be communicating admiration and affection more often than criticism or contempt. Since negative behaviors have so much power to inflict damage, it takes five times more positive actions to repair any schism caused by negativity.
Luckily, positive behaviors can be simple things: express an interest in what your partner is saying, show affection, convey gratitude for things great or small, and ask questions that demonstrate genuine interest. Research has shown that it is important that couples pay attention to “bids for attention.” This can be as simple as when your spouse wants to show or tell you something, to stop what you are doing, and make eye contact before responding.
Those in a thriving marriage were able to sustain this 5:1 ratio. You too can do this by making a concerted and mindful effort to infuse your interactions with positive behaviors. For example, thank your spouse, even for the trivial things. Did he clean the dishes while you were putting the kids to sleep? Thank him! Did she pick up something at the store that you need? Express your gratitude. Appreciation can’t be implied; you have to say it.
2. Ensure Physical Connection
This does not just mean intimacy. Physical touch is one of the most meaningful ways people express and experience affection. It increases oxytocin, our “cuddle hormone,” and makes couples feel more attracted and emotionally connected to one another.
It can be hard at the end of our hectic days to prioritize physical connection, but it is a critical component of marriage. Couples need to make the time to be physical, even if it is just hugging or holding hands. And if it is missing in your relationship it is important to figure out why and not ignore it. A continued lack of physical closeness is an indicator things are not well in a relationship, and if left unaddressed it can lead to a relationship’s demise.
3. Invest in Your Marriage Continuously and Over Time
Couples are pulled in many directions. Children need to be tended to. Work deadlines need to be met. Aging parents need assistance. Our time, energy, and attention are often spent elsewhere, and it is easy to lose sight of the time needed to connect with our partner. We rely on quality time rather than quantity, and often not enough of either.
Couples can become proverbial ships in the night, so busy putting out our own fires that we forget to check in with one another. We can become so independent we are no longer intertwined. The divorce rate among those 50 and over has doubled in the past 10 years. These grey divorcees illuminate the fragility of marriage and indicate how critical it is to invest time and energy in maintaining closeness, especially leading up to later stages of life.
People grow, change, and mature from the day they are born until the day they die. And each stage has its own unique challenges that shape and change you. And as people evolve, their relationships must evolve too. No one is the same person at 20 as they are at 70. To truly know who your partner is at 70 - what they think now, what their goals and wishes are now - you must stay connected to them as they evolve and grow throughout the years.
So how can you maintain connection with your partner? Prioritize time spent together. Make sure you are checking in often and getting time together as just a couple. Quality time needn’t mean going out to fancy dinner. Take a walk. If you work near each other, meet for lunch. Choose one night each week to sit together after dinner and not watch TV. And while you are together, try not to talk about your children. Use this time to discuss things you have read, current events, or your latest interests. Have it be a moment to re-engage with one another. People often tell me that Shabbat is their “couple’s time.” I always reply that Shabbat doesn’t count, as there are too many other priorities: the kids, guests, shul, community obligations, etc. I challenge you to find opportunities throughout the week – both brief and leisurely - to have moments of genuine connection with your spouse.
4. Practice Productive Conflict
Conflict is inevitable and learning how to have “productive conflict” is a key aspect of making a relationship work over time. It is easy to get defensive and feel attacked when having a disagreement, but it is essential to deal with it in a constructive manner.
You are never your best self in the heat of the moment. Take time to step back and calm down before attempting to address the issue at hand. Research shows that when couples are in the heat of an argument, their heart rates increase and their body is flooded with the automatic flight or fight response. As such, they are not able to hear each other accurately, or problem solve effectively. Couples who can calm down and revisit the source of the conflict with composure, and perhaps even a sense of humor, are better able to problem solve effectively.
Experts have also uncovered something shocking about conflict: most conflicts (69%) are never resolved. Couples very often have the same set of unresolved marital issues for their entire relationship! Some issues may never be resolved (e.g. difficult family members, mental or physical disabilities, financial challenges). This doesn’t mean we are doomed to be unhappy, but rather a successful relationship is one where the couple is able to figure out ways to cope and live with these perpetual problems. Couples unable to manage the stress of unresolvable issues often break up.
Luckily, having productive conflict is a skill that can be learned. If you feel you and your spouse fall into the same destructive struggle every time certain issues arise, it is worthwhile to seek out a mental health professional. Not only will this investment of time and effort help you both, you will be modeling healthier conflict resolution skills for your children, and experience greater marital satisfaction.
Just as people change over time, relationships change over time too. Successful marriages take continuous work. Ensure you and your spouse don’t succumb to statistics and instead become what Dr. Gottman calls “masters of relationships.” Create a culture of admiration in your relationship, prioritize your connection to your partner both emotionally and physically, learn to have productive conflict, and most importantly, invest time in each other so as you each grow and develop through the years, your relationship does as well.