I believe in marriage. Despite widespread cynicism about the institution lately, I’m optimistic about its future. People just need to catch up on how to create a successful 21st-century union.
For many, marriage meetings are the answer. Followup studies of participants in my marriage meeting workshops, held in the past 10 years, show that all who continue holding the meetings on their own report a significant increase in marital happiness. About half of the participants continued to hold the meetings after completing the workshop. Some of the others expressed interest in couples counseling, having recognized their communication wasn’t healthy enough to hold marriage meetings independently.
Some people dismiss as “unromantic” the idea of holding these short, loosely structured conversations. But “love is all you need,” as the Beatles song goes, is a dangerous myth. People who believe it think that if their relationship is basically good, why tinker with it? Underlying this thought is often a fear that a formal meeting will unleash a laundry list of demands or criticisms from their spouse.
Actually, marriage meetings foster romance, intimacy, teamwork, and smoother resolution of issues. Kind, respectful conversations result from following the step-by-step instructions in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted. The meetings feature guidelines, a simple agenda, and positive communication techniques. This tool offers an easy yet powerful way to implement the recommendations of marriage researcher John Gottman, PhD. He has identified these predictors of successful and unsuccessful marriages:
In a good marriage, positive messages outnumber negative ones in at least a five to one ratio. Also, partners respond regularly to what Gottman calls “bids for connection.” For example, if one says, “It looks like it might rain,” the other nods or says, “Could be.” Conversely, in an unhappy relationship, spouses tend to communicate more negatively and to ignore their partner’s bids to connect.
Gottman has singled out certain behaviors as particularly damaging to a marriage; he calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” Contempt, Criticism, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling (Stonewalling, in this context, is a refusal to communicate or cooperate. It can be accomplished, for example, with icy silence, changing the subject, or leaving the room. Someone who stonewalls may shut down because of feeling emotionally overwhelmed.)
By holding marriage meetings, couples establish healthy communication patterns. Positive messages will vastly exceed negative ones. Partners will routinely respond to each other’s bids for connection.
During the first part of the meeting, Appreciation, each gives the other about five to ten compliments about behaviors, character traits, or anything else they noticed during the past week, starting with “I appreciate,” “I like,” or a similar type of I-statement. Typically, partners become habituated to noticing each other’s good points, which creates a climate of acceptance during the meetings and in-between them.
Because behaviors that receive attention tend to get repeated, expressing appreciation results in partners doing what each other likes more often, which could mean, for example, bringing flowers, giving a good morning kiss, remembering to take out the garbage, or wearing the blue shirt she told him brings out the color of his eyes so nicely.
The final three agenda topics are Chores, Planning for Good Times, and Problems and Challenges. Because couples practice using the prescribed communication skills each time they meet, cooperation and respect become second nature.
As they discuss the topics in sequence, each partner owns responsibility for his or her contribution to doing what needs to be done; for arranging to go out on a weekly date, and for addressing small issues as they occur, so they become manageable instead of building up into grudges or crises that can result in criticism or contempt. Spouses state their wants and concerns respectfully and collaborate to resolve them to the best of their abilities.
Because marriage meetings are held at a time designated for constructive communication, partners are likely to listen generously and not stonewall or become defensive. They respond to each other’s “bids for connection” empathically during the meetings, and also outside of them.
Marriage Meetings, as Edward M. Hallowell, MD, states, give couples “what we all long for: a simple way to connect lovingly every week, grow in intimacy, and smoothly handle whatever comes up.”
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