Nurturing Friendship in Marriage

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Good marriages seem rare these days, but a leading marriage expert says it’s not complicated—or even necessarily difficult—to make a marriage last. Friendship, says John Gottman, is at the core of a strong marriage.  Friendship between couples means they “know each other intimately” and “are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes and dreams,” Gottman says in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Based on twenty-five years of research, The Seven Principles says couples in good marriages “have an abiding regard for each other,” express this esteem in ways large and small, respect each other, and enjoy one another’s company. Gottman has also found the quality of a married couple’s friendship is the most important predictor of satisfaction with sex, romance, and passion.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World echoes Gottman’s findings. It emphasizes the importance of love, respect, and compassion—all important elements of strong friendships—as essentials of a good marriage.

It’s Not Complicated

Gottman believes the principles that make a marriage work are “surprisingly simple.” Happily married couples aren’t smarter or more beautiful than others, and they don’t live in castles in the clouds where there’s no conflict or negative feelings. They’ve simply learned to let their positive feelings override their negative ones. They understand, honor, and respect each other. They know each other deeply and enjoy being together. They do little things daily to stay connected and show each other they care. In short, they’re friends.

As simple as it sounds, happy marriages are based on a foundation of friendship.

A Case Study

Take Andrew, a surgeon who works long hours at the hospital and is frequently on call, and his wife, Julie, a school principal. Instead of letting their strenuous schedules become a roadblock, Andrew and Julie have found ways to keep their friendship strong. If she has an important meeting, he remembers to call home and see how it went. If he’s working late, she brings his dinner to the hospital because she knows he hates hospital food. When he orders pizza, he includes a side of garlic bread because he knows it’s Julie’s favorite. Even though she prefers romantic comedies, she went to “Star Wars” with him because she knows he loves sci-fi. Even though he’s not religious, he goes to church with the family because it’s important to her.

Andrew and Julie are maintaining the friendship that fuels their love. Because their friendship is strong, they are more likely to have positive feelings about each other and their marriage. They are more likely to experience what Gottman calls “positive sentiment override,” where their good feelings are so strong they eclipse negative ones. Besides making their marriage more fulfilling and more romantic, Andrew and Julie’s focus on the positive protects them when negative feelings about each other come up. It’s easier to shrug off the small but inevitable disagreements of married life.

On the other hand, when a couple lets the friendship in their marriage decline, negative feelings can more easily cause minor issues to erupt into major, relationship-threatening conflicts. For a couple like Andrew and Julie, it will take a much more serious issue to upset their relationship.

Practical Ideas

If you want to strengthen your marriage at its core, build the friendship between you and your spouse:

Know your spouse well. How well do you know each other? To find out, take this quiz, adapted from Gottman’s book. Answer each question True or False.

  • I can name my partner’s best friends.
  • I know what stresses my partner currently faces.
  • I know the names of those who have been irritating my partner lately.
  • I know some of my partner’s life dreams.
  • I am very familiar with my partner’s religious beliefs.
  • I can outline my partner’s basic philosophy of life.
  • I can list the relatives my partner likes least.
  • I know my partner’s favorite music.
  • I can list my partner’s favorite three movies.
  • I know the most stressful thing that happened to my partner in childhood.
  • I can list my partner’s major aspirations.
  • I know what my partner would do if he/she won a million dollars.
  • I can relate in detail my first impressions of my partner.
  • I ask my partner about his/her world periodically.
  • I feel my partner knows me fairly well.

If you answered “true” to more than half of the items, your friendship with your spouse is an area of strength in your marriage. You know what makes your partner tick. If you didn’t do so well, plan to get to know your spouse better and become better friends. Like all worthwhile goals, you’ll need to make building friendship in your marriage a high priority, and you’ll need to plan specific ways you will act differently.

Practice “positive sentiment override.” It’s easy for marriage partners to become experts at identifying negative traits of the other person and ignore or minimize positive ones. Negative sentiment is powerful and destructive. To build a happy marriage, couples need 8 to 20 positive interactions for every negative one.

Here’s a way to increase positive interactions: First, make a list all of things you admire and appreciate about your spouse. One husband wrote, “She helps me solve work problems.” A wife wrote, “He scratches my back even when he’s tired.”  Second, choose two or three qualities and rehearse them in your mind. The next time you’re tempted to focus on your spouse’s weaknesses, override the temptation by focusing on those positive qualities.

Catch your spouse doing good. Notice the kind and generous things your spouse does and express gratitude. Some spouses leave notes in a briefcase or purse. One spouse wrote, “Thanks for listening to me gripe last night—it made all the difference in my outlook today.”

Have a friendly conversation. Regularly find a quiet, uninterrupted time to talk as friends. Take turns picking topics that interest you. Consider some of the following: your family of origin, personal goals or dreams, a recent book or movie, current events such as sports or politics.

Hold a life story interview. Interview your partner about his or her life story. Good interviewers ask penetrating questions and listen intently. Try to draw out one another as you share together as friends.

Attend to the little things that show love and friendship. Regularly do things that build love and friendship, such as spending time together, giving gifts, serving one another, offering encouragement, and being affectionate.

For more ideas on nurturing your marital friendship, check out Fighting for Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg.

Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.

Nurturing Friendship in Marriage is adapted from the website Forever Families

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