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Stoke the Fires of Marital Optimism

Stoke the Fires of Marital Optimism

"He's a good dad to our kids, but was always criticizing me," Terry complained. "I couldn't do anything right, in his mind at least. Thirteen years was enough. I figured it would only get worse, so I left."

Like most marriages that end in divorce, Terry's marriage began happily enough. And it ended not because of a serious transgression like adultery, abuse, or substance use, but because the couple's personal relationship deteriorated and they gave up. They gave in to two marriage-killing habits: criticism and pessimism. 

 A number of years ago, marriage expert John Gottman identified four relationship patterns that can doom a marriage: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. When any of those patterns predominate during conflict resolution, the marriage is in trouble--as Terry experienced.

Criticism is particularly insidious, because couples do need to identify faults and problems in order to work on them. But good communication never takes aim at the other person -- it sticks to facts ("When you didn't call last night to tell me you'd be late") and feelings ("it made me feel sad and angry") and avoids judgment ("you're so inconsiderate and uncaring").

But for marriage to work, good communication habits aren't enough. Faith in the "big picture" of your relationship is important too. Losing hope that marriage can work -- and that your spouse means well --- can feed a downward spiral. It's all too common in our divorce culture: struggling couples lose confidence in their ability to make their marriage successful. Pessimism begets more pessimism until divorce seems inevitable. And that scenario is even more likely when a couple's own parents ended up divorced or failed to provide a realistic model of a happy marriage. 

How to Save Your Family: Stoke the fires of marital optimism

New research shows that the happiest marriages reflect an overall positive attitude about the goodness of the other person and the marriage itself -- even as the couple works to resolves conflicts. In one study, for example, newlyweds who maintained an idealized view of the other person, putting the best gloss on their attributes and behavior, were happier after three years than less idealistic couples. 

 It's not because they are unrealistic or refuse to see problems, says psychologist Garth Fletcher, but because, "Positive biases and happiness seem to push each other along." In other words, those who persist in presuming the best about their spouse, and who maintain a forgiving attitude and optimism about the future of the relationship, actually create a better marriage for themselves. 

 In an interview with the L.A. Times, Lisa Neff, Director of the Austin Marriage Project at the University of Texas (Austin) pointed out that while couples need a very realistic perspective in order to solve specific conflicts and support each other, they also benefit from "[h]aving a positive overall glow, that things will work out for the best and that my partner is really a good person." 

Similarly, Gottman's research points out that, as important as good conflict resolution skills are, they are not the cure-all for a failing marriage. Why? Because 69% of conflict in a marriage is "perpetual," meaning that it's more a function of personality issues and competing needs than a specific problem. Couples need to negotiate those conflicts but, more importantly, they need to build friendship, foster intimacy, and discover shared meaning in their lives. In so doing, they can re-ignite their optimism about each other and their marriage.

While a pessimistic view of the other person and the marriage worsens the relationship, cultivating a positive mindset towards your spouse --- focusing on their strengths and gifts -- will, says Neff, "remind you of why you're in that relationship in the first place."
And that's good for every marriage.

Rebecca Hagelin is a public speaker on the family and culture and the author of the new best seller, 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family. Visit her website at where you can sign up to receive her free e-newsletter containing the Culture Challenge of the Week and how to fight back. Hagelin is also senior communications fellow for The Heritage Foundation.