Eric and Kristen have never argued over the course of their marriage. They don’t have any major complaints against each other, and they seem to get along just fine. But neither of them are really satisfied. They can’t put a finger on it, but it often feels like they’re just roommates, or living parallel lives. They can’t remember the last time their spouse paid them a compliment or showed them affection.
Their neighbors Ashley and Ray, on the other hand, feel like every conversation they have ends in an argument, even if it starts on a neutral playing field. Each of them feels disrespected and invalidated by the other, and they feel worn down by the constant criticism present in their relationship.
While these couples might seem like either end of an extreme, one thing they both lack is what John Gottman calls a “fondness and admiration system.” Gottman speaks about the importance of fondness and admiration as a foundational building block of a couple’s friendship in the Sound Relationship House. He came to this conclusion based on research he did noticing what he calls his “magic ratio”: for every 1 negative or critical comment made, 5 positive or affirming comments must be made to make up for it.
Practicing gratitude and appreciation in your marriage not only fights against this 1:5 ratio, it also is linked to higher quality marriages and a reduced chance of divorce, according to a University of Georgia study. One reason for this correlation may be linked to Gottman’s claim that fondness and admiration is the antidote to contempt, the single greatest indicator of impending divorce. Contempt is characterized by harsh criticism coming from a place of superiority, and includes such things as sarcasm, eye-rolling, and name-calling. To avoid this pitfall, Gottman encourages building the fondness and admiration system by shifting from an attitude of searching for flaws in your partner, to instead embody an attitude of looking for the good in them.
Here are some ideas on how to give attention to this area of your marriage:
First, assess yourself.
If you connect with the stories of either couple above, take the assessment here to find out if you might need to grow in this area of fondness and admiration. If you get a high score, then great! Continue doing what you’re doing and maybe sprinkle in one or two of the following ideas. If you get a low score, there is still hope! Use the ideas below to give attention to these areas and turn your marriage around.
Make a list of character qualities about your partner you admire.
In Gottman’s book Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he encourages couples who struggle to feel appreciated and respected by their partner to complete an exercise to grow their fondness and admiration system. This exercise includes looking at a list of positive character traits, identifying which of those qualities you see in your partner, and sharing a specific story to illustrate that characteristic. This exercise can be done as a one-time event, or it can be done daily as a check-in to increase this skill.
Notice daily tasks you’ve taken for granted and express appreciation.
Early in your marriage, tasks like making a home-cooked meal for the family or shoveling the sidewalks on a cold and snowy day were likely met with praise and gratitude. Over time, however, those simple tasks become so routine that they are often taken for granted. This week, pay attention to an activity that your spouse does often to which you’ve become accustomed, and make a point to share gratitude with them for completing that task.
Share something that impresses you about your spouse.
We typically are attracted to our love interests in the early days of relationships because of some unique characteristic or strength they have that we admire. Perhaps he runs marathons, or she is able to remember details and manage priorities well, or he has a knack for coming up with creative dates. Take stock of some of these gifts and skills that impress you about your spouse, and compliment them about how you see that specific trait in them.
Prioritize a date night where you reminisce about your early relationship.
Especially once you have children together as a couple, time alone together becomes low on the priority list. However, this is the time where it is most important to be building and fostering that relationship between the two of you. Find a babysitter or call grandma to watch the kids for an evening and go out on a date night where you spend time reminiscing about the early days of your relationship. Reminding yourselves about the past can help you reflect positively on present day experiences and the future of your relationship.
Do a “random act of kindness” for your spouse.
I’ve heard talk about random acts of kindness in the context of strangers – but what makes strangers any more deserving than the people we interact with on a daily basis? Find a way to serve and love your spouse through one of these random acts of kindness. Do you know she has a big project coming up at work? Picking up dinner on the way home and putting the kids to bed early might ease her mind. Is he feeling overwhelmed by maintenance projects he’s been meaning to do in the house and backyard? Try asking him which of those projects you could do on your own, or volunteering to help on the weekend.
Keep a marriage gratitude journal.
We’ve talked on this blog before about how gratitude journaling is a great self-care practice. But what about taking that concept and extending it to your marriage? There are plenty of different ways to do a marriage gratitude journal, but here’s one possibility: write down one thing each day you are grateful for about your spouse, and then share them with each other at the end of the week. You can keep them in a separate journal or the same journal, but it can be helpful to keep them written down so you can look back on them later.
Which of these practices would you like to test out this week?
If your marriage is characterized by feelings of contempt from which you don’t feel you can escape, or if one of the anecdotes at the beginning of the post resonates with your story, I’d love to talk with you about some ways a therapist could help change the script in your marriage. Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where I use Gottman Method Couples Therapy to foster healthy and thriving marriages that are safeguarded against divorce. Give Restored Hope a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear about how I can help.