My husband and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary last week. I feel truly lucky to have such a wonderful person with whom to share the stuff of life – not just the big stuff like parenthood and career decisions but also the day to day challenges. Like how to make a respectable family meal when all we have in the fridge is a block of parmesan and a wilting lettuce – and which day is bin day at the moment?
Marriage may even have benefits beyond having someone to help unload the dishwasher! It has been claimed that married people may live longer and suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes than their non-married counterparts. Some studies dispute this but there does seem to be general agreement that loneliness is associated with poorer health outcomes. A happy marriage (or other long-term stable relationship) is a good buffer against loneliness.
People who are happily married also generally have lower rates of mental health problems than those who are single – although the reverse is true for people in troubled marriages.
I’m not sure that the medical evidence is sufficiently compelling that we need to advise single people to sprint down the aisle for the sake of their health, but I certainly think there’s a strong case for feeding a relationship with the right ingredients to keep it happy and healthy.
It seems five a day is a good target for relationship health as well as for nutritional health. According to psychologist John Gottman, in order for a marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a couple needs to be at least five to one.
There are many possible ways of making this happen but below are my favourite five a day.
1) Squeeze the juice out of the good stuff
The traditional gift for the 16th wedding anniversary is wax. Dave doesn’t share my excitement about gifts of the Jo Malone variety so we celebrated with a candle lit meal instead. When it comes to predicting long-term marital happiness it turns out that how you celebrate is even more important than how you fight.
Typically our life partners tell us about the good things that have happened to them. There are four main styles of response we can give: active constructive, passive constructive, passive destructive and active destructive.
For example your partner might tell you that he/she has just been awarded ‘employee of the month’ at work
An example of an active constructive response would be:
“That’s brilliant – I’m so pleased that your boss has recognised how hard you work and how much you bring to the organisation. You really deserve it. What did your colleagues say? Let’s crack open the bubbly to celebrate”
A typical passive constructive response is “That’s nice”
“Oh really? I had a rubbish day at work” would be a passive destructive response.
An example of an active destructive response is
“Humph – I bet you won’t get any extra money for that – and you’ll be expected to do a whole lot more work!”
Only one of the above responses would help to build your relationship. No prizes for guessing which!
This may seem blindingly obvious but it is surprisingly easy to slip up with this one in the whirlwind of daily life.
I felt pretty sure I always responded to my family’s good news with active constructive comments until I caught myself murmuring a non-committal ‘that’s good’ when Dave told me he had managed to cycle into work a minute faster than the day before.
Sure – this isn’t really earth shattering news in the grand scheme of things and I was in the middle of cooking supper and still quietly mulling over my own day. But it’s important to him and I’m the person he chose to share it with. A one-off lukewarm response from me probably won’t kill our marriage but it was a missed opportunity to actively strengthen our bond.
We tend to look forward to telling our loved ones these kind of little nuggets about our day. When we receive an active constructive response it feels good and makes us more likely to keep sharing. When we receive passive or destructive responses we are less likely to share things in future and can start to drift apart.
2) Remember to say ‘ thank you’
Expressing gratitude has been linked with improved well-being. As the saying goes ‘what we focus on grows’.
When I first fell in love with Dave, I noticed every wonderful, little thing about him and had to pinch myself regularly to check I wasn’t dreaming that this amazing human being had chosen to be with me.
I’d notice that he’d left me a windsurfing magazine to read or that he made my bed when he stayed over – and I’d appreciate the gestures.
I recently caught myself signing ‘Asmara Calderbank’ on a mundane household form, feeling slightly resentful that this chore had fallen to me.
Ironic really – there was a time when ‘Asmara Calderbank’ was something I’d happily doodled whilst daydreaming about Dave – just to see how my signature might look – just in case he ever popped the question!
Now here I was, in a slight funk because he hadn’t done a tiny piece of paperwork. I’d stopped noticing all the things he had done – like setting up almost all our bills as direct debits to keep household administration to a bare minimum.
I’d like to think I always remember thank Dave for the obvious things such as when he buys me flowers or gives me a massage. However, there are so many things for which to say ‘thank you’ within a marriage and noticing and appreciating the little things on a daily basis is good for both our well-being and our relationship.
3) Let something go
Just as there are many things to be thankful for in most relationships, there are also many potential reasons to complain. Your significant other forgot to buy milk (again); has used up all the hot water (again) and is currently hogging the remote control.
At best you feel a tad irritated. You may inwardly accuse him / her of being selfish or lazy. If you’re feeling really sorry for yourself you may find yourself thinking “if he / she really loved me this wouldn’t have happened”
In the name of openness you may even outwardly share these sentiments with your partner – after all isn’t it good to talk about things?
Well maybe – but there’s a difference between talking about things and just venting.
Your partner forgot to buy milk. Will it matter by your next anniversary? Will it matter this time next week? Would you berate a friend for committing the same ‘crime’?
If the answer to all of the above is ‘no’ then perhaps this issue isn’t worth a negative interaction. If we need five positive interactions for each negative perhaps it’s worth letting at least one thing go each day to help to maintain that ratio.
4) Perform a small act of kindness
Altruism is also linked with positive well-being. When we do something good for someone we feel better.
Most of us are brilliant at doing things for others. We help our struggling colleagues, give up our seat on the train for a stranger, pick up some shopping for a friend, lend an ear and words of support to a family member. In fact we rush around being all things to all people – except to the one we love most. After all he/she will understand. He / she knows how busy you are.
It doesn’t need to take long to do something kind though – does it?
A cup of tea in bed; a supportive text before an important meeting; running him/her a bath.
One small act of kindness each day for the love of your life is surely not such a big ask.
I aim to kiss Dave before he leaves for work, when he comes home and when we say goodnight. I think this is an important part of family life. When our teenage sons witness such behaviour there is usually an outcry of “Yuck – P.D.A.” (public display of affection) but I think they secretly find it a reassuring sign that all is well between their parents. Hopefully they will grow up understanding the value of being affectionate with their own future partners.
A study in the 1980s suggested that men who kissed their wives each morning were likely to live longer, earn more and have fewer car accidents than those who don’t. I confess that haven’t been able to locate the original paper to check the validity of this research. Who cares? Kissing is fun and I really hope it will be one of our marital five a day for the next 16 years and beyond…