The key ingredient that will make your marriage last

Friendship is a key factor in a happy and long-lasting marriage. But what exactly is meant by friendship in marriage? A marriage counsellor and coach answers

couple lying on bed facing opposite directions

Dan and Sandy came to me because Sandy was on the verge of leaving. She described years of feeling disconnected and lonely in the marriage. She told of times that Dan was unavailable. Several years ago, Sandy had to have surgery, and Dan told her she needed to find a ride home from the hospital because he had to work. This made Sandy feel unimportant to him and she thought he was uncaring and insensitive toward her.

Sandy stated she loved Dan because he was a good man, but she wasn’t in love with him. She asked him to go to marriage counselling many times over the years, but Dan refused. Dan, on the other hand, felt the relationship was going okay until Sandy told him she wanted a divorce. He admitted he knew she wasn’t happy, but he didn’t think she was this unhappy.

He was emotional as he stated Sandy was his best friend. He couldn’t imagine life without her and he was willing to do anything to save the marriage. Dan was scared he was losing Sandy and now he was desperate enough to agree to therapy. Both were worried it was too late.

I see couples like Dan and Sandy all too frequently. There is a huge disconnect between them on the state of their relationship. How can Sandy feel so alone while Dan feels she is his best friend?

One thing 75 per cent of couples are missing in marriage

Divorce rates are an obvious focus when it comes to marital happiness, but not all unhappy marriages end in divorce. In fact, there is research that says only 25 per cent of all marriages are good ones. What do 25 per cent of married couples have that the rest are missing?

According to Dr John Gottman, a pioneer in the field of marriage research and therapy, the missing ingredient is simply friendship. Gottman also explains that friendship between couples means they “know each other intimately” and “are well versed in each other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes and dreams.”

Dr Gottman studied thousands of couples over 25 years and determined that the friendship between a couple was the core of a strong marriage. He found that having a healthy marriage wasn’t that difficult or complicated, but it did require a level of intimacy most couples do not maintain.

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman states that couples in good marriages “have an abiding regard for each other,” express this esteem in many ways large and small, respect each other, and enjoy one another’s company. Gottman has also found that the quality of a married couple’s friendship is the most important predictor of satisfaction with sex, romance and passion.

What friendship looks like for women vs men

Most couples come to therapy because the woman is unhappy and lonely in the relationship but the men feel everything is going just fine. If friendship is the core of a healthy relationship, how do both individuals have such a different experience of the same relationship?

The quality of a married couple’s friendship is the most important predictor of satisfaction with sex, romance and passion

In my experience, this happens because of the way men and women experience and bond through friendship. Women know how to do friendship really well… with other women. They are very relational and conversational. Intimacy flows between women rather easily and naturally. But men do not relate to other men at this level of intimacy.

Women need more than companionship to feel close to someone. They need the exchange of feelings and thoughts. They need to feel as if someone understands them and accepts them. For women, intimacy means “into me you see.” It is a much deeper layer of relationship than most men ever experience, in part because of the way they were raised.

Men have had role models for generations who showed them that in order to be a good husband and father, they needed to provide financial support and stability. Women needed men to gain property, security and respect in most cultures, often sacrificing emotional intimacy for other physical needs. But as times have changed and women have become more educated and employed, they no longer need men in the same way.

As a result, women are now demanding more from the men in their lives. They require emotional intimacy. Unfortunately, men have not caught up with these changes as quickly. They are still showing up in relationships with the idea that companionship is intimacy. This is why women are much more likely to file for divorce than men.

Men create bonding relationships by doing things together like watching a sport, hunting together or playing a sport. There isn’t a lot of talking and sharing. Two men can “know” each other for years. They consider themselves great friends because they spend time together participating in that shared interest. And yet, they may not know many things about each other outside of that interest, but they will feel as if they are close.

Women need more than companionship to feel close to someone. They need the exchange of feelings and thoughts

Five actionable ways to work towards intimacy

  • Set aside intentional time with one another each day to create a habit of carving out time for conversation.
  • Husbands can ask specific questions like, “What do you need to feel loved today?” and “How can I help you today?”
  • Wives can work towards giving honest, open feedback to these questions. Opening up to these questions and asking for what they really need will help bring intimacy back in to marriage.
  • Husbands can stop listening with the intent to problem-solve. Instead, listen to what your partner is feeling and put your focus there. I promise it is almost always the right move.
  • Both can phrase wants and needs as a request instead of a complaint. Inside every complaint is a wish. Drop the complaint and focus on the wish.  Complaining leaves no room for your partner to show up.

Dan and Sandy — Revisited

As they sat in my office, Sandy was skeptical that any real change could happen. Could she really love him passionately and romantically? I advise couples in this situation to give it at least six months to allow intimacy to grow. Dan took that time to learn how to relate to Sandy and communicate what he was feeling. Sandy worked towards finding her voice and letting Dan know what she needed and wanted. This work is not for the faint of heart, and it did not come with a simple flip of a switch. However, making time to work towards moving closer to one another emotionally led Dan and Sandy to have a close, vibrant friendship and a thriving marriage.

Going the distance

Marriage is often the constant re-balancing between closeness and distance. That’s part of the journey of intimacy. It is the responsibility of both partners to speak up when needs are not being met. Complaining is a great first step, but if it isn’t enough to spark change, go further. Seek out counselling even if your spouse won’t agree to come with you. If necessary, put the marriage on hold until your partner knows how serious you are. Staying quiet or withdrawing does not solve the problem. Both of you deserve better.

This was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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