Browse your local bookstore or search online-book retailers and you will find many self-help books for couples on marriage. One of my favorite researchers is Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist, has spent a large portion of her career studying marriage and divorce. She co-authored The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts and authored the following books: The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study (2001), What About The Kids and Raising Your Child Before, During and After the Divorce (2004). Dr. Wallenstein has been married for over fifty years and at ninety-two years old, she is not only an expert on marriage and divorce in her professional life, but she is also a wise person with rich life experiences.
In The Good Marriage, Dr. Wallerstein interviewed married couples and found recurring themes, which she termed as healthy traits within “good” marriages. Below is a list and summary of the nine healthy tasks and traits she found in her research within good marriages.
1. Separating from Family of Origin.
This task is all about growing up and away psychologically from one’s parents and siblings. Developing healthy psychological boundaries includes setting limits and making decisions independent from the influences of family members. A shift occurs when one separates from their family of origin, where a person moves predominately into the role of husband and wife versus son or daughter. This is not to imply one has to cut ties with family of origin, rather, the commitment of marriage is letting go of the previous roles and embracing the new roles.
2. Building Togetherness and Creating Autonomy
An essential trait of a healthy marriage is not only having a sense of companionship but also a sense of autonomy. Being able to maintain a sense of identity and separateness is important in any relationship. A healthy trait in marriage is when each person can have independent thinking, interests, and personal goals, as well as shared goals and values together.
3. Managing Parenthood
For married couples with children, becoming parents is a life changing event. While parenthood has many positive aspects, the challenge for many couples is to manage the stress, strain and the demands of parenting with balancing focused time and attention to one’s marriage. A healthy marital task is to work actively on maintaining couple-hood while balancing parenthood.
4. Coping with Stress and Crisis
Stress and crisis are an inevitable part of life. Crisis seems like a dramatic word; however, Dr. Wallerstein uses the word to describe two categories of life events: expected foreseeable life changes and unexpected life events. Examples of expected foreseeable changes include: returning to work after being at home with children, one’s child going from elementary school to middle school, or high school or graduation, milestone birthdays, making the decision to move to a new home or geographical location, entering peri-menopause/menopause. The second category, unexpected life events, can occur at any point in one’s life. Examples include: loss of a job, death of family member or friend, new medical diagnosis or health issue, natural disaster, accidents or other trauma related events. The task for married couples is to manage the stressful life events, both anticipated and unexpected, and support one another in ways to preserve rather than strain the relationship.
5. Making a Safe Place for Conflict
The goal with this task is to create an emotional environment between one another which is supportive, caring, and most importantly, SAFE to bring up disagreements, conflicts and a difference of opinion. In my work with couples, I often state what may seem obvious and often goes overlooked: conflict in a relationship is not negative, rather, it’s how a couple deals with and manages the conflict that is critical. An essential trait of a healthy relationship is to have a safe, supportive environment to work through conflicts and differences of opinion as it arises.
6. Maintaining Sexual Love and Intimacy
The demands and stress of raising a family can significantly impact an individual and thereby couple’s sexual health. In my clinical work, I have observed the following directly impacting sexual functioning: financial pressures, mental health issues (worry, anxiety, and depression), physical health issues (pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding, peri-menopause, menopause, prostate issues) and side effects of certain medications all can contribute to and can alter sexual functioning. Couples who maintain and work on preserving a healthy sexual relationship regardless of the demands and stress in life, often report more emotional intimacy and a strengthened marital bond.
7. Sharing Laughter and Keeping Interests Alive
In her research, Dr. Wallerstein found couples who were in happy marriages reported the importance of humor and laughter in their relationship. Being able to use humor throughout the relationship, even in stressful and mundane episodes, provided a sense of relief and enjoyment. The second part of this task is keeping interests alive. Many couples who are raising a family express a lack of time and energy to pursue new activities. Being able to return to interests, activities, hobbies and sports once enjoyed previous to parenthood, as well as trying new interests and activities, is beneficial to marital well-being.
8. Providing Emotional Nurturance
An important task in marriage is to provide support, emotional comfort and nurturance to one’s partner throughout the relationship and stress of life. Marital satisfaction increases when a couple is emotionally supportive, encouraging and understanding with one another.
9. Keeping Courtship and Pleasant Memories Alive
Couples are often propelled into the day-to-day demands and tasks, often leaving small amounts of time left over for reminiscing and reflecting on their relationship. Dr. Wallerstein found in her research the importance of reflecting, remembering and talking about the beginnings of one’s relationship. Her observation, the process of holding onto the early parts of the relationship and reflecting upon a couple’s current life and experiences provides a sense of perspective, shared goal and vision with one another in each others lives.
As you have completed reading the tasks, the last place I want you to go to, is thinking your marriage is not “good” because you lack some of the above-mentioned traits in your marriage. It is important to take a broad perspective when evaluating the health of any relationship. Stress, life events, personality traits, as well as emotional maturity and coping skills, will impact the functioning of a relationship.
One shift I would make with Dr. Wallerstein’s research is not to describe a marriage in terms of “good” or “bad”, rather “healthy behaviors” present in a marriage. Moving away from rigid “all or none” categories is not only flexible, but encouraging for individuals to make changes with hopefully, positive results.
If you have all of these tasks in your relationship-fantastic-I imagine you actively work with your partner to keep these traits present in your marriage. Many people have some of the above tasks and work to develop and create the traits that are not present or do not come naturally or with ease. If you see an area you would like to improve within your marriage, I encourage you to talk with your partner to bring the desired task into your relationship.
Marriage is an evolving and developing relationship. To think or expect marriage can function in a healthy way without taking care of, spending focused time together and nurturing the relationship sets many couples up for frustration, anger and resentment. My hope is these traits provide a framework for you and your partner to explore, identify and strengthen within your relationship.
© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2014