One of the biggest tragedies of middle adult years is divorce. The shelf life of the relationship expires, and a once loving couple becomes estranged. It’s not that divorce is a sin. Sometimes leaving is an essential step for improved well-being. Even the most amicable divorce leaves a trail of carnage in its wake. Lives built together can’t easily be torn apart. Where emotional and physical abuse is absent, often the best course of action is to improve the relationship rather than flee with grand hopes of finding something better. However, before we encounter the crisis of divorce, we should build an emotionally healthy marriage. The strong bond can carry partners though the inevitable difficult patches they encounter as their relationship matures.
Emotionally stable marriages begin with emotionally stable partners, joining together in this fabulous journey of living. Successful marriages must be viewed as a whole, in a quantum physics sort of way, for us to fully appreciate the dynamics of healthy interaction. But we are mortals, and our minds limited, we benefit from dissecting the whole, and learning from the parts.
Emotional stability is a healthy balanced relationship with our emotions. As we become comfortable with the feeling experience of living, we can better regulate the discomforting emotions. As an individual, this is emotional maturity.
Relationships tend to magnify emotions. If our emotions already run amok, then a relationship can be challenging, exposing painful fears, jealousies, and insecurities. Many couples struggle with emotions together, limiting each others growth in relationship entanglements of codependency instead of lifting partnerships. We can improve, escaping the emotional drama, and find true intimacy.
“With emotional stability in your relationship, things will flow better, and you will both handle things better.”~Sarah B. | Power of Positivity
Five Practices for an Emotionally Healthy Marriage:
The categories we learn from are artificial, created concepts to shed light on the whole. With this understanding, I gently move forward with a list of relationship practices that when earnestly followed create stability, bringing to life one of the greatest contributors to well-being—intimate connection and security.
Practice One: Respecting Autonomy
Too many couples error in this essential ingredient of strong relationships. The narcissist doesn’t recognize the other, while the anxiously attached attempts to completely merge. Each approach creates an imbalance of power, denying the individual feelings, hopes, desires, and goals of self or the other. Without respect of individuality, there is no cooperative effort in the development of both partners. Subsequently, the pleasures of intimacy are lost in the confusion of identity. These couples get sucked into the vortex of continually trying to please or subjugate the other.
We develop this respect by actively learning about our partner through inquisitive observations and open communication, accepting without judgment their feelings, thoughts, and desires.
See Autonomy in Romantic Relationships for more on this topic.
Practice Two: Emotional Intelligence
Emotions are essential to connections; however, they also contribute to division. An emotionally intelligent person understands emotion in a more granular way. Emotions are constructions derived from a complex banquet of feeling affects, cultural learnings, and experience. When our understanding of emotions is severely limited, we have little wiggle room to feel without harsh reactions. Instead of feeling fatigued and irritable, we just experience anger. When I am able to identify feelings with more granularity, I can recognize that I am irritable and recognize I feel annoyed with small intrusions from my partner because of my own irritability.
“Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the secret of lasting intimate relationships, largely because it makes us extremely aware of the changes—large and small—that are constantly occurring in ourselves and others.”~Ken Vador |Help Guide
This may seem insignificant; but its not. If I am simply angry, then I project that anger on my partner and blame. Consequently, we each absorb the moment as being wronged, weighing against the essential need of positive interaction over negative interactions.
We develop emotional intelligence through practicing mindfulness, examining feeling states without jumping to automatic reactions. We also improve our conceptual interpretation of feeling through learning a wider vocabulary for describing feeling. Open communications with a partner about feeling experience helps the relationship grow and eliminates unneeded negative interactions.
“When I am able to identify feelings with more granularity, I can recognize that I am irritable and recognize I feel annoyed with small intrusions from my partner because of my own irritability.”~T. Franklin Murphy
Practice Three: A Positive Ratio of Positive to Negative Experiences
If the bad outweighs the good, the relationship slowly grates on our well-being. We can temporarily substitute healthy connection with positive outside interest. but we can’t flourish by substituting one pillar of well-being while neglecting the others. Overall, we experience the greatest aliveness when relationships work in unison with other elements of thriving.
We must nurture positive experiences in a relationship and diminish the negative. Let’s face it, all relationships will have challenges. It’s the nature of two individuals sharing a life together. The boundaries, the individuality will collide and interfere with unrestrained individualism.
A Ratio of Five to One
Dr. John Gottman suggest a ratio of five positive feeling effects to one negative during conflict. Healthy stable relationships constantly build, overwhelmingly say, “yes” to each other’s needs, supply warmth, security and enjoyment.
“Partners who criticize each other, provide constant negative feedback, aren’t supportive of each other, don’t demonstrate affection or appreciation, or behave uninterested in their partner are in relationships that are out of balance.”~Shruti S. Poulsen, Ph.D.
This is where we engage in the work of building. Love becomes a verb of doing, not a description of a sentiment we feel. We rat on ourselves when we feel crummy, irritable, or needy so the negative affect stemming from our interaction, allowing our partner to process the interaction as neutral.
Individual emotional intelligence assists with identifying these emotions, so we can artfully express them in non-threatening ways, while a caring partner can assist with soothing the bothersome feeling state. In psychology, we refer to this as dyadic regulation. With attention, these moments register as a positive, instead of a negative, building trust in a relationship that nourishes.
We further improve the ratio in two ways: first by actively seeking positive shared experiences (practice four); second by limiting the negative power of conflict (practice five).
Practice Four: Some Shared Interests
The more two people agree about the fundamentals of life the richer the experience. We develop in many areas, exhibiting passions and preferences—religious beliefs, political affiliations, family rituals, child rearing behaviors, culture and enjoyed entertainment.
An emotionally healthy marriage is occupied by healthy individuals who don’t need or expect a partner to share every belief, habit or interest; but they should have a diverse map of commonalities. When doing something you love, with someone you love, the positive emotions fuse into the relationship and feelings for each other. When a couple has limited shared interests, they drift apart emotionally and physically.
Practice Five: Effective Reparations
During normal relations there will be moments of conflict. Items of interest where partners have different directions. Many of these can be quickly and easily resolved, especially when the other four practices of an emotionally healthy marriage are in place. Some problems, however, are persistent.
Reparation are those small moments during uncomfortable conversations where one or both parties reach out emotionally, momentarily step away from the conversation to reconnect. Repair attempts can be very subtle, a slight joke, or a complement. A partner reaches out, often unconsciously, seeking security. The attempt is to reaffirm the commitment to the relationship—we disagree but still love each other, right?
When a partner rebuffs, rejects or ignores these attempts, the disagreement spills over into sacred areas of the relationship. Here, insecurities are magnified, worries of abandonment unburied, and futures questioned. Partners feel pressured to conform, and resentments begin to accumulate, setting the positive negative balance into dangerous territories.
Integration of All Five Practices
These five practices gather strength through a common thread of open communication, each demanding an open dialogue. As we respect the individuality of each partner, and approach interaction with the guidance of emotional intelligence, we naturally improve the ratio of experiences. Disagreements lose the drama of heated conflict, and end with a compassionate and deeper understanding of our partner, creating an emotionally healthy marriage. Our ability to nurture the closeness drives us to reach out in reparation, even during unpleasant conversation.
All the practices are intertwined and connected through regular practice and mindful attention to these practices we discover intimacy—the emotional healthy marriage lifts the well-being of both partners, and gives them the security and love we most desire.
Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter more than IQ.
Gottman, J. (2011) The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples.