No one's perfect, including you and the person you're married to. Maybe she squeezes the toothpaste from the middle or he leaves the toilet seat up. Maybe she is bull-headed and he is annoyingly indecisive. Maybe one of you is a workaholic and another spends too much money.
Despite these flaws, it's likely that deep down you believe your spouse is a good person who is worthy of honor and respect. At the heart of nearly every marriage lies this fundamental belief: that one's partner in marriage is a respectable, likeable person. Researcher John Gottman calls this a "fondness and admiration system."
Gottman has found that people who are happily married like each other.1 This probably sounds like an obvious, overly simplistic concept. But it's overlooked more often than people think. Why is it important? Because, says Gottman, couples who nurture their fondness and admiration for one another are better able to accept each other's flaws and weaknesses and prevent them from threatening their relationship. Fondness and admiration protect against feeling contempt for your spouse, a dangerous emotion that too many partners develop toward one another as the years go by. Feelings of contempt can quickly break down the bonds of friendship between husband and wife.
Take Mike and Sandy. They are very fond and respectful of each other and genuinely enjoy each other's company. But also have their differences. After work, Mike likes to come home and relax in front of the TV. Sometimes he puts his feet up on their white couch, which really bothers Sandy. What happens when Mike absentmindedly puts his feet up on the couch three nights in a row? If Sandy didn't feel fondness and admiration for Mike, she might feel contempt for his behavior and disgust at what seems like lack of respect for her. She might insult his personality ("You are such a slob!") or belittle him ("Can't you follow a simple request? I've told you a million times not to put your feet on the couch!"). Instead, Sandy moves Mike's feet off the couch as a gentle reminder. Because they have developed strong feelings of fondness and admiration, mistakes and disagreements are not enough to bring contempt between them.
According to Gottman, even the most troubled marriages are salvageable if a tiny ember of fondness and admiration remains between husband and wife. The trick is to uncover that ember and fan it gently into a flame.1
Here are ideas to help you revive and nurture your fondness and admiration for each other:
- List each other's your positive qualities. List as many things as you can think of. (Is he or she intelligent, witty, organized, creative, attractive, relaxed?) For each quality you list, think of a specific incident when your spouse displayed that quality. Write it down. Share your lists with each other.
- Talk about your history. In Gottman's1 studies, many couples rekindled their fondness and admiration by recalling happy events of their past. He also found that 94% of couples who have positive memories of their history together are likely to have a happy future.
- How did you meet? What were your first impressions of each other?
- What do you remember about the time you were dating? What were your favorite things to do or places to go together?
- How did you decide to get married? How did you know your spouse was the person you wanted to spend the rest of your life with? Was it an easy or hard decision?
- What do you remember about your wedding? Your honeymoon?
- How was your first year of marriage? What things did you have to adjust to as newlyweds?
- Looking back, what moments stand out as the happiest times in your marriage?
- What moments stand out as difficult times in your marriage? How did you get through those hard times? Why did you stay together despite them?
- Answer the following questions together, inspired by one of Gottman's questionnaires. (If it would help, invite a close friend or family member to act as interviewer and ask you the questions.)1
- Practice positive thinking. Thinking positively might seem simplistic, but researchers have found it to be a powerful tool for overcoming depression. Gottman1 found it equally useful for overcoming negativity and hopelessness in troubled marriages. Some ideas about how to think positively about your marriage include:
- Each day when you wake up, think one positive thought about your spouse, such as a trait you admire, a talent, something you especially like about him or her, a feature of your relationship that you like, etc. If this is difficult, try thinking of something positive your spouse has done.
- Write down your thought on a piece of paper. Put it in a place where you'll see it and think of it during the day, such as in your pocket, on your car dashboard, or on your desk.
- During the day, especially when you and your spouse are apart, repeat the thought silently to yourself.
- Do this with a different thought at least five days a week for at least two weeks.
As you rehearse positive thoughts about your spouse, positive feelings about him or her will begin to come more naturally. It will be easier to see the good things in your marriage.
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
- Gottman, J. M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.