Ah, love. It’s a magical thing. Well, sort of. Turns out long-term romance may not be the stuff of fate, soulmates or the stars after all. Relationship researchers say marriage is a science, and argue that they can predict – with a surprising degree of accuracy – whose love affairs will keep burning and whose will fizzle out.
We’ve identified 10 fundamentals for mastering the science of love. If you’re still worried, panic not – experts say about a quarter of divorces could be avoided with some hard work. Just forget about magic and check out our tips for beating the relationship odds.
Beat the odds Cindy Mellow met Randy when she was 17 and they married two years later, but the Leamington, Ont., couple worked at their relationship right from the start. “If there’s a problem, it gets taken care of quickly,” says Cindy. Nancy Hurst, an Edmonton psychologist and marriage therapist, thinks young lovers can make it if they’re realistic and work on their own personal identities and relationship issues. As for those about to get hitched, “What’s the hurry?” Hurst asks. “You change so much from ages 17 to 30, you might end up quite different.”
Beat the odds Too different? Forge some common ground. “You must have something that brought you together in the first place,” says Hurst. Sharon Dykstra of Woodstock, Ont., has figured it out. Her husband flies recreationally at least twice a week but she gets nauseous in the air, so they go out for breakfast together at least once every weekend. If your partner has different beliefs or interests, try accepting those differences instead of plotting to change them.
Beat the odds Set some fair fighting rules, suggests Diane Marshall, a Toronto-based registered marriage and family therapist. “Agree to not go to sleep angry and avoid trying to resolve things when either of you is tired or hungry,” she says. Ban name-calling, insults and cross-complaining (one-upping each other with complaints). And get to know your partner’s conflict style. Sharon’s husband likes to talk problems out, but when family is involved, he shuts down. “I got to realize that it’s not worth trying to change his mind, so I just let it go now.”
Beat the odds According to Gottman’s research on happy marriages, it takes five positive interactions to balance out just one negative. Even if it feels awkward at first, start using compliments in your everyday conversations. And when you’re tempted to criticize or make a snide comment, count to 10 and think about whether you’d really prefer to sound superior, or keep a positive mood in the house. If you do slip up, say you’re sorry and offer an explanation – you were tired, stressed out from work – but not excuses.
Beat the odds A few nights a week, Gayle Fraser and her husband, Michael, of Peterborough, Ont., pour a glass of wine or two and chat. “It’s about having time that’s not in front of the TV,” says Gayle. Leonard’s study found that this kind of alcohol use actually strengthens marriages. If you indulge differently or your different habits are causing tensions, try planning events with couples who drink moderately or don’t smoke. And if alcohol or another substance is causing serious problems, get help from a counsellor, Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon.
Beat the odds Close your eyes when you pass the tabloids at the grocery store: they’re screaming with messages that can make marriage seem disposable. Talk to your partner about your views on divorce and make a promise not to bring up the subject during arguments. And don’t let your mind wander to thoughts of who would take the cat and how you’d split up the furniture – not even privately to yourself – when he’s really getting on your nerves. Of course, there are times when divorce is the only option – especially if the relationship is causing a toxic environment for you or your children. In those cases, moving on with the help of a counsellor, mediator or strong support system can be a good thing.
Beat the odds Things got rough for Calgary’s Pamela Jessen and her husband, Ray, eight years ago, but a couples therapist gave them an arsenal of communication tools they still use today. “Now we try to connect twice a week, minimum once a week, just to sit down, look at each other and talk,” says Pamela. These sessions – which can last from 15 minutes to several hours – help them work out problems as they come along. To communicate better, avoid lecturing, don’t criticize and, most importantly, listen with interest and respect.
Beat the odds Pamela lived with her husband – and raised her two children from a previous relationship – for seven years before they formally got hitched. “If you’re committed to living together and you’re committed to marriage, then you’re committed,” she says. Avoid relationship killers (which are more common with cohabitation) such as infidelity, putting your own needs first and thinking you can just bail out if things get rough. And if you’ve been thinking about shacking up, consider putting it off. “What’s wrong with dating?” asks Hurst. “You can still spends lots of time with the person.”
Beat the odds Instead of getting into heavy debates or launching straight into complex solutions in tough times, just listen and try to feel some empathy for your partner. Laughter is also a good tool. That’s what Pamela’s husband has used, particularly back when the two were struggling with a very troubled teen. Ray would recite lines from movies that Pamela found hilarious, cracking them both up, breaking the tension and reminding her they were in the crisis together.
Beat the odds In a word: compromise. Cindy Mellow knew that marrying a paramedic was often going to interrupt her life. “I got used to it pretty early on,” she says. “When that pager goes off, he has to go.” So smile as you eat his terrible cooking, sit through his family’s boring events or when you find golf on the TV yet again – “as long as you never compromise who you are,” adds Hurst. “Both of you have to do it.”
“Most people know when they’re not happy,” says Nancy Hurst, a psychologist and marriage therapist in Edmonton. If your stomach sinks when he walks in the door or your arguments go nowhere, make an appointment. And do it soon: most couples wait too long.
You will have to talk about your deepest feelings and possibly about sex, too. “You will be opening up to a stranger, but it’s in a safe environment,” says Hurst. In just a few sessions, there may be some changes, but it takes about 10 to go deep.
A therapist, being neutral, can mediate tired old arguments. An experienced, well-trained professional will have an arsenal of techniques to improve your arguments, communication, language and even the way you think about each other.
According to studies of marriage therapy by John Wright, a couples therapist and psychology professor at the University of Montreal, about 50 per cent of couples who go to therapy improve their relationship a lot. Even those about to divorce have better breakups.