- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2015

While some married couples almost never have any fights, it’s not unusual for those with very good marriages to go through times of conflict and unhappiness, a nationally known marriage researcher said.

There are at least eight things couples can do to lower their risk for divorce and find their way back to a happy union, psychology professor Scott M. Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, wrote recently on the blog for the Institute for Family Studies (IFS).

Mr. Stanley has written numerous books about relationships, including “The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love.”

One suggestion is intended for a spouse as an individual, and the rest are for the spouses as a couple, he wrote on the IFS blog.

1. Do your (own) part as an individual. If a spouse has become concerned about the state of their marital union, the first piece of advice is “do your part,” Mr. Stanley advised.

This means take steps to “turn things around within yourself” by becoming a better person — such as doing “little things” that make the home happier and are pleasing to the spouse. There are a wealth of books and resources to draw ideas from, he said, including his blog, Sliding vs. Deciding.

2. Talk with the spouse about how to make a happier future. Struggling couples have a tendency to talk about current problems or past grievances — and there are times when those things must be the topic of conversation.

“But the better strategy for most couples is to focus on what you want to try, now, together, to boost and protect your marriage,” Mr. Stanley wrote. Planning a happy future together takes the couple beyond their current issues and encourages more talking about how to fulfill those plans.

3. Read a good book on marriage. The goal is to find one or two ideas that both spouses like and pursue those ideas, Mr. Stanley wrote. It’s not necessary to do a lot of things; just “do something.”

4. Boost the fun and friendship parts of the marriage. “People get busy, life gets strained, and spouses get distant,” Mr. Stanley wrote. This can be counteracted by making time to do enjoyable things together — and protecting those times from conflict.

For example, if the couple’s plan is to go on a date or go for a walk, decide beforehand that certain issues or problems are “off-limits” during those times. Set up a different time and place to discuss the troubling things.

5. Consider taking a relationship-education workshop. Communities and religious bodies often hold workshops aimed at helping couples improve or enrich their marriages. This could prove invaluable in uplifting the marriage.

6. Take steps to manage conflict more constructively, especially if there are children in the home. Common mistakes are for one or both spouses to escalate a disagreement and/or invalidate the other person’s point of view.

Antidotes to these include learning how to listen and understand the other person, show respect and seek a resolution to the problem together, Mr. Stanley wrote. If things start to get nasty, a good strategy is to learn how to take a “time-out,” so each person can calm themselves down, and then regroup to find solutions to the problem.

(As a caveat at the beginning of his IFS blog, Mr. Stanley said his advice was aimed at couples who are not in dangerous or abusive relationships. If someone believes their relationship is unsafe, he wrote, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.)

7. Don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. This means don’t threaten divorce during an argument.

“I think a lot of couples say things that should not be said because they are in the heat of battle: Why did we ever marry? Should we just split up? Why don’t you just move out if you feel that way,” Mr. Stanley wrote.

“If you want your marriage to work,” stop making such comments, he said. “You cannot nurture the desire to invest in your future if you keep reminding each other that there might not be one,” he wrote. “Don’t talk about divorce unless you really mean to talk about divorce. Again, learn to take a time-out.”

8. Get professional help. Married couples can become deeply unhappy in their unions. However, studies have shown that many happily married people weathered very difficult times. This means even if one or both spouses experience being very unhappy at one point in their marriage, that doesn’t mean things won’t vastly improve with time and effort.

“On the other hand, some experts argue … that those who become deeply maritally distressed are unlikely to get better on their own,” Mr. Stanley wrote. “If you have sunk into chronic unhappiness in your marriage, think about getting help.”

“When both partners are motivated” to work on the marriage, “a lot of good things can result from seeking a skilled counselor,” he added, noting that friends, clergy, a doctor or other trusted source can often provide good recommendations.

Mr. Stanley concluded by saying that it is normal for happily married couples to endure ups and downs.

“One of the most important things you can do to avoid divorce is to hold reasonable expectations,” he wrote.

“Expect joy and strains, maddening moments and laughter,” Mr. Stanley said. “Expect a real life.”

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