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Married to your work? Try working on your marriage.

Fam Pract Manag. 2003;10(7):80

Someone once said, “Marriage is the process of choosing the right man or woman with whom to be incompatible!” The institution of marriage, while the butt of many jokes, remains vitally important for most of us and has been associated with influencing health outcomes in many areas. I always encourage my family practice residents to ask patients, “How are things at home?” How would you answer that question?

This two-part series is a reminder of some important principles of marital life (or couple life) and how to apply them to your relationship. This month we begin by identifying some basic principles.

1. Relationships take work

This is foundational. It is easy to assume that good relationships just happen, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, we have to cultivate and nurture our relationships. If we don’t, they will suffer from neglect, even if it’s unintentional.

2. Relationships go through phases and stages

The initial “wow” stage of a relationship doesn’t last forever. It is natural to go through phases in our relationships when we feel closer or more romantic, just as it’s natural to feel more distant or less romantic.

3. Adjustments are necessary

Any relationship will have a difficult time surviving if it is not allowed to evolve when a life-altering change occurs. Children, job changes, moves and other events require a couple to adjust the way they “fit” together. A refusal to accept and adjust to life-changing events will stress the relationship.

4. Deep roots help you grow

A strong commitment is vital to riding out the challenges of couple life – and life itself. Experiencing the love and acceptance of a caring relationship can help partners feel affirmed and enhance who they are.

5. Appreciation goes a long way

Several studies have found appreciation to be a key characteristic of healthy marriages and families. For example, John Gottman, PhD, found happy, stable couples’ positive statements outnumbered negative five to one and that escalation of negativity signaled a poor prognosis for the marriage.1

6. The grass isn’t actually greener on the other side

While it is natural for people to have occasional thoughts that they could be happier with someone else, I would encourage you to challenge them. Before you rush to end a current relationship, think of this statement made by Don Wile, PhD, a marital therapist: “Choosing a partner is choosing a set of problems.” If you give up one partner for another, you may simply get a new set of problems. I say this not to be negative about marriage, but to be realistic about human beings.

7. Dialogue is more important than agreement

Gottman’s research found that about 70 percent of disagreements among couples were about issues that were perpetual and unresolvable. It is important that couples learn to discuss these issues even if they can’t agree on them. Gottman also found that when both partners became defensive or entrenched in their positions, they lost the give and take needed to make the relationship work.

8. Healthy boundaries make healthy marriages

Couples need to set certain boundaries between themselves and other people in their lives. For example, if your partner has told you something in confidence, you should not reveal it to anyone else. Couples should also set boundaries between work life and couple life.

In an upcoming issue of FPM, I’ll give you some specific steps for strengthening or reviving your relationship. Between now and then, review the above principles and ask yourself what place they currently have in your marriage or relationship. Just as we encourage our patients to have regular check-ups, so too should we pause from time to time to assess the state of our relationships.

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