Dr. Jay Earles

Dr. Jay Earles

Editor's note: This is the third of four articles celebrating National Marriage Week USA (Feb. 7-14), a collaborative campaign to strengthen individual marriages, reduce the divorce rate and build a culture that fosters strong marriages.

There is a lot to celebrate about the institution of marriage, in the good times and in the lows. It is still the most foundational relationship in every human society and is pivotal to the well-being of those in marriages. Divorce rates in South Carolina decreased from 2009 to 2017, which is a great trend. Truly, what God has joined together let no one separate.

When things are going well in our marriage, it is easy to take the relationship and our spouse for granted. We may slowly decrease or stop doing what we did to strengthen the relationship. There are several key behaviors to keep a marriage going well. One is to show our spouse how much we appreciate them. In the common marriage vow there’s a word that is easily overlooked. The promises to have and to hold in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer are commonly quoted. However, to love and to cherish is what makes the circumstances of sickness and poverty possible to bear.

Cherishing our spouse on a regular basis is incredibly important. The most stable relationships have a positive to negative interaction ratio of 20:1. Meaning they compliment each other, show physical affection and basically reinforce their love for each other 20 times for every complaint or criticism. The constant positives are what keep the relationship strong through negative situations. One way to support our spouse is to write them a note saying how much you appreciate them and some particular instance in which you saw them embody that characteristic. To really cherish our spouse we demonstrate selflessness and focus on being less selfish.

Every relationship will experience low points where communication is harder, trust is strained and even the commitment to the relationship may be questioned. That is when our resilience or the ability to adapt and “bounce back” is tested. One way to be ready for this is to keep working on our connectedness and continue to cherish our spouse. Praying for them, especially about areas of disagreement, will help our attitudes tremendously.

One consideration to remember is expectation management. We disagree about many things and we typically anticipate or expect that we will “resolve” our differences. However, research on couples indicates that up to 70% of our disagreements are about perpetual problems and are not things we can resolve; we may just have to agree to disagree. The important factor is to focus on dialogue with our partner. We are better off focusing on keeping communication open and continuing to listen to our spouse, not on trying to win. After all, “love, not words wins arguments.”

There are several things you can do to continue to improve your marriage. Check in with each other on a regular basis by asking a key question, “How are we doing?” The answer may not be what you expect, but listening to your spouse is a critical skill. Listen and ask yourself, “What is their perspective? What is life like for them?” Seeing things from the other’s perspective is incredibly helpful in addressing our problems. Our constant call to action as a spouse is to never stop working on our most important relationship.

I have seen several couples in marital therapy who were in dire straits. One or both of the partners was asking themselves how much longer they could hold on. Once therapy began they re-discovered ways to love each other, reinvested time in listening to their spouse and worked to become friends again. As they began to try to see things from their partner’s perspective and gave their spouse the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst. Simple talking to each other while not being distracted by smart phones, computers and the TV is vitally important and should be done everyday. This is the kind of talking where you look into the eyes of your spouse and share what you are thinking, feeling, hoping, concerned about, etc. It sounds simplistic, but these are the behaviors that have build and sustain healthy marriages.

Dr. Jay Earles, PsyD, ABPP, currently provides psychological services at Hope Community Counseling Center, a ministry of Midland Valley Community Church of the Nazarene. Over the past 24 years, he has held many positions in the areas of clinical psychology, including serving as president of the American Board of Clinical Health Psychology. Sponsored by the Family and Marriage Coalition of Aiken, Inc. (FAMCO). Contact Roger Rollins at 803-640-4689 or rogerrollins@atlanticbb.net.