The best marriage advice I’ve ever heard didn’t come from a research study on couples, or from a book on marriage therapy or from a workshop by a marriage counseling expert. No, the single best advice I’ve ever heard came from a couple I worked with when I was practicing in Chicago in the mid nineties. This couple was not seeing me for marriage counseling but for the treatment of their nine year-old daughter, who was suffering from a severe case of depression and a moderate case of defiance.
Mood disorders, when they persist in children, tend to demoralize parents and stress marriages. The demoralization happens because the sorts of interventions that parents typically try not only don’t work but often seem to make things worse. The marital stress subsequently occurs when parents start to oversubscribe responsibility for their child’s problems onto their partner (e.g., if only you would do x or not do y maybe our child would not have these difficulties).
The couple I’m referring to experienced the demoralization but not the marital problems. After a year’s worth of treatment, which included behaviorally oriented family therapy, individual cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication (the nature of these treatments is described in my book Working Parents, Thriving Families), their daughter was no longer symptomatic. We had some extra time in our last session so I indulged a curiosity and asked: “You guys made it clear from the get-go that you have a strong marriage and are each other’s best friend. But I’m puzzled about something. Often when I’m helping parents to treat problems like your daughter’s I notice that they have periods when they feel alienated from each other, but I never saw signs of that in the two of you. Actually, you seemed to remain close throughout all phases of our work, even though there were some very rough patches.” As they nodded in agreement I asked: “What’s your secret?” To which the husband instantly answered (because they had thought and talked about this a lot): “We know the other person is not crazy.”
The couple elaborated that when the other person acts in a way that is grating they just assume that she or he has good cause. So, instead of just concluding that their partner is being a jerk, or selfish or unfair, they conclude (1) that she or he has an understandable reason for acting that way and (2) that she or he will rebound soon enough, especially if their own response involves patience and empathy instead of irritation and counterattacks.
Clearly there are multiple and important strategies that go into having a successful long term relationship (e.g., making time to have fun with each other, working on having a satisfying sex life, etc.), but I was struck by the truth of this couple’s insight and how well it was working for them. They also helped me to connect the dots and realize that this sort of way of being in a relationship captures a lot of the good outcomes that happen when communication training goes well. So, those of us in marriages that have existed since there has been dirt would do well to consider the wisdom of this couple’s insight.