3 Simple Ways to Build Connection and Improve Your Marriage

A happy couple embraces in a grassy field
Photo by Flora Westbrook from Pexels

There’s an old superstition that tragedies come in threes.

In our seven years of marriage, my husband and I have seen many of our friends split up. It always seemed to be in waves of three.

Beyond it being a little eerie to see three couples dissolve within weeks of one another, it made us concerned. We started to look at one another and say, “Are we next?”

After all, the national average for marriage length is around eight years, and the rate of divorce in America hovers between 40–50%. For couples who married young (before age 25), the rate is 48% within the first 10 years. [1]

We married young, and our marriage is entering that 8–10 year range. These numbers are enough to make any couple nervous.

After the first few years of a committed relationship, the excitement wears off. Careers and/or kids take up time. Couples often start to feel distant and can struggle to continue building emotional connections. Simple conflicts can become persistent problems.

Whether you’re 5, 10, or 30 years into a relationship, it’s worth learning some exercises to improve your marriage. Small actions over time can be your salvation when — not if — you and your partner hit hard times.

1. Be Willing to Change

When your partner expresses displeasure with something that you do — listen! If it’s within your power to adapt to their request, do it. Even small changes can build trust and improve your marriage.

Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., of The Gottman Institute, calls this “accepting influence from your partner.” [2] When you change your habits, communication style, or way of doing things to include input from your partner, it shows that you value them. When someone feels valued, they’re more likely to trust you. Trust is the most foundational connection you have with your partner.

It can be hard to hear your partner’s criticism, especially if it’s offered in a critical way. But don’t let your pride or offense get in the way of hearing their request.

I used to be chronically late to events. It was something my family did growing up, and I thought it was acceptable behavior to everyone.

When I got married, my lateness made my husband embarrassed and frustrated. We had enough fights over my habit that I decided to change. Timeliness was not nigh on my values, but it was for him. I showed him I respect his values by getting ready earlier and making sure we leave on time.

It’s a habit I still have, and it was easy to change.

Don’t think the changes have all been on my part — my husband has accepted a lot of influence from me. This dynamic is one of the most important indicators for a healthy marriage. Gottman found that “relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.” [2]

“A husband’s ability to be influenced by his wife (rather than vice-versa) is crucial because research shows that women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men. A true partnership only occurs when a husband can do the same thing.” [2]

So, male partners, this point is especially important for you.

Ask yourself these questions to see how well you adapt for your partner:

  • How often do I follow through on my partner’s requests?
  • How often do I change plans for my partner?
  • How do I respond when my partner asks me to change ____? (My tone of voice, leaving my socks on the floor, etc)

2. Have A Tactful Tongue

Tongue here being “choice of words.”

Being tactful with your words means avoiding name-calling, blaming, or contemptuous remarks.

Gottman suggests approaching conflicts by “softening your ‘start up’. ”[2] This means being gentle and intentional when bringing up issues.

Critical and contemptuous remarks aren’t the only way to escalate a conflict. Passive-aggressive remarks or behavior are damaging too. My friend recently told me a story about her boyfriend getting immediately defensive after a comment she made. She didn’t understand why he reacted like that.

After she confessed her remark came from a place of hidden frustration, I smiled and said, “Oh, I know why he was angry. I get in hot water every time I do that.” When I make an offhand comment about something I’m frustrated or irritated about, I used to think it was harmless.

It was not.

I was being passive-aggressive — trying to tell my partner I was frustrated without giving him the ability to address it. People are passive-aggressive because of insecurity or as a controlling technique. But passive aggression erodes trust.

“It can create an environment where neither partner feels able to express emotions directly, and may indeed continue to use passive-aggression to do so. And it can create a lot of resentment: people on the receiving end of passive-aggression often feel the aggression, but also that they’ve been denied a chance to have their say.” [3]

(If you’re curious you might have passive-aggressive habits, you can follow the link above to take a quiz.)

The best way to improve communication in your marriage is to be direct. Both partners need to feel understood, which creates emotional connection and safety. When both partners can openly express grievances, they are more likely to work through the conflict and reach an agreement.

If you struggle with a soft “start up”, use this prompt to talk to your partner:

“I feel” Statements

I feel statements help you avoid blaming. You can focus on the offending behavior instead of attacking your partner’s character.

“I feel _____ when you did/do ____.”

EX: I feel embarrassed when you teased me in front of our friends.

3. Say Thanks

This one might sound small, but partners often take one another for granted.

The Gottman Institute calls this one “sharing fondness and admiration”. Zach Brittle, LMHC, of the Gottman Institute, says that couples should share affection (fondness) often and in specific ways. Some examples he gives are:

  • “I’m proud of the way you _____.”
  • “I’m attracted to your _____ (inside and out).”
  • “I am impressed that you _____.”
  • “I like how you _____.”[4]

Appreciation is what you are thankful for in the other person. This is what Brittle says about appreciation:

“Showing appreciation is primarily about saying ‘thank you.’ There is no reason not to include “thank you” as part of your everyday vocabulary. For making the bed. For passing the butter. For sharing your fondness. But thanks must extend beyond “what you do for me” and into ‘who you are.’” [4]

Fondness and appreciation are two of the fastest ways to engage your partner’s emotions. Who doesn’t love hearing why someone loves them?

This one took a while for me to learn, but my husband modeled it for me first. He thanks me every time I cook a meal and often tells me how much he loves me. I started to realize when I offered him spontaneous appreciation that he would light up. Now I make it a point to thank him often and tell him why I’m fond of him. For him, it never gets old.

Want to level up?

Show fondness and appreciation during conflicts. It may sound counterintuitive, but The Gottman institute reports that during arguments, happy couples have a 5:1 ratio of positive comments to negative ones.[5] Gottman can predict with a high measure of accuracy which marriages will survive and which won’t, based on this habit.

How’s that for numbers?

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Writer, painter, & teacher of tiny humans. Always finding questions, rarely finding answers.

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Rebecca Strayer

Rebecca Strayer

Writer, painter, & teacher of tiny humans. Always finding questions, rarely finding answers.

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