The Most Important Ingredient to Improve Your Marriage

What fuels a strong, resilient, enjoyable marriage? Most people would immediately answer with suggestions like better communication and the ability to resolve conflicts. As important as those skills are, it is actually much more simple than that. According to marriage and relationship expert John Gottman, it boils down to one thing: friendship!

Why is Friendship so Important?

When you think about it, the most important dynamic needed in a strong marriage is what Gottman calls Positive Sentiment Override, which is just another way of talking about friendship.

What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. (p.4)

The concept of PSO was first proposed by University of Oregon psychologist Robert Weiss. It simply means that their positive thoughts about each other are so strong that they override any negative thoughts that they have. When conflict emerges, they are able to weather the challenge because they have already built relationship resilience. It doesn’t mean that a couple won’t ever struggle, but it will take a much bigger conflict to rock the relationship.

The entire work of John Gottman has been less about predicting divorce as it has been about helping couples build PSO. Because he has observed so many couples in his 40+ years of research, he provides useful relational skills that can deeply enhance a marriage or any relationship.

What Does Friendship Look Like?

Here are the first three of seven ways that Gottman provides for couples to connect and build their friendship with one another:

Enhance Your Love Maps    

What does this mean? It means that you never stop getting to know your spouse. So often, through the mundane monotony of life and the hectic seasons of marriage, career and family life, it is easy to start ignoring your spouse. Instead, you always want to be inquisitive about your spouse. What he or she likes, dislikes, fears, and finds comfort in.

They keep remembering the major events in each other’s history, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. When she orders him a salad, she knows what kind of dressing he likes. If she works late, he’ll think to record her favorite TV show. He could tell you how she’s feeling about her boss and exactly how to get to her office from the elevator. He knows that religion is important to her but that deep down she has doubts. She knows that he fears being too much like his father and considers himself a “free spirit.” They know each other’s life goals, worries and hopes.
Without such a love map, you can’t really know your spouse. And if you don’t really know someone, how can you truly love them? No wonder the biblical term for sexual love is to “know.” (p.54)

Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration

Another practical way that you build your friendship or increase PSO is through nurturing your fondness and admiration for your spouse. The tendency in any marriage is to slowly let your guard down and not work at thinking and expressing the things you appreciate about one another. It is much more natural and easy to start finding fault and pointing out the things you don’t like.

At first, this may all seem obvious to the point of being ridiculous: People who are happily married like each other. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be happily married. But fondness and admiration can be fragile unless you remain aware of how crucial they are to the friendship that is at the core of any good marriage. By simply reminding yourself of your spouse’s positive qualities--even as you grapple with each other’s flaws--you can prevent a happy marriage from deteriorating. The simple reason is that fondness and admiration are antidotes for contempt. (p.71)

The important thing to know about this aspect of building the friendship is looking for the little things about your spouse that show up in a normal day. If you start looking, you may be surprised at how fortunate you are to be married to your best friend!

Turn Toward Each Other

The third of seven ways that you can build your friendship or PSO is by turning toward one another. This is a critical way that a couple builds trust. Trust is foundational to any robust friendship. Gottman calls these interactions “bids.”

In marriage, couples are always making what I call “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Bids can be as minor as asking for a back-rub or as significant as seeking help in carrying the burden when an aging parent is ill. The spouse responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life. Comical as it may sound, romance is strengthened in the supermarket aisle when your partner asks, “Are we out of butter?” and you answer, “I don’t know. Let me go get some just in case” instead of shrugging apathetically.
In our six-year follow-up of newlyweds, we found that couples who remained married had turned toward their partner’s bids an average of 86 percent of the time in the Love Lab, while those who ended up divorced had averaged only 33 percent…..There’s a reason that seemingly small events are fundamental to a relationship’s future: Each time partners turn toward each other, they are funding what I’ve come to call their emotional bank account. They are building up savings that, like money in the bank, can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when they’re faced with a major life stress or conflict. Because they have stored up an abundance of goodwill, such couples are less likely to teeter over into distrust and chronic negativity during hard times. (88-89).

Gottman and The Gospel

It seems that we have found some very helpful, empirically proven and simple skills to see our marriages flourish and grow. As I read Gottman, I am so thankful for his observations and practical guidance that has proven helpful for countless couples. I am also always listening to the pages of Scripture which are replete with this same sage counsel. This is where we turn in a new a profound direction. Scripture confirms what Gottman is seeing and describing. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in just one of many places. In Ephesians 4:1-3, he says,

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit----just as you were called to one hope when you were called---one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

It seems that what Gottman does is help us understand what it looks like in the very mundane places of life to be humble, gentle, patient and forbearing in love. For that, we can say thank you, Dr. Gottman. What Scripture does is connect us to the One who has been humble, gentle, patient and forbearing in love towards us! Father, Son and Spirit have reconciled us to God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Now we are new creatures in Christ who have a new power by the Spirit to love our spouses. In light of all we have been given, this should be our daily prayer: Lord, have mercy on us that we would not squander your grace and miss opportunities in the drudgery of daily life to build Positive Sentiment Override with our spouses.

Copyright © 2016 Timothy S. Lane

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.