Sweet nothings lead to something lasting

Judith Kleinfeld

My husband and I have been married for more than 42 years. Often young people, especially right before their weddings, ask us what the secret is to a long marriage.

The truth of the matter is I do not know. Having a good marriage, as our parents did, just came naturally. I never have any idea what to say to them.

When I saw an article on how people fall in love and stay in love in the February 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, I figured I might find the answer.

"About 50 percent of first marriages fail in the U. S., as do two-thirds of second marriages and three-quarters of third marriages," points out the author, psychologist Robert Epstein.

"So much for practice. We fail in large part because we enter into relationships with poor skills for maintaining them and highly unrealistic expectations."

Here are a few examples of techniques, offered by Epstein, for falling in love and building strong relationships:

• Challenges and adventures. People tend to bond when they are together when aroused, for example through adventures and dangerous situations. My mother and father were never so close to each other as when a dangerous situation befell them.

• Being around someone. Just proximity creates positive feelings.

• Similarity. Couples usually pair off with someone like them in background, values and good looks. There are no hard and fast rules. Opposites do attract. But usually similarity holds a marriage together. My husband and I come from very similar backgrounds. We hold similar values, so there is little to fight about.

• Laughter. In happy marriages people laugh a lot, says Epstein. Laughing creates a lot of positive feelings.

• Novelty. People grow a lot closer when they do something new together.

• Kindness, accommodation and forgiveness. This is a no-brainer. We tend to bond with someone who is kind, sensitive to our needs, and willing to forgive when we do something wrong. The person does things for us and we are happy to do things for them.

• Touch and sexuality. Just touching your partner can bring you closer, not only sexually. My husband and I, for example, sit next to each other and hold hands when we watch television.

• Self-disclosure. People tend to bond when they share secrets with each other. In a good marriage, people allow themselves to feel vulnerable and share their weaknesses and failures. My husband and I ask each other each evening how the day has gone, and this is the time we disclose our thoughts and feelings.

• Commitment. This is an essential part of building love. If we can rely on each other to stay committed, no matter what happens, this is a strong ingredient for a healthy marriage.

Most of these sound like sensible suggestions but I am skeptical of some of them. Some are not really research-based.

Nor does Epstein mention the single most powerful ingredient for a long marriage -- saying positive things to each other. This is the discovery of renowned marriage researcher John Gottman and it is highly research-based.

In marriages that stick, finds Gottman, each spouse makes at least five positive comments about the other person for every negative comment.

This makes sense to me. Of course, we have our fights. But in our marriage, I am always telling him how much I appreciate all he has done for me that day, and he does the same.

Now I have something to say when young people ask me how we created a long-lasting marriage: Make lots of positive, appreciative comments about your spouse.

Judith Kleinfeld is a professor of psychology and co-director of Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld