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Chairman and co-author of eHarmony, Dr. Neil Warren, offers key components to a healthy, happy love life.
What makes a marriage work? I've spent most of my career, and a good deal of my life, learning the answer to that question.
It's been key to my work as a counselor, a psychologist, a professor at Fuller Seminary, a speaker and an author. I've done surveys, read books and studies, counseled thousands of couples.
In fact, the information I've gathered became the groundwork for my online relationship service, eHarmony. I wanted to help singles find that right person right off the bat.
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So after 40 years I've come to these five conclusions about great marriages. Some have a few specific qualities in common.
1. Strong couples focus on the positive.
I don't mean they look at the world or their marriage through rose-colored glasses. But they always keep a mental list of their mate's outstanding qualities that is at least as long as their complaints and hopefully longer.
Even if a couple is going through a rocky patch and they come to my office for counseling, that alone is reason for hope. The couple wouldn't be there if they didn't have hope, and didn't think they had something good to hold on to.
I make a point of starting off my initial counseling session by asking: "What's right about your marriage? What made you fall in love in the first place? What is it that attracted you to your partner?"
One couple sat on the couch in my office, arms crossed over their chests. I asked them my questions. Silence. Apparently they had come here to recite a litany of complaints. I asked them again. They looked all around the room, anywhere but at me.
Begrudgingly the husband said they both loved travel and they liked getting together with friends. The wife conceded that her husband had a terrific sense of humor—at times. "For example?" I asked. She recalled an April Fool's joke he'd played.
All at once they both started laughing—and uncrossed their arms, ready to get down to business.
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Sometimes couples are so consumed by what's wrong with their relationship that they forget all the good things. They stop pursuing the experiences that generate closeness. It becomes a vicious cycle, and soon everything about the relationship can look grim and gloomy.
Falling in love is easy. Staying in love is hard. Marylyn and I were rookies in marriage when we were wed. We knew nothing about being a good spouse.
We worked so tirelessly to improve each other that we missed opportunities to create wonderful experiences together. We were two people with strong personalities and strong convictions.
It took time, patience and love, lots of love, to understand those differences made us stronger, not weaker. Can we truly respect our spouses if we agree with everything they say?
I take my cues from the Bible: "Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right... Dwell on the fine, good things in others." Start with your spouse.
2. Romance is required.
An extra dose of ardor and affection can heal a hundred hurts and keep passion alive. You say you're out of practice? So was I.
During our courtship and early years of marriage, Marylyn and I could spend hours gazing into each other's eyes. Then came children, mortgage payments, career hurdles. Who had time for cuddling? "Why can't you be more romantic?" she asked.
That made me feel worse, as if she were criticizing me more than asking me to fill a need. What was I supposed to do? Compose sonnets? Perform a ballad? Dance a tango? The prospect was so daunting I did absolutely nothing.
Two horses were trapped on an icy mountain. Would help arrive in time?
One day I discovered a secret. I was overcome with the impulse to call my wife from the office and say I was thinking about her and how much I loved her. Don't be silly, I thought. But I did it, and wow, did it do the trick! I've learned to act on those romantic impulses, even if it's just surprising her with her favorite candy, a Mounds bar.
Neil Warren, PhD, is the chairman and co-founder of eHarmony.com.