Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Summer 2004

Getting It Right the First Time

You’re young and in love and pledge to live happily ever after. Or you are a middle aged parent who doesn’t want your adult children to go through the heart-break of one of those “starter marriages.” You’re wondering what couples can do to make their marriages work.

Mystery Solved

A lifelong marriage is no longer a matter of luck and guess work. Several marriage studies around the country have followed couples from their pre-marriage days to 15+ years later. While the researchers are reluctant to make prescriptive recommendations, we developed our Extraordinary Marriages model by combining and simplifying their findings into these three areas.

  1. Communicate with respect, managing conflicts in ways that support the best interests of each person and of the marriage.

  2. Manage emotions to create an atmosphere of positive feelings that can be recreated and sustained during the hard times.

  3. Plan and make decisions about a life that combines the individual goals of each partner with their goals for the marriage.
Our colleague friend, Dr. Barry McCarthy and his wife, Emily, have written a must-read book, Getting It Right the First Time, for couples transitioning to marriage. This practical marriage book about early marriage makes a great engagement present.


The number one reason couples seek marriage therapy is difficulty with communication. While some couples need to develop better skills, others just don’t like what they are hearing. Those couples are shocked to discover that they have conflicts, believing instead that “Love conquers all.” However, conflict is an inevitable part of joining lives with another person. Couples who are not proactive about developing healthy ways to deal with conflict will later be at risk to blame their partners and/or themselves for failing to manage conflict.

The McCarthys Recommend:

  1. Talk about your expectations during your courtship and engagement. While you cannot predict all the possible scenarios of your future the most common conflict areas that every couple should discuss were communication,finances, and household chores. Talking about your expectations before and after the wedding will help you make better choices, get on the same page with some of your expectations, and decide how to handle the ones that are in conflict.

  2. Deal with conflicts using a “positive influence model” instead of “aversive control methods” such as complaining, demanding, and threatening. This means focusing on resolving issues rather than winning an argument at your spouse’s expense and/or putting your spouse down. Instead of blaming your unhappiness on your spouse, imagine that the issue is the opponent and that your spouse is your ally.

    The McCarthys recommend:

    • State your feelings and concerns;

    • Make sure your partner’s concerns are understood and validated before you make a request for change;

    • Make requests rather than demands and complaints;

    • Find an alternative that each person can live with rather than “my way or no way."

  3. A key to resolving nitty-gritty differences is realizing that differences are not a matter of right-wrong but of different preferences and styles. There is no one right way to load the dishwasher or replace toilet paper.

  4. Recognize three categories of differences that lead to conflict:

    • Interesting differences;

    • Annoying differences that can be modified;

    • Annoying differences that cannot be changed.

    After listing qualities (maybe 3) in each of the above categories, ask yourselves:

    • If we recognize our differences as strengths, how could we utilize some of these differences better?

    • What can we do to reduce the annoyance or modify some of the differences?

    • How can we work on accepting each other for the complex humans that we are?

Emotional Management

Remember when you were falling in love and so in sync with each other that you just knew that you were soulmates – thinking the same thoughts, finishing each others’ sentences, anticipating every need? And then you got married and wondered, “Who is this person?”

As you discover your individual differences, frustration can mount. Couples without effective conflict management methods are at risk to slip into patterns of bad emotional management, patterns that can seriously undermine their ability to actually deal with the conflict.

A study reported in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology in which college students rated videotapes of couples discussing their most important area of disagreement.. Apparently it does not take an expert to spot a marriage bound for trouble; the students were able to predict which couples would still be together five years later with the same 85% accuracy. The students, as accurate as marriage researchers in other studies, observed the couples’ emotional interactions and picked up the “vibes” of couples on the track to Extra-ordinary Marriages vs those on the road to disaster.

The McCarthys Recommend:

Strategic Planning

According to the McCarthys, a vital marital task is to reach balance between individuality and coupleness. A healthy marriage Promotes individual growth and marital satisfaction. A satisfying life does not just happen automatically because you are in love. Planning is a tool to achieve both balance and intimacy.

The McCarthys Recommend:


Barry & Emily McCarthy. "Getting It Right the First Time"

Our audiotape series, "Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages"

Copyright 2004 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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Mailing Address: 3725 Font Hill Dr, Ellicott City, Md. 21042
Phone: 410-465-5967
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