Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2010

Smart Spouses

Smart Spouses

Comment overheard at the beauty shop from a construction worker being complemented at taking time out of his work day to pick up his wife’s beauty product: “It’s all part of the ‘Yes, Dear!’ clause in the marital contract.”

This guy is a smart spouse. While he doesn’t read the marriage journals we read, he naturally knows some of the right things to do to have a happy marriage.

We are not talking about book smarts here. Rather, it is the extension of the concept of social or emotional intelligence applied to relationships, the intelligence of sensitivity and skill to act in ways that make it more likely that one’s marriage will be satisfying and lasting. Like social and emotional intelligence, relationship intelligence can be natural because of factors such as personality, early experiences, and common sense. It can also be learned; spouses can teach each other to grow in relationship intelligence.

Accepting Influence

Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman has followed 130 newlywed couples over two decades to see what factors and practices distinguish smart spouses who have great marriages from those couples whose marriages get in trouble. Gottman found that even in the first few months of marriage, men who allowed their wives to influence them have happier marriages over the long haul and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives influence. Husbands with the best marriages treated their wives with respect and did not resist power-sharing and decision-making with them. For example, if during a discussion a wife says to her husband, “You're not listening to me," the smart husband acknowledges his wife’s feelings. During disagreements, these smart husbands did not insist on getting their own way nor did they cave to every wifely whim. Instead, they actively searched with their wives for common ground and mutually satisfying solutions.

Lest you think that Gottman is being sexist by picking on husbands and not telling wives that they should share power with their mates, let us reassure you that Gottman’s research conclusions are the result of very careful statistical analyses that studied many variables related to marital success/failure. When a man is not willing to share his power with his partner it leads to unhappiness and instability in marriage.

The husbands on the unhappy track respond by either ignoring (stonewalling), being defensive (“Yes, I am dear”), being critical (“I don't listen because what you say doesn't make any sense”) or being contemptuous (“Why waste my time?"). Those husbands obliterate their spouses’ point of view. Thus, even if they only occasionally react that way, their responses will lead to an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.

Gentle Start Up

Likewise the research findings pointed to some things that smart wives do to influence the outcome of marital conflict, notably, the use of the “gentle start up.” This is a technique in which wives approach husbands in a gentle non-aggressive way when they perceive a conflict that needs to be brought up. For example, instead of saying, “Hey, buster, we need to talk,” a smart wife might say, “When is a good time to talk about our vacation plans?”

This technique does two things:

Here are some tips for smart spouses to work on gentle start up and accepting influence.

Fondness and Admiration

Gottman asserts in his book for lay audiences, "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work", that fondness and admiration are two of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting romance. These qualities are antidotes for contempt. If you maintain a sense of respect for your spouse you are less likely to act disgusted with him or her when you disagree. Furthermore, taking each other for granted will also diminish your mutual fondness and admiration and once those are completely extinguished your marriage will be in dire trouble. However, smart spouses remind themselves of their spouse’s positive qualities -- even as they grapple with each other's flaws. Here are some of Gottman’s suggestions for getting in touch with the positive feelings about your spouse even if those feelings have long been buried.

  1. Reflect on what your partner does that makes you cherish him or her. When you acknowledge openly with your partner positive aspects of him/her and the marriage, your marital bond will be strengthened. It will be easier to address problem areas in your marriage and make needed positive changes.

  2. List three positive characteristics of your partner and recall specific incidents that illustrate each characteristic of your partner. Record your reflections in a notebook or journal and share your lists with each other.

  3. Towards the end of each day share three things that you are grateful for in your spouse. These items can be events of the day or character traits. Try to come up with new ones each day. This activity can be particularly useful for couples that are at risk for shutting down.

Turning Toward Each Other

In all marriages, spouses periodically make a bid for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Following these bids, people have a choice of turning toward one another or away. Gottman found that spouses who turn toward each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married. Those who fail to turn toward or even turn away eventually lose their way. The turning toward each other helps smart spouses have the basis of emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

Gottman uses the concept of an emotional bank account. Much like money deposits in a bank, acts of turning toward each other add deposits into the emotional bank. Smart spouses with stored up deposits of goodwill are better able to make allowances for each other when conflict arises. Gottman’s research showed that happily married couples display a high level of emotional intelligence such as noticing almost all of the positive things their partner did for them, while unhappily married couples only noticed 50% of the positive things their partner did for them.

Many people think that the secret to reconnecting with their partner is a candlelit dinner or a by-the-sea vacation. However, Gottman says that “A romantic night really turns up the heat only when a couple has kept the pilot light burning by staying in touch in the little ways.” One way to prevent marital happiness from being impacted by stress spillover such as economic stress is to use the daily catch up to talk about what is going on in each others’ lives outside the relationship. Listen and be supportive. Avoid giving advice unless requested and your home will be a place of safe refuge.


Gottman, John. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

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