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2017 Feb

Staying in Love

As we enter a new year, it is a time for goal setting and plans for self improvement. The traditional resolutions involving diet, exercise, and quitting smoking are made with the best of intentions and may disappear by month’s end. We often wonder why these pledges are so easy to make and so hard to keep. This column will explore some ideas about ways to initiate and sustain positive changes that will ultimately benefit the whole family.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we think of how to satisfy the obligatory expressions of love that the culture and maybe our partners seem to demand. This brings up the question of what love is really about. Is it the gifts of candy, flowers, and cards for Valentine’s? Is it merely the perfunctory “I love you” on the way out the door?

Let’s look at other ways in which love can be expressed to sustain a healthy relationship. In a country with a staggering divorce rate, how do we maintain loving, nurturing marriages and families? Dr. John Gottman, considered among the foremost experts on marriage, notes in his book The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, that many couples maintain thriving unions despite having major conflicts.

He suggests that there are several important underlying factors which keep couples together. For example, he found that happy marriages are based on deep friendship with mutual respect and enjoyment of each other’s company. Even when these couples fight, they are able to maintain their positive regard for each other. In contrast, couples whose marriages later dissolve react to differences with negativity marked by what Dr. Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

To avoid the march of the Four Horsemen, Dr. Gottman makes several suggestions to sustain positive marriages. These include making sure to stay connected to your partner by asking questions about his or her life past and present; nurturing fondness and admiration by sharing positive memories of good times together; and remembering to praise positive achievements.

Dr. Gottman has done extensive research on couples who continue to improve their marriages compared to those who do not. He discovered that the successful pairs devoted a total of five hours a week to enhancing their relationship. The breakdown of the Magic Five Hours is as follows:

• Partings: (2 minutes a day) Before saying goodbye in the morning, make sure you have learned about one upcoming thing happening in your partner’s day.

• Reunions: (20 minutes a day) Have a relaxing, stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday.

• Admiration and Appreciation: (5 minutes a day) Express genuine affection and appreciation towards your spouse.

• Weekly Date: (2 hours) Stay connected by spending time in a relaxing setting away from home.  Interview your spouse about current activities, hopes, and dreams.

The concluding chapter of this remarkable book contains a vital piece of advice: “The best thing you can do for yourself and your marriage is to work on accepting yourself with all of your flaws.” If we are able to forgive ourselves, it is then much more possible to forgive others and to embrace the good. The focus on forgiveness and gratitude can be modeled for children. In the spirit of thanksgiving and praise, the admission and acceptance of our own mistakes (“I am sorry.” “I was wrong here.”) give our children permission to forgive themselves when they make an error.  By building in the tools to forgive the self, sustained love remains possible. 

Theodore M. Stevens, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in practice at Lakeside Psychological Center, P.C.. 2940 N. Lynnhaven Road, Suite 130 in Virginia Beach. Comments and questions are welcome. Contact Dr. Stevens at 757-486-6515 or by email at

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