Most people want to have a loving, committed, happy marriage. And they think they know what will make for that happy marriage. Some of the characteristics often identified as making up a stable and loving relationship include: trust, love, respect, honesty, and faithfulness, among other attributes.

Many people have the oversimplified desire to “just be happy” in their marriage, like happiness in a relationship is some simple, ordinary thing that each person is “naturally” entitled to.

The ability to be happy in one’s marriage often involves more than the desired characteristics identified above. Many couples that come in for counseling say they have love, respect, honesty, commitment, and faithfulness (as well as other positive characteristics), but that one or both are just not happy.

What does it take for a marriage to be a happy one? Decades of marital satisfaction research has consistently identified effective communication as one of the primary ingredients in marital happiness.

Communication is more than speaker and listener techniques. Much of what constitutes good communication is meaningful interaction.

Marriage involves partner engagement in all kinds of interaction throughout the day, yet actively being engaged in nurturing or maintaining the emotionally supportive relationship is not often enough a conscious effort.

The need for obvious evidence of engagement in nurturing and treasuring the relationship becomes more important when one or both parties are feeling unimportant, unloved, and insecure in the relationship. Often when a partner feels these things s/he complains that they "do not communicate" and do not spend enough "quality" time together. The complaint has the seeds of the solution.

The problem and the solution have been identified, yet much of the time the couple cannot seem to get started with enacting their solution. One of the problems with enacting the solution is a lack of effective communication skills. Couples often believe that they are good communicators, when in fact, when the tension rises and emotions are high, they fail to use whatever good skills that they do have. This of course, leads to failed attempts to communicate and problem solve. These failed attempts lead to discouragement and frustration.

Couples often get stuck into circular, self-reinforcing patterns where the things that they say to each other and the ways they say it, virtually guarantee that the other person will get defensive and response in a similar fashion. Each person’s part in this verbal whirlpool, generates frustration and justification for continuing to do exactly what they are doing, despite the fact that it obviously is not working. Each side of the interactional exchange contributes to the verbal miscommunication. Neither person is able to “hear” what the other person is saying.

Another roadblock to creating the change that is desired is that each partner may want something different from communication, and they may not know that they want something different. They may be trying to problem solve about different things or on different levels. One partner may be wanting to solve some logistical issue, while the other wants reassurance that s/he is loved.

Partners often do not know that they don’t want the same displays of affection or that quality time together means something entirely different to each of them.

As each person uses his own values and beliefs as “unquestioned universally accepted meaning” their attempts to “bridge the gap” fail. Each person goes giving to the partner what s/he believes that “everyone wants”. Since, in fact, the partners want something other than what is being given, they stay frustrated. Not having his or her efforts recognized is also frustrating.

Sometimes, however, partners know that they want different displays of love, respect, and commitment and repeatedly tell the other what they want or need. When partners make some attempts to comply briefly, only to return to old behavior, the frustration and anger only intensifies. To the partner requesting change, this means that s/he really does not care.

All of these circumstances and events set the stage for hurt, anger, and frustration, creating perceptual distortions that color future interactions.

These distortions, called “filters” create a climate of thoughts and emotions that changes incoming information—for the worse. Unsuccessful problem solving and unresolved negative emotions make it more and more difficult to solve new problems, and to recover from painful relationship events. Filters also make it difficult to have positive feelings and positive assumptions about the relationship. These negative filters create the conditions in which couple engage in those circular self-reinforcing arguments that go nowhere. Discussion become arguments, escalating in anger and becoming verbally assaultive. This pattern can persist over time, destroying the relationship. Or this pattern can lead to a “pursuing/distancing” pattern where one repeatedly tries to engage and the other repeatedly avoids engagement and conflict.

In effect, couples simply trying to regain a sense of being loved and valued, or to reclaim a connection that seems to be dissolving, create a communication pattern that creates the very thing that they are trying to avoid—distance, instability, and marital unhappiness.

To change the course of the relationship, it is necessary to first discover what partners are doing that is not working, and to stop the destructive behavior patterns. Then to continue to interrupt the negative cycle, couples must return to the basics. They must begin to replace old communication behavior with new neural behavior, such as simply being "nice" to each other. Being nice involves extending the same common courtesy to your spouse that you would extend to relative strangers. This change can go a long way to re-establishing a kind of emotional neutrality, and paving the way for a return to personal "risk taking" in communicating and problem solving.

Basic communication skills involve using “I” messages, instead of “You” messages. This change alone can change the whole tone of conversations, reduce defensiveness, and improve the ability to actually "hear" what the other person is saying. Another basic skill, using “active listening” including asking clarifying questions, also helps to neutralize negative filters and improve accuracy in communications.

A regular time set aside daily for couple communication and interaction helps to continue the lifting of negativity, creating an environment conducive to restoring positive feelings and marital happiness.

This couple communication time, carved out of the daily schedule, could involve sitting on the deck and watching the sun go down, holding hands and talking about the day. It is possible that a couple could need a little help in getting started. Structured or semi-structured communication exercises such as a Couple's Feelings Meeting or “The Honey Jar”, can assist couples with getting into a habit of talking and sharing with each other. Setting aside time on a regular basis assists couple to talk and share, helping to create a feeling of connection, love, and importance.

When partners feel loved and secure in the relationship, they are better able to handle and resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise. Couples who have confidence in their ability to handle differences and to problem solve as necessary can maintain the happiness in their marriage.

Author's Bio: 

The website of Peggy L. Ferguson, Ph.D., LADC, LMFT has a number of free resources available for couples seeking to improve their relationship. There are a number of articles on marriage and communication, along with an "Ask Peggy" column, and an "opt-in" newsletter. These can be accessed by going to "The Honey Jar", a semi-structured couple's communication exercise, is composed of 250 sentence stems designed to stimulate conversation in a neutral, non-threatening way. This exercise can be purchased and downloaded at