What Keeps Marriages Alive?

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What Keeps Marriages Alive?

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Dr. Gary Smalley is a nationally recognized author and speaker on marriage and family relationships. He has written or co-written more than 60 books, including the award-winning best-sellers Marriage for a Lifetime , Secrets to Lasting Love , The Blessing , The Two Sides of Love and The Language of Love . He hosts a nationally syndicated radio show and has also produced films and videos about marriage and relationships, with more than 8 million sold. In his 30 years of teaching and counseling, he has surveyed thousands of people on what strengthens and weakens relationships. He and his wife Norma have been married for 48 years.


The Good News: I’d like to get a brief history of you as a marriage counselor. Could you give our readers a little of your background? I know you’ve written a number of books. You’ve been on a number of well-known television shows, and I also remember watching you on infomercials.

Gary Smalley: I’ve been involved in this for 40-plus years. I started off because I came from a pretty dysfunctional family. I went to seminary originally and was working in a church, and there were so many couples that were fouled up, and so was I. I was trying to help them, and I’d come home and I had a messed-up marriage myself. My background with my own family—I was the last of six kids—was very dysfunctional with a screaming, raging father and a loving, sensitive mother who didn’t communicate very much with my dad.

My dad never ever once said he loved me, and I don’t remember getting any hugs from him, and I never remember him ever hugging my mother, or my brothers or sisters, so I just grew up in that environment thinking that this must be what all families are like. So when I got married, I just transferred all of the behavior I saw with my parents into my marriage.

Five years is the mark when most marriages break up, so when we hit the five year mark, we were about as dead to each other as you can get. I would go back to working in a church every day, trying to help couples there, but I realized I couldn’t help anybody because I couldn’t help myself.

I was actually encouraging people to divorce because it didn’t look like they were going to make it.

GN: So what changed?

GS: My training, the best training I ever got in my life, was that I started interviewing, and there were a lot of seminars, a lot of workshops, a lot of different books, and so I began learning about marriage and the family. But I actually interviewed over 60,000 women throughout my career, during the first 20 years.

I started right away with my wife, who was telling me that after five years she didn’t love me anymore. It was very meaningless to her and to me. So I started interviewing women everywhere I went.

Of course, in that church, I interviewed everybody that I could, and all the women. I asked what strengthened their marriages and what discouraged them about their husbands, and what was happening in their marriage that was wrecking it. And I learned volumes. So when I began to travel around the world, I interviewed people from every country that I went to, I mean women, and I learned some amazing things. But the most unique thing that I learned was that every woman, no matter what country, told me essentially the same thing.

Out of curiosity I began to interview single women, all the way down to third grade. I used to go to classrooms and asked the teachers if I could interview the students. It was fascinating to realize that even single girls, 10 years old or so, they know what a good relationship is. I would ask them what makes a good relationship. They would always say that communicating really well with each other is the heart of a good relationship.

I would ask them what is good communication, and they would explain this to me. Then I began to research what is good communication, and I started learning an amazing number of things. That’s kind of the background on where I came from.

Then I was teaching about 450 Baylor University students every week, and I would teach 10 things that helped the husband love his wife and 10 things that helped the wife love her husband. I alternated. Those students really helped me put all this stuff together, and I’ve been using that basic information for my entire life.

GN: I have two questions for you, and you’ve already touched on them. To get to the heart of the matter, what is it that strengthens a marriage relationship more than anything else? And conversely, what weakens a marriage relationship?

GS: There are two really big factors that strengthen a marriage, and there are other things that fall within these two. There are more, but the two are the foundation to a really great marriage.

First, keep your honor for your mate and your kids as high as possible. What that means is that they are very valuable individuals of your family. They are worth the effort. They are honored on a scale of 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest), and you want to get as close as possible to 10.

You want to make sure to think valuable thoughts about them every day, even to the point of writing about them in a journal every day, so you can review it from time to time. This is very positive. Because whatever a person values or treasures, that’s where his heart is also. That’s where their affections are.

GN: Of course, that comes right from Scripture, from the Bible.

GS: Yes, exactly. I never really understood that initially, but I was really degrading my wife, verbally and thoughtwise. I was thinking negative things about my wife, and I was pretty negative. In this dishonoring behavior that I had, I was destroying my marriage with some of the most deadly killing forces in a marriage (and I’ll get to that in answering what are the worst things we can do in our marriage).

The opposite of it is, do not let anger against your mate grow to any level every day. It’s like Ephesians 4:26 Ephesians 4:26Be you angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down on your wrath:
American King James Version×
tells us: Before the sun sets, get the anger out of your life for your mate. I have a whole bunch of methods that really do that.

So the two big things to strengthen your marriage are to: a) give high honor every day and make sure you are thinking those things; and b) have the lowest anger that you can get to every day, which means forgiveness, or having a forgiving attitude. These are the two foundations of a good marriage.

GN: In the last few years the U.S. divorce rate is the second highest in the world at 54.8 percent. Can you share with us your thoughts as to why overall the divorce rate is so high? I’m sure this will get back to what weakens a marriage.

GS: Dr. John Gottman of Washington University and Dr. Scott Stanley of Denver University are two highly regarded marriage researchers, and they’ve both discovered that the four main reasons couples divorce is because they don’t know how to negotiate their differences and their disagreements.

Every couple disagrees, which is a very healthy thing. But if you communicate in the way they have taught people to communicate, it eliminates these divorce factors. They have identified four factors that kill a marriage.

The first one is when you escalate during a disagreement. Let’s say you are discussing the facts of a disagreement or conflict or whatever. For example, she says she wants the kitchen yellow and you say, “It reminds me of my mother, and I hate yellow. It needs to be orange or some other color, but it can’t be yellow.” And she loves her mother, and her kitchen was yellow, and she loves a yellow kitchen.

That’s the basis of a pretty good argument. So there are thousands of those kinds of issues that come out, and partners wait their turn to escalate the argument over what color the kitchen should be.

This is described in my book The DNA of Relationships.

The first chapter is about core fears or hot buttons that couples have. Everybody has one or more of the 27. My two sons have done the research, and so for example, you can start arguing about the color of a kitchen, and the argument will escalate into a verbal fight, and it has nothing to do with the kitchen being yellow.

It’s just miraculous what my sons have discovered with their other research friends—and that is that everybody has one or two or three core fears.

For example, my fears are of being controlled by somebody and of being belittled, made fun of. So if my wife even hints that she’s trying to control me, such as we’re going to paint this room yellow whether I like it or not, or hints about whether I know anything about the color of a room—if she degrades me or sounds like she’s controlling me—I would go off, something I don’t do anymore because I understand what’s going on.

I would go off on her, and then we’d get into an escalated argument, which is the cause of 25 percent of marriages that break up in America, all because of the core fear—not over accepting the color yellow. And most couples don’t know this is the problem they face, and that’s chapter two of The DNA of Relationships.

The second major factor that destroys marriage is to withdraw and say I’m done talking with you—you’re so offensive, you’re so much like your mother or father, or whatever. And so you withdraw, which is a horrible thing to do. This, along with the first problem, leaves you with anger, from fear really. You’re fearful because you don’t want to live like this the rest of your life.

The third one is to belittle your mate. If your mate makes fun of you at a party or belittles you, then that produces a great deal of stress and anger. And the fear is there that this will continue to happen in the presence of other people. So you no longer feel safe with this person.

This is another thing you should do—make your mate feel safe. Otherwise your marriage goes downhill. If you live in fear that the one you’re living with makes fun of you all the time, you can’t live that way. So you wind up hurt, with anger inside of you. You can’t relate to the person, and you can’t love the person. That’s why you have to learn how to forgive.

The fourth one is when you have a negative belief about your mate. You’re going to see and hear what you believe. So the deeper the anger goes, the greater the faults that you think about your mate, and so pretty soon you start picturing your mate as a monster. And you think that you just have to get out of this relationship. Then you think that you can’t believe that you once liked this person, and anger drains you of all your emotional affection toward the person so they don’t have a clue about what’s going on.

When my son and daughter-in-law are counseling in this intensive course, they help couples see this and get them to forgive each other. They get them to get over their core fears, which helps them to open their eyes, to realize that they were fighting over stuff that has nothing to do with anything you can solve, and they go through these different things that The DNA of Relationships covers.

The DNA of Relationships has six things you can do to improve your marriage in four days. So that’s what they learn in these marriage intensive courses. Most of them are run in four days.

GN: Wouldn’t this be wonderful if this were required reading in university settings?

GS: Yes, in fact my oldest son is working for a worldwide organization that is in the process of trying to figure out how they can have a massive impact on America by teaching the simple stuff. Even in grade schools and in junior high and high schools and college, because it’s just science.

It’s a very popular subject. When you talk to high school kids about dating, they love that. And then college is the same, so if we make it interesting and some humorous, it can be done that way. I have 18 videos that are very humorous that I did 20 years ago. But I didn’t give it in the context we know about today.

So basically that’s it—the four things that kill a marriage and the two things that keep it alive.

GN: Thanks for the interview. Your book The DNA of Relationships should be of help to our readers as well.

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