Former World No. 1 tennis player Andre Agassi was recently asked about the secret of his 17-year marriage to fellow sporting great, Steffi Graf. As always, his answer was sincere, thoughtful and refreshingly devoid of dull platitudes.
“I think you need two whole people that truly don’t need each other, respect and love each other in a way that has full discipline and commitment,” he told the journalist. “We are two individuals that have lived full lives and we don’t react to each other, we respond to each other.”
There’s no doubt that Agassi and his wife are hugely compatible, but his musings speak to something else. They suggest that these two don’t take a successful marriage for granted. On the contrary, they know they have to work hard to make it work.
Renowned clinical psychologist and marriage researcher John M. Gottman compares marriage to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in closed energy systems things tend to run down and get less orderly.
“My guess is that if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time,” he writes. “To maintain a balanced emotional ecology you need to make an effort – think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.”
This makes sense, but we’re not exactly bombarded with in-depth advice on how to keep a good thing going (which is perhaps why we ask celebrities for their insight on the subject).
Sure, we all know about the importance of quality time, date nights and never going to bed angry, but we have to dig a little deeper for the good stuff. Here are some of the best pointers that I’ve come across.
Choose your battles – Every relationship has recurring arguments that never seem to reach an accord. The trick, writes Gottman in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, is to know the ones that are worth fighting for. “Once you understand this, you will be ready to accept one of the most surprising truths about marriage: Most marital arguments cannot be resolved,” he writes. “Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.”
Mind your language – Gottman advises couples to make statements that start with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ during conflict. Statements that start with ‘I’ (“I felt ignored”) are less likely to sound critical or accusatory when compared to statements that start with ‘You’ (“You ignored me”). This, he adds, should be coupled with ‘non-defensive listening’ – “not responding right away, getting in touch with the partner’s pain” and empathy – “summarising the partner’s view and validating by completing a sentence like, ‘I can totally understand why you have these feelings and needs’.”
Cultivate a friendship – Nietzsche posed a simple question to those who were contemplating marriage. “Do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman up into your old age?
This won’t be news to the couples who proudly declare that they are each other’s best friends, but not all couples have that dynamic. If you are lovers first and friends second, it might be worth cultivating another side to your relationship.
Stay independent – It’s hard to maintain your autonomy when you share a bed, a bathroom and a bank account with another person. But it’s worth trying, writes outspoken sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity. “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy,” she points out. “Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other. With too much distance, there can be no connection. But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused – when two become one – connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”
Don’t play the blame game – It’s easy to point the finger in a relationship. However, when we take a moment to turn our focus inwards, we often realise that our issues are more about us than them. Iyanla Vanzant, former relationship expert for The Oprah Show, cuts right to the heart of the matter in In the Meantime. “Sooner or later, we must all accept the fact that in a relationship, the only person you are dealing with is yourself,” she writes. “Your partner does nothing more than reveal your stuff to you. Your fear! Your anger! Your pattern! Your craziness! As long as you insist on pointing the finger out there, at them, you will continue to miss out on the divine opportunity to clear your stuff. Here is a meantime tip – we love in others what we love in ourselves. We despise in others what we cannot see in ourselves.”
Know one another’s triggers – Like it or not, we all have unique vulnerabilities, and the better a partner understands them, the deeper a relationship becomes. Amir Levine’s Attached is a good introduction to the various attachment styles; Mario Martinez’s The MindBody Code has a fascinating section of what he calls ‘archetypal wounds’ (abandonment, shame, betrayal) and Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages will help you understand the way your partner predominantly demonstrates their love.