You know that moment at a wedding when the DJ invites all the married people onto the dance floor for a slow dance. Then he says something like, “If you’ve been married less than one year, please leave the floor.” A few moments later, “If you’ve been married less than three years, please leave the floor.”
Then five years. Then ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Fifty. Eventually, there are just one or two couples left, someone’s grandparents or even great-grandparents.
Then there’s just the one couple — married 62 years. Their dance is creaky and off-balance, but still, everyone applauds. We cheer and say something like, “Wow! That’s unbelievable.”
Why do we do that? Why are we impressed with these folks? What makes them special? More importantly, what’s their secret? How did they manage to stay together so long? Surely some of these long-term marriages are the result of endurance and stubbornness. But I suspect most of them survive on the basis of a strong marital friendship.
Marital friendship is the foundation of Dr. Gottman’s Sound Relationship House theory. It’s the thing that sustains a relationship. The couple married for 62 years didn’t stay married because of the absence of conflict, or their enthusiastic sex life, or their good luck. They stayed married because they liked each other. They knew each other.
This is the primary task of the new couple just starting out. Get to know your partner. I promise you, there is, and always will be, more that you don’t know about your partner than you do. Another way of saying this is you can always get to know your partner better. Make it a priority over the lifetime of your relationship.
Dr. Gottman’s term for getting to know your partner’s world is called Build Love Maps. Think of it this way: When you choose to spend your life with someone, you hand them a map to your inner world. Your inner world is, of course, quite complex including the memories of your past, the details of your present, your hopes for the future. It includes your deepest fears and your grandest dreams. But the map you hand your partner is a pencil sketch.
The task for new couples is to intentionally be adding details to that map. It needs scale, direction, a legend. Over the course of a lifetime, you will be constantly adding landmarks, texture, and color. A detailed Love Map brings perspective to the twists and turns that inevitably enter a marriage. It’s critical that you prioritize this effort early. Dr. Gottman notes in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that “if you don’t start off with a deep knowledge of each other, it’s easy for your marriage to lose its way when your lives shift so suddenly and dramatically.”
Your lives will shift suddenly and dramatically. In fact it probably already has. As a first step toward building Love Maps for your relationship, I’d encourage you to draw one of your own about your life before this commitment. Think back through the twists and turns in your story. Write them down. Or perhaps draw an actual map. What has the journey to this point been like for you. Where were the smooth roads? Where were the steep climbs or the dry deserts? My personal bias is that there is no substitute for knowing your own story thoroughly and well. A trained therapist can help you with this, but so can the discipline of journaling. It almost doesn’t matter how you get there, but it’s important that you don’t expect your new partner to be the answer to all the questions you’ve been asking — consciously or unconsciously — throughout your life. Indeed, the best way to ensure a healthy marital friendship is to keep asking questions.
For new couples, The Gottman Institute created a card deck called 52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In. The goal of the deck is to give couples the opportunity to explore areas that might not be top of mind when they’re in the early stages of young love, or worse, the traumatic stages of wedding planning. Questions from the deck include:
- In what ways do you operate well as a team? In what ways could you improve?
- How is this relationship different than those that have not worked out?
- What are your main strategies for coping with tough financial times?
- How will you decide who is responsible for which chores?
You might not even know the answers to these types of questions unless and until you have been asked. Make question-asking a habit. These open-ended questions are important, but even the detail-oriented questions can lead to storytelling and discovery:
- Who was your best friend in childhood?
- What was your favorite vacation?
- What kind of books do you most like to read?
- Do you have a secret ambition? What is it?
Asking questions and telling stories adds detail to the primitive pencil sketch map that you’ve been handed. As you add detail to your maps you gain clarity about the journey that you’re embarking on together. Early in a relationship, it’s easy to lose sight of the longer journey because now feels so good. Creating the discipline of getting to know each other should be a top priority.