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A Marriage Therapist Explains How to Successfully Skip Marriage Therapy

This advice from a marriage therapist will keep you and your spouse from the therapist’s office.

You’ve heard the phrase, “it’s not personal, it’s business.” Well, how about, “it’s not love, it’s science.”

Dr. Liz Hale shares four scientifically-proven ways to have a happy, healthy marriage.


How A Marriage Therapist Says to Skip Therapy

There is a science to love. As a Certified Gottman Therapists, we know small, simple ways to aid a relationship. So, I say skip marriage therapy and grab this book instead:

The Seven-Day Love Prescription” by Drs. John & Julie Gottman

Dr. John Gottman studied three-thousand couples in the love lab, following some for as long as twenty years, while another forty thousand couples were studied prior to marriage therapy. Millions of data points were discovered, and it was determined that there are universal factors that make or break a relationship.

There is a misconception out there that you only need help with your marriage if you’re having problems.

How do we behave in other areas of our life? With everything from our careers, bodies, and cars, we are typically proactive. For example, we take our cars in for tune-ups and oil changes BEFORE they break down. We need to think about relationships the same way.

For those who are in a particularly rocky period of marriage, they might be wondering if the window to turn things around has passed, especially when problems feel too complicated and deeply entrenched.

I can tell you this: In all the years of research and office practices, it is rare to encounter couples for whom it is truly “too late.” The only thing that really spells the end of a relationships is if both partners have already thrown in the towel.

When we change unhealthy patterns to healthy ones, we can change our future. Couples who are struggling the most actually make the most gains. In short: it’s never too late to strengthen your relationship.

This book has seven chapters. Each one introduces one new relationship-building habit into your day, every day, for one week. Seven days, seven new habits. Easy-peasy. They are quick, enjoyable, with no grand gestures and no long, hard conversations.

If your partner is not nearly as enthusiastic as you are, just tell them that the exercises are easy, fun, and can be done in a few minutes. These brief ideas are all about bringing more passion, connection, and lightness and love into the house.

Here are four of my favorite suggestions noted in the book:

  1. Turn Towards Your Mate

How we react to each other’s bids for connection is the biggest predictor of happiness and relationship stability.

No couples “turn toward” 100 % of the time. But whether you turn towards a lot or a little….really matters! In following 130 newlyweds for six years, couples who stayed together turned toward each other 86% of the time, while couples who divorced turned toward each other only 33% of the time.

These little moments may seem like nothing, but they spelled the difference between happiness and unhappiness, and lasting love and divorce.

  1. Ask Big, Open-Ended Questions

The question to ask that will give your marriage a boost is not, “How are you?” but “Who are you?”

Building a love map is deeply understanding your partner’s world. This includes their hopes, dreams, fears, beliefs, and desires. Asking open-ended questions is crucial for creating and updating love maps for they require thoughtful and expansive responses, not a yes or no answer.

Questions like:

  • How have you changed this past year?
  • What legacy do you hope our kids will take from us?
  • What are some unfilled things in your life?
  • What is your wish for our daughter to become in the next 10 years?
  • What do you find exciting in life right now?
  • Who has been the most difficult person in your life and why?

Sometimes a topic will come up, revealing night and day differences between a couple. Let’s say, you want to buy a cabin the woods, and your partner says, “Absolutely not!”

Next question:

“So, regarding getting a cabin in the woods, what’s your dream about this and what’s your nightmare?” Get curious, not furious. Turn to each other and ask, “Why do you want a cabin in the woods so badly?” Or, “Why are you so against getting a cabin in the woods?”

There are often big gaps in our love maps for each other. The more we fill in those gaps, the more we will understand where your partner is coming from. This mapping will never be finished. It is a lifelong project of learning who our partner is and how they may change over time.

I’ll promise you one thing, if we approach our partner with curiosity, we’ll never run out of fun new facts to discover.

In the love lab, this approach to conflict (thinking and talking about each other’s dreams) created major breakthroughs 87% of the time, even for very distressed couples.

  1. Train Your Brain to Reign

The number one predictor of divorce is contempt, a pattern of negative thinking and criticism about our partner. It impacts the mental and physical health of both partners.

If you are stuck in a negative sentiment override, do an all-out moratorium on criticism. Ban all critical comments.

Our brain naturally looks for the negatives. Don’t let the words that appear in your brain sift down and come out of your mouth. Just let them fall away unsaid, like sand.

Next, spy on each other. Watch each other like a hawk all day and notice, “what are they doing right?”

Looking for what your partner is doing right is a small mental adjustment that will, overtime, change the processing patterns of your brain.

One of the very first questions the Gottman’s ask in marriage therapy is, “Why did you fall in love with your partner?” Reflecting on this question can be an amazing way to reset and regain some perspective.

Reflecting on what you cherish about your mate, and why no one on the planet could ever replace them, is incredibly powerful!

You double the impact of this powerful act by sharing with your partner what you cherish about them. The capacity to admire your partner is like bulletproof armor for a relationship.

Marriage requires math. It’s quantifiable. We need roughly twenty times as much everyday positivity as there is negativity between you and your partner. (1:5 is only for conflict.)

Know that even the most fleeting of interactions, a smile, a thank you, an encouraging phrase, a follow-up question, eye contact, are all money in the emotional bank account.

When we retrain our squirrely human brain to scan for the positive instead of the negative, reprogramming neurons to notice what’s right instead of what’s wrong, has trickle down effects throughout your brain, body, relationship, and life experiences.

Make it a top priority to hold in the front of your mind the things you love and admire about your partner. Not only the things they do for you, but who they are fundamentally.

  1. Maximize the Magic of Mini Touches

The most powerful drug in marriage is not sex, but touch. Touch is like oxygen. We cannot survive without it. We thrive on touch – but it doesn’t have to be sexual. Research shows that people of all gender types who cuddle often report having more satisfying long-term relationships (without accounting for a sexual connection).

Touch is powerful. Touch is soothing. Touch helps us connect emotionally. It’s not an illusion that when your partner takes your hand, you feel more attuned to them.

To get that healing does of oxytocin, we need to put the time in. Every little bit adds up. A moment here, a moment there – makes a difference.

A busy couple with three children came into therapy with a strong foundation but with little time for each other. Their lives had split into two parallel lives. Sam was busy with his career, and Suzy was busy with the career of home and family. In the evenings, it was a sprint to get dinner made, get everyone bathed and in bed, and then the endless chores of bills, dishes, pets, laundry, and paperwork. They were exhausted. Their lackluster sex life wasn’t necessarily the problem. They missed each other.

So, they started working on mini-touches. Little quick touches as they were running by each other. A quick kiss. A tender squeeze. A hug. And whoever comes in last at the end of day announced, “I’M HERE!” And everyone comes running, especially the partner who was already home. It was fun. It was funny. The kiddos got into it. They, too, loved running in the door, screaming, “I’M HERE. I’M HERE!” But they epically loved it when their parents stood in the middle of all the chaos, giving each other a very, long hug.

Kissing activates five out of twelve of our cranial nerves. And twenty-second hugs releases oxytocin into our bloodstream. Touch is good for our brain, body, and relationship.

Touch can also be touchy. Talk to each other. Ask, “What’s your favorite way that I touch you? Are there any ways that I touch or hug you that you don’t like?”

Julie Gottman, who has been very open about having experienced sexual assault, doesn’t like to be hugged from behind, or even surprised by touch. In their long marriage together, they have figured out ways around this. When John is coming in for a hug or snuggle and he isn’t sure whether Julie spotted him, he says, “Incoming!” When Julie hears that, she’s prepared, and his embrace is always welcome.

Create as many moments of physical connection as possible. What you do is up to you, and any amount is good. The more the better if you are both on board.

Dr. Liz Hale is the Studio 5 Family and Marriage Contributor. She is passionate about helping relationships survive and thrive! She works hard on keeping her own relationships healthy and strong. But don’t stand in her way of a daily, sanity-maintaining brisk walk (just ask her husband, Ben!).

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