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On Love: Discovering the secrets of marital happiness

Terri L. Orbuch, Ph.D.
Author, "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great"
Friday, April 23, 2010; 1:00 PM

Whether you're a newlywed or have been married for years, strengthen the bond with your spouse is always an important part of marriage. Terri L. Orbuch, Ph.D., author of "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great" offers advice.

For more than 20 years, Orbuch has been one of the country's leading marriage experts. She's also a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the Univ. of Michigan. Orbuch has observed hundreds of married couples as part of the NIH-funded Early Years of Marriage study. During that study, she set out to identify what keeps married couples happy, and what factors drive them apart.

For more tips, marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our OnLove section.

The transcript follows.

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Terri Orbuch: Welcome. This is Dr. Terri Orbuch. I'm looking forward to discussing how to strengthen your relationships!

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Vancouver, B.C.: Hi Dr. Orbuch,

My fiance and I are getting marry in July. We are both in our late-20s and are talking about having kids in the future. He really wants to have kids, but I don't want to (at least not in the next five years). It is not that I don't like kids, I work with kids. I have babysat, worked in preschool and daycare, and am currently a piano teacher. I know what it is like to take care of children and I don't know if I can handle all the responsibilities. I have seen great/bad/so-so parents and I am not sure I can be a great one. I am not ready to say absolutely no kids, but I am leaning that way. It doesn't seem fair to him if he really wants kids. Is it something worth breaking off the wedding? I would appreciate your advice.

Terri Orbuch: Similarity in underlying values and attitudes is what keeps couples together over the long haul. Kids and whether to have kids is one of those values - if couples disagree - it can cause a lot of conflict. I would encourage you to think about whether you fear not being a good parent (and understand that we all have that concern - all of us!), you fear being like your own mother or father (and you don't want that), or you just don't want kids. If the latter - it will really be a source of conflict with your fiance. Think hard and discuss directly with him.

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Maryland: When you get to the point where you feel like the spark is gone, what can you do as a couple -- both the husband and the wife -- to help get it back?

Terri Orbuch: This is the most common question that couples have over time. The passion and excitement in a relationship need newness, mystery and arousal. So, I would encourage you to do activities that are new together (new class, new restaurant, new anything together), mystery (surprise each other with notes, etc.) or arousal (exercise together - the arousal that is produced by the exercise can get transferred to your relationship).

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"She set out to identify what keeps married couples happy, and what factors drive them apart.": What did you find out?

Terri Orbuch: I followed over 373 couples for over 23 years - I found that couples need to:

#1 - do and say small things often to make the partner happy (simple things like say "I love you" or "I notice you" daily).

#2 - follow the 10-minute rule - to always really understand your partner. This rule is 10 minutes every day, talk about something other than work, family, who does what around the house or your relationship.

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I'm slowly learning that men and women are different. HA!: My husband says he has never loved or connected with anyone like he has with me. But, I'm not skinny and he wants a skinny wife. I was heavy when we met so it's not like I've gone from a 2 to a 20. He is threatening to leave me over this issue. I can't reconcile his loving me and wanting to leave me over something so ... shallow. But, I polled a male friend of mine and he and his wife had the same issue. She went to extreme measures to lose the weight. I don't know if I'm willing to do that. I keep thinking maybe I'm better off without him as then I can meet that someone out there who loves and connects with ALL of me.

Your thoughts?

Terri Orbuch: First -- you are so right -- men and women are so different when it comes to relationships. My research supports that too.

I think you and your husband need to sit down and really talk about what is underlying his need for you to be skinny. What does that mean to him and why is it so important to him. Is it a health issue -- or is it truly a physical attraction situation? If he loves you, he should love you for you - all of you. And, if the two of you can reconcile this issue (and your hurt feelings over what he has said), then perhaps both of you can work together to make both of you healthy - physically.

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RE: Maryland: In response to Maryland's post... what would you suggest for newlyweds so we don't get to that point where the spark is gone and we need to seek out therapy?

Terri Orbuch: Good question. At the beginning of a relationship, passion and romance are fueled by newness and "consistently getting to know your partner." As a newlywed then, try and add something new to your relationship every month - and every day - take 10 minutes to talk to each other (not about work, family or the household) - but about other things in your partner's life or the world. So - ask your partner about what stressors he feels, about his friends, what she is most proud of, etc.

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Terri Orbuch: In my study of married couples over time, I also found that partners need to sweat the small stuff in their relationship. Small things add up. So, you need to address them while they are small.

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Anonymous: Why do you think sex is so important to men in a relationship... marriage or dating? It seems like they're more likely/willing to give up a solid relationship because of it, whereas for women it's not the end all, be all.

Terri Orbuch: Good question. What I have found in my research is that men use or have sex to feel closeness. Sex makes them feel close and create intimacy with another person. Women however, need to feel closeness (or have intimacy) before they want sex. So the pattern is completely opposite.

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Washington, D.C.: When considering marriage for the second time around, what words of wisdom or advice would you give to a person whose first marriage was when she was 19 and lasted more than 25 years. She's seeing the world and relationships almost for the first time. How does she define what is critically important for her in a relationship/marriage? And, finally, is there more or less value to marrying someone who themselves have had the experience of marriage and are familiar with the depth of commitment it takes to successfully maintain the marriage?

Terri Orbuch: Good questions. First, I think it doesn't matter if someone has been married or not before (as you choose someone the second time around). The most important thing is to find someone who you can trust (and is trustworthy), and has the ability to care for others. You can see this in the previous relationships or their relationships with friends and family.

Also, for you, the most important thing is that you want someone who is similar to you, and you can trust. Those are the two most important things that I found in the happy couples in my study. By the way, it is similarity in underlying values and attitudes - lifestyle issues - not interests or hobbies.

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Lafayette, Ind.: Even after many years of marriage, my husband's jealousy limits my life options. I give up friends and projects that threaten him to assure him that his feelings matter more and to avoid his silence, but I resent it. How can I help us move beyond these limiting fears?

Terri Orbuch: Good question. It is very typical what you are feeling - inr response to your husband's feelings of jealousy. Your husband's jealous feelings have nothing to do with you, and all to do with him. Jealousy is about how much someone feels secure and confident with themselves. It turns out that if he wants to reduce or eliminate his feelings of jealousy - he needs to work on himself. He needs to feel good about himself, how he looks, and his abilities as a person. You can support him in that journey and be there for him - but there is nothing you can do to reassure him. Change has to come from him.

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Terri Orbuch: In my research, affective affirmation - the degree to which you make your partner feel special and loved - was the #1 thing that husbands needed to make them happy in their marriage.

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Washington, D.C.: RE: Vancouver, B.C... aren't values, like having children, important discussions to have before the proposal? People often get engaged because they have been dating a long time, or they are so overwhelmed with love. But would you suggest a list of important questions/values to be discussed before you say "YES" and not just "I Do" -- it might save a lot of years of hurt.

Terri Orbuch: Absolutely agree Washington, D.C. These values, like children, religion, lifestyle, how much we want to include extended family in our marriage - are so important to discuss before you get married. Unfortunately, couples don't tend to do that. Plus, the passion and excitement of the beginning of the relationship - makes us sometimes forget that those are important topics.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's the best piece of advice you can give newly married couples? We just got married a couple months ago and everything is, of course, like a fairytale now. I know, however, that will not always be the case.

Terri Orbuch: Two things:

1. There are two kinds of love - passionate love, which is the love you are feeling right now. Everything is a fairytale and romantic. Understand that this will decline over time, and it says NOTHING about you or your relationship. It is inevitable in all relationships. But, learn ways together that you can reignite this feeling over time. Newness, mystery and arousal will fuel this feeling. So, be realistic.

2. Men crave affective affirmation more than women in their marriages. So, your husband needs to feel cared for and special in marriage. He just doesn't have the other people in his life to give him that specialness. So, say or do simple things to make him feel special. You need those compliments and small things too, from him. But you have lots of other people to get it from in your life - most likely.

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Washington, D.C.: Any advice for the unmarried late-30 and 40-somethings out there?

Terri Orbuch: Yes. First, it is never too late to find that someone special. There are two great ways these days. First, on-line dating. The research is solid. It is a very successful way to meet that someone special. Try one of the targeted on-line dating sites. Second, join a group activity that meets regularly (gym, team sport, book club, religious group) - the law of attraction says that if you interact with the same people regularly - they will like you, and you them. Also, remember that sometimes we set our expectations too high for who we want as a partner. Make a list of 20 qualities and see how realistic they are.

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Frederick, Md.: In your research, what role have you discovered religion playing in marriage? I have been happily married for 12 years and find that having a foundation in God, with my husband, and being invested in church (and again, being on the same page with my husband) has made for a solid foundation for our family.

Terri Orbuch: Good question. Religion was important in two ways in my study:

1. Being on the same page regarding religion was important to the couples over time. Agreeing on the role that religion and/or God plays in your life (and relationship) was important to happiness and stability over time.

2. For wives - the more involved they were in religious activities and events - less likely to divorce over time.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Do you find your studies translate into same-sex relationships and why/why not?

Terri Orbuch: Very good question! The findings from long-term study translate to couples of all kinds - both same-sex relationship and all nonmarital relationships. Also, they translate to couples over all stages of their relationship. I think that all romantic relationship have general underlying processes that work and don't work -- regardless of the sex of the partners.

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RE: Values: You listed some values that are important to consider before getting married. But, what do you find is more important: that the couples ideas and beliefs about each of those values are perfectly aligned, or that they are able to communicate about their differences and find compromises that both are happy with?

Terri Orbuch: First, I don't think that partner can ever be perfectly aligned. Two partners come from different backgrounds, neighborhoods, families, life experiences. With that comes differences. Always.

I think that it is more important for partners to be able to communicate and talk with one another and be able to resolve their differences and find compromises (that both are happy with). However, if partners are similar on these values, they will have less conflict and fewer disagreements.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Terri -- I'm happy to say I've been married five years and while they haven't always been the happiest days or the best days we've overcome a lot (depression, adhd, stress etc.)...

How do I get my husband to clean up after himself though? When I do laundry I will fold his clothes and put them on top of the dresser where they will sit and eventutally end up back in the laundry (he'll take from the pile instead of putting away). It's to the point now where I won't even bother to fold anything I'll just put it in a laundry basket (all clean) on top of the dresser.

I've tried nagging (obviously didn't work), asking, not saying anything and just finally giving up and putting them away myself. He gets this habit from his dad since his mom always puts things away for him.

I, however, will not. Suggestions? I'm at the point where I'm just NOT going to wash his laundry.

Terri Orbuch: First, I'm glad that you have overcome all the many challenges in your marriage. In my study - I found that couples who experience these challenges, come together, lean on one another and support each other.

And, it turns out that it is the small things, that accumulate over time and lead to unhappiness rather than the big challenges. And, the laundry as you describe is one of those small things. But, I found - you do need to address this with your husband. You need to sweat the small stuff. Because as you know, they lead to anger and resentment over time.

First, modeling works. Put your clothes in a basket and show him what you want him to do with the clothes (don't talk to him - just do). Next, talk to him again and use your "I" statements. Don't attack him, don't nag. Instead, use "I" statements and ask him for help, for you. Men like to fix problems. For example, "I feel really anxious when you . . . "Can you help me figure out a way to be less anxious." Then, if this doesn't work -- either suggestion -- try not doing the laundry. This will get his attention.

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Re: Topics to discuss: In terms of: "#2 -- follow the 10-minute rule -- to always really understand your partner. This rule is 10 minutes every day, talk about something other than work, family, who does what around the house or your relationship."

What else is left to discuss?

Terri Orbuch: Yes, you are not alone here -- what else is there to discuss? You can talk about politics, sports, movies -- are my favorites:

What are you most proud of? If you had all the money in the world, where would you travel to and why? What do you regret doing in your life? I have lists of possible topics in my book, "5 Simple Steps."

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Just a comment from a wife here . . . it's not only husbands for whom sex is important. It's the wives too. My husband has very little interest in sex and it takes an enormous toll in so many different ways. I sometimes wonder if it is something that could eventually drive us apart, to be honest. When there are differing levels of interest in sex between married people, how do you know what to do?

Terri Orbuch: Yes, women also want and need sex. It creates intimacy and bonds a couple. What I found in my study was that both men and women need sexual satisfaction - it is just the link between sex and intimacy/closeness that differ.

When there are differing levels of interest in sex between partners -- many reasons this might be so. Stress, medications, insecurity, hormone levels, health or illness issues - these can all influence a partner's interest in sex. My first suggestion is to have your husband talk to his internist or dr. Then, be sure the two of you are talking about the differences. I also have further suggestions in my book.

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Columbia, Md.: I'm in my mid-60s and my significant other is mid-50s. We live together and have a good relationship. In examining the possibility of marriage, it appears the financial risks are very substantial and cannot be substantially ameliorated by a prenuptial agreement or other financial instruments. This is particularly true, relative to major medical problems. There also appears (in our case) to be no financial benefits (according to a financial advisor) to being married.

Am I perhaps overlooking something?

Terri Orbuch: You are not alone in thinking this way. Given the financial and medical issues -- I can see the disadvantages of getting married. I'm a firm believer that trust, commitment, respect and love are the important essentials in a relationship. Do you have those in your relationship? The legal label is secondary.

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RE: Sex in a relationship: I took an interesting class in college called the psychology of sex roles. They spent a lot of time basically saying that males seek out as many different partners as possible to try and spread their genes around. Females seek out the strongest, most healthy partners to ensure their offspring survive. I guess I can believe a certain biological aspect to what we do, but some people seem to think we're just better at controlling our natural instincts. Your thoughts?

Terri Orbuch: Yes, what you are suggesting is an evolutionary or sociobiological approach. I teach this in my university class as well - a course on human sexuality. My opinion: I think biology and genes are important - but they only set the stage for the real influences in who we are attracted to: the social world around us!

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Wayne, N.J.: RE: Values... I understood you to mean that the couples don't need to have the same values to get married/be happy. Couples should have discussed those values/beliefs when they are discussing what each is expecting from married life/each other.

Terri Orbuch: My study suggests that couples in general DO need to have the same values. They can have some what I call "taboo topics" - topics that they just can't discuss. On these topics, they agree to disagree. So, yes, same values in general are important to happiness and staying together. But before you get married, it is important to discuss these topics. If you don't agree - and you can come up with compromises that you are both happy with (even if you agree to disagree), then okay. But children and whether to have children - is one of those topics that couples do need to agree on. Otherwise, too much conflict.

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Maryland: I love my husband very much but he's a clutter-bug and I am a neat freak! I get so tired of having to keep cleaning up after him. I try to ask him nicely to please be mindful of things but when he doesn't it just makes me resent him. Any ideas to help? Thanks!

Terri Orbuch: Many suggestions:

1. Try modeling the behavior you want.

2. Then, try using your "I" statements -- I'm becoming angry because I can't seem to focus with all this stuff around me.

Ask him to help you with the problem you're having... men like to problem solve and fix things. Tell him directly that you are going crazy with all this clutter.

3. Don't clean up after him -- see if he notices the clutter.

4. Try to be the opposite of what you are now -- see if he begins to resent you for not cleaning up.

5. Try to understand why he has the need NOT to clean up.

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Pre-marriage counseling: My wife and I are both Catholic so we had to go through a fairly long series of classes before we got married. Not only did our church have classes on mundane things like budgeting, cooking, children, etc. They also brought in people who had been recently divorced and those who had been happily married for 40 years. Hearing what worked and didn't work was a great help. We also realized that some people have no clue what they are doing. We were asked to describe a recent "major" disagreement and detail how we resolved it to the class. Our disagreement was over what house to buy and what community to live in (pretty major stuff). Another couple thought being unable to agree on "everyday china" was a "major" problem. We both thought that couple was doomed.

Terri Orbuch: Many couples don't talk about the important things before they get married. And, as you suggest so very important!

I think conflict management- how to resolve conflict in your relationship is very important over the long haul. You need to learn how to resolve conflict (which will inevitably occur)in your relationship.

Good comments.

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Terri Orbuch: Thank you for your questions and comments. Really good questions and comments. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

Check out my book for additional information! It is based on a really good long-term study of 373 couples over 23 years!

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