I want to share with you an excellent resource for strengthening your marriage relationship. The book is titled Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by John Gottman and his wife Julie. John Gottman is a world-renowned clinician, researcher, and author on marriage and parenting issues. Although some of his work trends toward an academic audience, Eight Dates is accessible to everyone interested in improving their marital bond.
The authors invite couples on eight fun, easy, and profoundly rewarding dates. Each one focuses on a topic crucial to a healthy relationship. The chapter headings are as follows:
Trust & Commitment
Sex & Intimacy
Work & Money
Fun & Adventure
Growth & Spirituality
In the introductory chapter of the book, before couple’s actually begin the exercises, the authors offer some preliminary building blocks for consideration:
A true love story isn’t a fairy tale. It takes vulnerability and effort. The reward is that you love your partner more on your fiftieth anniversary than you did on your wedding night. You can stay in love forever.
As a parish priest who helps couples prepare for marriage, I strongly endorse that statement. I remind couples that marriage is not a Disney movie, where everyone lives happily ever after. To make marriage blossom requires a time commitment and intentionality.
Here is a second excerpt from the introductory chapter:
Successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures, and small acts. A lifetime of love is created every single day you are together. Getting to know your partner doesn’t end the minute you say “I do.” It never ends. You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other. It’s exciting. It’s daunting. And it’s one of the greatest life adventures you can take.
What we glean from this quotation is that investing small steps to improve our marriage can lead to huge returns. The exercises in this book do not demand wholesale changes in our lives but subtle, yet consistent, moments of strengthening the foundation in our marriage.
The last section of the introduction offers a few ground rules that are essential for a productive date. What stands out for me is this excerpt on listening. The authors write:
The questions provided for each of the eight dates are specific and open-ended, but these questions are only half the equation. Listening is the all-important other half. It requires a special kind of listening. It’s where we listen to understand, without judgement or defensiveness, or the desire to rebut. It is an accepting form of listening. Listening is an action; you have to commit to it. And you can’t do that if you don’t get out of your own head. If you stay inside yourself, the voice you hear will be your own, and not your loved ones.
Don’t take this advice for granted. The most popular materials that I offer when leading marriage enrichment retreats around the country focus on listening skills. When effective communication breaks down in a marriage, other aspects of the relationship begin to suffer as well.
So, after offering a taste of some of the preliminary ingredients of the book, let’s dive into one of the actual dates. The one we will highlight is titled Agree to Disagree: Addressing Conflict. Hers is an excerpt from this chapter to set it up:
Conflict happens. One of the great marriage myths is that if you never fight or discuss difficult and uncomfortable issues, then that means you have a “good” relationship. When you get married it’s not just two people who are joining together, it’s also your different habits, personalities, belief systems, and quirks joining together. All of these things make for quite a wild party, and if you enter into any long-term relationship thinking that the hallmark of its success is a lack of conflict, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and failure….The important thing to know is that relationship conflict is natural, and it serves a purpose. What is the purpose of conflict? Many people think that conflict is pointless and harmful. Not true. Conflict is necessary because we inevitably run into speed bumps in our ability to love another, and when we hit one of these speed bumps we need to slow down and proceed with care. Mutual understanding: this is the healthiest and most productive goal of all conflict.
The exercise that follows this excerpt explores these questions:
How are we the same and how are we different?
How can we accommodate and accept the differences between us?
Are there differences we cannot accept?
Those questions are applied to a long list of categories provided for discussion. For example:
Differences in punctuality: one person is always on time, and the other is more casual about time.
Differences in finances: One person is financially conservative while the other person spends a lot more than the other.
Differences with socializing: One person is more extroverted and gets energized by being with people, while the other person finds being with people an effort and is energized by solitude.
Differences in how to raise and discipline children: One person tends to be stricter with children while the other person emphasizes empathy and understanding of children.
There are twenty-five such categories to dialogue and share thoughts. Additional guidelines in the chapter are available to assist the couple in working through the date.
Each of the eight dates are uniquely structured. The formats will vary based on the chapter theme. The overall goal of the book can be summed up with this final excerpt. The authors write:
Your relationship is a great adventure. Treat it as such. Be curious. Be vulnerable. Be willing to venture outside your comfort zone. Learn to listen. Be brave enough to talk. Share your hopes, your fears, and your dreams. (closed quote)
Again, the title of the book is Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by John and Julia Gottman. I know you’ll enjoy it!
Fr Alexander serves as the director of the Center for Family Care. He hosts the podcast Family Matters on Ancient Faith Radio.