Saturday, February 20, 2021

How to Become Positive Marriage Role Models


                  PremaritalRelationship BasicsResilience

We know we learn through observing others – this is natural human behavior. Previously on the blog, we’ve talked about what marriage lessons we learn from our families – either as a young kid or even into our adulthood when we’re so kindly given those one-liner pieces of advice from family members. Thinking about those lessons, we encouraged you to consider what things you carry forward and strive to live up to in your marriage and relationships, as what you’d rather leave behind. Your family has good intentions, but they’re likely not all marriage experts.

What happens when you flip the question, to ask not about what you learned, but what can you teach others?

What are you actively showing your community and your family about your relationship? Is the relationship example you’re setting a healthy one or is it something you’re not actually proud of?

Those can be hard questions to answer. But relationships are important, and we know that those around us – young, old, single, married, etc. – are all latently learning from us as we live our lives and continue to exist in a relationship in front of them. While it can be difficult to look in the mirror at our own marriage, it benefits not only us, but also anyone in our family and community who interacts with us. If we can be positive marriage role models for them, we stand a better chance of helping set them up with healthy examples to learn from.

Here are three things you can do to show up as positive marriage role models: 

  1. Keep it real.
    Being a positive marriage role model does not mean that you have to have and always display a perfect relationship without any struggles. That’s actually setting up an expectation of relationships that is nearly impossible to attain. Keeping it real is about being transparent about the fact that you face adversity and harder seasons in your relationship, but you rely on your commitment, relationship skills, and overall resiliency as a couple to weather the storm. It’s about showing up, putting in the work, and not hiding that from those around you. Of course, you and your partner first need to discuss what level of transparency you are comfortable with, so that neither of you unintentionally cross a boundary and share too much about what’s going on between you two. You need to be on the same page and decide what is appropriate to share for the benefit of keeping it real for and demonstrating that the work is worth it.

  2. Put in the work.
    And speaking of the work being worth it – you have to actually do the work! Some will say that marriage shouldn’t have to be work – that once you have love, you have it all. Well, we know that’s simply not true. As people we morph and change as we continue to develop. We’re always growing, and it takes intentional effort to grow together as a couple. You can’t just coast for the first 25 years of marriage when you’re distracted with a career and kiddos. It takes effort, and showing and acknowledging that fact is a healthy thing. This can look like a lot of different things, but even being open about attending marriage enrichment events, prioritizing date night, dedicating time to reading books or listening to podcasts about relationships, or even sharing with others that you actively work with a marriage therapist can do so much to encourage others to do the same. If they see a couple like you that is keeping it real, and also very much doing the work, they’ll be inclined to take a similar direction in their own relationship.

  3. Communicate.
    Communication is probably the most overshared tip when it comes to anything relationship education related – but for good reason, it’s arguably the most important skill to have and use. Healthy communication can help you navigate nearly anything in your relationship. It’s all about being assertive (which can get a bad rap but is actually a very healthy trait when done respectfully), and actively listening to your partner (this is the kind of listening where you actually listen instead of just formulating your next reply). Demonstrating healthy communication in front of others is an easy way to be a positive marriage role model. It shows others in relationship how they can have a conversation, discussion, or even a disagreement without anything spiraling out of control and while accomplishing the goal of understanding each other. The people in your life who will benefit the most from modeling communication in your marriage are the ones who live with you – your kids. And they’ll soak up those skills like sponges, which is great for their own relationship skill development.

Becoming positive relationship role models doesn’t have to be a big new undertaking in your life – you’re already a role model, it’s just the extra effort to make sure what you’re modeling about marriage is healthy and positive.

Interested in going a step further to help other couples? Consider becoming a Prepare/Enrich Facilitator. Contact us to learn more.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Relationship Thermostat- Why Adjusting the Temperature Early Can Save Your Relationship Later


from blog by Kyle Benson 1/12/2021

Have you ever thought about the Relationship Thermostat?

The secret to keeping things comfortable is to address the uncomfortable issues that pull you two apart.

Longitudinal research on newlywed couples discovered that stable and happy couples are more responsive to slight changes in negativity than ailing marriages.

It’s like every relationship has a connection thermostat that signals how well the relationship is doing. Ideally, you want to find that balance between hot and cold so you can feel secure, connected, and cherished.

The problem is, like a house, the thermostat is bound to change from time-to-time based on what happens on the outside. Every relationship is going to feel hot or cold.

The more sensitive you are to the emotional temperature changes and work together to return to the comfort zone of connection, the better chance your relationship has at staying positive and healthy.

The relationship thermostat

In my relationship, my thermostat has a burning point of volcanic anger and a freezing point of ice-cold distance and indifference. When I am too hot, I am critical, defensive, and contemptuous. I become emotionally flooded and say things I don’t believe about my partner and our relationship. It’s like my body is on fire and if my partner gets closer, I’ll burn her.

When I am too cold, I preoccupy myself with work and offer less spontaneous acts of affection throughout the day. I ask less questions and keep to myself more. And when my partner expresses something, I am less engaged. At my freezing point, I appear apathetic when she is hurting. That is not the partner she needs in those painful moments.

My spouse has her own hot and cold points, but with different behaviors.

Luckily for us, we rarely get to these extremes because those temperature points are difficult and painful.

One of the hard lessons we had to learn to keep our emotional connection temperature at a more loving level was the importance of addressing things earlier.

The secret of stable relationships: Address things early

This knowledge came from Dr. Gottman’s research, “In marriages that wind up happy and stable, newlywed [spouses] notice lower levels of negativity…In other marriages, [spouses] adapt to and try to accept this negativity, setting their threshold for response at a much higher (more negative) level.”

In relationships that struggle, there is a tendency to tolerate a hotter or colder connection temperature. Dr. Gottman shares, “It’s as if they are saying to themselves, ‘Just ignore this negativity. Don’t respond to it unless it gets much worse.’ Our research shows that this kind of adaptation to negativity is dysfunctional.”

Dr. Gottman goes on to say that, when partners adapt to hotter or colder connection temperatures, it also increases their “threshold” for determining when things are problematic. This means that those partners will feel like help is not needed since they’ve increased the acceptable range of negativity.

A great place to start in order to understand your emotions, your partner’s emotions, and the best way to navigate those within your relationship is by creating a map of emotions together.

Start Mapping Emotions Together

In my relationship, I like to imagine our thermostat is like our home’s thermostat. If we get emotionally hotter than 73 or colder than 68, that is a cue that we need to readjust our thermostat and reconnect.

Essentially Dr. Gottman’s research indicates that healthy couples are more nuanced to changes in the emotional connection. Most importantly, they see the change in relational temperature as a cue to check-in with their partner or open up. They turn towards one another.

Practical tools to reset your relationship’s thermostat

1: Repair

When the temperature in your relationship is uncomfortable, that is a cue that a repair is needed to reset at a more connecting level.

2: Discuss Cues of Your Relationship’s Thermostat

It’s helpful to start with discussing what the relationship feels like when things are going well. Talk about how it feels in your body, the thoughts you have, as well as how you engage one another.   In my marriage this includes more humor, physical affection, and a felt sense of being understood when discussing an issue. Outside of conflict, there are lots of positive interactions, and during conflict, we are probably close to the magic 5:1 ratio since we tend to use speaker-listener roles. Then talk about how you think you two get to this place and what helps keep this temperature. Discuss Disconnection Cues: Use Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s “Relationship Poop Detector” to determine cues that your relationship’s temperature is too hot or too cold. This includes the Four Horsemen, feeling distant and isolated, or not being affectionate and intimate. The more awareness you have of what pulls you apart, the easier it will be to say, “oh no, we are too hot. Can we talk and reset our temperature please?”

3: The Conflict Toolkit

Sit-down together and dialogue about what’s changed the thermostat using conflict blueprints: To prevent negativity from making things too hot or cold, use the Gottman Conflict Blueprints such as the Gottman-Rapoport and The Aftermath of a Fight.

As a speaker, remember to help your partner understand your side and give them a recipe to be successful with you.

As the listener, remember to soothe yourself so you can hear your partner and seek to understand before problem-solving.

4: Proactively Check Your Relationship’s Temperature:

Instead of waiting until your relationship is sweating with negativity or shivering from a cold loneliness, proactively check each other’s emotional temperature daily, “How are we doing today from your perspective? What’s going well? What is something we can do better?”

Finally, do not wait more than 3 days to address an issue that is making the relationship too hot or too cold. The secret to keeping things comfortable is to address the uncomfortable issues that pull you two apart.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

2 Reasons We Give Up On Goals (And How to Overcome Them)

 By Laura Guida, PREPARE/Enrich Blog,December 30, 2020

Longing for self-improvement or achievement is an all too familiar feeling we seem to get around this time of year. We look forward to what’s to come and think that something magical will happen on January 1st to boost us up with energy to hit new milestones. These goals we set for ourselves can be sourced from all aspects of life. We want to eat healthier and exercise more. We want to be more present with our families and less connected to our smart phones. We want to achieve more at work and secure that promotion. It’s natural to want to get better and the marking of a new year feels like a natural time to set those goals.

However, we’ve also all likely felt the devastation of realizing we made nearly zero progress towards a goal once we’re about six or so weeks into the new year. The novelty of a new routine has worn off or the challenge of trying something different has just become really hard, so we cut ourselves some slack on the goal. We lower what we’re reaching for, push out the timeline we set, or we just give up entirely.

Why is this? You start to wonder. I’m capable, I have the desire, why do I stall out when the work to get there feels mundane or difficult?

There are a ton of reasons why achieving our goals is hard, but there are a couple in particular that have to do with our spouse. We’d like to think our spouse is our number one supporter, and in many cases that is true. It’s just that things get in the way of allowing them to help you reach your goals, and vice versa. Here’s why: 

  1. Lack of awareness
    Not your own awareness, but the awareness of your support system. We’re talking your spouse, your kids, your inner circle of relationships. We get it, some goals are really personal, so we’re not suggesting you post each goal out on social media just for the sake of accountability. But sharing your personal goals with at least your spouse gives them insight into what you’re working on and the awareness they need to support your efforts and encourage you along the way. The accountability of saying the goal out loud doesn’t hurt your progress either!

  2. Goal misalignment
    If your personal goal is in direct conflict with one of your partner’s goals, this will inevitably make it a struggle for either of you to succeed. For example, one of you may set a financial savings goal for the year that is beyond what you normally do, while the other may have a goal to finally take the family on a luxurious vacation. See how those goals would compete and cause stress? The personal goals you each set for yourselves don’t necessarily need to build off one another, but they need to not be in direct conflict or contradiction of each other. Aligning your goals has the potential to create the synergistic effect of momentum through solidarity.

When it comes to your personal goals, you may be thinking, well they are personal, why do I even need to involve my partner? It’s a valid question. But why wouldn’t you want all of the support and encouragement you could get? If your goal is conflicting with their goal, that’s going to get you both nowhere fast, so it seems silly to even try to reach it at that point.

By not letting your partner in on your goals, you’re missing an opportunity for both of you to grow closer and work together. There’s a quote from Betty Ford that captures this thought well, “You can make it, but it’s easier if you don’t have to do it alone.”

So yes, make those personal goals for 2021, but just because they are personal, don’t forget to utilize your spouse as your co-pilot while navigating to your destination.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Communication During Coronavirus: Listening and Learning


Communication affects how safe and secure we feel in our relationships
as well as our level of intimacy.

In the Coronavirus era, many couples have been confronted by an all-new dichotomy. We are home more often and physically closer than ever before, but we’re simultaneously drawn inward and experiencing an increased sense of disconnection. When live-in partners are compelled by our current circumstances to spend nearly all of their time together, numerous unexpected & seemingly contradictory challenges arise.

Communicating love and admiration to your partner is a hallmark of any relationship, yet after some time and dealing with the stresses of day-to-day life, you might find that positive communication diminishes. This includes telling your partner that you love them. These comments start to fade in frequency. You may not express gratitude for your partner aloud because it may not come naturally. Instead, you make a big deal over trivial issues and miss the big picture. 

One effective way to increase positive communication and to learn more about your partner is to ask open-ended questions. For instance, I often advise couples to ask their partner questions such as, “What was it like at work today?” This query can elicit more conversation than “Did you have a good day?”

According to Dr. John Gottman, posing questions that require no more than a yes or no can kill a conversation, whereas open-ended questions such as “What did you like best about the movie?” require a deeper response that can enhance conversation.

Ultimately, these broadly relatable questions serve as a tool for partners trying to be more active in taking an emotional interest in their loved one. And in these trying, unprecedented times, it seems the positive results of such inquiry will provide a counterbalance to the strife, uncertainty, and stress that we’re all living with. 

Here are four more questions to ask your partner (and for them to ask you) to increase intimacy

1. What’s one thing you think could improve our relationship?

2. What are two things you like about the way I communicate with you?

3. What are two things you would like to see me change about how I communicate with you?

4.  How would you prefer we spend our free time together this weekend? 

Sometimes couples are so absorbed in their problems that they forget to see their partner as a person. You can strengthen your relationship by learning more about your partner and discussing their thoughts and feelings. If you try to answer the above questions about your partner first and then compare answers (or interview each other), you are on the path to building authentic love and improving the quality of your partnership. The following points can help you attain closeness with your partner on a daily basis.

8 strategies for increasing communication and creating loving intimacy

  • Be sure you first understand before seeking to be understood. Respond to what your partner is really saying in the moment. Be attuned to their experience, more than your own.
  • Freely communicate your admiration and fondness for your partner. You might say, “You’re such a special person, and I’m lucky to have you.”
  • Catch your partner doing something “right” and compliment them for it.
  • Practice offering mutual gratitude on a regular basis. For instance, you might say, “I’m so grateful that you work hard and I can see you had a tough day. I’d like to get you some iced tea and hear about how your day went.”
  • Turn towards your partner when they make a bid for attention, affection, or any other type of positive communication. Overtures often display themselves in basic but powerful ways such as a smile or pat on the shoulder. In contrast, turning away might mean you continue to watch TV or look at your phone when your partner is sharing something important with you.
  • Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. In “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” Dr. John Gottman suggests increasing the number of positive comments you make to your partner. Listen to their point of view and adopt his rule of 5:1 ratio of interactions—meaning for every negative interaction, you need at least five positive ones.

Communication affects how safe and secure you feel in your relationships as well as your level of intimacy. Since communication and intimacy are connected, take time every day to really listen to your partner and have the courage to ask open-ended questions (rather than making assumptions) to make sure you understand them. Over time, you will find that you will feel closer, argue less, and feel more satisfied in your relationship.

Gottman Institute

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

December 21,2020

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

4 Ways Support Your Spouse Through Hardship

by Laura Gilda, November 11, 2020

Tough times are eventually going to find you, it’s inevitable. Life has a way of interjecting adversity despite all we do to try and prevent it. Sometimes, it’s trivial and throws you off for a few weeks, and sometimes it’s life-changing and gives you a new perspective on just about everything.

When bigger adversity challenges you and your partner together, as a couple, there can be a “we’re in this together” bond that is pretty powerful and can give you the momentum to push through the difficult time. However, when something happens to you or your partner separately, it can feel very isolating, even though it’s likely that you’re both significantly affected by it. Tough times that fall into this category can vary greatly, but examples would be a health diagnosis or a job loss. 

In the case where it’s just happening to one of you, it’s really important to remember that even though it may feel as though it’s only happening to the one person, it’s really impacting both of you.

It will affect each of you differently, but it’s important to realize it’s not happening to the one person in a vacuum. If you have kids, it affects them, too. That’s part of being in a family – each person is a component in the family system. When something happens to an element of the system, the entire system shifts and swings in response. When a shake-up like this happens, the goal is to return to a state of balance where things settle back into place. Sometimes, this means solving for the challenge. In the case of a job loss, this might be finding a new job and adapting to all that comes with that change – new schedule, financial implications, maybe even a relocation. In the case of a health diagnosis, it’s understanding what adjustments have to be made to the existing roles, rituals, and responsibilities in the family, since the health diagnosis can’t simply be “solved,” it needs to be accommodated for.

For those of you living this right now, not only are you enduring the daily stress of figuring out life in the midst of a major adversity, but you’re trying to keep your marriage moving forward in a healthy direction. When you’re fixed on making ends meet, faced with tough healthcare decisions, and struggling to keep it all together, it’s easy to see why keeping your marriage a priority is really hard.

With that being said, there are ways to tip things in your favor when going through a particularly challenging time. Here are four ways to support your spouse through hardship, while reinforcing healthy relationship habits:

  1. Assert your needs (and get your partner to assert his/hers).
    This goes for both of you. In times where you likely have new needs, it’s crucially important to voice them to one another. Be careful how you assert your own and how you encourage your partner to assert theirs. Hurt feelings don’t help in tough times, but clear assertive language does. If your spouse is going through something where they actually have more needs than you, it’s okay for this to be out of balance. This is the “through good times and bad, through sickness and health” that we hear echoed throughout wedding vows time and time again. If you need a refresher on how to be assertive with your communication, check out this blog post.                                            
  2. Listen, don’t solve.
    On the other side of being assertive, we have actively listening. Listening to someone who is facing hardship can be emotionally draining, especially when it’s someone you love so deeply. We encourage you in this moment to really listen though. Listen to what your spouse is going through, what they are feeling, what their fears and insecurities are. Listen for what lies beneath the words. If they are facing something as life changing as illness or as jarring as having to find a new job, they likely have new feelings they haven’t articulated before. They may not have even identified those feelings to themselves. A tip to getting deeper than just the basic feelings we all learn as kids – mad/sad/happy/etc. – is to ask them what their feeling feels like. For example, if your spouse says, “I’m feeling sad that I’m going through this,” you could follow up with, “I’m hearing that you’re sad that you’re going through this. What does that sadness feel like for you?” This question helps delve deeper into a more descriptive feeling that might provide more insight for both of you. Sitting with them and hearing what they have to say will help you empathize with them. Try your hardest not to solve in this moment – even if there is an obvious next step, just let them feel the feels.                                      
  3. Ask for help.
    When you’re in the situation of wanting to support your spouse and fulfill their needs, but they’re also dealing with a lot of other twists and turns of life, it’s hard to expect them to also fulfill your expressed needs. This is where asking for help comes in. You are likely surrounded by friends and family who want to help, especially if they know that by helping they are allowing you to spare extra stress on your marriage. Ask for help. Lean on the bigger system that supports your marriage and your family. Find ways to take care of your needs. If you’re playing the role of caregiver, sole provider, or some other new responsibility you didn’t have before, you will need support. We’ve heard this before, and while it’s hard to hear, it’s true – you need to take care of yourself first, so that you can take care of others. Asking for help and taking the time to take care of you is not selfish – it’s a very healthy way to help support your spouse through a difficult time.                                                                                                                                    
  4. Align on a plan.
    When we’re faced with adversity, some people jump right into problem-solving mode, and others want to sulk and sit in the frustration of being dealt a crappy hand. You and your spouse may have different reactions, and that’s okay. When you’re both ready to talk about next steps, have a discussion about what the options are and what is important to each of you and your family. The decision of what to do next may fall to one of you more than the other. Be sensitive to that, and don’t push it to be a complete joint decision. Remember, your spouse may be looking for your input, thoughts, concerns, ideas, and ultimately encouragement in the next step. Whatever that decision is, align on the plan together. Be supportive. Keep in mind, plans can change, especially when you get new information, so be open to it shifting in the future.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Conversational Boundaries without Stonewalling

Difficult conversations can lead to flooding. Here are steps to remain calm while staying present for    yourself and your partner.

Difficult conversations can lead to flooding. Learn how to set conversational boundaries without stonewalling. During stressful times, it can be challenging to have conversations with friends and family about sensitive topics without getting uncomfortable.

Think about the last time you had a difficult conversation that upset you. Did you want to just leave? Did you feel that you needed to control yourself from saying what you truly felt?  Did you choose not to respond? To shut down?  Did you want to avoid a fight, but then felt resentful? Did you blow up and say things that you later wished you could take back? 

Flooding leads to Stonewalling

Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that in ailing relationships there is heightened physiological arousal during conflict discussions called “flooding.” Flooding happens in other relationships with friends, coworkers, parents, siblings, in-laws, etc. For most people, when they are flooded, their heart rate rises to over 100 beats per minute. You feel overwhelmed and intensely stressed. Your capacity to hear and understand someone else is limited. In this state of mind, you are more likely to say or do something you will later regret. 

Additionally, flooding isn’t good for your health. It suppresses your immune system, which makes you more susceptible to infectious illnesses.  So when you find yourself flooding, it is important to take a break and self-soothe (i.e., engaging in an activity like deep breathing that takes you away from the upsetting thoughts and calms your nervous system). If you don’t do this, most likely you will end up Stonewalling—disengaging and emotionally withdrawing from the interaction. You cannot have a conversation that validates and creates harmony. It is also upsetting for your loved one to speak to a Stonewalling listener. Your stony silence is not neutrality or setting a boundary. It communicates disapproval and emotional distance. 

How can you manage stressful conversations without Stonewalling?


One helpful coping method is self-soothing. This is the antidote to Stonewalling. 

  • Do you hold your breath when you’re upset? Make sure you’re breathing. 
  • Check-in with yourself and validate your feelings.
  • Ask yourself what you need to feel centered. Give yourself permission to go in another room to cool down or out for a walk outside.
  • Let your physical senses ground you. Touch something and focus on how it feels. Sip and truly taste some tea. Listen to a calming song. Notice items in the room that you may have never observed before. Inhale through your nose and note any smells.

It takes at least 20 minutes for your physiology to return to a calm baseline state. Try not to continue thinking about the upsetting situation (especially coming up with better responses you wish you could say). This puts gasoline on your upset feelings. Breathe. Focus. Relax your tensed muscles. 

Practice acceptance 

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, a modality developed by Steven Hayes, Ph.D.) explains the concept of “acceptance” beautifully. Acceptance means the willingness to open up and make space for uncomfortable feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions. You try not to control your inner experience or someone else’s perspective. Instead of fighting the feelings you experience internally, try to accept them without judgment as appropriate responses to these situations. 

You may think that acceptance sounds like “giving up,” but it’s not. It’s merely dropping the internal struggle that causes anxiety and stress. You can still have opinions and beliefs and communicate in a way that respects your values and sets healthy boundaries. 

Another concept in ACT is “committed action,” meaning you take effective action based on your values. What can you do to advocate for what you believe in? How can you communicate what’s important to you without jeopardizing your emotional wellbeing? 

Be an example of what you stand for. Others are more likely to change by your example than by the arguments you “win.” By practicing acceptance before you start the conversation, you also create space where you can truly listen to someone else’s feelings and points of view. 

Setting boundaries

Learn how to set conversational boundaries without stonewalling. Setting boundaries is an important aspect of establishing who you are as a person and how others are allowed to treat you. As a crucial part of mental health, it also includes learning to be kind towards yourself. As a result, you can be less reactive, since you set the rules you live by and let others know of them as well. One example is letting someone know that if they have discussions with you where they are being disrespectful, you will end the conversation because it takes a toll on you. An example of how to say this could look like: 

“I’ve noticed that when we have discussions about this topic, I feel drained. I’d like to have this conversation with you, but only if you are willing not to make personal attacks. If you continue to do so, I will walk away from this conversation.” 

Boundary setting informs the other person what your limits are and then enforces them. This is an act of kindness towards yourself and someone else. 

Life can be difficult. Let’s be compassionate towards ourselves and others. Let’s see the cup half full, not half empty. Even better, let’s self-soothe, practice acceptance, and communicate healthy boundaries so that our cups are full.

Monday, November 9, 2020

5 Biggest Little Ways to Improve Your Marriage

 A few small actions carry surprising power in building a lasting relationship.

Adapted from The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, by Shaunti Feldhahn

Not long ago, the marriage of some close friends—I’ll call them Daniel and Jessica—suddenly imploded. We did everything we could to stand with them in their crisis to speak hope for their future together. Unfortunately, their marriage didn’t survive.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Jessica one day. Through her sobs, she said, “He worked so hard for a year to take us on that amazing vacation to Hawaii. But all I really wanted was for him to put his arm around me at church!”

Huh? Do you think in the midst of all her pain that she was thinking clearly? Actually, I do.

I could fill in lots of other details, but ultimately the pattern is a sadly common one. You may have seen it too. Daniel was a godly, well-intentioned husband who showed his love in several ways, including working long hours to provide for his family and to do nice things for them. You see, for him, providing is love.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realize that what he was working so hard for wasn’t what Jessica most needed—and in some ways was actually robbing her of the closeness she needed the most. (And of course there were ways she didn’t know she was hurting him.) What she needed most, more than all the expensive vacations in the world, were a few simple, specific day-to-day actions.

But as simple as loving gestures in public? you wonder.

Yes! My research on happy couples showed that an extraordinarily high percentage of them were (often without realizing it!) doing a few little specific actions that were making their spouses feel deeply cared for. Jessica, as it turns out, is like nearly all other men and women in her deep rooted desire for these surprisingly meaningful gestures.

Day-to-day actions

Clearly, a few small actions won’t fix deep relationship problems. But for most of us, a handful of simple day-to-day actions increase the likelihood that our spouse feels that we care deeply about them, instead of feeling that we don’t. There’s just enormous power in that!

For nearly every man or woman, the same few small, gender-specific actions not only matter but have a huge impact on a couple’s level of happiness. But these little actions take on even more power when accompanied by those that matter to your spouse individually.

Let’s begin with the few small actions that the surveys indicate matter a lot to almost every man or woman—what we might call the Fantastic Five.

When individuals were asked on the survey if a particular action made them happy, the affirmative response numbers were staggeringly high for five specific actions for each gender, even among the struggling couples. Close to 100 percent of all husbands and wives said these actions mattered, with between 65 and 90 percent of all husbands and wives saying these actions would deeply please them.

In other words, you are very likely to make your spouse feel deeply cared for if you make a habit of doing the same five things consistently.

The Fantastic Five for him

A wife will have a big impact on her husband’s happiness when she does the following:

1. Notices his effort and sincerely thanks him for it. (For example, she says, “Thank you for mowing the lawn even though it was so hot outside.” Or, “Thanks for playing with the kids, even when you were so tired from work.”) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.

2. Says “You did a great job at __________.” This deeply pleases 69 percent of all men.

3. Mentions in front of others something he did well. This deeply pleases 72 percent of all men.

4. Shows that she desires him sexually and that he pleases her sexually. This deeply pleases 85 percent of all men.

5. Makes it clear to him that he makes her happy. (For example, she expresses appreciation for something he did for her with a smile, words, a big hug, etc.) This deeply pleases 88 percent of all men.

The Fantastic Five for her

On his side, a husband will have a big impact on his wife when he does the following:

1. Takes her hand. (For example, when walking through a parking lot or sitting together at the movies.) This deeply pleases 82 percent of all women.

2. Leaves her a message by voice mail, e-mail, or text during the day to say he loves and is thinking about her. This deeply pleases 75 percent of all women.

3. Puts his arm around her or lays his hand on her knee when they are sitting next to each other in public (at church, at a restaurant with friends, etc.). This deeply pleases 74 percent of all women.

4. Tells her sincerely, “You are beautiful.” This deeply pleases 76 percent of all women.

5. Pulls himself out of a funk when he’s morose, grumpy, or upset about something, instead of withdrawing. (This doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry or need space; it means he tries to pull himself out of it.) This deeply pleases 72 percent of all women.

Keys that unlock any door

Did you notice that all these happiness-inducing actions are simple, learnable, and doable by any wife or any husband? If you put each of the five biggest little things to work every day, I’m betting your marriage will improve—in some cases, radically.

And here’s more great news: All these small but powerful actions matter regardless of what the person’s love language is. For example, most wives (82 percent) are affected when her husband reaches out and takes her hand, regardless of whether physical touch is her thing.

There’s no looking back for our friends Jessica and Daniel. But I’m so thankful that God is good. He is always at work to redeem our broken hearts—and I know He’ll do it for our friends. Still, a corner of my heart mourns the heartbreak that might have been prevented if they had truly understood the power of doing these best little things.

We all know that small, thoughtful acts are not a magic cure-all for every marriage problem. But having talked to so many who nurtured much happiness with simple but powerful actions, I know all of us can build that all-important foundation that helps us believe that our mate notices and cares.

Because as it turns out, believing that the other person cares is far more important to building a happy marriage than most of us ever realized.