There are two related things that you can do to make your relationships – not just your marriage, but all of your relationships – happier, stronger and more fun.
These are very easy things to do – if you set your mind to it. I always recommend doing all the easy things you can do. Sometimes, because they seem so easy, people overlook them. But it's the easy, simple things that you do every day that make a relationship strong and happy.
When you have the kind of base that is built by countless friendly, kind and playful interactions, then when the inevitable difficult conflicts or misunderstandings come up they are much less daunting because they are exceptions to the overall spirit that you have created between you.
The first is what John Gottman calls "Bids and turning."
When someone makes a bid for your attention, turn toward them – actually, physically, turn toward them; and respond to them.
But here's where a lot of people get stuck. They think, "If I respond, then I have to do what they're asking, and I don't have the time or energy to do what they're asking so I'd rather just try and ignore them, and then maybe they'll go away. Then I won't have to do what they're asking of me and everything will be fine."
Except that when you ignore them and they go away they take something with them: a little piece of the trust and joy and closeness that you both want in the relationship.
Let me clarify something that will make doing this much easier, and much more attractive.
When somebody – your mate, your child, a friend – makes a bid for your attention, turn toward them and acknowledge their request. That's all you have to do to make a better relationship.
You don't have to do what they're asking you to do.
Sure, it's nice if you can, and you want to do that as often as possible; but that's not the most important thing. What's most important is the initial immediate response.
For example, say your wife asks you if you could help her do a chore but you have work that you have to finish, and you can't reasonably take the time right now to help her – or you don't want to take the time right now because you've got enough to do.
You turn toward her and say something like, "I'd like to help, but I have to finish what I'm doing. I'll be done in about an hour and I'd be happy to help you then." Or, "I'm sorry honey; I've got my hands full and I really can't help you now."
Now, she may be disappointed but she won't feel ignored.
Make a point of practicing this for a couple of weeks. Notice when the people you care about ask for your attention. It may be obvious in some cases: "Hey, look at this!" Or it may be subtle: a gentle touch or a gesture that you might easily ignore (if you've been practicing ignoring such things).
As you notice these, physically turn toward the person and respond to them kindly.
And then if what they want your attention for is to show or tell you something they're happy or excited about here's something else to do.
Active Positive Response
There's another thing that you can do, from the work of Shelly Gable. Especially for a romantic relationship, or with your kids, this can literally make the difference between a happy, delightful relationship and a pretty miserable one.
When your mate or your child comes to you with good news, respond to them actively and positively.
"Active" means that you ask them questions about it, engage them in conversation about it and be curious about this great experience they've had.
"Positive" means that you are excited for them, happy for them, supportive of what they've accomplished and optimistic and hopeful for the possibilities.
And what matters is that you do both.
Positive all by itself, without the active part, is actually not that much better than a negative response! If you say something like, "Oh, that's great!" and then turn back to what you were doing without asking anything or engaging about it further, you're going to find that you've lost a great opportunity to build more joy and happiness into your relationship.
A lot of people might think that what really matters is how you respond to the negative things – the hurt, the fear, the pain, the sadness, the grief. But it turns out that's not really all that important. Dealing with negative emotions and helping people when they're in need is much more complicated. It's not always experienced as purely a good thing.
I'm not suggesting that you stop empathizing with people you care about when it comes to issues of loss and sadness and fear, or that you avoid helping people. These are part of being a loving and caring human being. It's just that this is not as important for the resilience, joy and longevity of a relationship as how we deal with the good stuff.
When you respond badly to the good things, you severely undermine the joy and trust in a relationship. When you respond positively and actively, you create a benevolent cycle that energizes both you and the other person, and sets the stage for more and more positive emotions and attitudes between you.
It is this atmosphere of positive emotion, trust, and joy that gives you the strength to weather, and even flourish through, the hard times.
Start at home, and expand out to the other people you care about. Turn toward the people you love, and respond actively and positively to any enthusiasm, optimism and good news. Grow the positive emotions between you and you will broaden and build your resilience and your joy, together.