The "master" couples, Gottman says, aren't necessarily aligned on every count. But they hear each other out and treat one another gently. "Disaster" couples, he says, tend to believe the worst about their partners and feel burdened by relationship talk.
"Masters say, 'Talk to me. You don't look very happy,'" he says. "Disasters say, or give a look that says, 'I don't want to deal with this. I don't want to talk. You're too needy.' That's a big mistake.
"Masters scan their social environment for what's going well and say thank you and build a culture of appreciation and respect," Gottman says. "Disasters look for their partner's mistakes and tend to miss the positive things their partner is doing, and read in negativity when it's not there. We've determined in our research that the negative habit of mind is actually a distortion of reality, and the positive habit of mind is much more accurate."
Gottman tells couples to engage in a weekly hourlong "state of the union" talk. "Masters are talking about goals and values and making sure they're on the same page about the big things in life and about what they are all about as people," he says. "'Are you picking the kids up? Did you call the plumber?' is just errand-talk. You need real conversation."
Buzzard counsels husbands, in particular, to write action plans for their marriages. "Guys will often map out business plans or plans for their upcoming fishing trip with their buddies," he says. "I tell them, 'Hey, man, put a plan together for how you're going to date your wife, and fill in your hobbies and other responsibilities around that.'
"It's not enough to say, 'I'm going to start taking better care of my wife and my marriage,'" Buzzard says. "A dream without a plan is worthless. You need to come up with a practical plan and put legs on that dream."
And don't be naive about the challenges ahead, real and hypothetical.
"You have to face your fears, and when you see change ahead, don't hide from it," Sussman says. "'If I lose my job, how is that going to feel for us?' 'How's it going to work when our kid moves back home?' You've got to do some individual soul-searching, and soul-searching as a couple, about how you see the next part of your life unfolding."
Hello, I'm your spouse. It's nice to meet you.
Couples who've been living together for decades often forget to keep each other intimately involved in topics that dive deeper than child-rearing and household upkeep. In "Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great" (Delacorte Press), marriage therapist and University of Michigan research professor Terri L. Orbuch suggests couples spend at least 10 minutes a day getting to know each other. She offers the following questions to get your conversations started:
What was an important turning point in your life?
Do you think you are/were closer to your mom or your dad?
What is the one thing you want to be remembered for?
What is one thing you really want to accomplish in the next two years?
If you were able to work in any other job for a year, what would it be?
What are you most afraid of?
What was the one thing you hated most as a kid?
What age do you feel like inside?