A Few Great Ways to Save Your Marriage

If spouses bond over the great stories in their life together, there's no telling how much happier they'll be

My wife and I like to talk about our first kiss.

The first time I kissed her, it was still common for people to rent videotapes to watch movies. We had rented and watched “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second installment in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. We were in her parents’ home that evening in Eugene, Oregon, taking an 18-hour leave from our summer jobs on staff at Big Lake Youth Camp. That’s where we first met and had our first date.

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By the time the movie ended, my wife (who was not yet my wife) was lying down with her head on a pillow. When I sat up and looked at her, I felt this sudden urge to kiss her on the lips — so I did.

Tami recalls being stunned and pleasantly surprised. She didn’t have a chance to return my kiss — not then. That happened a week later. But it was one of many positive firsts in our relationship that have been worth remembering during our years together.

What we remember and the stories we tell about our relationship can affect the happiness and survival of our marriage. Couples who put a positive spin on their history are more likely to be happy. Those who emphasize the negative tone of their memories are more likely to be dissatisfied — and wind up divorced. This is one of the findings of marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, who has studied married couples for over four decades. He writes about this particular finding in his best-selling book, “What Makes Love Last?”

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Our brains store two kinds of memories, explains Gottman: explicit and implicit. An explicit memory requires conscious thought, such as remembering what we had for dinner last night, or where we went on our honeymoon. Implicit memory tends to be subconscious and allows us to do things by rote, such as taking the same route to work each day, or tying a shoe. Implicit memories also influence what details we focus on in our explicit memory — and how we make sense out of those memories.

As our implicit memory accumulates experiences, it reorganizes our explicit memories to align with how we currently experience our world. So the memories we recall about our past can change over time, as our experience colors our perspective.

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This change in recall explains why, during their courtship, two people might have considered each other’s odd habits as cute — and five years later those same habits drive them both crazy. During their courtship, they were crazy about each other. They loved how they felt when they were together. Five years later, they experience each other as nagging or critical.

Being in each other’s presence feels like an intrusion of their personal space.

Related: Be Happier in Your Marriage

Many couples get stuck in a negative storyline. But if you can still recall positive memories of your history with your spouse, you can nurture the fondness you feel toward each other and strengthen your bond. If your relationship has kept a positive storyline alive, you can still add more strength to your bond. Recalling your positive experiences together nurtures fondness for each other, cultivates friendship, and adds to the love couples feel for each other. One way to do that is to take some trips down memory lane, reminiscing with each other about some of your enjoyable firsts.

Review this list of firsts with your spouse to prime the pump and get the memories flowing:

  • the first time you saw each other
  • the first time you met
  • your first date
  • the first time you realized you liked each other
  • the first time you held hands
  • the first time you kissed each other
  • the first time you realized you were in love
  • the first time you made love
  • the first time you made a home together

As you review this list, it’s likely you’ll think of other first times. The magic is in recalling the positive details, remembering the warm feelings you stirred up in each other — and knowing that you experienced the events together.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book, “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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