First published in The Banner, December 2002

Early in our marriage my husband and I attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. Perhaps you’ve heard of these weekends. Participants listen as leader couples give instructive, revealing presentations on various aspects of their own marriages. Later in the privacy of hotel rooms, participants dialogue about their own marriages.

Marital Friendship

My husband was not the least bit interested in going when I first brought up the idea of the conference, but he went anyway. Though he did not take off his watch as we were instructed to do, and though I was uptight about both his attitude and the watch, it turned out to be a fine weekend.

What sticks in my mind about that weekend is a statement by the leaders: “This weekend is to help good marriages become better.” Since then I’ve puzzled about what, exactly, makes for good marriages. And so, perhaps, have you. John Gottman, a researcher and marital therapist from the University of Washington, has for many years been studying what he calls the “Masters and Disasters” of marriage. He describes three features that good marriages have in common. I’d like to describe those features for you and show what they might look like in a typical Banner reader’s marriage.

Marital Friendship: Cognitive Room

Happily married couples assign a lot of brain time and energy to their spouses and the marriage in general. Gottman calls this “cognitive room.” Spouses who devote cognitive room to each other feel as if they really know each other. He concentrates on her daily concerns like the stress she is feeling about work and her parents’ health; she knows who the main characters in his life are and is curious about how they interact with him. Spouses who have cognitive room for each other know more than just facts about each other; they understand and empathize with each other’s emotional world. They feel for each other’s dreams and aspirations. They want to know the latest. If all she knows about her husband’s goals dates back to his graduate-school days, several years ago, she isn’t devoting much cognitive room to him.

For many married people, making cognitive room for your spouse comes easily. But some people don’t have a clue. That isn’t necessarily because they’re malevolent. Many spouses are willing to work at making cognitive room once they understand how good this sort of space is for marriage.

Marital Friendship: Fondness and Admiration

In good marriages the partners bathe each other in tubfuls of respect and appreciation. Gottman notes that in good marriages there is a ratio of about five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Here’s where flowers and surprises and hand holding and date nights come in. (By the way, did you know that many men like surprises and flowers too?) But here is also where your gushing over his accomplishments, her handiness with household repairs, his insightful parenting, her intelligence, and his generosity are very important.

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Marital Friendship: Turning Toward bids

In good marriages spouses constantly bid for the other’s attention and affection. For example, when he remarks, “Hey, honey, there’s a goldfinch at the feeder,” he’s trying to engage his spouse by sharing an observation and a bit of his inner life with her–making a bid for attention and connection.

Bids may be verbal or nonverbal, sexual or not, direct or indirect. If you are so engrossed in reading your morning paper that you don’t acknowledge your husband’s comment about the goldfinch, you are turning away from his bid. If, on the other hand, you put your paper down and respond with interest, you are turning toward his bid. Healthy marriages are crowded with turning toward bids. Because bids are frequently subtle, turning away from bids is often unintentional. However, striving to be mindful of the importance of making and turning toward bids pays off handsomely for marriages.

Positive Sentiment Override

So good marriages are full of cognitive space, many acts of fondness and admiration, and plenty of turning toward bids. And when spouses actually work at these things, the behaviors become rewards in themselves.

Gottman defines one of the most important rewards as “positive sentiment override.” Sounds technical, but the idea is really pretty simple. Positive sentiment override is an emotional bank account, held in common by the marriage partners, that has a healthy, positive balance. The positive balance allows the marriage to cope with stress, conflict, disappointment, and other negative influences. Positive sentiment override is like a car’s shock absorbers; it smoothes out the bumps every marriage must endure, while not excusing or ignoring them.

Just an Ordinary Evening…

So what does this all look like? Let me introduce you to “Joe and Mary” as they, over the course of an evening, deal bit by bit with normal workday stress through personal interaction that contributes to positive sentiment override for their marriage – and provides some real relief after a tough day.

Mary begins the evening absentmindedly engaged with mundane, end-of-day chores. Naturally, a good part of her head is still focused on her workday problems. She’s devoting cognitive room to work. She casually mentions to Joe that she’d like to talk after the kids are in bed. Mary is making a bid for emotional support.

After supper Joe takes over Mary’s regular habit of dropping a load of laundry into the washing machine and then checks on the kids’ homework. Joe is also making bids for emotional connection. Mary brings Joe a cup of coffee, unbidden. She is turning toward his bids. He catches her eye and says “thank you” in a tone that tells her he really appreciates her thoughtfulness. He is turning toward Mary.

Later Mary keeps the kids quiet while Joe is on the phone. She isn’t particularly intentional about that bid, it just happens. Joe’s casual thank you, likewise, isn’t a conscious turning toward Mary. Later though, when Joe deliberately turns away from his computer and comes looking for Mary, he is consciously making cognitive room in his head for her and their marriage. Mary shares with Joe all that happened at work that day. She is responding to Joe’s request to update his cognitive room about her. As Joe hears Mary’s story, he reassures her that she handled work remarkably well, given the complicated circumstances. Mary notes the genuine affection and admiration in his voice. “Oh, Joe, I wish you were my boss!” she responds gratefully.

Together Mary and Joe have added significantly to the positive sentiment override in their marriage. The positive sentiment override is actually great enough for Joe to overlook Mary’s sharp remark about his nagging. And Mary’s positive sentiment override plays a large part in her picking up after Joe without a thought, even though she railed at him just this past weekend to stop dropping his clothes on the floor.

Joe and Mary’s evening is not the stuff of an exciting Hollywood movie, but it is the stuff of a good marriage. They have conflicts too, of course, and sometimes the conflicts are nasty. Positive sentiment override, however, gives them the space they need to continue tackling those conflicts in good faith. Building on countless boring evenings such as the one described, Joe and Mary are not likely to turn from masters into disasters of marriage.

The following day work hasn’t changed much for Mary, but the memory of Joe’s comments linger, and her day — though tough — is bearable. She has a wonderful spouse to return home to later. And Joe — he’s not keen on attending that Marriage Encounter weekend Mary has signed them up for, but he’ll give it a whirl.