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Want a Happy Marriage? Be Nice, Don't Nitpick

True Compatibility Doesn't Exist, so Shrug off Little Conflicts
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WebMD Feature

Thermostat settings. Dirty socks. Toothpaste caps. Our little habits make our spouses crazy. But no two people are ever truly compatible, so quit nitpicking each other, relationship experts advise. Save the battles for the big issues -- and you'll have a happy marriage.

Susan Boon, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, teaches classes in interpersonal relationships. A few years ago, she picked up the book, Seven Principles for Making Marriages Work, by John Gottman, MD, psychologist, relationship researcher for 30 years, and founder of The Gottman Institute in Seattle. Ever since discovering the book, Boon has recommended it to her students.

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Secrets of a Happy Marriage

Long-lasting, happy marriages have more than great communication, Boon says. "Dr. Gottman brings up something no one ever talks about -- that irreconcilable differences are normal, that you just have to come to terms with them, not try to resolve the unresolvable. On some level, that should have been obvious, but it hasn't been," she tells WebMD.

Most marriage therapists focus on "active listening," which involves paraphrasing, validating, affirming your spouse's feedback, says Boon. "That's all well and good and may help you get through some conflicts in a less destructive way. But, as Dr. Gottman puts it, 'you're asking people to do Olympic-style gymnastics when they can hardly crawl.' Many people will fail at those techniques. Research indicates that most people are dissatisfied with the outcome of marital therapy, that the problems come back."

In happy marriages, Boon points out, couples don't do any of that!

Instead, you must be nice to your partner, research shows. Make small gestures, but make them often. "The little things matter," says Boon. "What a happy marriage is based on is deep friendship, knowing each other well, having mutual respect, knowing when it makes sense to try to work out an issue, when it is not solvable. Many kinds of issues simply aren't solvable."

Learn how to identify issues that must be resolved, that can be "fruitfully discussed," she notes. "Learn to live with the rest. Just put up with it. All you do is waste your breath and get angry over these things that can't be changed. You're better off not trying to change them. Work around them. Commit to staying together, even though this is something you don't like."

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