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Take specific steps to nurture love in marriage

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More American couples take marriage vows in June than in any other month. Most marry expecting their marital love to grow indefinitely.

However, reality for many couples is different. New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years.

In an era of marital instability, how do we keep marital love alive and growing? We can learn much about strengthening our marriages from those whose marriages are doing well.

For example, John Gottman of the University of Washington studied 130 newlywed couples over six years to see what processes contributed most to marital success. Marriages that wound up happy and stable had wives who brought up conflict discussions softly and gently; how husbands brought up conflict was not found to be a significant factor. Happy marriages also had husbands who accepted their wife's influence and who didn't reciprocate even when wives approached a subject in a negative way. The happy couples sent more positive than negative messages (eight compliments for every one criticism), and used positive messages to reduce conflict between them.

Here is an activity that can help couples send these kinds of positive messages of love often. It's called "Caring Days" and has been clinically shown to benefit marriages. Caring Days gets married couples in touch with each other's love expectations, so that those expectations can be met without trying to "mind-read" the other spouse. Here's how to do it.

First, sit down with your spouse and select, discuss and agree on 18 behaviors or actions (nine each) that you would like to receive from your spouse. These actions must be specific (such as, "Tell me you love me at least once a day"), positive (no "Don't do this" or "Stop doing that" stuff), small enough to be done on a daily basis and not be the subject of any recent conflict.

Second, agree to doing five of the actions on the Caring Days list each day, regardless of whether your spouse follows through. Even if your spouse doesn't follow through right away, be patient and persist in doing the actions.

Third, put the list of actions in a conspicuous place, such as on your refrigerator door. This list may have the actions listed on the middle column, with yours and your spouse's name listed at the top of the right and left columns. In your columns, date the actions when they are received. This will help reinforce your actions. Some couples have listed actions like "Go out Friday evening," "Hold my hand when we sit together," "Take my arm when we walk together," "Tell me you love me once each day" and "Give me three hugs each day."

Persist in doing five actions per day for two weeks, so that meeting love expectations begins to be a habit. If your experience is like the hundreds of couples who have tried this, you will likely feel more love for your spouse.

E-MAIL: steve_duncan@byu.edu