The Words of the Stacey Family

Twelve Ways to Improve Your Marriage

Stephen and Barbara Stacey
May 2008

Mr. Stacey is the author of Understanding Marriage: Partners, Friends, Lovers; for more information visit

Over the last few years, there has been exponential growth in the number of programs and books to help couples find deeper satisfaction and love within their relationships. People often ask me, "Can you really teach people to love each other?" My answer is that education for couples has three main aims. First, to help them learn what to expect within their relationship -- that is, that many of the difficulties they go through are normal ones and that many other couples have faced and have found solutions to them.

Second, research finds it is difficult to maintain mutual attraction if there are too many negatives caused by the lack of relationship skills. By learning to enhance relationship skills, couples are able to go for ever longer periods feeling a heartfelt connection before a new challenge comes along. (As John Gottman describes it, successful couples create a 5:1 ratio of positives to negatives. Gottman found it is the negatives, not the absence of positives, that typically destroy love in a relationship.)

Finally, relationship education encourages personal growth; once we have a family we can never allow ourselves to stop developing our ability to relate in more loving and caring ways. The family life cycle asks, even demands, that we approach the development of our relationship skills in the context of a lifetime. The family is a school of love. It is not only the main place where children learn how to relate to parents and siblings but is also the place where couples learn to improve the way they relate to each other and where they learn the art of relating to their children -- hopefully in ever-healthier and more meaningful ways. In essence, the Walt Disneyian view -- they married and lived happily ever after -- is wrong. It is more likely that they spent the first fifteen years with learner stickers on their backs to remind each other that they were beginners in the art of keeping love alive in their relationship and that learning how to be a good partner would take time.

So what does education for couples typically focus on? What kind of topics does it usually cover? What relationship programs focus on varies, but the majority of programs chose a mixture of topics from twelve key issues that seem to form the core of relationship education. Let's imagine a young couple, Anastasia and Bret and think about what they might learn to improve in their relationship over the years.

1. Relationship-related needs:

Anastasia's relationship-related needs differ from Bret's. All voluntary relationships are based on desires, and the better they fulfill each other's needs and desires, the stronger that relationship will usually be. Imagine a boss who knows how to push the right buttons in you so that you feel motivated to do your best work. He fulfills your desires and you fulfill his by doing good work. Bret has needs. His fundamental need might be for the good things he brings to the relationship (perhaps his desire to succeed, his desire to initiate sexual activity, his practicality) to be valued and respected. His second major need might be to bond with Anastasia by doing something positive with her. Anastasia's feminine nature might have quite different needs. She might want Bret to be a partner with her in creating a home, or to be a friend to talk with or to offer her closeness and affection to. If they fulfill each other's needs, they will inspire each other and both will want to strengthen their bond. This is related to how well, as partners, they live for the sake of each other.

2. Respect:

Both seek respect, the foundation for any deep relationship. Bret and Anastasia increase the amount of respect they have for each other in many ways. For example, researchers on respect typically recommend that he try to fulfill her requests more quickly and that she try to start conversations in a more respectful way. Respect also comes in many other forms -- in words, in other modes of behavior and in the way one treats oneself. Respect is the cornerstone of a relationship, and research shows that lack of respect is the number one cause of divorce. In Unificationist terms, this has to do with one's ability to see the unique, divine value of both oneself and one's partner -- to be able to see from Heaven's viewpoint.

3. Gender differences in communication:

Bret and Anastasia can improve their ability relate by learning about gender differences in communication. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was a bestseller for years because it rang true to people's life experiences. The key gender differences in communication are caused both by the structure of brains and the kind of drugs released to give an emotional high. Concerning brain structure, a man's brain has far fewer connections between the left brain (LB) and right brain (RB) than a woman's. The drug that gives him a feeling of being alive, testosterone, is released when he feels he's achieved something. Her main highs come with the release of oxytocin when she feels safe and close. These differences typically lead to four main differences in communicating and relating -- that is, differences in the intensity with which one begins talking about certain issues; in the speed one moves from doing or talking about one thing to doing or talking about another, in how stress is relieved and in how love is perceived. These differences, when not understood, can cause arguments or misunderstandings.

4. Team communication:

Because Anastasia and Bret are a team in such areas as creating a home and raising children, they work together better when they use healthy team communication strategies. They can improve the quality of their relationship by doing such things as finding time each day to touch base, by taking more time to plan for major upcoming events, or by holding regular informal meetings.

5. Enhanced communication strategies:

In their relationship, Bret and Anastasia will discuss their deepest values, hopes and dreams. These are not everyday topics and often involve very sensitive issues, thus they need to be approached and dealt with using enhanced communication strategies that don't harm the relationship. At work, people often have to discuss sensitive issues in a principled manner, but at home, they throw these methods away and use ineffective ones. These principled methods include asking permission to talk, being entirely truthful and using non-attack strategies. If Bret and Anastasia apply these same principles to talking about sensitive topics at home, they are more likely to have a respectful discussion, and their relationship will be both protected and nurturing.

6. Conflict resolution:

When it comes to communicating, Bret and Anastasia will both be happier if they learn to look at the deeper issues behind problems that just don't seem to go away. Most problems only reoccur because the real issue hasn't been uncovered and understood. When they learn to uncover their hidden needs, it's easier to find real, lasting solutions. The key to doing this involves knowing which questions to ask, so that both sides of the story emerge. When all motivations and what is being sought are clearly understood, they can begin seeking a solution both can accept along one of the five typical routes that negotiators use to overcome complex differences of opinion-reward, middle ground, I'll fulfill your needs if you fulfill mine, exchange, and times have changed.

7. Common vision:

When Bret and Anastasia take time to create a vision statement for their relationship, one that describes the core values they want to bring into their home and relationship, they offer the best of themselves and encapsulate it into something that is both a beautiful dream and a practical, substantial act of love. There are also ten key areas in the relationship where a husband and wife might have differences of opinion (for example, children, finances, religious attendance, their respective roles). If they believed from the start that it is important to work hard to solve their key differences of opinion in each area once and for all, they wouldn't waste their precious energy and love on issues that should have been solved long ago.

8. Develop team player skills:

Team player skills are of use within any relationship that has a focus or purpose. Bret and Anastasia could agree to work on those that are essential to maintaining healthy relationship skills like forgiveness, encouraging each other, giving their best, doing their fair share or keeping a positive to negative ratio of at least 5:1. They could also agree that to become great partners they would consistently work on improving other the team player skills -- each choosing one out of the thirty or so team player skills and spending three or more months working on it. For example, Bret felt a need to improve his ability to give his beloved his full attention when she needed to share her difficulties, so with Anastasia's help and positive support he worked on it for four months. Meanwhile, Anastasia, with Bret's positive feedback, sought to develop her ability to start conversations respectfully. Over the next five - ten years of developing various team player skills, both can develop into partners who have the abilities necessary to build an enhanced relationship.

9. Strengthening their commitment muscle:

Bret and Anastasia realized that since there was no social stigma or economic reason to stop them from separating during challenging times, which are part and parcel of a typical lifelong relationship, they needed to develop their own commitment muscle so that it was strong enough to keep their relationship together during those difficult times. They took the approach that their relationship was like an expensive car -- a car that needs regular servicing and to be treated with respect if it was to be even more valuable fifty years later. Thus, they agreed in their early years together to find an older, respected mentor couple to go to for advice in difficult times, to attend relationship seminars every three years, to read together a new educational book on developing as a couple every year and to spend more time with friends, other couples who also see the value of developing that relationship. Among other things, they also learned about the possible negative effects on children of separation and regularly found ways to fondly speak of what they value about each other's contribution to their relationship.

10. Learn what each other's love buttons are:

Basically, there are six ways friends interact, and if Bret and Anastasia are to keep their feeling of love alive, they need discover what type of interaction they both enjoy most and make those interactions happen regularly. As friends, they can spend time talking, doing something together, expressing friendship through touch, doing a chore usually done by the other, giving a gift or creating a surprise for the other, or expressing appreciation. Out of these six methods of interaction, when Anastasia interacts with Bret in those ways he particularly appreciates, he recognizes he has been loved and responds by moving closer to her in his heart. Anastasia might prefer others among these methods of interaction. When they learn to recognize each other's key love buttons and consistently initiate interaction along those lines, they are more likely to maintain their friendship and love.

11. Spend time together nurturing friendship and love:

They could make sure they have some fun time together, share a hobby, or have regular, inspiring dates, even if they have to be home dates because of the children or inexpensive dates because of finances. They could also learn the art of creating great anniversaries to celebrate the lasting, deep love they have for each other.

12. The art of romance:

Finally, Bret and Anastasia could learn how to be especially, profoundly and passionately romantic, leading to moments that are consistently and deeply enjoyable for both of them. For example, Bret could learn to take more time being romantic well before they get into the bedroom. Anastasia could learn to express the most feminine aspects of her nature in the bedroom, using feminine lingerie, perfumes, massage oils or candles. With all the practice they will be getting, the can dream of their sexuality being far more profound in their sixties than in their twenties.


Summarizing these twelve topics is useful. Healthy relationships are built upon the following skills -- one's ability to live for your partner, one's ability to respect both oneself and one's partner (to see from God's viewpoint), the ability to create a team that creates a home, raise children and possibly serve the community, the ability to be friends to each other, and lastly, the art of romancing. From a developmental viewpoint, these are obviously the key skills (live for others, respect, team skills, and friendship) that we should teach our children so they enter into their marriages with all the key relationship skills in place, ready to be matured over time through their love for each other. In Unificationist terms, the development of a child's love and sibling love are important factors in succeeding in conjugal love.

As we've seen, Bret and Anastasia can do many things to improve the quality of their relationship. Knowledge is good, but actually changing oneself and substantially developing one's relationship skills to become a better partner takes time, patience and encouragement. It would be nice to be able to say, "Now I understand; I can do it." But it doesn't usually work like that. It's more like building a house. It's often easier to create a new house from scratch than to restore an old one with its dry rot, poor construction and slanting foundation. By the time we've reached twenty or twenty-five, we've probably developed some poor patterns of behavior that have often been passed down through our families over several generations and are difficult to change. Sometimes our lineage lacks one of the core elements of love that are needed to make us feel whole, thus we grow up and have unfulfilled childhood needs, which have to be fulfilled before we can develop new skills. Sometimes our parents completely lacked one key relationship skill and we have no mental models to call upon. Building those models requires time in which to develop some small mental models that we join to make a complete, well-functioning larger skill.

Sometimes we've grown up in a family where there has been a lot of disrespect, and trying to bring more divine mental attitudes into the relationship takes hard work. Sometimes we face enormous internal resistance. We know what the right thing to do is, but something stops us from doing it. We know it would be good for our relationship to forgive each other more quickly, to date more often, or to hold a regular planning meeting -- but we just don't do it. Because of these and other barriers to growth, partners need to learn to be patient with each other. Healing or rectifying the past takes time.

I've found that some of these habits can be quickly adapted into a relationship, for example Bret and Anastasia can use a cell phone or electronic diary to remind each other that Tuesday night is date night, or that Sunday evening they've agreed to cook together and then hold an informal couple meeting. With other relationship skills, it's best to learn them one at a time. When they encourage each other for all small improvements (just as one encourages a child learning to write), the skill is more likely to become permanent. Then they can both move on to the next skill.

With consistent improvement, patience and forgiveness, it becomes increasingly easier to sustain love over the years, and with fewer negative occurrences there's more energy for positive ones and for the creation of love that both Bret and Anastasia can enjoy. 

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