Secrets of lasting love

Three local experts share their best advice on how to enrich and deepen a marriage

Chris Parker

Chris Parker

Photo By Robert Speer

We’ve all known long-married couples who seem as happy together as newlyweds. What’s their secret?

At a time when so many marriages are collapsing in acrimony and hostility, their warmth turned cold, their love become dislike, what has allowed these couples to grow more deeply in love, to feel their marriage is richer now than ever before?

We turned to three local experts on marriage and love for answers. Two of them are long-established and well-regarded therapists who work with couples, the third a popular pastor who has written a book that touches on the subject at length.

No marriage is perfect. Marriage takes commitment and, at times, real struggle to succeed. In times of trouble, counseling can help, whether it’s pastoral or secular. Knowing that our experts had seen many examples of marriages that had worked through difficulties and come out stronger and happier for it, we asked each of them to answer this question: What is the most valuable advice you can give a couple who want their marriage to become richer and deeper over time?

Honoring differences

Chris Parker

Chris Parker has been a marriage and family therapist in Chico for 25 years. His work with couples is based on Imago Therapy, a method created by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and described in his classic book, How to Get the Love You Want.

Among other things, Imago Therapy teaches couples a new way of communicating. It asks them to listen deeply to each other and confirms this is happening by asking the listener to reflect back to the speaker, in words, exactly what is being said and then to validate it without reacting or becoming defensive. That validation often takes the form of saying something like, “Now that you’ve explained why you became angry, I understand. I would have been angry, too.”

Parker calls this “holding the other’s reality” and “honoring the other’s differences” and contrasts it to the natural but ineffective—and even dangerous—tendency to react defensively when confronted with a partner’s strong feelings.

“It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong,” he says. No two people see things the same way, he explains, and that’s OK. The point is to learn how to accept your partner’s view, to understand why he or she feels that way, and to honor it, even if it challenges your own view. The important thing is not necessarily to reach agreement on everything, but to listen deeply to and respect each other.

Imago Therapy trains people to moderate their feelings and avoid the “spontaneous emotional reactivity,” as Parker puts it, that too often results in defensive outbursts and harsh words that hurt. “You can’t unring that bell,” he says.

Deep communication can happen only when a couple is committed to the relationship, Parker says. “You’ve got to want to be in the relationship for it to be successful and grow,” he says.

And when couples get in a bind, he says, they should seek help. “So many people don’t understand just what’s going on in their relationship,” he explains. Therapy can help them sort it all out and teach them ways of being together that “stem reactivity in the future.”

Maureen Leahy

Photo By Robert Speer

Mindful marriage

Maureen Leahy

Maureen Leahy is a licensed clinical social worker who has been a psychotherapist in Chico for 15 years. Rather than be interviewed, she preferred to write down her thoughts on how best to enrich and deepen a marriage, as follows:

Although I have counseled many couples and families over the years, the story of love and marriage that I know best is my own 23-year marriage to my husband, John.

When I asked John what he thinks has made our marriage last, he jokingly responded, “It’s better than the alternative.” Fortunately for us, it is more than that.

We have built a life together with our wonderful children, Lindy and Annika. We share similar values, we enjoy spending time together, and we support each other’s interests and activities.

I think the most important strategy we have learned that strengthens our relationship is to resolve conflict in a way that brings us closer together rather than pushing us apart.

The most valuable skill I practice is mindfulness, which allows me to be more conscious in my interactions with others. Instead of reacting and becoming defensive when I feel hurt, I stop and breathe and notice how I feel. I remind myself that John and I never mean to hurt each other, but sometimes we do so unintentionally. We are afraid of being hurt, and in trying to protect ourselves we inadvertently hurt each other.

By noticing how I’m feeling, I become more conscious and self-aware instead of reactive. By choosing not to be defensive, I keep the misunderstanding from escalating.

When John and I talk about our hurt feelings later, we try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, with the goal of understanding how the other person feels. We continue listening to each other until we both feel heard and understood.

By communicating in this way, we generally clear up misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. And even though we may not always agree, we almost always understand the other’s perspective. Through this loving, open-hearted communication we nurture and maintain our connection.

Although this may sound simple, it isn’t easy. In order for this to work, we need to create safety in our relationship. How do we do that? We make a conscious choice to step out of the power struggle and the need to be right. We have learned to respect and appreciate each other, including our differences. We are kind and respectful to each other. We take responsibility for our part in the misunderstanding instead of playing the blame game. When we create safety in the relationship, we can lay down our defenses and be vulnerable. In that tender space, we can communicate with a heart-to-heart connection trying to understand and support each other.

John and I have had times of wedded bliss and times where we wondered if we would stay together. Fortunately we are committed to making our marriage work, for our sakes and for our children’s. It hasn’t always been easy, but the hard work has been worth it. As we look forward to celebrating our 26th Valentine’s Day as a couple, we are grateful we still love each other and that we’re together. We know that we are better people because of each other.

Greg Cootsona

Photo By Robert Speer

Making music together

Greg Cootsona

A native Californian, Greg Cootsona has been associate pastor at Bidwell Presbyterian Church since 2002. Before that he served for six years as associate pastor of New York City’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Say Yes to No: Using the Power of No to Create the Best in Life, Work, and Love. He and his wife, Laura, have two daughters.

Cootsona has officiated at many weddings, including two done live on the Today show (one of its producers is a good friend). As he writes in his book, “Every time—because I have the best seat in the house—I ponder the faces of the bride and the groom. Dressed in a beautiful gown and a crisp tuxedo, often with tears rolling down their nervously expectant faces, they look longingly into each other’s eyes. … They realize that the wedding day is unique. At the critical point in the ceremony—their vows—they pledge themselves to each other.”

This, he says, is the moment of commitment—and, he suggests, a moment of passion. Both are central to any successful marriage, and if either is lacking, the marriage is likely to suffer. Commitment without passion can make a marriage “rigid and lifeless,” and passion without commitment “flares up and dies out,” he says.

Marriage, he writes in Say Yes to No, is saying no “to a life of selfish achievements and yes to the good of interdependence.” It begins with saying no to infidelity and includes saying no to the notion that marriage is mere therapy.

Most problems can be solved by putting the other first. “Say no to something you’re demanding. Make a concession. Look to the intentions and commitments behind the presenting problem. Then seek a higher resolution than your own desires.”

Outside of church, Cootsona is a jazz drummer, and he likes to compare marriage to playing music. “I believe in improv,” he says, “and that kind of creativity is based on making a commitment to the group, to the institution.” Substitute “creativity” for “passion,” and you can understand why he considers playing jazz a metaphor for marriage.

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“Great improvisation is built on a pledge to practice drum rudiments, day in and day out, year after year,” he writes in Say Yes to No. “The amazing discovery is not just that drummers can play musically but that out of all this discipline they … develop spontaneity. They begin playing ‘from the heart.’ Improv happens when the spontaneity of the moment and the commitment of hours of practice come together.”

In a marriage, he says, “passionate love is bounded by the nos implicit in the vows to seek each other’s best. In marriage, passion and commitment ultimately play off each other. Those two create a love that lasts. These two halves of love—and the two soul mates coming together—create a rich, beautiful harmony.”