Affection in a Marriage: Why It Matters and How to Build It

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" by John Gottman and Nan Silver. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is the expression of affection so important in a marriage? How do you communicate affection toward your spouse?

Fostering and communicating affection is essential for a happy and long-lasting marriage. This means deliberately focusing on your partner’s positive attributes and then expressing any loving feelings that arise.

Here are some tips on how to cultivate and communicate affection in a marriage.

Foster and Communicate Affection

According to John Gottman and Nan Silver, the authors of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, fostering and communicating affection in a marriage is essential for two reasons. First, the more you pay attention to your partner’s positive qualities, the more likely you are to respect them—and the less likely you are to find them contemptible. (We’ll discuss why contempt is so dangerous to marriage later.) Second, if your marriage is in trouble, optimistically seeking out your partner’s positive qualities helps you gain a more authentic picture of your marriage. Researchers have found that unhappy couples regularly overlook positive exchanges they have with their partner—which erodes their marital satisfaction

Gottman and Silver suggest two methods of fostering and communicating affection toward your partner. First, spend a few hours discussing the history of your partnership—such as the details of your first dates or why you chose to get married. By doing so, you’ll unearth positive feelings about your partner that you may have forgotten. This is particularly important if your relationship is currently rocky: Even if you struggle to express affection toward each other now, as long as you can speak fondly of your past, your marriage has not been totally permeated by negativity, and it still has a shot.

(Shortform note: If your relationship is in trouble, you might react negatively to the history of your partnership—like your first dates or why you chose to get married—even if you’re able to reminisce fondly about it. Psychologists explain that this may happen because remembering how happy you used to be makes you sad. You may be able to prevent some of this sadness by creating rules about how you’ll talk about your history before actually doing so; for example, you might agree to take a break if someone becomes overly critical.)  

Second, practice gratitude toward your partner. Each day, look for things your partner does that are worthy of gratitude—then express your gratitude to them in that moment. For example, if your spouse joins you on your evening walk despite the cold weather, say, “Thank you for coming with me on my walk.” 

(Shortform note: When expressing gratitude, emphasize how your partner has added to your life. One study suggests that this improves how positively your partner feels about you and your relationship, but acknowledging what your partner gave up for you doesn’t have the same effect. For example, your partner will feel more appreciated if you say, “Thanks for walking with me; I love your company,” rather than, “Thanks for walking with me even though you’d rather play video games.”)

Affection in a Marriage: Why It Matters and How to Build It

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  • Why becoming genuine friends with your spouse is essential
  • Four principles for improving your marital friendship
  • The three warning signs that your marriage is in trouble

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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