I asked Silicon Valley relationship experts who have been married for decades for their 3 best pieces of relationship advice

Courtesy of The Couples InstituteKnow the ‘why.’ Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader are the co-founders of The Couples Institute.
  • Marriage can be hard, but couples therapists have tips to make it easier.
  • Peter Pearson, PhD, and Ellyn Bader, PhD, run The Couples Institute in California. They have been married to each other for decades.
  • I spoke to Pearson and Bader and learned some of the best strategies they use, both in their practice and in their own relationship.
  • Those strategies include: choose your decision-making strategy, know the “why,” and listen with curiosity.
  • This is the first instalment of Relationships 101, a series which aims to help us all be happier and healthier in love – and to stop fighting over who should take out the trash.

Last November, I got married.

In the months leading up to the wedding, I was mostly consumed with floral arrangements, and invitation fonts, and shoes that wouldn’t cause me to trip while walking down the aisle. Now that those details are behind me (whew!), I’m on a new quest: Searching for the best marriage advice I can find.

To that end, I recently interviewed a series of relationship experts who are married… to each other. I asked them about the strategies they not only preach, but also practice behind closed doors.

Two of my most fascinating interviewees were Peter Pearson, PhD and Ellyn Bader, PhD, who run the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California, and work with many entrepreneur couples in Silicon Valley. Pearson and Bader have seen it all, and they have come up with creative strategies to help resolve conflict, both in their clients’ marriages and in their own.

Three insights from the interview stood out to me:

1. Before you do any big project, decide which of 3 decision-making strategies you’ll use

Bader shared a technique she and Pearson teach many of the couples they see: Decide in advance of a big undertaking (like a home renovation) which of three decision-making strategies you’re going to use.

a) unilateral

b) equilateral

c) 51/49%

Unilateral means one partner gets to make the decision and the partners don’t have to agree. Equilateral means each partner has an equal say, and they’re “willing to hash it out and stay with it until they both agree.”

51/49% is the most interesting, and often the most effective, Bader said. The partner with 51% of the say gets to make the final decision, but the partner with 49% trusts that the 51% partner will take into account what they want.

In the example of home renovations – which, by the way, can be a huge source of relationship conflict – it makes sense for the 51% partner to do more of the work. For example, they might be the one to choose the sinks and the colour palette.

“They can solicit input, but they don’t have to get into the conflictual discussions,” Bader said. “It makes things go a whole lot easier smoother and it supports that kind of interdependency of ‘OK, I’m going to trust you and rely on you and let you carry the load for this project.'”

2. Know the ‘why’ in your relationship

Pearson and Bader have different feelings about clutter: Pearson doesn’t mind it; Bader can’t stand it.

The only way to reach an agreement about the level of clutter that’s acceptable in the house, Pearson said, is to figure out and keep in mind the “why.”

“Why would I be interested in putting forth the effort of less clutter? Why would Ellyn be interested in relaxing her standards a bit?” Pearson said. “We need a bigger picture.”

In the case of any disagreement, the question that both partners should be asking themselves is, “How does changing this dynamic, this problem, improving this area fit into a bigger picture of what we want to create in our marriage?”

The “why” varies from couple to couple, Pearson said. It’s about what you want to create more of as a twosome, whether that’s peace, happiness, or personal fulfillment.

3. Listen to your partner with curiosity

Pearson admitted this tip can be hard to implement – even for people who are trained in the science of relationships (ahem).

Let’s go back to the clutter example. Instead of lashing out and asking Pearson, “Why are you such a slob?” Bader might say, “It seems to me you have a pretty relaxed standard around clutter,” and then ask a question like, “In your family of origin, how did they deal with clutter?”

“That requires a lot of emotional restraint, a lot of emotional editing, a lot of putting your ego out of the way,” Pearson said. But the end result is that, instead of getting into a major blow-out, you actually have a productive conversation.

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