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More to do than saying 'I do': 5 steps to a successful marriage

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Love and marriage

Dan and Dawn Nickerson pose on top of a wedding cake provided by Jayne's Signature Sweets.

Brides and grooms have a monumental task ahead of them in planning for the big day. Wedding venue? Check. Wedding dress? Got it. Photographer? Booked. Cake? Ordered. Caterer? You bet.

But there are other things, more important issues, that shouldn’t be overlooked in the lead up to the wedding. Like how to handle conflict. Or learning the most important part of communication. Or figuring out how not to lose that loving feeling.

Planning a wedding is the easy part. Keeping the relationship on track can be a lot harder.

We asked five relationship experts in Billings their thoughts on how to make a marriage succeed. Here are their answers, broken into key categories:

Find the right person

This might seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes emotions can cloud judgment when it comes to finding the perfect fit in a relationship.

When it comes to choosing a mate, Steve Tobin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, has a simple saying: “Who you marry is who you get.”

Steve Tobin

“It’s a huge decision, and I’ve seen people give less time to who they’re going to marry than what car they’re going to buy.”

— Steve Tobin

professional marriage and family therapist

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to marry someone with the hope you’re going to change them into what you want them to be,” said Tobin, also a licensed professional social worker for more than 30 years and in private practice for 15. “That can lead to a lot of unhappiness and disappointment.”

After so many years in practice, added to the research he’s read, Tobin also has concluded that a relationship stands a better chance if the two people share a similar background both socially and economically. He points to a trio of movies that romanticize the notion of financial opposites attracting: “Pretty Woman,” “My Fair Lady” and even — he smiles — the cartoon “Lady and the Tramp.”

“I’m not going to say never, but those differences may cause serious problems down the road,” Tobin said.

He also suggests long courtships of a minimum of one year or more. The longer you know someone, he said, the better judge you can be as to whether that person is right for you.

“It’s a huge decision, and I’ve seen people give less time to who they’re going to marry than what car they’re going to buy,” Tobin said.

Bob Bakko, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Northwest Counseling, suggests that many people approach marriage on a feeling level rather than a thinking one. They don’t explore their motives for getting married with a clear-eyed view.

Dr. Bob Bakko

“The sign of a good marriage is the people you hang out with. They will help you be a better partner.”

— Bob Bakko

Northwest Counseling

Tom Ferro

“I tell people it’s so much nicer to be part of a family that likes you. If not, be prepared to have conflicts because blood is thicker than water.”

— Tom Ferro

professional counselor in private practice

“Have we really talked about our life goals, where we want to go, how we’re going to do that together?” said Bakko, who’s been in practice for 38 years. “Do we really know each other’s strengths and weaknesses?”

It’s also important to take a good look at the family of your spouse-to-be, said Tom Ferro, a licensed clinical professional counselor who has been in private practice for 28 years. Do they welcome you with open arms, or is there a hesitation because of religious or other differences?

“I tell people it’s so much nicer to be part of a family that likes you,” Ferro said. “If not, be prepared to have conflicts because blood is thicker than water.”

Hone your communication skills

The Rev. Eric Hutch, marriage and family pastor at Harvest Church, boils down communication to one simple concept: active listening.

Eric Hutch

“Listening is where we connect our hearts.”

— Eric Hutch

marriage and family pastor, Harvest Church

“The most important step in communication is setting the goal of understanding my partner, not just telling them my perspective,” said Hutch, who helps train marriage mentors for premarital counseling with couples.

In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to neglect honest-to-goodness heart-to-hearts, he said. Instead, couples tend to do what Hutch calls “opportunistic communication.”

“We take two minutes to communicate and then we’re off to the next thing,” he said. “So there’s no time to listen. Listening is where we connect our hearts.”

Sometimes that requires coaching and practice, Ferro said. Too often as one spouse is talking the other person is mentally formulating a rebuttal, or what Ferro calls “building their case.”

“What we try to teach are those skills you really need to listen to what this person is saying,” he said. “Work on really listening and then reflecting back to them what you think they’re saying.”

Eight times out of 10, the listener cannot totally repeat what the speaker said, Ferro said.

“They only heard the first three words and then, boom, they’re back into defensive mode,” he said. “So we’re breaking bad habits.”

Tobin suggests one other kind of communication to get the marriage off on the right foot: Clearing out all the secrets beforehand.

“A lot of people who come in with marriage problems say, ‘I feel betrayed or lied to’ because they found out something they didn’t know about the partner until after they got married,” he said. “It’s hard to get over that.”

Whatever the secret, it’s going to come out sooner or later. If it’s a deal breaker, Tobin said, “it’s better off knowing about it before you get married than after.”

Learn how to handle conflict

When it comes to dealing with conflict, it’s often a family affair, says Julie Hecker, licensed marriage and family therapist with All Seasons Counseling and Consulting. She has been in private practice for 14 years and worked for agencies before that.

Julie Hecker

“One family might be yellers and another family avoiders. When getting two people together, they’re going to have to learn to meet in the middle.”

— Julie Hecker

All Seasons Counseling and Consulting

“It’s the way we’ve been raised,” she said. “One family might be yellers and another family avoiders. When getting two people together, they’re going to have to learn to meet in the middle.”

Hecker, who has a white board in her office, illustrates the conflict cycle for her clients so they can better understand what’s happening outside the heat of the moment. In the first phase a person might feel annoyed, and that can build up to frustration, anger or even rage, all in two minutes or two days.

The second phase involves a blowup of sorts, Hecker said. It might mean stomping off, slamming the door or name calling. In some cases it can even get physical.

Silence is the hallmark of the third phase. That doesn’t necessarily mean using the silent treatment, she said. It could also mean refusing to talk about what happened.

“Without a problem-solving phase they cycle faster and faster,” Hecker said. “Where it used to be every three to four months, now it’s every week. And the blowup is not just what happened today, but what happened from the start of the relationship.”

Identifying the cycle is the first step in dealing with it, she said.

Before a couple ever gets married, Tobin said, it’s important that they learn how to talk about hard issues. Often, in the early stages of a relationship, all the focus is on what the two have in common and all the ways they love being together.

“The main reason people get divorced is they grow apart because they don’t talk about hard things,” he said. “They kind of avoid that stuff.”

Hutch, who comes from a faith perspective, said two people with connected hearts and a humility that mirrors the attitude of Jesus can help them when conflict arises. He encourages couples to learn to use decision-making tools that can help diffuse tension in an argument.

Love and Marriage

Dan and Dawn Nickerson pose on top of a wedding cake provided by Jayne's Signature Sweets on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Decision making involves both people tossing out ideas and deciding together which one is best. Then they develop next steps and revise them over time, if necessary.

Performing those skills over and over is a little like practicing for a football game, Hutch said. A quarterback who throws a football many times in practice will be able to do the same in the heat of a game. He calls that “muscle memory.”

That same kind of muscle memory can kick in for a couple. If they practice decision making when they’re calm, it will come in handy when emotions heat up.

One tool Ferro suggests couples agree to beforehand is a timeout when emotions run high. They also have to promise to return and talk things out.

Studies have shown that when a person gets angry, the brain is flooded with hormones and chemicals that make it hard to think straight, he said.

“I need a timeout so I can calm down, so I can talk reasonably and rationally,” Ferro said. “It might take an hour or a couple of hours. But you always come back and deal with it.”

Bakko suggests the couple make another early agreement. If communication ever breaks down to the point that listening and empathy disappear from the conversation, — “we call it a rupture” — it’s time to seek counseling.

Keep connecting as a couple

It’s easy to let the fast pace of life (and kids, maybe down the road) get in the way of sustaining emotional and physical intimacy.

For couples at all stages, one thing to figure out is whether you speak the same language, Hecker said. One book she often recommends is “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Smalley. To touch your partner’s heart, you ought to know if he or she especially responds to words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time or physical touch.

Everybody is so busy, Hecker said, that it’s easy to miscommunicate. But if they’re aware of each other’s love language, they have a sort of shorthand that will help them better understand the other person and meet his or her needs.

Once children are in the picture, the husband and wife tend to relate to each other more as mom and dad, Hecker said. It’s natural to focus lots of time and effort on the kids, but it can hurt the marriage.

“I really recommend that they continue to have couple time and that their marriage has to be the center of the family,” she said. “Kids adjust. It’s OK for them to understand that this is mom’s and dad’s time.”

When it comes to sexual intimacy, issues such as alcohol, work stress, depression and past issues of abuse can lead to low desire, Hecker said. Counseling may be needed to sort out sexual difficulties. Hecker also recommends a TED Talk by counselor Michelle Weiner Davis, author of “The Sex-Starved Marriage,” which is posted on Davis’ website,

Ferro also talks about the importance of creating a culture of love and appreciation in the home. If your husband fixes a nice dinner or your wife plants a flower garden, take time to notice it.

“A lot of couples are not very good at letting each other know how much they appreciate that, and then it becomes a culture of expectation,” Ferro said.

Expectations turn into demands, which lead to anger and emotional disconnects. Instead, Ferro said, look for ways to boost your spouse’s self-esteem, both in what you say and what you do.

Focus on faith and finances

These two topics don’t necessarily go together, although they can. But couples who want to succeed need to have serious conversations about both.

Bakko believes that a common faith and a faith community are a crucial foundation for a strong marriage.

“It’s really important to have that commonality to start out with,” he said.

A faith community can help strengthen your relationship, Bakko said.

“The sign of a good marriage is the people you hang out with,” he said. “They will help you be a better partner.”

Hutch, a pastor, naturally sees how critical a like-minded faith is. He sees that in terms of each person’s relationship with Christ, his or her spiritual disciplines and practices.

“Relationships are first rooted spiritually before they’re rooted relationally,” he said. “If you’re in two different camps, it amplifies the conflict and tension in the relationship when certain religious seasons come up.”

Or if one person finds solutions to life’s big problems in their religion and the other one thinks that’s nonsense, it can create tension in difficult times.

“That’s the first lens we like to work through,” Hutch said.

Hecker agrees that couples should explore whether spirituality is important within their marriage. When couples struggle, it can be a time they find strength and solutions in their faith.

“If they don’t share a faith, they have to figure out what it is that is going to help build that foundation,” she said.

As for finances, Hecker calls it a core issue that can quickly cause tension if the couple can’t agree. In the past, couples often shared one bank account. These days, especially as people live together before marriage, they tend to have separate accounts and split up the bills.

“I remind them that oftentimes money equals power,” Hecker said. “Whoever makes the most money or whoever pays the bills or has the checkbook has the power. I encourage them not to get into power struggles over finances.”

When it comes to making financial decisions, Hecker suggests the couple choose a dollar amount when making purchases, whether it’s $50 or $500, and any purchase over that amount is a joint decision. They also should choose a regular time to sit down and talk about their money situation and their financial goals.

Bakko often recommends couples take financial education classes to learn how best to handle their money together.

Ferro also tells couples to talk about how they manage their money and how they handle debt. There also should be full disclosure about debt they already owe, before they ever step into their wedding ceremonies and say “I do.”

“We do have some discussions about that,” he said. “That’s pretty important.”


General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.