Ask A Counselor: How do we keep our marriage strong in strange circumstances?

holding hands

Reader Question:

How do we practically care for our marriage and stay connected when we are living in the rural bush in the middle of Africa? …very little privacy, no babysitter, no places to go for a “date”, homeschooling kids, daily life already takes so much energy, not a lot of things to do together that we used to enjoy in our life in our passport country…struggling with this one right now, especially as we are going through transition.

I think at least part of the answer to this lies in understanding what really makes marriages healthy, happy, and long-lasting.  Because–and I think we all know this–it’s not just going on dates that makes marriage work.

The habits of life, like dating, are just the container for what really matters, the actual contents, of the marriage.

Sometimes our routines of life in our home countries, our elaborate and enjoyable containers, disguise the fact that there’s not much content in our relationship.  And then we move overseas and subject a fragile relationship to a lot of stress, and then the cracks start to show.

This doesn’t mean your marriage is over.  It just means you have to work on the contents.

So the question becomes:

What are the actual contents of a successful marriage?

Let me tell you about the research of Dr. John Gottman.  Dr. Gottman is the pre-eminent relationship expert on earth today.  He’s studied literally thousands of couples to see what successful, happy couples do differently from couples who split up (or who stay together miserably, which is a life goal of zero people I know).

He’s narrowed it down to seven major behaviors which he writes about in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.   Here are Gottman’s seven principles:

  • Principle 1: Enhance your love maps (know your partner’s world, internal and external)
  • Principle 2: Nurture your fondness and admiration (like the person you’re married to!)
  • Principle 3: Turn toward each other instead of away (bear each other’s emotional burdens)
  • Principle 4: Let your partner influence you (both partners are heard and valued)
  • Principle 5: Solve your solvable problems (not all problems will be solvable; fix what you can)
  • Principle 6: Overcome gridlock (be willing to make serious change as needed)
  • Principle 7: Create shared meaning (have a life that matters to both of you)

The book has quizzes and suggestions all along the way, and real guidance for solving problems and getting past gridlock.  If you only ever read one marriage book, make it this one!

During the course of his research, Gottman also got pretty good at noticing what makes marriages crash and burn.  He calls those things The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and they’re well worth knowing about.  I would say, if you find yourself doing these things regularly, you’re in need of a marriage therapist.  Now.

That’s the good, serious, long-term best answer I can give you:  get past the “dating container” that’s previously held your relationship, and make time to dig deeply into those critical contents that are going to nurture your relationship long-term.  

Also, educate yourself about the dangerous relationship habits that signal serious problems in a marriage, like the Four Horsemen.


Because, like Andy said earlier this month, your marriage will make or break you overseas.

But I also have a fun answer for you.  I ran across an article in the New York Times, called To Fall In Love with Anyone, Do This.

This is based out of research by psychologist Arthur Aron, who says that “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure.”

Aron’s research involved bringing couples—strangers to each other–into a research lab.  For 45 minutes, the research subjects would ask a list of 36 questions to one another.  Once the subjects had asked each other all the questions (and answered them!), then they’d gaze into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.  People reported that at the end of the experiment, they felt as close to the stranger in the lab as they did to their family and closest friends.

Now, Aron says that “the goal of our procedure was to develop a temporary feeling of closeness, not an actual ongoing relationship.”  However, one of the couples who met in the lab married a year later, and so the legendary status of this list of questions was born!

You’ve already got an actual, ongoing relationship, so I just wonder what it would be like if you tried the same list of questions in that context?

I don’t think it would hurt, and it seems like the questions might fit with several of Gottman’s principles like shared love maps, turning toward, and shared meaning.  #22 might even help with fondness and admiration.  Who knows?  It’s just an experiment!  Try it and see!

Here are Aron’s 36 original questions.

Set I

  1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
  4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
  5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
  7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
  8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Set II

  1. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
  2. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  3. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  4. What do you value most in a friendship?
  5. What is your most treasured memory?
  6. What is your most terrible memory?
  7. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
  8. What does friendship mean to you?
  9. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
  10. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
  11. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
  12. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?


  1. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling … “
  2. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share … “
  3. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
  4. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
  5. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
  6. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  7. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
  8. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
  9. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  10. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
  11. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
  12. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Once you’ve asked and answered all the questions, don’t forget to gaze into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes.

And, for good measure, there’s one more Gottman technique:  the six-second kiss!

Give all that a try, and let me know what you think!

Photo Credit (changes made)
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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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