"Listen to each other with an open mind and understand the other person, avoiding any unnecessary argument. The point is not to win an argument but to solve the problem" - Sailaja Menon Image Credit: Jupiter Images

They say marriages are made in heaven. If it lasts, it's by God's grace. If it doesn't, it's because of me. Yes, not "you" but "me". People nowadays forget who "me" really is. At the same time, if it's all about "me", there would be no "us", which is really what is essential in making any relationship, and not just marriage, work.

Unwind spoke to Sailaja Menon, a psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre who works as a marriage counsellor, to tell us how the "me" can be changed to "us" in a marriage.

What do you think makes for a happy married life?

What one needs to focus on is respect for each other's opinion. Both should listen to each other with an open mind and understand the other person, avoiding any unnecessary argument. The point is not to win an argument but to solve the problem. Discussing is a good way and this also gives you the chance to explain yourself if you feel you have been misunderstood. And one should always forgive.

What advice do you give couples that come to you at an earlier stage (less than two years) and those that come at a later stage (say 15-20 years) of marriage?

Regardless of the number of years one has been in a marriage, the key factors are to understand the reasons to be in therapy and the willingness to foster a stronger commitment in the relationship. We advise couples to improve communication; respect each other's needs; and take ownership and responsibility for issues affecting the relationship. Also, they need to be ready to compromise and express appreciation.

What should couples think about and ask each other before marriage?

They should understand their level of tolerance, which is essential in making a marriage work. It is important to understand it is you and how you treat your partner that makes a marriage happy. Marriage requires maintenance and, therefore, a lot of effort from both.

Do you think trends are changing with respect to break-ups?

Socio-economic changes are probably the greatest factors influencing the trend. People are now more aware of issues and women are no longer secondary citizens who will tolerate abusive behaviour or marital problems. Financial independence has led to an increase in materialistic demands and can sometimes cause severe stress in a relationship. The emphasis on an "individualistic" perspective rather than on a "partnership" is another reason. Incompatibility, especially in a marriage that takes place under family pressure, where you don't really relate to your partner, is another factor.

When do you advise separation?

It is not up to the therapist to recommend separation. It is the decision of the couple. The therapist's role is to process the couple's emotions and thoughts and guide them towards making the right decision. We encourage the couple to ask themselves the following questions before they take a decision:

  • Do you have positive thoughts about your spouse?
  • Have you ever made a commitment to get through the good and the bad together?
  • Have you tried to share your lives cooperatively?
  • Have you made an attempt at negotiating any difference of opinion you may have had?
  • Does your partner come before everyone else — a sign that you are taking the responsibility of your partner?
  • Have you spent enough time together, focusing on your relationship and on each other?
  • Do you validate your partner? Do you listen to him/her without interrupting? Do you reflect your understanding of what he/she has shared? Do you accept and acknowledge how he/she feels?
  • Do you avoid criticising, coercing or judging your partner?
  • Do you avoid stating things from the position of what you don't want?
  • Do you stay focused, respectful and committed to your partner's needs?
  • Do you consider goals, interests and friendships both as an individual and a couple?
  • Have you made an attempt to work on making decisions that are acceptable to both the parties?

How can the family (in-laws, children) contribute in maintaining a healthy marital relationship?

The family can be a wonderful support system and a strong anchor as far as maintaining relationships goes. They can be a "counselling forum" for a couple. However, it is also important to be cautious, because in times when the family is the reason for the break-up, continuing to pursue their support and engaging in discussions with them could aggravate the situation. Seeking marital therapy at such times is a good idea.

How to avoid arguments

  •  Avoid talking in riddles. Say what you mean and say it respectfully.
  •  Don't talk to your spouse in a rude, disparaging way.
  •  Don't criticise your spouse in front of others.
  •  Don't let anger cloud your judgment about the proper way to speak to and treat your spouse.
  • Don't start arguments based on events that happened a long time back.
  • Don't assume your spouse is personally attacking you just because he or she disagrees with you.

Coping with a break-up

Dr Melanie Schlatter, health psychologist of Well Woman Clinic, Dubai, explains the psychological and physical effects of a break-up:

"The ending of a relationship can be fraught with stress, depression and issues such as low self-esteem or loss of confidence. These may instigate physiological instability as well.

"For instance, these can make an impact on the immune system, as our brain tries to deal with overwhelming thoughts and emotions, to the detriment of our overall quality of life and the ability to function advantageously.

"Cortisol, a stress hormone, floods the body during stressful times and research shows a link between cortisol and increased susceptibility to illness. Besides, people complain of digestive disorder, headache, muscle ache, fatigue and symptoms of anxiety — such as sleeping difficulties, chest pain, rapid heartbeat and breathlessness.

"Secondary effects arise when the break-up causes people to overlook selfcare routines and pursue unhealthy or ‘quick-fix' feel-good solutions, which lead to further physiological and psychological burden.

"Seek social support so that the affected parties are not alone. Feeling emotionally supported through the labile process will help improve their perception of their ability to cope. This will subsequently affect the brain and the body's physical response — often lessening the strength of the emotive signals to dampen the subsequent physical and behavioural responses.

It is also imperative that the individuals do whatever they can to keep their mind and body healthy. This will help re-establish a sense of control and also of individuality, which are often lost."

How to build a strong relationship

Sailaja Menon lists the mistakes people should avoid to maintain a healthy relationship:

  • Inability to communicate well: Communication is the key to a strong relationship. Effective communication needs you to be a good listener. Listen without being judgmental, focus on what your partner is saying and express your feelings in a positive way.
  • Not making time for each other: Part of being able to communicate effectively is making time for meaningful conversations in a distraction-free setting.
  • Skewed judgment: Don't expect that the two of you will agree on everything. An important part of resolving conflicts is being respectful of your partner's feelings, even when you are arguing. Let your partner know you value what he or she is saying, even if you don't agree. Try to avoid criticising, ridiculing, dismissing or rejecting what your partner is saying. If you're feeling frustrated and feel you are losing your temper, take time out from the conversation and agree to resume it later. If you feel that you may physically hurt your partner, walk away and seek help immediately.
  • Lack of commitment in the relationship: Make your relationship a priority. A relationship is a work in progress. It needs attention. No matter how busy you are, spend quality time together. Celebrate each other's successes and support each other during trying times.
  • Breakdown in appreciation: Expressing appreciation for each other is an important ingredient for a successful marriage.
  • Lack of a sense of humour: Laugh often with your partner and be willing to laugh at yourself. It can relieve stress and tension.
  • Inability to compromise: Compromise is important in any relationship but it's especially important in marriage. If you disagree on an issue, discuss the problem calmly, allow each person to explain his or her point of view and look for ways to reach a solution acceptable to both.
  • Inability to forgive: There may be times when your partner makes a mistake or says or does something hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally. If you bring up past hurts, it will be difficult to build a loving relationship.
  • Taking each other for granted: Relationships are often romantic in the beginning but as time passes and couples become distracted by other things — work, children, bills, housework — they often take each other for granted.
  • Lack of individuality in the relationship: It's normal for couples to have different hobbies, interests and friends. But while it's important to spend quality time with each other, it's equally important to spend time alone or with each other's friends. Giving each other the space and freedom an individual needs will enrich and strengthen the bond of marriage.