There is a lot of talk among marriage counselors about the 4 A’s that can spell doom for marriages. These “big four” are abuse, addictions, adultery, and abandonment. There is another set of four A’s, though. This second set is much more positive and recommended for every marriage. They are appreciation, apology, attention, and affection.
Appreciation. When couples come to see me for their first session, they often want to know what they can immediately start doing to move their marriage towards a more positive place. This is also true for individuals who come in hoping their spouse will eventually join them for couples counseling. My first suggestion is “appreciate your partner more.” I say this because, a lot of times, spouses can become very focused on the negative things their partner does, or get hung up on the things their spouse doesn’t do, and loose sight of what the other person is doing right.
Appreciation means saying, “Thank you,” when your spouse does something nice or thoughtful. It also means stating your gratitude when your spouse does something you think they should have been doing for months or that you think is just common courtesy. Appreciation is for when your husband brings you flowers and for when he puts his socks in the hamper. It is for when your wife lets you pick the radio station in the car or offers to drive so you can nap or enjoy the scenery, and when she hurries in the shower so you’ll have some hot water. It is for when the dishes get put away or the trash gets taken out or the kids are given a bath or when you are surprised by a romantic dinner. Appreciation is for big things but is just as much for the little every day things.
Appreciation is most effective when it is specific. That is, when it is expressed in reference to specific behaviors you observed and liked. “I really liked the way you took time to look at Katie’s drawings, even though you were in a hurry to get out the door on time. I really appreciate it when you give our kids attention like that.” Or, “I really appreciate the way you didn’t snap back at me last night when I was cranky. Thank you for that. It means a lot to me.”
You can give appreciations in person, over the phone, or by text or email or note. Just remember to notice, and comment on, what your spouse does “right” rather than just focusing on, or complaining about, the things he or she does “wrong.”
Apologies. This seems simple. When you know you did something wrong or said something hurtful, you go to the person you wronged or offended and say, “I’m sorry.” For many people, this is much easier said than done, though. We want to explain or defend ourselves, rationalize our actions or words, make excuses, blame the other person, or anything else but take responsibility. It is very humbling to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”
Apologies have to be sincere. You can’t say you’re sorry for shouting something hurtful when you’re angry and then turn around and do the same thing next time you’re angry. If you keep apologizing for a certain behavior (swearing, drinking too much, not putting the lid back on the toothpaste), but continue engaging in that behavior over and over, the apology means nothing. It is just a way for you to try and clear your conscience but it holds no weight in your partner’s heart or mind. They know you are just saying words of regret out of a sense of obligation or habit.
Apologies are effective when your partner feels that you really know you made a mistake and that you really will do your best not to let something similar happen again. If necessary, it means letting them know you have a plan to take action to minimize the chances of repeating the same behavior. This may include taking a time out when angry, getting up five minutes earlier so you can pick up a little after yourself before leaving for work, or even going to counseling or seeking other outside help if you have a problem you can’t seem to manage on your own.
Apologies don’t include the word “but,” or anything similar. If you want to help your spouse understand what lead to whatever you said or did, that can come later. Otherwise, whether you mean it to or not, it will seem like you are trying to explain or rationalize your words or actions. Say you are sorry, name the behavior you are apologizing for, and humbly state that you know you were wrong and hope the other person will forgive you. It may also be helpful to state that you know your words or actions were hurtful or upsetting so your partner knows you are trying to be in tune with how he/she is feeling.
Attention. Paying attention means being aware and observant in your marriage. It means really “showing up” not just phoning in your participation or physically being present while being mentally somewhere else.
Paying attention or giving attention means your spouse gets pieces of your time and energy throughout the day. This is about noticing what your spouse is wearing, being interested in his/her day, and knowing the things that are important to him/her. Paying attention means remembering to ask about that big work project or stressful situation with colleagues. It means calling just to say “Hi, I was thinking about you,” or saying, “You look nice in that sweater.”
Paying attention also means looking at your spouse when he/she is talking to you and being aware enough to say, “You look angry/worried/upset. What’s up?” It means remembering anniversaries and birthdays and other dates that are important to your spouse. It means setting aside time to focus on your spouse and your relationship. Time should be set aside each week to really talk, go to dinner, or engage in an activity that will allow you to focus on your spouse and nurturing the friendship and romance. This is very important for every couple. But paying attention to your spouse can’t just happen during these “designated” times. It also must be done in small ways every day.
Affection. Affection means touch. This does not just mean sex. It does not just mean “making a move” on your spouse or even being flirty, though touch is very important for romance and sexual intimacy.
It means small gestures of physical contact throughout the day. It means brushing your spouse’s arm when you walk by, a light touch on the back or shoulder, reaching over to take your spouse’s hand while riding in the car, or a playful poke or swat. It means offering a hug when your spouse gets home from a long day at work, rubbing his/her feet, or snuggling on the couch while watching TV.
It is important that touch be given at other times besides in the bedroom or when trying to initiate sex. Touch is a way of connecting with your partner and does not have to have an ulterior motive. It is friendly and supportive and helps your partner feel close to you. Affection can also include aiming a smile your partner’s way, calling them by a special pet name, or giving them a wink or a nod.
Add more of these 4 A’s to your marriage and you’ll be reducing, and even preventing, a lot of common marital difficulties. The climate of your relationship will be more positive and you’ll be working smarter, rather than working harder, at strengthening the bond between you and your spouse. The four A’s make the good times more satisfying and make the rough times easier to get through.