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Saying nice things may save your marriage

Over the course of our marriage, my husband and I have had a running discussion about marital affirmation.

I do not see him offering up enough of the encouraging comments that women need to hear — this woman, at least.

He is very good at many things, but not that. Or maybe I just need more affirmation than the average wife of multiple decades. I googled “women’s need for affirmation” and was overwhelmed with articles about “the power of praise and encouragement.” Anyone who has toilet trained a 2-year-old knows that, but we may not apply it in marriage as much as we do to parenting.

There was a Wall Street Journal article published a few years ago, I think the piece was titled something like “Want Great Marriage Advice? Ask a Divorced Person.” In the article, psychologist and researcher Dr. Terri Orbach from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research identified the importance of “being more positive” about and toward the person you’re married to; it was called “affective affirmation.”

“Affective affirmation” has four components (Are you listening dear?). The first is, “How often does your spouse show love?” Examples include spontaneous hugs and frequent hand-holding.

Second was, “How often does your spouse make you feel good about the kind of person you are.” I have a great example of that — when I overhear my husband talking to someone in a social setting, and he doesn’t know I’m listening, and he mentions me with pride or praise, I feel very tender toward him. Sometimes that feeling lasts for days. (Did I ever tell you that, honey?).

The third component in affective affirmation was, “How often does your spouse make you feel good about having your own ideas and ways of doing things.” That one surprised me. I’m not sure I do that well at all. Need to work on it. My husband does it magnificently. (I don’t think I ever told him that either). And apparently it’s a quite pivotal issue for men. By the way, this particular body of research concluded men need “affective affirmation” more than women. Who knew? Apparently both men and women are not particularly informed about affirmation overall and often get stuck on “maintenance communication.” Once that happens, marital satisfaction can start sliding down hill.

The Orbach study concluded that couples were happier and felt more affirmed if their spouses frequently made life interesting or exciting by doing something out of the ordinary. For example, my husband bought me a solar system for my birthday. Well, he actually just got me a tender birthday card, and I bought the huge solar system mobile myself. But he hung the “planetary monstrosity” (his exact words) from the ceiling in my home study while I was gone — all by himself. It required two hours and a 10-foot ladder. And the directions were in German. He did it for me and it looks absolutely amazing.

As affirmations go, it was over the moon.

— Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.