We Expect Too Much From Our Romantic Partners

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From The Atlantic

How marriage has changed in recent years, and why staying married has gotten harder.

 

Tall, dark, handsome, funny, kind, great with kids, six-figure salary, a harsh but fair critic of my creative output … the list of things people want from their spouses and partners has grown substantially in recent decades. So argues Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in his book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage.

As Finkel explains, it’s no longer enough for a modern marriage to simply provide a second pair of strong hands to help tend the homestead, or even just a nice-enough person who happens to be from the same neighborhood. Instead, people are increasingly seeking self-actualization within their marriages, expecting their partner to be all things to them. Unfortunately, that only seems to work if you’re an Olympic swimmer whose own husband is her brusque coach. Other couples might find that career-oriented criticism isn’t the best thing to hear from the father of your 4-year-old. Or, conversely, a violinist might simply have a hard time finding a skilled conductor—who also loves dogs and long walks on the beach—on Tinder.

I spoke with Finkel about how to balance this blend of expectations and challenges in a modern relationship. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: How has what we expect from our marriages changed since, say, 100 years ago?

Eli Finkel: The main change has been that we’ve added, on top of the expectation that we’re going to love and cherish our spouse, the expectation that our spouse will help us grow, help us become a better version of ourselves, a more authentic version of ourselves.

Khazan: As in our spouse should, just to give a random example, provide interesting feedback on our articles that we’re writing?

Finkel: That’s obviously a white-collar variation on the theme, but I think up and down the socioeconomic hierarchy, it isn’t totally crazy these days to hear somebody say something like, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.”

Khazan: Why has that become something that we are just now concerned with? Why weren’t our great-grandparents concerned with that?

Finkel: The primary reason for this is cultural. In the 1960s, starting around that time, we rebelled as a society against the strict social rules of the 1950s. The idea that women were supposed to be nurturing but not particularly assertive. Men were supposed to be assertive but not particularly nurturing. There were relatively well-defined expectations for how people should behave, and in the 1960s, our society said, “To hell with that.”

Humanistic psychology got big. So these were ideas about human potential and the idea that we might strive to live a more authentic, true-to-the-self sort of life. Those ideas really emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, but they got big in the 1960s.

Khazan: You write about how this has actually been harder on lower-income Americans. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Finkel: People with college degrees are marrying more, their marriages are more satisfying, and they’re less likely to divorce. The debate surrounds [the question]: Why is it that people who have relatively little education and don’t earn very much money have marriages that, on average, are struggling more than those of us who have more education and more money?

There basically is no meaningful difference between the poorest members of our society and the wealthier members of our society in the instincts for what makes for a good marriage.

[However, lower-income people] have more stress in their lives, and so the things that they likely have to deal with, when they’re together, are stressful things and the extent to which the time they get together is free to focus on the relationship, to focus on interesting conversation, to focus on high-level goals is limited. It’s tainted by a sense of fatigue, by a sense of limited bandwidth because of dealing with everyday life.

Khazan: What is Mount Maslow? And can you try to reach the top of Mount Maslow and maintain a successful marriage?

Finkel: Most people depict Maslow’s hierarchy as a triangle, with physiological and safety needs at the bottom, love and belonging needs in the middle, and esteem and self-actualization needs at the top. It’s useful to reconceptualize Maslow’s hierarchy as a mountain.

So imagine that you’re trying to scale this major mountain, and you’re trying to meet your physiological and safety needs, and then when you have some success with that you move on to your love and belonging needs, and as you keep going up the mountain, you finally arrive at your self-actualization needs, and that’s where you’re focusing your attention.

As any mountain-climber knows, as you get to the top of a mountain the air gets thin, and so many people will bring supplemental oxygen. They try to make sure that while they’re up there at the top they have enough resources, literally in terms of things like oxygen and warm clothing, to make sure that they can actually enjoy the view from up there.

The analogy to marriage is for those of us who are trying to reach the peak, the summit of Mount Maslow where we can enjoy this extraordinary view. We can have this wonderful set of experiences with our spouse, a particularly satisfying marriage, but we can’t do it if we’re not spending the time and the emotional energy to understand each other and help promote each other’s personal growth.

The idea of the book is that the changing nature of our expectations of marriage have made more marriages fall short of expectations, and therefore disappoint us. But they have put within reach the fulfillment of a new set of goals that people weren’t even trying to achieve before. It’s the fulfillment of those goals that makes marriage particularly satisfying.

Khazan: Is it risky to have your closest partner also be your harshest critic, so that you can grow?

Finkel: My New York Times op-ed piece focused on the challenges of having a partner who’s simultaneously responsible for making us feel loved, and sexy, and competent, but also ambitious, and hungry, and aspirational. How do you make somebody feel safe, and loved, and beautiful without making him or her feel complacent? How do you make somebody feel energetic, and hungry, and eager to work hard without making them feel like you disapprove of the person they currently are?

The answer to that question is, it depends.

You can do it within a given marriage, but they should be aware that that is what they’re asking the partner to do. They should be aware that in some sense, the pursuit of those goals are incompatible and they need to be developing a way of connecting together that can make it possible.

For example, you might try to provide support that sounds more like this: “I’m just so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and I’m so proud that you’re never fully satisfied with it, and you’re just so impressive in how you constantly and relentlessly work toward improving yourself.” That can convey a sense that I approve of you, but I recognize what your aspirations are. Right?

[What’s more], there’s no reason why it has to be the same person who plays both of those roles. I would just urge everybody, think about what you’re looking for from this one relationship and decide, are these expectations realistic in light of who I am, who my partner is, what the dynamics that we have together are? If so, how are we going to achieve all of these things together? Or alternatively, how can we relinquish some of these roles that we play in each others’ lives, and outsource them to, say, another member of your social network?

Khazan: That’s the idea of having a diversified social portfolio, right? Can you explain how that would work?

Finkel: There’s a cool study by Elaine Cheung at Northwestern University, where she looked at the extent to which people look to a very small number of people to help them manage their emotions versus an array of different people, to manage different sorts of emotions. So, one person for cheering up sadness, another person for celebrating happiness, and so forth.

It turns out that people who have more diversified social portfolios, that is, a larger number of people that they go to for different sorts of emotions, those people tend to have overall higher-quality life. This is one of the arguments in favor of thinking seriously about looking to other people to help us, or asking less of this one partner.

I think most of us will be kind of shocked by how many expectations and needs we’ve piled on top of this one relationship. I’m not saying that people need to lower their expectations, but it is probably a bad plan to throw all of these expectations on the one relationship and then try to do it on the cheap. That is, to treat time with your spouse as something you try to fit in after you’ve attended to the kids, and after you’ve just finished this one last thing for work. Real, attentive time for our spouse is something that we often don’t schedule, or we schedule insufficient time for it.

Khazan: What is climbing down from the mountain? Should we try to do that?

Finkel: There’s the recalibration strategy, which is fixing an imbalance, not by increasing the investment in the marriage, but by decreasing the amount that we’re asking or demanding of the marriage.

There’s no shame at all in thinking of ways that you can ask less. That’s not settling, and that’s not making the marriage worse. It’s saying, look, “These are things I’ve been asking of the marriage that have been a little bit disappointing to me. These are things that I’m going to be able to get from the marriage but frankly, given what I understand about my partner, myself, and the way the two of us relate, it’s just going to be a lot of work to be able to achieve those things through the marriage.”

Khazan: So what is “going all-in,” and what are the risks and rewards of that?

Finkel: The question isn’t, “Are you asking too much?” The question is, “Are you asking the appropriate amount, in light of the nature of the relationship right now?” The idea of “going all-in” is, “Hell yes. I want to ask my spouse to help make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to love somebody else and also [be] somebody who’s going to help me grow into an ideal, authentic version of myself. And I’m going do the same for him or her. I recognize that that is a massive ask, and because I recognize that that’s a massive ask I’m going to make sure that we have sufficient time together. That when we’re together we’re paying sufficient attention to each other, that the time that we’re investing in the relationship is well-spent.”

Accept One Another

Once again, we’ve turned to Huffington Post for some great advice on making marriage work.  In a culture that seemingly wishes to see the institution of marriage torn down to the ground, HuffPost occasionally stokes the fires of dissolution.  Yet, it also clears the bases every now and again with a thoughtful post about building stronger marriages.. This piece was written by Ravid Yosef, a California “Dating/Relationship Coach.”  We reproduce it in its entirety as it is short, concise and in need of no embellishment.  God bless you all.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Love in fact, does not conquer all. It’s a common misconception that if you love someone, everything else will work itself out, but love alone is not enough.

Acceptance is what will get you through to the other side. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that you can choose it for exactly what it is. Because when you do choose it for what it is and what it isn’t, it brings something entirely new into your world.

Once there is acceptance, you bring peace and change to your energy, and from there anything you create with the person you love is possible.

That’s not to say that you must accept everything in your relationship. You shouldn’t accept any abuse, physically or emotionally, and you must establish your deal-breakers along with making sure you are compatible, have similar core values and a vision for your future.

However, there are things you must accept in the one you love and in your relationshipCBurrowsphoto #1 in order to bring peace into your life.

Here are 20 things you must accept for your relationship to succeed:

1. Accept the things you cannot change.
2. Accept that you cannot fix your partner.
3. Accept that your partner is not perfect.
4. Accept that not everyone will behave as you do.
5. Accept that just because they don’t behave like you, it doesn’t make them wrong.
6. Accept their flaws.
7. Accept love as they are able to give it to you.
8. Accept that you love them.
9. Accept that we all experience things (including love) differently.
10. Accept that sometimes they can be a bit of a mess.
11. Accept the mess in the sink.
12. Accept that they are human and will make mistakes.
13. Accept their apology.
14. Accept your differences.
15. Accept that everyone has a past.
16. Accept that they cannot read your mind.
17. Accept that they can’t live up to an expectation you don’t communicate.
18. Accept that you are not always right.
19. Accept that there will be good and bad times.
20. Accept them.

What you resist will persist and will drive you absolutely crazy. By accepting, you are opening up a space for something completely new to happen in your relationship. Can you accept the challenge?

Ravid Yosef works with clients in Los Angeles and virtually around the world. Download her free eBook “Is He Realtionship Material?” from YourTango.com to learn all the signs to look for before you commit.

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Quora.com–a rich source of marital wisdom

Recently I tripped over a site dedicated to creating conversations around a multitude of topics.  I happened to be searching on the word “happiness” and found myself on a page with a number of thoughtful responses to the question, “What habits do healthy couples have?”  After reading responses from a number of members, I decided to cut and paste what I think is a typical response from a reader named Tim Grahl.

Using Quora.com is easy.  Sign up, list the topics you’re interested in, complete your profile, and the site will feed relevant content to your desktop.  Bookmark the site, and you’re ready to go.

happy older coupleWhat habits do healthy couples have?

My wife and I recently celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary and we dated for three years before we were married.  Also, for context, we have two young boys ages 6 and 4 and she doesn’t work outside of the home.  While we have fights from time to time, we are generally a very happy couple.  Here are the things we’ve put in place to make sure it stays that way:

1. We constantly communicate about anything remotely important to us as individuals or a family.  When I was growing up my mom used to drill into me that “99% of marriage is communication.  If you can communicate, you can get through anything.”  At this point in marriage, I would say that’s completely true.  We talk about our hopes for the future, where we want to be individually, as a couple and as a family.  If there is a disagreement or a fight, we never just “let it go”, we talk about it until each of us understands the other’s point of view and we come to an understanding, apologies are said, etc.  We talk about how we’re raising our sons, we talk about how we spend our time, we talk about our schedules to make sure we aren’t too busy.  On anything remotely important, we make sure we stay on the same page and come to an agreement before moving forward.

2. We tell the truth. I don’t know where this idiotic idea came that you have to lie to your significant other.  An early rule was established in our house… “Don’t ask a question you don’t want an answer to.”  If she asks if she looks fat in an outfit, I will say “yes” if it’s the truth.  But you know what?  When I tell her “no”, she believes me.  This goes for everything.  I’ve been on a diet for a bit now and lost some weight.  I asked her the other day if she could tell and she said “no”.  The truth.  Sometimes it hurts, but I appreciate it and know she’s telling me the truth when she says good stuff.

3. We continue in our choice and commitment to love each other.  Contrary to how I see the word “love” used in most contexts, it is a choice as much, or more, than it is a feeling.  My definition of love is “to look out for the other person’s good as more important than my own.”  Nobody has made me feel more angry or feel more love than my wife, however, through it all my choice to love her (seek her good above my own) is unquestioned and she does the same for me.  This alone provides an extreme level of security.  Divorce or separation is never an option because we both made a choice to love each other and never leave each other and to treat each other as more important than the other.  While this obviously falls down from time to time when either of us want to be selfish or are going through a rough spot, etc.  But day in and day out, we choose to love and care for each other no matter how idiotic or selfish the other is being.

4. We treat each other like grown ups.  One of the things we always say when we joke around is “I’m a grown-ass man”.  Or “woman”, of course.  But this is true.  Inside the parameters we’ve agreed to in #1, we let each other do pretty much whatever we want.  I watch whatever, dress however, go out whenever, etc.  We have our own hobbies that we don’t feel like the other has to be a part of.  She doesn’t nag me and I don’t nag her (usually we don’t have to; see #3).  We have freedom to be who we want to be and do what we want.  Since our #1 commitment is to each other and to our family, we can trust each other to make good decisions outside of that.  For instance, I like to go out with friends to movies, drinks, etc.  Since I don’t overdo it because she comes first, she never says ‘no’ or even questions it when I do.

5. Constantly inject your creativity to make things easier and better.  Some of the other things I’ve seen in these answers like keep separate bank accounts, play together, have lots of sex, exercise together, laugh together, surprise with gifts, etc. are all just tactics that may or may not work for you.  When you have young kids that need cared for, it’s hard to exercise together or go throw the frisbee; does that mean your relationship is doomed?  Of course not.  We’ve all had friends that brag about all the sex they have but you wouldn’t want their relationship.  The point in all these things is to constantly look for ways to grow your love, maintain your commitment and make sure life doesn’t squeeze the joy out of your relationship and/or drive a wedge between you.  My co-worker and good friend has a great relationship with his wife and she calls him throughout the day to talk.  It drives me nuts when my wife calls me (unless it’s important) because I’m trying to work.  To each their own, as long as you’re putting work and creativity into making your relationship easier (don’t be too busy, spend time together, etc.) and better (puzzles, movies or whatever), then it’s going to work.  Don’t be lazy and put the other’s good above your own.

So that’s it, that’s what we do to stay happy as a couple.

Love Cycles

5stagesThe title of this post is the title of another “how to” book on marriage I just read, this one by therapist  Linda Carroll.  She discusses the five stages of loving relationships around which she has built a 35 year practice in couples counseling.  (I’m beginning to think that everything on earth has five stages, but that’s just me.)  Before getting into the content of the book itself, I wanted to share the most powerful statement contained therein, a quote from poet Rainier Maria Rilke:  “For one human being to love another human being; that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.”  Wish I’d written that, or had the emotional depth to even have come close to writing it.  Beautiful thought.

So, the five stages of loving relationships, pretty straightforward stuff:  The Merge.  Doubt Busy-Parentsand Denial.  Disillusionment.  Decision.  And, finally, Wholehearted Loving.  Carroll takes multiple examples from couples with whom she has worked, and the anecdotal evidence allows the reader to recognize stages in which he/she currently resides or has passed through.  The liner notes claim the book offers “a clear strategy for how to stay happy and committed, even in difficult times,” with which I might argue.  Nancy and I have weathered some serious storms over the course of 40 years, and I’m not sure I would have been open to many of the suggestions the author makes for dealing with those stages beginning with the letter D, all of which were painful, difficult and exhausting.  I admit to not being overly open-minded about most things, and also admit that Nancy’s abilities to understand and coach me are what saved our relationship more than once.

The book is a pretty quick read, and perhaps you might want to check it out of your library.  I think the following list–Carroll’s Six C’s–does a nice job of hitting the high points of the book if you’re pressed for time or grooving in the “happily ever after” stage of your relationship:

  • Choice.  Pretty much everything we do as individuals or half of a committed couple involves making choices.  Even we feel helpless, we are making, and living with the consequences, of our own choices.  We are writing our own stories.
  • Commitment.  Part and parcel of sacramental marriage.  We must burn our own boats.  We must make this relationship the most important single fact of our lives and move beyond our fears and our periodic urge to flee, turning toward our partner in difficult times and, if necessary, seeking help to make our relationship work. Remembering how we felt in those first few weeks and months is a useful exercise, along with finding the way to a mature form of those electric sensations.  No, they don’t last forever.  Yes, they can remind us of what we felt early in the relationship, and motivate us to  move away from  thinking, as Carroll describes, “Why aren’t you ME?”
  • Celebration.  As Nancy has observed more than once, for every Jack there’s a Jill. Having found one another, you need to take time to celebrate the grace, the confluence of circumstances, that brought you together.  As humans, we are called to discover who we are as individuals and to fulfill our purpose on earth, making use of our gifts.  To share this journey, the experience of becoming ourselves, with another person on the same trip, calls for celebrations, even small ones, as often as possible.  We need to count our blessings and give thanks for each one, no matter how small or cleverly disguised.
  • Compassion.  In relationships, it is synonymous with forgiveness.  Scripture tells us we are to forgive even those who mean to harm us.  Doesn’t it follow, then, that we need to be fountains of forgiveness with our spouse or partner?  We’ve discussed in this space conditions and behaviors outside the realm of forgiveness–violence, abuse, etc.–but in the absence of pure malice, it is incumbent upon us to not only forgive our partners for their shortcomings, but to forgive ourselves for our own.
  • Cocreation.  A clever term for finding effective ways to manage conflict, share decisions, support one another, and avoid ending up in ruts.  This is about finding and exploring common interests, about not settling for night after night of television, about engaging one another and challenging each other to find new and different things to keep the relationship blooming.  Nancy convinced me several years ago that we should commit to a monthly activity we’ve never (or only rarely) done before, which explains the terrible investment I made several years ago in a pair of tickets to Shen Yun.  But there have been a bunch of fun, memorable outings in the meantime, with more to come.  A maple syrup tour.  The glass-blowing trail in northern Indiana. A country music concert (?) at Klipsch.  So get up, get out, and get with it!
  • Courage.  The courage to confront our own faults, the issues in our relationships and the conditions of our lives in an honest, loving spirit of awareness.  Lots of this stuff is hard, but we are capable of doing hard stuff.  So many people, caught up in the daily grind, go through the motions of living, whether as individuals or half of a couple.  If we are going to find true happiness, as people and as couples, we cannot settle for taking the easy way out of this life.  We should, instead, pin a copy of Rainier Maria Rilke’s quote above our desks and on our refrigerators, to help us remain mindful of the gift of our chosen vocation.

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Well said, Dr. Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford bills herself as a “Clinical Psychologist, Mental Health/Midlife Blogger.”  (She also provides a handy response to the challenge of naming one good thing about Arkansas.)  Just kidding.  At any rate, I thought this post was so good, and so well-written, that I would just copy and paste it herein.  I’ve taken the liberty of bolding those items that speak to me loudly.

Wedding

24 years of marriage.

That’s what September 15th meant for me.

We had celebrated earlier so I didn’t remember until I was driving to work. I called him. Told him I loved him. I got grocery store flowers when I got home. Beautifully arranged by the way.

What ever did we do without grocery store flowers?

Between being a marital therapist and my own experience, I have learned a few things. Since I am on year #24, I’ve divided them into 12’s. Just to be cute.

12 Things That Marriage Is Not:

1. Marriage is not for sissies. It’s hard work.

2. Marriage is not about getting what you want all the time. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s not wanting to win all the time because that would mean the other person would lose all the time. May be OK for you. Not good for the marriage.

3. Marriage is not rocket science. The principles it’s based on are really pretty simple. Kindness. Respect. Loyalty. That kind of thing.

4. Marriage is not unfashionable. It stays vital. Even Brangelina must think so.

5. Marriage is not in and of itself stimulating. Since you are with the same person over a long time, the two of you can get in a rut. You have to keep things fresh.

6. Marriage is not about collecting things. The joys of marriage aren’t tangible. You live them. That’s what makes them so very special.

7. Marriage is not for the impatient. Some of the best stuff takes a while to develop. You have to stick around to find that out.

8. Marriage is not the place for criticism. Or abuse. If it is found there, it will ruin any chance of true intimacy or trust and dissolve the hope that once might have existed.

9. Marriage is not a 24-hour repair shop. Your marital partner is not supposed to meet your every need. Some of those needs you may have to take care of yourself. Through your friendships or other activities.

10. Marriage is not self-sustaining. It does not thrive on its own. If all you focus on is the kids, you are making a mistake.

11. Marriage is not boring. Two lives woven together can be quite exciting! There’s just something about watching someone very different from you, living their life in an extremely different way. Up close and personal. You learn from that.

12. Marriage is not without conflict. Knowing how to disagree and work through anger and disappointment is probably the key to lots of stuff going well. Getting to that cooperating, mentioned in #2.

2014-09-26-Marriageisgettingirritatedbythethingsthatalwaysirritateyou.Andtoleratingitbecauseitiswayoverbalancedbythegoodstuff1.jpg

12 Things That Marriage Is:

1. Marriage is the potential for an intense, deep and diverse intimacy. Sexual. Emotional. Relational.

2. Marriage is knowing someone has your back. Always. You have theirs. It’s about interdependence.

3. Marriage is realizing that you have been seen in your worst times, and that you are still loved. There’s an overriding sense of gratitude and security.

4. Marriage is sharing old jokes. Or some story that may be told over and over but it still makes you laugh ’til you are left gasping for breath.

5. Marriage is getting teary-eyed together.

6. Marriage is thinking about the other one not being there anymore. And not being able to think about it.

7. Marriage is getting irritated by the things that always irritate you. Have irritated you for 24 years. Will irritate you for 24 more. And tolerating it because it is way overbalanced by the good stuff.

8. Marriage is not being able to wait to get home to share some little something.

9. Marriage is wishing you were the one having the operation. Or the illness. Not him.

10. Marriage is sometimes fighting. Trying to slowly learn to fight more fairly. To apologize. To listen. To learn. To find resolution.

11. Marriage is about vulnerability. Giving someone the right to hurt or disappoint you. While simultaneously giving that someone the opportunity to bring you tremendous joy and laughter.

12. Marriage is a promise. A vow. To try the hardest you have ever tried in your life. Marriage is a place for the achievement of a personal integrity like no other.

I’m now living year #25.

So far. So good. Thanks for reading! You can find more from Dr. Margaret at http://drmargaretrutherford.com!

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Looking Back at Marriage from the Finish Line

old-couple in loveOur most recent post was an unsettling look at marriage from the perspective of people in their 20’s, the so-called Millennials.  It talked about “beta testing” relationships, about seven-year options with the right of renewal, etc.  Worth reading, if you have the time. Today’s post examines marriage from the perspective of couples who have been married up to 76 years.  The original article, written by Nancy Hellmich, appeared in USA Today.

Based upon research gathered from interviews with 700 retired people, gerontologist Karl Pillemer has written a new book, 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. Pillemer, the founder of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, has been married for 36 years to his own high school honey, Clare McMillan.  Treading dangerously close to plagiarism, I want to share the highlights of the advice I gleaned from his research, as follows:

  • Follow your heart when choosing a spouse.  This was beautifully described as “the thunderbolt” in The Godfather, whose Michael Corleone experienced it while courting his future wife, Apollonia Vitelli, but I digress.  The point is, one shouldn’t get married simply because it seems like the right time.  He or she must make one’s heart “soar like a hawk.”  And although young love is no guarantee, perhaps we should describe it as necessary, but not sufficient. Wedding
  • Use your head, too.  If he or she has a gambling issue or drinks too much, is financially irresponsible or flirts incessantly, it raises the odds against a successful long term union.  Our future mate need not be perfect, but there are some definite dealbreakers out there that all of your love and care won’t overcome.
  • Seek shared values.  Sure, opposites attract, and spouses with different temperaments can enjoy very successful long term relationships.  My wife Nancy and I are different in many ways, but we share core beliefs in raising children, handling money, deferring immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals, etc.  In college, I thought of this a seeking a woman with a “coefficient of boredom” similar to mine, one who could enjoy life at a pace midway between frenetic and lethargic.
  • Find someone with whom you can communicate easily.  It is unrealistic to suppose that Chatty Kathy is going to be able to sustain a relationship with Strong Silent Ken. I’m big and loud and still recall how happy I was to have met a woman in Nancy whom I could not intimidate.  Back when I was in the insurance business I had a client with a basic high school education who operated a food truck and was married to a pediatrician.  I don’t know what became of them, but I remember thinking at the time that they didn’t seem to have much in common.  If you and your intended have trouble talking about important stuff now, it probably won’t get any easier as you age.Parents and kids
  • Choose the time and place to discuss difficult subjects.  My mom used to say that timing is everything, which may or may not be true, but tackling difficult subjects must be done with some forethought.  I may not welcome a conversation about disciplining the kids when I’m in the middle of painting a room.  She may not want to discuss my budget concerns while preparing dinner for eight.  You get the idea. There’s a time and a place for everything.  And while you can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid the hard talks, you can certainly approach them with some discernment.  “Listen, after the kids are in bed tonight, can we talk about that argument we had at breakfast?”
  • Put your relationship first.  Ahead of your family, your kids and your friends.  Ahead of your work, your hobbies, even your favorite NFL team.  If your spouse feels you care more about golf than you do about her–even assuming she’s wrong–there’s gonna be trouble in River City.  Just sayin’.  And, like it or not, your kids should have to fit in your lives; you should not have to build your lives around them.  Just because you would give your lives for them doesn’t mean you should, unless push comes to shove, which it rarely does.
  • Develop some ground rules around in-laws.  They can enrich your lives, they can become a burden, or some of each.  The important thing is to find common ground concerning when, where and how much time you spend with them.  My mom told me to check out a girl’s mom, because that was who she would someday become.  I could argue that perhaps Nancy should have taken a closer look at my father, since he’s who I have become.  And though these prescriptions are offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there is something to them.
  • Pillemer says that “marriage is made of thousands of micro-interactions” which John Gottman refers to as “bids” in his own research.  It is hard to give one’s wife too many compliments, indicating not that you are a fawning dolt, but rather that you notice and appreciate the small things she does for you.  If your love language is acts of service (as mine is), it’s nice when they are noticed and received graciously.
  • Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleMaintain your physical relationship as you age.  Not doing so puts you at risk of developing a spiritual distance between yourselves.  As Toby Keith says, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”  Even if you’re beyond Toby’s stage, it is important to maintain physical intimacy in your marriage.  Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” proclaims that marital intimacy is a gift from God, and we should treat it as such.
  • Finally, it is important to be friends first.  This doesn’t come from Pillemer, but from me, John Gottman, Art and Larriane Bennett and countless students of the game. Can you imagine an argument with your best friend that would cause the two of you to stop being friends?  Me neither.  So it stands to reason that if your spouse is your best friend, you can weather any number of storms in your relationship, knowing that you’ll make up and find a way to laugh off whatever it was.  If you’re just lovers, you might choose to walk away from each other when things get rough, as they will. Being friends first gives you a powerful motivation to solve problems, soothe feelings, and put things right.

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We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us

Happy New Year, couples.  Yes, we’ve been in hiatus for months, dealing with a number of issues ranging from travel and health concerns to a relative lack of inspiration from many of our usual contributors.  Now that 2015 is upon us, I am hoping for some renewed energy and relying on The Holy Spirit to provide it to all of us, with a tip of the hat to Walt Kelly

UnhappyA recurring theme in this blog is that successful marriages are not about finding the right person as much as being the right person.  When things go wrong in our lives, it is not unusual to blame others–employers, spouses, friends, bad ju-ju, etc.  Yet, in most cases, we have only ourselves to blame, which is inconvenient in that it forces us to change our behaviors and/or our attitudes toward the things that comprise our lives.

I direct your attention to a recent article published in Huffington Post (yes, them again) about a failed marriage, written by the now ex-wife.  In a nutshell, her ex lied to her, cheated on her, and finally abandoned the family.  Some time later, in therapy, she realized that her own foibles were at the root of much of what went wrong in the relationship.  I encourage you to read the article, but let me summarize what she refers to as the “four huge mistakes I made” that led to the breakdown of the marriage:

  1. I put my children first.  While it is a holy obligation to care for one’s kids, it is easy to allow them to become a place to escape to when difficulties arise in your relationship with your spouse.  This particular issue typically afflicts wives more than husbands, but men are not exempt, either.  This evokes the instructions we get while waiting for a plane to take off, that we are supposed to affix our own oxygen masks before taking care of the kids.
  2. I didn’t set (or enforce) boundaries with my parents.  While many of us are blessed with parents who live nearby and love interacting with and helping out with our kids, for some spouses this can become burdensome.  Our spouses married us; they didn’t marry our entire families.  For some spouses, when this occurs, it is a hard conversation to have, telling your spouse that you want/need some space from your inlaws.  That conversation, however, pales in difficulty to the one in which you tell him or her you’re moving out.
  3. I emasculated him.  The author’s reflections on this subject are straight out of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  Talking smack about our spouses with our friends simply adds fuel to the fire, stoking our own rage and setting the stage for gossip which can work its way back to the spouse.  “I hear your wife said you’re lousy in the sack” is not something I want to hear while waiting on the first tee with my golfing buddies.  Reading Gottman’s book allows us to both recognize these deadly sins and offers concrete advice on how to work through them.
  4. I didn’t bother to learn to fight the right way.  The notion of “fighting fairly” is one that intrigues me and is, again, a subject to which John Gottman devotes a lot of attention.  All couples are going to disagree at times, and a number of these disagreements can escalate into fights.  Learning how to fight fairly–my wife Nancy is better at this than I am–provides opportunities to turn these arguments into understanding.  Keep in mind that, when it comes to arguing, your objective should not be to win; your objective should be to recognize the root causes of the fight and change behaviors in order to avoid them in the future.  We need to seek understanding rather than victory.  In the long run, winning is less desirable than creating win-win situations.

The title of this post is one of Pogo’s lasting contributions to western society.  When holding_handsdifficulties arise in our marriages, we are encouraged to reflect on how we have contributed to the problem, rather than taking the easy, shortsighted way out and simply blaming everything on our spouses.  It takes two to tango; the reason cliches are cliches is because they are generally true.  Let us pray the Serenity Prayer and look inside ourselves before berating our spouses for their shortcomings.  More often than not, the enemy is us.