Want More Love? Be More Lovable.

One of the consistent themes of this site is that a lasting, fulfilling and spiritually rewarding marriage is not about finding the right person, but about being the right person.  We have also embraced, since day one, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which lays out the Church’s position on the importance/sanctity of physical Theology of the Bodyintimacy in a loving sacramental marriage.  Yet, it has become something of a running gag in American society that couples continue to have serious, relationship-threatening issues about sex, regardless of whether the marriage was blessed by a priest, or whether the couple is even married at all.

Focusing on married couples, it’s no big revelation to assert that sex is complicated. Ignoring for the moment (mostly male-specific) concerns such as frequency and variety, the reality for most couples is that both spouses work and must deal with work-related issues including fatigue, overnight travel, stress, shift work, and being connected to their jobs 24/7 by text and email.  Add a few kids, with their homework, social and extra-curricular activities.  Some couples must Busy-Parentscare for elderly parents or relatives. Money is often a source of conflict.  Throw in time spent with friends, the pursuit of separate hobbies and interests, housework, yard work and even time devoted to church ministries, and it’s a wonder most couples are having any sex at all.

Though there are no easy answers for much of this, there are a number of things spouses can do to improve the overall quality of their relationship and, by extension, their sex life.  Some of you may recall a book popular back in the 80’s called The Five Minute Salesman, the main premise of which was that in order to get what you (the salesman) want, you must help the customer get what he or she wants. Here are some examples we hope may be useful to you and your spouse:

  • We have occasionally expressed an idea here suggesting that rather than seeking a 50/50 sharing of marital responsibilities (which inevitably leads to some form of score-keeping) we, as spouses, should be willing to give 60% in exchange for 40%.  Going the extra mile, without seeking praise or recognition, will almost always enhance our esteem in the eyes of our spouse, in some cases making us appear more desirable.
  • Take the time to pay attention and learn what he or she likes.  This lies at the heart of Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languageswhich expounds on the idea that all of us have a love language we prefer when receiving love and another, possibly different, language we prefer when giving or showing love. Guys, if your wife’s preference for receiving love is words of affirmation or spending time together, a bunch of flowers from Kroger is unlikely to flip her switch.  Both of you need to figure out how the other likes to be shown love; if you can’t do it on your own, read the book together.  I’ve observed that many of us are not loved in the way we want.  If this describes the two of you, you can fix it.
  • Worship together.  If you share the same faith, attending church together is a high quality hour, feeding both your soul and your relationship.  If you attend different Stained Glasschurches, try to arrange your attendance so that neither of you must take your small children to church.  (If you want to do so, that’s different.)  Facilitating a peaceful hour apart is another act of love.  Finally, if one of you does not attend church on a regular basis, that spouse can volunteer to get up early and look after the children while your spouse goes to church.  In any case, there are plenty of ways to show you love your spouse connected to the observance of your faith.
  • Cook for each other, or cook together.  The drudgery of getting dinner on the table during the weekday scrum can be offset by serving her breakfast in bed on Saturday morning or cooking up something fun together when the opportunity arises.  Try a new dish.  One of you can chef while the other preps.  And you never know where a late dinner after the kids are asleep might lead.
  • Talk to each other.  Statistics suggest that the average married couple spends seven (7) minutes a day talking with each other.  If your busy lives make you feel like “ships passing in the night,” commit to finding 15 minutes a day, just the two of you, talking about stuff other than work, the kids or money.  Recall when you were courting how you could literally spend hours like this.  Now that you’re married, you need this time to maintain your connectedness.  Even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier than normal, this is time well-spent.
  • Observe the power of random acts of kindness.  Taking her car out on Sunday afternoon for a fill-up and a wash means she can go to work on Monday with a shiny ride and a full tank.  If he’s been out of town for a few days and gets home later in the evening, a hot meal and a beer, served in some sexy pajamas, might fulfill his every (unspoken) wish.  The key here is to do whatever it is without being asked.  Complying with a request is one thing; showing kindness on your own initiative is something else.
  • TOE time refers to what we call the Touch of Eden.  During TOE time, spouses get naked, get in bed, and simply hold each other close, without any sexual agenda.  Spending 15 minutes like this helps spouses reconnect in an intimate way, without any pressure.  It is not meant to be a prelude to sex, but allows room for the agenda to be amended by majority vote.  Sorry guys–she holds the tiebreaker!
  • WP_20150421_001Pay attention to your personal hygiene.  When you find an opportunity for a physical encounter, make sure you are clean, that you smell good, that you’ve shaved, that your breath is, um, unobjectionable; in short, send the message that this is a special moment and that you want to make it as pleasant as possible for your partner. [These may not be universally shared.  I read recently of a note Napoleon sent to Josephine in which he wrote, “I will arrive on Saturday, Do not bathe.”  Different strokes…]  A little background music, some candlelight and his favorite scent can put an exclamation point on things.

If you and your spouse have some different suggestions, please share them.  God tells us that the marital bed is a sacred place, and we honor Him when we approach it as such.  In the 21st century, we may miss the spontaneity that accompanied such encounters when we were first married.  Maintaining a healthy physical relationship in a world spinning a million miles an hour takes commitment, planning and thoughtfulness. Being the right person for each other can only help.

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Pillow Talk

In 2008, when we were first discussing the creation of a ministry at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel dedicated to fostering a community that supports married couples in our parish, I recall commenting to Denise McGonigal that this could not simply be about “the theory of marriage.”  That, in order to be successful, grow, and attract married couples from every demographic in the parish, it needed to focus on real-life issues, and to include concrete examples of how happily married couples make marriage work.  This stance would be leavened with a strong dose of Catholic spirituality, keeping in mind our mission to celebrate the joy of sacramental marriage, as eloquently expressed in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

So, here we are on Valentine’s Day, preparing for our monthly Marriage on Tap event tonight at which over 60 couples will be receiving eucharist, renewing their marriage vows, enjoying a date night meal together, and sharing thoughts and ideas around Denise’s presentation about marriages made in Heaven.  An intimate, non-commercial celebration of what marriage CAN be when spouses allow the Holy Spirit to enter their relationship and commit to each other to be the best husbands, wives and parents they can be.

As one of the more secular voices on this blog, I’m always searching mainstream media online for articles and ideas I can steal borrow to share with our readers.  Today I discovered a cheat sheet useful for facilitating conversation in the marital bed.  Why many of us are more comfortable conducting these conversations in our living rooms than in our bedrooms is a mystery.  My own theory, what Nancy would call “the story I’m telling myself,” is that these conversations will either lead to sex or NOT lead to sex, depending on which spouse is more inclined in which direction, comprising one of the worst sentences ever to grace these pages.  She, I suspect, would say it has nothing to do with any of that, that it’s probably due to more practical considerations; in our case, I wear a CPAP mask, which makes it practically impossible to talk, and works, for her, like talking with an astronaut.

Enough.  Here is the Pillow Talk piece borrowed from TheDatingDivas.com:

PIllow Talk

 

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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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Children of Sacrifice

man and womanI was at a meeting at OLMC earlier this week, helping several husbands prepare to discuss the topic “Husbands, Serve Your Wives” at our May Marriage on Tap event. Gary Galvin, one of the founders of this blog, mentioned that the issues surrounding stay-at-home moms relative to working moms concerned him.  Never having given this subject too much thought, I was surprised to learn that, in fact, it is a major issue in our parish and across the country.

The various constituencies seem to break down roughly as follows:

  • families in which one of the parents–statistically, the mom–stays home and cares for the children full time;
  • families in which both parents find it necessary to work full-time to make ends meet;
  • some combination of the above, involving job-sharing, part time work, offsetting work schedules, etc.
  • couples who want children but are unable to conceive and must weigh the alternatives available to them; and
  • couples who make a positive decision not to have children.

In my opinion, the common thread running through all of these scenarios is sacrifice.  The nature of these various sacrifices differ, and deserve some discussion.

Obviously, families in which one of the parents, usually but not always the mother, stay home to care for the children sacrifice the earnings the spouse foregoes.  There are some lifestyle implications as well as increased pressure on the working spouse.  The hidden sacrifice arrives in the form of social attitudes that seem to discount the stature of the stay-at-home parent, as if effectively raising a gaggle of young children is not one of the hardest jobs on earth.  Home schooling lessens this effect somewhat, but brings with it an entire palette of other issues, some social, some academic.

10 years and three kids later.  Sarah Galvin, Gary’s wife, gave up a promising law career to be a stay-at-home mom for their four children.  Sarah may do a The Good Wife and return to practicing law someday. In the meantime, she has agreed to a non-paying job with a 24-hour a day shift and responsibilities that will affect how their children function as adults.  This is sacrifice.

Families in which both spouses work full time have given us the term “working moms,” which is hugely redundant.  “Working moms” often have demanding occupations, after which they head home to face a torrent of needs from the children and, in some cases, a husband whose contributions to running the home may be minimal.

Working moms get left out of many activities involving their children, ranging from dance Busy-Parentsrecitals and ball games to PTO meetings, and typically are unable to pursue interests that involve evening get-togethers, such as Bible study or book clubs.  By necessity, they generally raise multi-tasking to an art form, devoting time at work to planning family stuff, and taking calls or emails at home during their family time.  Working moms generally work according to schedules that are so tight they squeek.  This is sacrifice.

[BTW, the consensus at our meeting the other evening was that the term “working dads” is an oxymoron.  When our three daughters were little and Nancy would get out for a Saturday afternoon, I would feel a pretty healthy sense of accomplishment if I kept all three kids out of the emergency room until she returned.  As for housework–cooking, laundry, etc.–that was simply out of the question.  Surviving four hours in charge of three kids was, for me, a major accomplishment, even if two of them were napping at the time.]

Parents in situations where they’ve arranged offsetting schedules, or one (or both) work part time, perhaps in addition to a full time job, often sacrifice career mobility in order to make their domestic arrangements work.  Telling a boss, “Sure, I’d like the promotion. The thing is, I need to leave at 2:30 to get home in time for my wife to go to work” is not how one gets ahead in this corporate-centric world in which the needs of the employer generally trump the needs of the employee.  Families which require a job and a half to make ends meet need be very selective when it comes to accepting a job; oftentimes the choice is not the best job, but the job that makes the other stuff possible.  This is sacrifice.

Couples who wish to raise children and are unable to conceive occupy a radically different world than most of us.  The dizzying array of less-than-satisfactory choices facing them is a minefield, ranging from adoption to complicated medical procedures to precise timing-and-action protocols involving cycles and temperatures, etc., that destroy the holy pleasure of making a baby and turn it, instead, to something mechanical, hugely expensive, and/or contrary to Church teaching.  The emotional costs of repeated failures can be overwhelming.  Some couples persevere and make the transition from being a couple to being a family, but make no mistake about it.  This is sacrifice.  I have trouble expressing the respect I feel for these couples, who are so willing to do so much to bring a child into this world or into their lives.  God bless all of you.

old-couple in love

Finally, the couples who decide, or for whom it has been decided, to remain childless.  For these couples, daily life will undoubtedly be simpler, less dramatic and generally less stressful.  In the best cases, theirs will be lives of tranquility, reflection, perhaps travel or high-profile careers.  But they will have to derive their earthly joys from one another.

There can be no thought of legacies or future generations.  One of my big fears, that of being forgotten after my death, is more or less assured for these couples. Just as you probably cannot remember who was the MVP of the SuperBowl in 2002, or who was the junior senator from your state in 1978, most of the memories of you and me will reside in the hearts of our children.  Choosing to remain childless, then, may be choosing to be forgotten.  Though it is of a different kind, this is a sacrifice, too.

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Theology of the Body: Practicum

happiness image #2 ChristineTo my immense surprise, I find that as I age I continue to see more of my feminine side emerging. That I have a feminine side at all is a bit of a revelation; that I’m willing to admit it another; and that I see more of it each day an actual wonder.  Yet, here I am, unable to deny the following set of facts:

  • I’m no longer the primary breadwinner in my family, and am okay with that.
  • I do virtually all of the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, and I’m okay with that, too.
  • I’ve lost most of my lifelong interest in sports.
  • My second favorite TV show is Project Runway (although Justified, a man’s show to be sure, is still #1.)
  • I’ve started to follow, and am greatly interested in, a number of blogs directed at women.

Is all of this simply a result of the massive amounts of estrogen in public water supplies, Theology of the Bodycourtesy of the almost universal use of oral contraceptives by modern women?  I think not. It is, I believe, a side effect of my blooming interest in the subject of marital intimacy, awakened in me by Joe and Denise McGonigal at a Love’s Sacred Embrace marriage retreat five years ago. There, they presented a series of talks on The Theology of the Body, one of the lasting gifts left to us by Pope John Paul II, which I, as a fairly recent convert to the faith, felt was uncharted territory worth exploring.

All of the preceding is but a long way of admitting that I follow a blog called Intimacy in Marriage by Julie Sibert, subtitled, “Encouraging Christian Women toward Healthy Sexuality.”  Her most recent post, “Three Things Sex Tells Us about the Lord” is worth your time, regardless of your gender.  I encourage you to follow the link to Julie’s post, in that the three headers about which she writes, by themselves, don’t shed much light on the subject:Cute-Romantic-Love-Couple

  1. He understands the power of pleasure.
  2. He trusts us.
  3. He knew marriage would be hard.

As Intimacy ranks #4 on most lists of the things married couples fight about (see the related post on All Pro Dad), if you’re married and following this blog (and why would you if you weren’t?) there are some useful insights in Julie’s post.  Regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man.

Intimacy may have a different meaning for women than it does for men, but the undeniable fact is that without it, regardless of how you define it, your marriage is going to be a long row to hoe.  Anything we as spouses can do to enhance intimacy in our most intimate relationship is good.  Seeking to better understand our partners, and God’s intentions for us, is a great place to start.

I’d like to continue with this, but instead am going to put on my flannel pajamas and woolly socks, grab my box of Godivas, and head to bed to watch Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national title.  One shining moment, etc.  🙂  God bless you.

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Seek Lasting Virtues

One of the foundational precepts of this ministry is that marriage is not all about FINDING the right person with whom you will spend your life, but BEING the right person.  Accepting this belief, however, does not mean we should go out looking for Mr. or Miss Wrong, and then trying to make things work out by superhuman acts of will and effort. In this post, we will explore some ideas for shortening the odds against marital problems, by seeking lasting virtues in a prospective mate.

One of the problems with this process is that, generally, people looking to get married are Young Beautyoften young, and their judgment has yet to fully mature.  Men, for whom I can speak with some authority, often tend to get distracted by physical aspects of a woman–the babe factor–which can cloud their judgment.  My favorite cousin Butch, who has been married a number of times, is a sweet, brilliant, funny, lovable guy, but has, as he puts it, “a bad picker.”  When it came to women, he routinely made choices which were doomed from the outset.  (As an example, I believe his first wife’s choice of cocktail beverage was scotch and Diet Dr. Pepper.  Just sayin’.)  His current and, we hope, last wife, is a solid, stable, down-to-earth woman, a scholar of native American heritage, although I don’t know what she likes to drink.

Two observations I’ve picked up during my life have bearing on this topic.  The first, from a former boss in the insurance business, states: “Slow as a freshman, slow as a senior.” The implication is that people basically do not change, and marrying someone while keeping a list of those aspects of his or her personality you intend to “fix” is folly.  The second, courtesy of my own mother, is relevant to men seeking wives.  She advised me, if I was seriously interested in a woman, to arrange to meet her mother, and believed that most women grow up to become close copies of their mothers.  She didn’t have anything to say about women seeking men, although I find a number of disturbing aspects of my own personality that closely resemble my father, to my lasting distress.

So, borrowing from the Preamble to the U.S. constitution, in order to form a more perfect union, we should try our best to look beyond the short-term physical attributes of our prospective spouse and focus instead on those aspects of his or her character that will likely be there forever.  A word of caution before getting too far into this–there are some dealbreakers out there for which there are no ready work-arounds, among them a tendency toward physical violence or mental abuse, addictions to gambling, drugs or alcohol, etc., A person with all of the following virtues who is saddled with these issues is not a strong candidate as a life partner.  Acknowledging these concerns, let us examine:

  • Kindness.  One of the virtues that is difficult to measure, but that you know when you see it.  How does he or she treat wait staff in restaurants, or animals?
  • Patience.  Try as you might, during 40 or 50 years together you are going to demand plenty of this from your spouse.  If he is not generally patient, does he have it within him to be patient when necessary?
  • Honesty.  One of the footings of marriage is trust, which is impossible with someone who finds it easy to lie.  I observed this first-hand in my parents’ marriage, and it made my mother’s life hellish at times.
  • Generosity.  If he is cheap, or tight with money, it’s going to be a long row to hoe; there’s frugal, and there’s CHEAP.  Similarly, this can be a spiritual quality, as we often look up to people we think of as having a generous spirit.  Does she come from a sense of abundance, or one of scarcity?  Is he inclusive?  Does she support charities?
  • Forgiveness.  Does he or she stay mad, or have a short memory when it comes to getting over slights, whether real or imagined?  What about you?  Do you have forgiveness in your own heart?  If not, is it fair to expect it from your spouse?
  • Similar “coefficients of boredom.”  If you are a person who is easily bored, and she can be happy curled up on the couch reading a book, there exists the potential for friction.  It pays to seek someone with whom you share interests, and who has a similar tolerance for exhilaration and/or quietude.
  • Shared theories of raising children.  You want ’em, he doesn’t; this issue just won’t resolve itself.  If you’re not on the same page on this topic, perhaps you’d be better off “starting to see other people.”
  • Complementary Myers-Briggs profiles.  Ha–just put this in to see if you’re still paying attention.  But seriously, the cliche that opposites attract is a cliche because it’s true. The two of you don’t have to agree on everything, and by “everything” I’m including issues around religion and politics.  If you’re able to keep debates from devolving into arguments, issue-oriented stuff like this is relatively unimportant.  A side benefit of having different points of view on Issues is that your children will grow up with better independent thinking skills, not having had a strict “party line” to which they were expected to adhere along the way.  Upon hearing their parents present opposing points of view on issues, they will have to decide for themselves which position makes more sense. I’m convinced one reason our three daughters are high achievers is because they had to figure out a lot of stuff on their own, after listening to Nancy and me go at it over dinner.  (The exception to all of this, of course, is climate change.  If one of you believes the planet is heating up, and the other dismisses the thought as claptrap, this single issues can become a wedge in your relationship.  Don’t know why I believe this, but I do.)
  • Fairness.  This is a quality which emerges during difficult times, especially when it comes to fighting.  There is no way to be married to someone for half a century without a few real fights along the way.  “Fighting fairly” is crucial, as it allows wounds to heal more quickly than does its opposite.  John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness–are all examples of fighting dirty, and are all highly damaging to your marriage.  If your prospective spouse has a strong sense of fair play, this improves your chances.

young-couple-in-love-There is certainly a congruence between these suggested marital virtues and what are generally referred to as The Seven Christian Virtues.  Readers are encouraged to comment with other virtues they feel are important to lasting marriages.  These are but a few.  If you’re fortunate enough to find someone with all, or most, of them, as I did, you will likely live a long, happy life together.

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If Momma Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

One of the old jokes Nancy and I have woven into our relationship goes like this, as I tell it.Man-Laughing  “When we were first married, I decided that I would make all the big decisions and that Nancy could make all the small decisions.  Luckily for us, in over 38 years of marriage, there haven’t been any big decisions…”  At the heart of this laugher is the concept of influence, the extent to which spouses allow their mate to shape their thinking and actions.  And according to the Gottmans, couples who share influence with one another are more likely to have lasting, fruitful and rewarding marriages than those who don’t.
couple talkingIn the 21st century, it is amazing to me that we still see and hear vestiges of 19th century thinking on this subject, marriages in which the husband assumes the role of the dominant decision-maker, with the wife taking the inferior position of having to defer to his judgment (or lack thereof) and live with decisions he makes almost entirely on his own.  Less common, I suspect, are marriages in which the wife makes most of the decisions, and the husband meekly accepts orders and direction from her.  These types of relationships lack equilibrium and are, hence, less stable than relationships in which influence is mutually observed and decisions are shared.  Personally, I’m not sure I would be happy in either extreme, as I don’t like the feeling of being directed or pushed around, but also lack confidence in my ability to make important decisions on my own.  One of the qualities that attracted me to Nancy in the very beginning was her assertiveness, the clear understanding that I would not be piloting this relationship entirely by myself.

How does your own relationship stack up in this area?  The following 20 true/false questions were developed by The Gottman Institute in order to help couples assess the extent to which they allow their spouses to influence them.  Perhaps you and your spouse feel you liberally allow one another to influence the thinking and actions of the other.  If you’d like to test that theory, cut and paste the following questions into a Word document, print it twice, sit down together, answer the questions, and compare your answers.

1. I am really interested in my partner’s opinions on our basic issues. T    F 
2. I usually learn a lot from my partner even when we disagree. T    F 
3. I want my partner to feel that what he or she says really counts with me. T    F 
4. I generally want my partner to feel influential in this marriage. T    F
5. I can listen to my partner, but only up to a point. T    F
6. My partner has a lot of basic common sense. T    F
7. I try to communicate respect even during our disagreements. T    F
8. If I keep trying to convince my partner, I will eventually win out. T    F 
9. I don’t reject my partner’s opinions out of hand. T    F
10. My partner is not rational enough to take seriously when we discuss our issues. T    F
11. I believe in lots of give and take in our discussions. T    F
12. I am very persuasive and usually can win arguments with my partner. T    F
13. I feel I have an important say when we make decisions. T    F 
14. My partner usually has good ideas. T    F
15. My partner is basically a great help as a problem solver. T    F 
16. I try to listen respectfully, even when I disagree. T    F 
17. My ideas for solutions are usually much better than my partner’s. T    F
18 I can usually find something to agree with in my partner’s positions. T    F
19. My partner is usually too emotional. T    F
20. I am the one who needs to make the major decisions in this relationship. T    F

Cute-Romantic-Love-CoupleAn excellent metric for your ability to influence one another follows:  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to an argument, you may need to work on this aspect of your relationship.  If answering these questions and discussing your responses leads to sex, you’re probably doing okay.

Temperament and personality types will enter into this process.  For Nancy and me, in that we have significantly different preferences when it comes to Myers-Briggs typing, it is generally helpful when we sit down together to iron out disagreements.  As Gottman points out, the process of reaching external conflict resolution often relies on one’s ability to reach internal conflict resolution first, by learning to accept influence from one’s partner.  Early in relationships, this can be a challenge, as most of us enter marriage having relied almost exclusively on our own judgment for some period of time.  Overcoming disagreements requires us first to acknowledge that our partner’s point of view, though different from ours, may, in fact, be as valid, or even more valid, than our own.  Over time, and with practice, couples in successful relationships can learn how to navigate such differences with relative ease.

I suspect this is not always true with couples whose Myers-Briggs profiles are more similar.  In such marriages, it seems to me that significant disagreements may be more rare, but may be harder to resolve since each spouse approaches decision-making in a similar way.  In these instances, it may be that the best outcome the couple can hope for is to agree to disagree, a sub-optimal solution which, over time, may evolve into a “we just don’t seem to agree about anything” position that could require professional counseling.

One of the most mis-applied verses in scripture is found in Ephesians 5:22-24, which is often used to suggest that women must be submissive to their husbands.  But by reading through verse 33, it becomes clear that God expects equality in our marriages.  Husbands, if you wish to justify 19th century thinking by applying only the first three verses from this passage, you are likely to end up with an unhappy wife.  And, as the old saying goes, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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