Making Marriage Work
1. Choosing a Partner
The choice of a marital partner represents a complex interplay between the conscious and the unconscious, between the rational and the emotional. The cliché that you marry your mother (or father) has a good deal of validity. In psychological terms, you unconsciously seek out a partner who embodies the strongest characteristics—both positive and negative--of your primary caregivers, usually your parents, in order to work out unresolved issues. You also tend to attract a partner on the same level of emotional maturity as your own. All this takes place behind the scenes, so to speak.
When asked why they got together, most couples will say that they fell in love. While love is a necessary component for a successful relationship, it is not sufficient. One must also deal with the hand/glove issue. You may discover an absolutely gorgeous glove in a department store, but if it doesn’t fit your hand, it won’t be satisfactory. One major objective of dating is to determine whether the hand and the glove fit one another. If you want to give ten percent of your joint income to the church and your prospective partner is an atheist, the hand and the glove don’t fit. If you want a large family but your prospective partner doesn’t want any kids, you can’t very well compromise on just two kids. If you love outdoor sports in all seasons and your prospective partner is a couch potato, your lives are unlikely to mesh. In each case, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with either the hand or the glove: they just don’t belong together.
Yet, as Guy Grenier points out in The 10 Conversations You Must Have Before You Get Married, many young couples will spend more time discussing the merits of a home entertainment system or the purchase of an automobile than they will the question of whether they really belong together. Investing time deliberating the “ten questions”—in other words, resolving the hand/glove issues—will pay off handsomely in helping to determine whether a potential partnership will succeed.
Some hand/glove issues should be regarded as automatic deal-breakers, among them drug or alcohol abuse. A healthy person will refuse to enter a relationship with a drug or alcohol addict. And, as Phillip McGraw writes in Relationship Rescue, “if you are in a relationship with a pattern of physical abuse, you need to get out and get out right now.”
In considering an intimate relationship you would be well advised to look for:
- Mental health (beware of untreated psychiatric conditions)
- Self-control (beware of untreated anger or aggression issues)
- Self-esteem (As Terrence Real points out, you cannot love someone from either the one-up or the one-down position)
2. Connectedness Is All
On their deathbeds, very few people look back at their lives and wish that they had watched more television, or made more money, or taken over more companies. Almost invariably, deathbed regrets center on relationships: missed opportunities to connect with families, friends, or partners. One needn’t wait until the actual end of life to conduct this exercise. A hypothetical retrospective look at one’s life offers the chance to repair connections now instead of regretting their absence later.
For emotional connectedness is a basic human need, and the principles underlying successful relationships operate among family members, friends, and business associates as well as between marital partners. John Gottman, in The Relationship Cure, talks about our “bids” for connection, and the importance of recognizing, and responding positively, to other people’s bids. “Failure to connect is a major cause of our culture’s high divorce rate.”
Much of our success in forming and maintaining relationships can be traced to the legacy of our upbringing: whether our families encouraged the expression of all feelings, including anger, sadness, and fear, or whether our families taught us to keep our feelings hidden, or were hostile to the expression of negative emotions. Cultivating one’s listening skills—which potentially draw on all the senses, not just hearing—can markedly improve our ability to connect.
3. Two People Interacting
It has been suggested that any interaction between marital partners actually involves four people: your adult self, your inner child, your partner’ adult self, and your partner’s inner child. Since the behavior of the inner child depends so strongly on patterns learned from one’s parents, one might want to expand the model to incorporate all the possible interactions among as many as eight entities. No wonder marital disputes often seem so complicated. But one simple truth endures: if you, or your partner, display an emotional response disproportionate to the situation, you have been triggered. Once that happens, nothing good—and a great deal of harm—can come from prolonging the interaction. If you see that you have been triggered, the best thing you can do for your marriage is to excuse yourself, leave the scene, and do enough deep breathing to restore your equilibrium. When you return to your partner, lay aside the current issue and work together on identifying the trigger and the unresolved issues from the past that led to the upheaval. If your partner is triggered, if will only make matters worse if you ask him or her to calm down. Instead, excuse yourself in the hope that your partner may take advantage of the opportunity to regain equilibrium. Then perhaps the two of you can seek to understand what triggered the overreaction.
Since everyone has issues that predate the current relationship, occasional triggering is almost inevitable. To contain the collateral damage in a marital dispute, the partners should adopt a few rules of “fair fighting” from the outset, in those halcyon days when they remain convinced that love alone will conquer all problems.
- Stick with one problem at a time (gunny-sacking—gathering up all one’s accumulated grievances and then dumping them on the partner’s head—constitutes dirty fighting)
- Analyze but don’t psychologize (bringing observations about a partner’s supposed inner self, or parents, or past behavior, into the conversation will not enhance it)
- Remain civil (extend to your partner the same basic courtesies you would offer a mere acquaintance: no name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery or character assassination)
- Stay with it (no stalking off without offering a promise of when you will return)
The following exercise, called “dialogue for change,” can be helpful in promoting agreement in place of empty argument. After asking your partner whether he or she will engage in a dialogue around a particular named issue, you express your desires in this formula: “I feel (describe your feelings, as honestly as you can) when you (describe the behavior that bothers you) and I’d like it if (describe briefly what you ask of your partner).” Notice that you’re not calling names or making unflattering remarks about your partner’s choices. You’re just talking about your own feelings in what counsellors often call “I statements.”
The partner may respond:
- “Yes” with conditions
- “No” with a substitution
- Or simply “No.”
The two of your continue the process until you come to an agreement. It’s important to set a time a week or two later at which you can look at the issue again to see whether the solution you’ve arrived at really works.
4. Building a Stronger Union
Couples often come to counselling to present their conflicts, but a more important underlying question is what they have done to strengthen the bonds between them. Terrence Real, in The New Rules of Marriage, points out the importance of recognizing and articulating your needs: intellectual, emotional, physical, sexual and spiritual. Addressing and announcing personal needs may be particularly difficult for individuals whose essential philosophy of life might be summarized as “I’ll have whatever you’re having.” Such a “pleaser” personality may seem ideal to someone who wants to have everything his or her way, but cannot produce an equal partner in any realistic sense of the term. Phillip McGraw offers detailed guides for discovering and focusing one’s personal needs.
In a partnership characterized by mutual respect and acceptance, each person will dare to voice his or her deepest desires. (And neither will succumb to that fanciful bromide, “If you really loved me, you’d know what I wanted without my having to ask.”) A strong union requires both partners to recognize and articulate their own needs, and then be willing to address their partner’s needs.
While specific areas of responsibility may be assigned to one or the other, both partners should participate actively in deciding overall plans or goals. In a successful union each partner respects and entertains the other’s ideas or suggestions. When a mutually agreeable solution does not emerge immediately, resist the impulse to compromise, which essentially means doing something neither partner really wants to do. (This is especially true when making important decisions.) Instead, have faith that two minds working harmoniously can come up with a resolution that neither thought of alone. Eventually you may come to trust this process by which an unexpected answer arises which both partners may enthusiastically embrace.
5. Further resources
The following books inevitably overlap to a certain extent—regardless of what the cover advertises, no one has cornered the market on wisdom regarding marriage—but each contains ideas that may alter your ways of thinking about partnership, and exercises to help bring about necessary changes.
Gottman, John M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.
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Gottman, John M. (2001). The Relationship Cure: A Five-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Grenier, Guy (2007). The 10 Conversations You Must Have Before You Get Marriage (and How to Have Them). Toronto: Key Porter Books.
McGraw, Phillip C. (2000). Relationship Rescue: A Seven-Step Strategy for Reconnecting with Y9our Partner. New York: Hyperion.
Real, Terrence (2007). The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work. New York: Ballantine Books
You can find brief summaries of these and other books on my website, www.oakvillepsychotherapy.com.