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Marriage, the loving partnership of two people, easily fits the words that the author Charles Dickens once famously penned in his book A Tale of Two Cities.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,... it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way...."
Most couples feel positive about their relationship when they first wed. Over time however familiarity can breed contempt. Many seemingly well-matched and well-intentioned couple find their matrimonial bliss becoming increasingly tarnished.
How does a dream marriage turn into a nightmare?
The reality is that in the first stage of love, "the honeymoon phase," folks focus on what they find attractive about each other. Later comes stage two, when spouses begin to address the areas of difference, the his-way, her-way issues.
At this point, and again at any point in the relationship where the couple faces difficult challenges, heeding conventional wisdom, alas, can undermine a potentially excellent marriage partnership.
Here's some "words of wisdom," i.e., matrimonial myths, about which it's an especially good idea to wise up.
1. Marriage is about compromise.
Heaven forbid. Compromise is lose-lose decision-making. If I want to live in Florida and you want to live in Seattle, we’ll both be unhappy in Ohio. Aim instead for win-win solutions.
If you don’t already know the art of win-win decision-making, that's a skill well-worth a few hours of your time to learn. In addition to the link in the prior sentence, I have multiple posts on my PT blog on skills for making win-win decisions together that both partners will feel good about (see specific links below). There's further info and practice options also in my Power of Two Workbook and on my website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
2. Spouses need to get their anger out.
Yes, and no. If you are mad, no doubt there's something real that you need to discuss. The key word here though is discuss.
Discussing issues that have triggered anger takes skills.
Anger is a stop sign. That means that when you feel angry, or hear your partner becoming angry, stop the conversation. Take a cool-down break, either by momentarily changing the topic to a cooler issue, or by briefly going out of the room to get a cooling drink of water.
No one wants to feel the other is walking out on him, so be sure that the two of you map a plan ahead of time. That way any time either of your tempers begins to rise, you both each will rise up on your legs, walk in an opposite direction, cool down, and then return for a fresh start on the discussion.
Once your anger has drained, it's easier to take a calmer perspective on the problem. You'll both listen better to your partner's perspective. Without anger or defensiveness, you'll be better able to figure out what your own concerns are, to hear your partner's, and to respond to both with a plan of action that solves the problem.
If you don't treat anger as a stop sign? Addressing challenging situations via anger instead of stopping at best results in domination, that is, in forcing your partner to do it your way. That means you may win the battle but you'll lose the matrimonial war. And it has potential to cause serious emotional and relationship injuries along the way. Want a depressed spouse? A resentful spouse? Get mad instead of getting smart.
Interestingly, like sexual feelings, angry feelings tend to intensify the more you act on them. The more you shout, the more you'll shout, possibly continuing to escalate until you are flooded, at which point you may explode with a full raging anger orgasm.
On the flip side, smothering anger also is a risky strategy. Smothering anger invites an eventual outburst of rage: smother, smolder, smother, explode.
The better strategy when you are angry is to stop. Calm down enough to discuss the problem together quietly, and find solutions.
3. Intimacy requires being open, communicating what you feel.
Yes, communication in marriage is vitally important. At the same time, all matrimonial communication is not equal. Effective communication enhances intimacy. Hurtful communication invites negative emotions, resentment and distancing.
Hurtful communications are usually either critical or controlling. Here's some examples:
Marriage partners need to communicate sensitively.
Critical: I don't like how hot our bedroom gets at night.
Controlling: I would like you to keep the window open
Effective: I would like to find a way to cool off our bedroom at night. How would you feel about my opening the windows all the way so we get more breeze in our room?
The differences between these three ways of raising an issue may look subtle, but the reality is that your gut can immediately feel the difference if they are said to you.
Critical: Any formulation of the problem that has the word not, including in contraction form such as "I don't like...", "I wish you wouldn't..."
Tone of a comment also can convey criticism. Even without the word not, a critcal, or worse, sarcastic, tone of voice that conveys "You're not ok" is likely to invite defensiveness or counter-attacks instead of empathy and understanding.
Controlling: Any formulation that is telling the other person what you want them to do: "I would like you to" is controlling; "I would like to...", is informative. Controlling comments invite resistance.
Effective: Flip your don't likes to would likes. Flip what you want your partner to do, e.g., "I would like you to ..." to what you yourself might do differently: "I would like to..."
To further increase your odds of successful dialogue, be sure to invite your partner to share his/her perspective. Asking open-ended How or What questions mines the most data: "How would you feel about ... ?" "What's your thoughts on ...?"
Now you're on your way to collaborative problem-solving about the tough spots in your partnership.
One additional note on open communication: Intimacy does thrive when couples communicate openly about what they feel when the feelings are positive. As I write in my posts on sending out good vibes and on gratitude in marriage, the more agreement, appreciation, and fun you share, the happier you will feel in your relationships.
4. Father knows best. (or mother...)
An I’m right, you’re wrong attitude will block you from listening to your partner's perspective. The reality of marriage is that there's two of you, and both viewpoints need to count.
The belief that you know best can tempt you to dismiss your partner's viewpoints. That's a recipe for matrimonial disaster. Insistence on your way or the highway can put you on the fast road to divorce. In fact, as marriage researcher John Gottman's has concluded from his studies, an attitude of contempt for your partner's views is one of the best predictors of marriage failure.
Instead of insisting that you are right, assume that you both are sensible and intelligent people. That’s part of why you chose each other. So listen for what’s right, what makes sense, instead of what's wrong with what your partner tells you. Add your partner's views to your own and the odds zoom up that you will succeed in traveling together the road to ever-more-loving partnership.
5. Don't go to bed mad.
Actually, it's far better to go to bed mad than to stay up late with fights. Arguments escalate the more fatigued you both become.
Better to go to bed mad than to fight.
So instead of continuing to talk once a night-time conversation is turning negative, head for the pillows. Get a good night’s sleep.
The problem will still be there in the morning, but with rest it’s easier to talk calmly, listen openly to each other's concerns, feel generously responsive to each other, and find creative solutions.
6. If you're arguing with me, you must not like me.
Yes, when people are arguing, they experience a surge in negative feelings toward each other at the time of the argument. Lots of arguing makes for an overall less satisfying the marriage and can have a corrosive impact on love. But does arguing mean dislike? a matrimonial mismatch? No.
Arguing indicates skill deficits.
Arguing is usually learned in your family of origin. If your folks fought, or if you grew up in a single-parent-family with parent-kid fighting, "Doing what comes naturally" is likely to be doing what you observed and did growing up.
Arguing therefore does not mean that you don't love each other. Arguing does not mean that the two of you are not a good match. It means you'd better upgrade your anger management, partnership communication and shared-decision-making skills .
Love + Skills = Happy Marriage.
Matrimonial partnership is a high-skilled activity. Every couple has their differences, just like every ski slope has bumps and icy spots. If you are fighting, that's like falling on a ski slope. It means you've had a skill glitch.
For a quick look at skills you might need to develop, you might want to take a look at some of my earlier blog postings on matrimonial skills including the following:
How to talk without criticism.
Making decisions together collaboratively instead of compromising or fighting.
How to stay in the calm zone.
Or, check out my communication skills website at PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
7. Marriage is forever.
My work as a clinical psychologist specializing in helping folks with serious matrimonial difficulties has taught me about the limits to marriage vows. Like a business contract, a marriage contract can be terminated.
Most folks who come to my office end up with highly successful marriages. The marriages that end up instead with divorce usually are because a spouse is persisting in one or more of three deal-breaker behaviors.
I call these the three A's : Alcoholism (or any Addiction), Affairs, and/or excessive Anger (with verbal or physical abuse).
Can a marriage survive an affair, abusive anger or an addiction? If a spouse has had a problem with one or more of these three A's, the problem can be fixed if s/he admits the problem and makes serious changes. The marriage then can end up becoming a fine partnership. Without a major commitment and real change, however, the 3 A's are deal-breakers that invite marital termination.
8. Love conquers all.
Alas, not so. Follow the mistaken conventional wisdoms above and your marriage ship can spring serious leaks.
Aging together happily is an ultimate blessing.
For smooth sailing in a truly forever relationship, stay savvy, savor your love, and make sure that you learn the skills for sustaining a strong and loving marriage.