Ten Unlikely Facts of Married Life
Instead of learning from the marital success of others, couples tend to use their own “good common sense” to deal with the problems that arise in their marriage. Although helpful in certain aspects of life, everyday common sense, or what some label “conventional wisdom,” is not particularly useful when dealing with relationship or marital issues.
For example, conventional wisdom has it that most problems in marriage are the result of poor communication skills. Yet my observation after listening for the past thirty-five years to the couples with whom I have worked, is that most married couples do a reasonably good job of communicating with one another. More often than not, it is not that they can’t communicate well but, rather, that they don’t like the message that their partners are communicating to them.
Nevertheless, virtually every couple that arrives at my office reports that they are there to address or resolve “communication problems.” This disconnect between the reasons that couples give for their difficulties and the actual cause of their marital strife requires that I disabuse these couples of their own strongly held, but inaccurate, beliefs about the source of their unhappiness.
As I think back on the couples with whom I have worked over the years, I have come to appreciate that much of their suffering is due to their misguided attempts at trying to resolve problems using conventional wisdom. However, what these couples soon realize, once we begin marital therapy, is that they will need to discard their common sense notions of marriage and replace them with one or more non-obvious, improbable, or unlikely ideas about marriage.
The following “ten unlikely facts of married life” are not necessarily the ten most important facts about marriage. They are, however, ten unlikely or counter-intuitive facts of married life that are often at the root of a great deal of marital or relationship strife. It is my belief that by simply reading and then implementing the suggestions offered on this web page, individuals will begin to transform their marriage into the loving relationship they hoped it would be.
Unlikely Fact Number One:
“To be married means that you are no longer single.”
Couples arrive at my office angry and upset over the fact that being in a committed relationship requires that they surrender a certain amount of autonomy. They are frustrated over having lost their freedom to spontaneously do whatever it is they feel like doing whenever it is they feel like doing it. They complain that their ability to make decisions about their lives has become curtailed. My response to those of you with complaints such as these can be summarized in one sentence: Welcome to married life.
What individuals in a committed relationship who complain about their loss of freedom don’t realize is that there is a way for them to continue their old ways of doing things. All they need to do is to remain single.
But when two people undertake the commitment of a monogamous relationship such as marriage, they are also, often unwittingly, agreeing to an important restriction on their behavior, mainly that neither partner no longer gets to do whatever he or she wants without first consulting with the other. What married folks fail to recognize (at least those folks who manage to find their way to my office) is that among all the other changes brought on by married life is a brand new reality—mainly the reality that each member of the couple will forever more have to deal with a room-mate and all the restrictions on their freedom that all such relationships entail.
Just as they and their college roommates may have had to negotiate the terms of their rooming arrangements—for example, who would clean the toilets before a big party—so too must married couples negotiate their new agreements. What that means is that many of the behaviors they had each previously taken for granted will now have to be reconsidered and perhaps renegotiated. Thus, even though you might not mind sleeping in an unmade bed, and even though you are usually in way too much of a hurry to even think about making your bed in the morning, you may no longer, if you are in a committed relationship, have the luxury of making that decision for yourself. That will certainly be the case if you happen to be married to someone who feels differently than you do about bed making.
[Before illustrating this point with an actual case study, this might be an appropriate time to say a word about client privacy and confidentiality. It should be understood by anyone reading this that it is my policy in all of my clinical writings to protect the identity of all of my clients. What that means is that every person described on my website has been disguised in ways that make identification of the actual person being described nearly impossible. Besides changing all names, I have changed enough details about their presenting complaints and about the specifics of their life that it is unlikely that any of my clients, or their friends and family, would recognize themselves in these case studies.]
I recently treated a married man who was a serious photography hobbyist. His special interest was taking photographs in the rain or snow. During his bachelor days he thought nothing of grabbing his camera and running out of the house at the slightest sign of a drizzle. He therefore couldn’t understand why in the world his wife might be even the slightest bit annoyed over the fact that a few days earlier he had abruptly left a restaurant where they had been eating in order to run with his camera after an exciting photo opportunity. As he told me later, “She could have simply put my food in a carry-out container and brought it home with her. The food would not have gone to waste.” What this fellow had failed to comprehend was that the problem was not about the uneaten food. The problem was his failure to recognize that once he had answered the minister’s question at the wedding by saying “I do,” his right to decide unilaterally when his meal in the restaurant was over had ended. Why? Because he was married and no longer single.
Other married individuals have been shocked to learn that they might not be able to continue the regular communication either one might have been having with a former lover. These individuals are surprised to learn that even though that former lover may now be nothing more to them than a “very good friend,” they might nonetheless be expected by their new partner to severely restrict whatever contact they might wish to have with that person.
Differences about how to deal with money issues is for many couples a vexing concern. Conflict about money becomes most intense when individuals accustomed to having the final say about how they will spend their own earnings are now expected by their partner to consult with them first. What that means is that even though you may have worked long and hard to earn your money, and even though in some cases you are the only member of the couple who is working outside of the home and earning any money at all, nonetheless, you will forever be required to consult with your spouse before agreeing to make any significant purchases. (Keep in mind that the dollar amount of what each couple considers a “significant purchase” is itself a negotiable item. I remember working with an extremely wealthy couple where the rule they decided upon was that either spouse could make a purchase without consulting with the other so long as the total monthly cost for all such items for each spouse did not exceed $25,000!) And why are couples required to consult with one another and get agreement regarding their behavior in all these different arenas?
Because to be married means you are no longer single.
Unlikely Fact Number Two:
“Marriage is like a fire sale: all merchandise is purchased “as is” with no exchanges and no returns.”
This idea can perhaps best be illustrated by the concern expressed by a newly wed woman who met with me not too long ago. Without necessarily framing the issue using these exact words, she arrived at my office wanting to change the terms of her “purchase agreement” after marrying her husband. The new bride was concerned and unhappy over the fact that her husband was now looking for any opportunity to play tennis. Since returning from their honeymoon a little more three months earlier, he had been getting up two hours before his job required so as to be able to play for 90 minutes every morning before work. In addition, he would stop at the tennis club on his way home from work in order to play for another hour or so.
After listening to this woman in my office I began thinking that her husband might need to be reminded about Unlikely Fact Number One, mainly that to be married means that one is no longer single. I was all prepared to have this woman bring her husband to the next therapy session so that I could educate him about the limitations of marriage versus the freedoms of bachelorhood. I planned to explain to him that given the fact that he was no longer single he was likewise no longer at liberty to play as much tennis as he wished, at least not without first consulting with his spouse.
But I had second thoughts about pursuing that approach once I learned from this young woman about how she and her husband had originally met. “Oh, he was the tennis pro at the club where I played every day,” she said ever so innocently. “Now I understand,” I said. “So you married a tennis pro and are now surprised that he likes to play tennis?” “Yes” she agreed, and then without any apparent realization on her part of the implications of my response she added “and if things don’t improve I’m thinking that although he is otherwise an incredible person, I may not be able to remain married to him.” “Ah ha,” said I, “so you’re not only upset about the amount of tennis he plays, but you’re also considering trading him in for a better model?”
When I realized at that point that she still did not appear to “get it,” I explicitly pointed out to her the irony of her wanting to change the specific behavior of her husband that he, no doubt, assumed she most appreciated about him. After all, her husband was the pro who my client had asked to coach her so that she could improve her tennis game.
It was also at this point in our therapy session that I began to clarify the rationale behind “unlikely fact number two.” I explained that we do not get to unilaterally change the existing agreements, understandings, or what I call “the rules” of a relationship once we get married. In other words, my client had “purchased” a high intensity tennis pro and now she wanted to “exchange” him for a low intensity model. Sure, if she and her husband were to decide together to make a significant change in their life such as, for example, deciding to bring a child into the world or to invite their in-laws to move in with them, then, of course, any agreements made before marriage might need to be renegotiated. But it is my assertion that neither we nor our partners are simply free to announce to the other that things will need to change—or else.
Of course we are always free to make requests of our partners. We can certainly ask the other to change a certain behavior we find objectionable. But requests are not ultimatums. And most important of all, if we are asking our spouse to make changes in behavior that we had already accepted and of which we had tacitly approved before marriage, then it is our spouse who gets to make the ultimate decision about whether or not he or she will agree to make those changes. In other words, we can request change after we get married but we lose the right to demand that change. Why?
Because marriage is like a fire sale, with no exchanges and no returns.
Unlikely Fact Number Three:
“Compromise Doesn’t Work.”
Imagine you just got a craving to eat Chinese food and you ask your partner if he or she would like to join you. Your partner says she’s really in the mood for a big fat juicy hamburger. So you compromise and you both go to an Italian restaurant where you share a pepperoni pizza. It’s a solution not likely to make either of you especially happy. When we compromise in this way we typically end up with two equally dissatisfied people.
And that is the problem with compromise. It almost never results in either party to the agreement feeling particularly gratified with the result. Built into the nature of compromise is the inevitable guarantee that both parties will wind up feeling somewhat disappointed. Nonetheless many of the couples I see in my practice will often propose that the major problem in their relationship is that they are unable to compromise.
In fact, what I have learned over the years from working with such couples is that just the opposite is often the case. That is, the truth is not that they can’t compromise, but that they are likely to compromise too quickly and too often. These couples do not realize that there is often a better and more satisfying solution to many disagreement than compromise.
This is not meant to argue against the real possibility that for individuals who find themselves in certain business settings, for example during contract negotiations between labor and management, a compromised resolution may well be the best that either party can hope for.
However compromise is rarely the best solution when it comes to disagreements between family members or close friends. Why is that? Because unlike the union representatives who have no reason to assume that management is looking out for the best interest of their workers and because unlike management negotiators who are likely to be suspicious of labor’s commitment to their primary goal of running a profitable business, we can assume that our friends and loved ones do, in fact, have our own best interests at heart.
Because of this belief in the good will of our friends and relatives, we might not need to compromise in those situations in which we might otherwise be expected to “give a little so that we can get a little.” Maybe, if we are loved enough, we can get all that we want instead of having to settle for less than we want. Another way to think about this is by realizing that we ourselves might be willing—dare I say might even be happy—to forgo our own preferences in order to ensure that someone we truly love or care about gets something that is really important to him or her, at least some of the time.
What then is the alternative to compromise? Quite simply, it’s the willingness to “fight” for what we truly believe in while at the same time being open to hearing and supporting our partner in what he or she is asking for. When we no longer insist on compromise as a way of getting some of what we want, we open ourselves up to the possibility of offering our partner a genuine gift of getting all of what he or she wants. In short, the alternative to a begrudging compromise is the gift of giving to our partner, without resentment and with a generous heart, not some, but all that he or she desires.
Let me illustrate the point I am making with the following example. A couple came for therapy asking for help with a unique problem, one with which I had never before been asked to help. In all my years as a professional psychologist, no one had ever before come to my office asking for assistance in choosing an automobile. It’s not quite like it sounds. This couple was not asking for my expertise in helping them to choose between the safety features of a Toyota Prius versus the handling and performance qualities of a Ford Mustang. What this couple wanted was a mediator who they hoped could help them to agree on a reasonable compromise concerning their two very different automobile preferences.
A relatively happily married couple who had been together for about eighteen years, they were individuals of limited means. The one and only car they owned had been driven over 100,000 miles and was constantly needing more frequent and more expensive repairs. The only reasonable thing to do, they had decided, was to trade in their not so slowly dying car for another vehicle. Along with the money they would get from their trade-in and the money they had already saved, they now had just enough money to place a down payment on one, and only one, new car.
However, there was a problem. The wife who was a quite talented and committed gardener wanted to buy a station wagon which could be used to haul mulch and other such gardening supplies and which according to her was the most practical choice they could make. The husband, on the other hand, was pushing for a tiny two seat roadster that had no back seat and a trunk that could barely hold two gallons of milk. His main reason for choosing that car was because he “really, really liked it.”
“Dr. Bass,” Sharon, said to me, “you need to convince George that he is being really shortsighted and selfish. I love gardening and he loves to do woodworking. Buying the kind of vehicle he wants to buy would prevent both of us from pursuing our hobbies. I would have no way of transporting my plants and George would have no way of hauling the lumber he uses for his cabinet making projects.” All George could say in rebuttal was, “But I really, really like the roadster.”
Variations on this conversation had been going on for months before they first saw me. As their last resort they came to my office wanting me to help them to come up with a reasonable compromise.
But I surprised them when I said that I did not think that any compromise they could devise would be likely to work. Any compromise, rather than being a victory for one of them, would instead feel like a loss to both of them. I then told them that their problem is not that they had been fighting over this for too long a time but rather that they had not been fighting for what they believed in convincingly enough, or assertively enough. I told them that rather than trying to find what I suspected would turn out to be an unsatisfying compromise, they should instead go home and fight harder at trying to convince their spouse to agree to their own preference or desire.
“But that’s just what we’ve been doing,” they both exclaimed simultaneously. “No you haven’t,” I insisted. “You’ve both been too focused on coming up with a “reasonable compromise” rather than actually standing up for your convictions. As a result you’ve both been unable to convincingly argue for what each of you wants. So stop being so reasonable and start fighting for what you really want. Your homework is to go home this week and convince your spouse to give you the gift of giving you what you want.”
The following week they arrived at my office looking even more demoralized than they had at our first meeting. They said they tried to do what I suggested but that all that their attempts seemed to do was to entrench them even deeper into their own positions thereby making compromise even more difficult and less likely. I reminded them that the goal was not to compromise but was instead for one of them to get what he or she really wanted. After more discussion I sent them back home with instructions to continue the homework I had assigned to them after session number one.
I’m not sure who was more relieved, my clients or me, when they arrived the following week in my office with two of the broadest smiles I had ever seen. They asked me to look out my office window so that I could see their “new” 1982 Porsche 911 two seater.
After many minutes of “oohing and aahing” with them over the beauty of the automobile I turned to Sharon and asked, “What happened?” She proceeded to tell me about how after more than three hours of what up to then had been a very logical conversation about the pros and cons of buying this or that particular car, George began weeping. For the first time he shared with Sharon how for his entire life he had always done the responsible thing. Although he had wanted to take time off and travel with some of his friends between high school graduation and the beginning of college he did what Mom and Dad said was the only responsible thing to do and went straight on to college. He went on to share a number of other examples of his always choosing the responsible path.
During that conversation he had confided in Sharon his many regrets about the responsible choices that he had made over the years. He shared how since the first time he had seen a ’82 Porsche he knew that was the car he had to one day drive. And as Sharon listened to George she realized not only that George really did want that car much more than she wanted her practical station wagon, but even more importantly, Sharon realized that she wanted George to have this car.
“No,” she said, “not only do I want George to have the car of his dreams, but I want to be the one to give him his dream.” Sharon shared with both of us that she was certain that she was happier giving him the gift of the car than she believed he could ever be in receiving it. She felt both loving and magnanimous at the same time.
And best of all. They demonstrated to themselves—and to me—the truth of Unlikely Fact Number Three:
Compromise doesn’t work.
Unlikely Fact Number Four:
“Invitations are not always inviting or why the liberty to make our own choices may not feel liberating.”
Brief vignette number one: You are reading the newspaper on a lazy Sunday afternoon when your wife asks you if you would like to go to the movies later that evening. Instead of feeling pleased about the invitation you find yourself feeling annoyed. Why?
Brief vignette number two: Your husband calls to say he’d like to meet you for dinner tonight. He says he has no preferences on where he’d like to eat and that you should feel free to pick the restaurant yourself. Instead of feeling good about the invitation you find yourself feeling annoyed. Why?
Brief vignette number three: You are watching “Monday Night Football” on TV when your wife walks into the room and asks if you would like to join her in the bedroom after the game for a sexual encounter. Instead of feeling pleased about the offer you find yourself feeling annoyed. Why?
All three of the above proposals appear, on the surface, to be invitations to a good time. If we assume that the recipients of these three scenarios would usually have been pleased to have received any one of these offers, then we need to ask ourselves what in the world the problem could be. What is it about all three invitations that result in annoyance rather than joyful delight? Why might someone find an invitation to the movies, dinner, or sex anything but appealing?
Yet the annoyances (and sometimes worse) resulting from the types of invitations described above are illustrative of exactly the kinds of problems resulting from these inadvertently flawed invitations that couples bring to my office everyday. The spouse extending the invitation can’t understand why in the world his or her offer could possibly cause an argument. And the invitees are themselves bewildered about just why things invariably go awry.
One couple I saw recently told me about how their usual attempt to plan an outing to a movie typically results in their inability to decide either when to leave the house (should we go to the 7 o’clock or 10 o’clock showing?) or in their inability to select a movie (will we see the art house film or the latest special effects blockbuster?) both would like to see. The result: they rarely get out to see a movie.
Another couple was astounded by the fact that every attempt to eat out invariably becomes thwarted by some seemingly trivial barrier such as whether or not they grab a bite at the local neighborhood burger joint or drive downtown and try out the new Afghani restaurant everyone is talking about.
And the third vignette in which one spouse proffers a seemingly innocent invitation for romance to the other could describe a situation that occurs in fully eighty percent of the married couples I see. Invitations to join a spouse to make love more often than you might imagine turn out to be invitations to a quarrel about their lovemaking.
Perhaps one last non-marriage related example can give you a hint about the point I am attempting to make here.
Vignette number four. You are one of ten guests who have been invited to the home of a new acquaintance when he announces that dinner is being served. While trying to decide where to sit, your host tells you to feel free to sit where ever you’d like. Instead of feeling good about the freedom to choose your own seat you find yourself feeling annoyed. Why?
Perhaps, with the presentation of this last vignette, the problem with the three previous scenarios can now be brought more clearly into focus. What I am getting at here is that invitations that are ambiguous or that leave the invitee unsure about certain elements of the invitation are often perceived as uninviting and can frequently be received as unwelcome.
Most of us, before responding to an invitation, would like to know what exactly the nature of the invitation is. Are we being invited to a brief cocktail party from which we can escape in thirty minutes if we find ourselves either bored or boring or are we in fact being invited to a four hour sit down dinner from which escape is virtually impossible? Are we being invited to a party where the other guests will be wearing jeans and tee shirts or to a more formal get together where we might be expected to wear our Sunday best?
The ironic fact is that hosts often believe they are doing their guests a favor by being “flexible” and offering them the option of deciding for themselves where they’d like to sit or what they’d like to wear. They mistakenly think their guests appreciate flexibility. But what guests really want is for the host to remove the uncertainty from an ambiguous situation and to simply tell us what it is they expect of us.
Now to return to the first three vignettes. Vignette number one backfired because the recipient of the invitation became confused. When he was asked if he’d like to go to the movies he had no idea what the correct answer was. Was his wife really saying, “Honey, you look really bored being stuck in the house and although I am happy to stay home and read the newspaper with you, I’d be perfectly willing to join you if you would like to go to see the latest James Bond movie.” Or was she really saying, “I would like to see the new version of “Pride and Prejudice” and would really like for you to join me for the 7 o’clock showing at the downtown Cineplex.”
If his wife were asking question number one, he might have been quick to say, “No, I am not really interested in going to the movies today. I’m having a really good time reading the paper.” If, on the other hand, she had asked question number two, his answer might have been more like, “I’d be glad to accompany you to the movies. But rather than go downtown for the 7 o’clock show at the Cineplex, I’d rather have a more leisurely dinner at home and then go to the 9:30 showing at the local movie theater.”
However, because the question was phrased so vaguely, the husband instead wound up feeling annoyed because he didn’t want to upset his wife yet didn’t know which answer she really wanted. He didn’t know if his wife was trying to do him a favor or whether she was requesting one of him. He wanted to do the right thing but because the invitation was worded so vaguely, he couldn’t figure out what the “correct” answer should be.
Of course, you may be thinking, he might easily have gotten around the problem by simply asking his wife directly what her preference was. But that might just as easily resulted in his wife saying, “I was asking you. Why must you always answer all of my questions with a question?” with the result being that she now feels annoyed that her husband could not or would not answer her “simple” question. What’s the moral of the story? You are not doing your spouse, or for that matter anyone else, a favor by extending an invitation that does not include all of the pertinent information.
Similarly, invitation number two might have been extended more precisely as “Honey, I’ve had a really hard day at the office today and eating out in my favorite Chinese restaurant near my office would give me the perfect opportunity to un-wind. Would you be willing to drive downtown to meet me there at 6:30?” Such an invitation is clear and unambiguous and the recipient of the invitation does not have to guess what else might be expected of her. Also, since the person extending the invitation has already decided on the choice of restaurant, the invitee is relieved of any additional burden except having to decide whether she wants to accept the invitation as is.
Of course, just as in vignette number one, the wife in this case is free to offer modifications to the original invitation by, for example, offering to meet him at a different time or location which might be somewhat more convenient for her.
Scenario number three which for other reasons (primarily having to do with the fact that the subject of the conversation is about sex which itself is a more complicated issue than those raised by the other vignettes) would also likely have gone better if the wife’s invitation was more precise. For example, did the wife who was inviting her husband for a sexual encounter for later that evening forget (as did one of my clients) that her husband had previously told her that he needed to get to sleep early that night in order to drive for three hours the next morning to the office of an important client? Or did she in fact remember what he had told her and was she actually thinking, “I’ll take this opportunity to initiate a romantic encounter on the one evening that I know my husband will turn me down. That way he can’t accuse me of never initiating sex.”
Or perhaps what the vague invitation for a sexual encounter really meant was the following. “Honey, I know that you are a really kind considerate lover and would not usually want to plan a sexual encounter unless there was plenty of time for both of us to relax so that we could both really enjoy ourselves. However, I also realize that because of our busy schedules we have been romantically unavailable for one another for over a week. So I am making you a “no strings attached” offer for a “quickie” sexual encounter. I will be glad to offer you all the pleasure you may wish tonight, but because of the circumstances of your work, I will not be expecting anything back in return.”
The above stated offer is much less likely to have led to the annoyance that the first variation on this invitation was likely to lead to.
Which brings me to the dinner party vignette in which we were asked to choose our own seat and “sit wherever you’d like.” When we find ourselves in a new or uncomfortable environment most of us crave nothing more than to know what the “rules of the house” are and to know what is expected of us. Nothing makes people more anxious than ambiguity.
What follows from this? We’d prefer to be told where to sit. Why?
Because invitations are not always inviting and the liberty to make our own choices does not always feel liberating.
Unlikely Fact Number Five:
“Helping isn’t helpful.”
A quiz for a would-be therapist: A married couple, both members of which are working outside the home, has divided the household chores between them. Because the husband’s job requires that he be away from home more hours per day than his spouse, his wife willingly agreed to take on more of the household responsibilities. In spite of a sincere effort on her part, the wife reports that she rarely completes all of her agreed upon chores with the result being that she is frequently calling upon her husband to “pitch in and help out.”
The husband argues that his wife is being selfish by repeatedly asking for help. He feels that he is being unfairly penalized for being a better time manager than she and refuses to help. His wife argues that if he really loved her he wouldn’t need to be asked but would willingly and non-begrudgingly help out. The couple is now in your office asking for your guidance.
Which one of the following options do you recommend?
1. Love means being there for our loved one and so you tell the husband that he could find no better way to express his love than by helping his wife.
2. Love means keeping your word to your loved one. You remind the wife that she made the agreement with her husband willingly and that she is letting him down by refusing to keep her end of the bargain.
3. Love means being willing to respond with flexibility to the wishes of our loved one. You therefore suggest that neither spouse should be completely responsible for any one chore. You suggest that each partner do whatever is needed to get the job done. With this more flexible approach, if one spouse is folding the laundry and dinner time is approaching, the other spouse will begin preparing dinner.
Before looking ahead to read my answer, make a mental note of the one option that you believe would be of most assistance in helping this couple to resolve their problem.
My answer: Number 2
My analysis and rationale: The typical married person is over-worked and under-rested and is likely to feel stretched beyond his or her limits. Recent surveys report that the average married person works more hours per day and sleeps one or two fewer hours per night than did their parents or grandparents a generation ago. What those data indicate is that most married individuals are already working at or above their full capacity.
According to these findings it’s likely that the wife in the above example is feeling overwhelmed. Should she not, therefore, be permitted to ask for the help she most certainly needs? After all, her request for help is not the plea of a lazy individual but a cry for help from an overextended spouse. Why would I suggest that she not be permitted to ask for help?
On the other hand, it’s likely that the husband is also feeling depleted. If we look at his wife’s request from his perspective we’re not surprised to learn that he feels that he is being “taken advantage of.” Since he already feels like he doing more than his fair share, he will hear his wife’s request for help as a demand that he is then likely to translate as “in spite of the fact that you are already overloaded with more work than you can do, I want you to take on even more so that you can help me with my share of the load.”
What this analysis leads me to understand is that any agreement that leads to one spouse asking for help from the other is destined to fail. Instead of constantly feeling obligated to “help” one another, couples would do better to renegotiate the terms of their agreement. This new agreement must be seen by husband and wife as fair and equitable. And if the new agreement they hammer out is perceived by both of them as fair, neither will want (nor will they feel the need) to ask the other for help.
The best agreements are those in which each partner feels like he or she has come away with the better of the deal. A contract that is agreed to begrudgingly, similar to a compromise that contains seeds of resentment (see “unlikely fact number three”) can only end poorly. Because marriages in which couples are frequently helping one another are rarely satisfying, an agreement that results in either partner needing to ask the other for help has no real chance of succeeding. The sign of a truly well functioning marriage is one in which well crafted agreements ensure that neither spouse will feel the need to ask for help. Why?
Because helping doesn’t help.
Unlikely Fact Number Six:
“Only one person, at any one time, is permitted to be upset.”
Have you ever noticed that some people are really good at soothing a crying baby and that others fail miserably in their attempts to calm her down? Why is that? Most psychologists agree that the difference lies in the comfort level of the caretaker. It appears that infants and young children are exquisitely tuned in to the emotional states of the persons caring for them. When they sense that a particular caretaker is confident and self assured—emotional states perceived by babies from certain subtle nonverbal cues such as how comfortably yet securely the caretaker is holding them—the baby relaxes. Conversely, a baby that senses that the person holding him is anxious or uncertain will have difficulty being soothed.
The conclusions we reached from the above observations with children can be applied in a similar way to our interactions with our partners. If our spouse comes to us worried, frightened, or upset about any particular issue, our primary obligation is to remain calm. Just as we don’t cry when the baby starts crying, so too we don’t get to become depressed when our spouse is sad, to become fearful when our spouse is frightened, or to become angry when our spouse is mad (even when he or she is mad at us.) Our unwillingness or inability to remain calm in the face of his or her upsetness guarantees that things will only get worse. And conversely, our ability to remain calm in the face of an anxious, depressed, or angry partner can go a long way toward soothing his or her emotional upset.
Whether it’s about soothing a crying baby or comforting an upset spouse our job remains the same—to soothe ourselves. Unfortunately, all too often the individuals I see in my practice report that simply expressing upsetness about an issue is reason enough to trigger a similar upset in their partner.
For example, one partner says he’s disappointed that she left dirty dishes on the kitchen table whereupon she then accuses him of leaving dirty socks on the bedroom floor. Or she says he forgot to bring home the milk he had promised to buy. His rejoinder is that she once again left the car with almost no gas in the tank. In these marriages no one ever gets to be upset without the other becoming equally distraught.
These defensively hurtful reactions are quite common among individuals in unhappy marriages. John Gottman, a foremost researcher on the causes of marital distress, has written that defensiveness is one of the four high probability predictors of divorce. However, the good news is that defensive behavior of this sort can be significantly reduced when couples agree to utilize a few simple problem solving techniques.
Space constraints prevent me from offering no more than a brief description of one helpful technique to address a problem I call “defensive cross complaining.” This occurs when someone responds to a partner’s complaint with a complaint of their own.
The following dialogue is a brief excerpt from a marital therapy session in which the problem of defensive cross complaining is addressed. It’s a fairly typical example of a session with the type of couple I am likely to see in my practice, one in which the upset of one partner becomes the trigger for the upset of the other.
Dr Bass: “As I listen to both of you speak I am struck by the fact that neither of you seems to do a particularly good job of responding to your partner’s emotional pain.”
Client: “Well if you were being unjustly accused of something, wouldn’t you want to defend yourself?”
Dr Bass: “Yes I would. But just because I feel like doing something doesn’t mean that I necessarily do it. Isn’t it true that all of us at certain times do not say what is really on our minds? I would guess that when your boss says something you disagree with, you don’t always tell her what you really think of her idea. Especially if she’s the type of boss who is not really interested in what you think.”
Client: “But that’s my boss. Are you saying I can’t talk frankly and honestly to my own spouse? Are you saying that I can’t give him my honest feedback?”
Dr. Bass: “If you want the conversation to go well you will need to know what to say. My suggestion is that it is almost always helpful to say to your partner the three most loving words any spouse can communicate to their husband or wife. Do you know what those words are?”
Client: A blank stare followed by total silence.
Dr. Bass: “The three most loving words are, ‘Tell me more.'”
Client: More blank stares and silence.
Dr. Bass: “When our spouse comes to us with an issue, concern or complaint, he or she typically does not want us to respond with a suggestion or with a complaint of our own. Our partner is often simply asking to be heard and perhaps to offer him or her nothing more than a “shoulder to cry on.” When we say “tell me more” we are not agreeing or disagreeing with our spouse. We are not approving of their perspective or disapproving of their point of view. We are simply offering him or her the opportunity to be heard. Later on I might teach you some specific “active listening” skills. But for now all you need to do is to be willing to hear your partner out. If he is unhappy with your behavior, when you say “tell me more” you are simply asking for more data. You are providing your partner with validation that he or she has the right to be heard. And more often than not, simply listening to our partner’s point of view is all that is needed to address his or her concern.”
This conversation may go on for quite awhile. At some point in the conversation, one of two things is likely to happen. The first possibility is that the couple will announce that they “get it” and that they are willing to try out this new way of interacting.
And the second possibility is that one member of the couple will insist that he or she should not have to remain calm in the face of an unfair accusation or criticism. That’s when one of them will ask me why they can’t stand up for what they believe.
And that’s my cue for reminding them that their marriage is much more likely to succeed if both are willing to agree to unlikely fact number six.
Only one person, at a time, is permitted to be upset.
Unlikely Fact Number Seven:
“The qualities in our lover that we once found so endearing are the same qualities we now find so annoying.”
Couple Number One
Last year: John meets and marries Evelyn whom he describes as delightfully spontaneous and unpredictable. He has more fun with her than he has ever had with anyone else he has met. She is the one person in his life able to take him away from his everyday worries about work and money.
This year: Tom is seriously considering divorce. He complains that Evelyn is rarely on time for appointments, can’t remember to put gas in her car, and overspends their checking account.
Couple Number Two
Last year: Karen meets and marries Fred who she describes as the first stable, responsible man she has ever dated. She loves the fact that he is a loving son who has a caring, conflict-free relationship with his parents and siblings.
This Year: Karen complains that Fred spends hours on the phone with Mom. Karen is upset that all vacations have become family vacations. Fred, on the other hand, wonders why Karen would want to spend time away alone with him when they could instead take all their vacations with his family. “And anyway,” say Fred “my brothers and I do everything together. Why would Karen ever try to come between us?”
Couple Number Three
Last year: Virginia, a shy rather reclusive woman, meets and marries Ken whose main appeal is his ability to make and keep friends. For the first time in her life, Virginia is meeting new people and is being welcomed into their homes and their lives.
This year: Virginia complains to me that Ken is always planning fishing trips with his friends and remains in frequent contact with old girlfriends. She adds, “He never seems to have time for just the two of us.”
Moral of the story: The qualities that lead us to pursue a relationship are not necessarily the same qualities that will lead to relationship success. Although opposites often do attract, couples need other qualities to ensure that the relationship remains fulfilling after the initial infatuation has subsided.
My recommendation: Enjoy the initial infatuation phase but then make sure to take enough time to really get to know your partner. Only time will tell you if the exciting qualities to which you were first attracted actually “wear well.” And if you do decide that you have found your special person, make sure you continue to enjoy those differences that first attracted you to him or her.
And because unlikely fact number seven of married life is that “the qualities in our lover that we once found so endearing may become the very same qualities we now find so annoying,” we will all need to remember to enjoy those qualities in our spouse that are different from us. And perhaps just as importantly, we need to continue to work on and refine those qualities in ourselves that don’t come quite as naturally so that our partners will feel like they also made the right choice in marrying the person they did.
Unlikely Fact Number Eight:
“The passenger in the car gets to control the brake and the throttle.”
I can imagine someone reading that last sentence and scratching his head and thinking, “Doesn’t the driver of the car get to decide how fast or how slowly to drive? Surely, Dr. Bass, you’re not suggesting that I should allow my passenger to yank the steering wheel away from me. And if I see the cars up ahead slowing down then surely I, the driver, should be able to slow down or speed up in order to avoid an accident.”
Yes. All of that is true. But there is more to the matter than may at first seem obvious. It is my assertion that the attitude we bring to our approach to driving a car is an excellent predictor of the attitude we bring to our relationships. If we really love the person we are with, we want them to feel safe in our presence. We don’t serve hamburgers to vegetarians. We don’t tickle people who are very ticklish. If we were giving our spouse a backrub, we would likely, I hope, ask him or her how we are doing. Are we touching too hard or too softly? Should we use more lotion?
And, I would argue, we can and should bring that same loving attitude to our interactions with the passengers in our car. If we truly care about the person we are transporting, we want him or her to feel comfortable in our car. We therefore don’t drive faster than our passenger feels comfortable with. (You would be surprised how many of some couples’ marital therapy sessions are devoted to complaints about a spouse’s driving.)
In short, the consideration we give to the passengers in our car can be seen as a barometer of the way we treat the important people in our life. It is my belief that we would all be happier if we were willing to listen and act on the concerns about our own behavior that they bring to us. And so what does that mean?
That “the passenger in our car gets to control the brake and the throttle.
Unlikely Fact Number Nine:
“You can’t change your husband or wife—but you can change yourself. And a changed you will result in a changed spouse.”
What this means is that you will need to stop complaining about all of the ways that your partner is disappointing to you and begin listening to and taking seriously all of your partner’s complaints about you.
Many people want to add a corollary to this ninth unlikely fact that goes something like the following: “Since I can’t change my spouse, then my spouse shouldn’t try to change me. And since I’m supposed to change myself, then my spouse should also work at changing him or herself.” These folks insist that “my partner should accept me for who I am and should stop asking me to change.”
My reply to them is that “your partner is not in this office, you are.” And therefore unlikely fact number nine applies to all of your demands for change from your spouse including your request that your partner stop expecting changes from you. In other words, “sorry, but you don’t get to request that change either.”
Implementing this idea that we can only change ourselves requires not that we bend over backwards to twist ourselves into a pretzel. Changing ourselves does not require that we become the perfect partner of all time, nor that we become a “super husband” or “super wife,” but simply that we begin treating our spouse as we did when we first met.
Do you remember how kind you were when you started courting your partner and how much you looked forward to his or her requests so that you might have an opportunity to prove your love? And do you remember how your partner responded? Your partner responded by reciprocating in kind. When you treated him or her lovingly, your partner treated you even more lovingly. Human nature is like that. We have no choice but to answer kindness with kindness and love with love. (Of course I am assuming you are not in a relationship with a sociopath or a narcissist.)
Apply this idea to your marriage and you will begin to see the loving person you once knew start to re-emerge. For example, send your spouse one of those cute greeting cards you might have sent early in your relationship, the kind that captured perfectly everything about your partner that you found so endearing. Keep up that loving behavior and although your spouse may not, at first, notice your new changed behavior, he or she will gradually and inevitably begin treating you more lovingly.
It’s important that you understand that this approach to marital happiness is not a ploy to get your spouse to change. Their new loving behavior is simply the natural byproduct of your own improved behavior. What ever changes you see in your spouse are the result of the built in way that human beings respond to being treated with kindness. I challenge you to treat your spouse more lovingly. And I promise that your spouse will have no choice but to reciprocate.
So what’s the moral of the story?
You can’t change your husband or wife—but you can change yourself. And a changed you will result in a changed spouse.
Unlikely Fact Number Ten:
“Ignore the “golden rule” and do not treat your spouse the way you, yourself, would like to be treated.”
The golden rule, which in the Old Testament is stated as “love your neighbor as yourself” and which in the New Testament is re-stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a perfectly fine way to treat your neighbors, co-workers, and friends. The rule works quite well when trying to decide how to treat someone about whom we have little or no information.
For example, if you are expected to bring a gift to a party for someone you don’t know very well, then buying them the sort of present you, yourself, might enjoy receiving seems like a reasonable option. I like chocolate truffles and so might my neighbor. I don’t like the taste of anchovies and so I will avoid buying my co-worker anything with that ingredient. The golden rule in such cases makes perfectly good sense.
And it is a perfectly fine rule. The problem is that it’s just not good enough for our spouse or our lover. Why? Because our spouse or lover is more than just a neighbor and more than just a co-worker. He or she is our most intimate life partner and thus is the one person about whom we likely know more than we do about any other.
For such a special and intimate friend the golden rule just doesn’t go far enough. For that person nothing less than the platinum rule will suffice, the rule that requires that we “treat our loved one, not as we would like to be treated, but, as he or she would like to be treated.”
It is because we know our spouse as well as we do that we are actually able to follow the platinum rule. We would know, for example, that although we would love nothing more on our birthday than a new electric screwdriver, our spouse might not be nearly as enthusiastic about receiving a new electric blender. (My wife has reminded me that a good rule of thumb when considering birthday presents for her is that I avoid buying her anything that plugs in.)
Some of us appreciate being told the “brutally honest truth” about our shortcomings while others of us might not be wanting such frank and honest feedback. For example, I might welcome the news that my purple shirt might go somewhat better with another color suit. My wife, on the other hand, might not receive the news quite so enthusiastically if she learns from me on the way to a wedding that green is not her most flattering color.
Being able to live by the platinum rule requires that we possess one certain quality that is essential for the long term health of any relationship: empathy. Empathy, the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person, requires first, that we learn all we can about our spouse so that we can become able to see the world through his or her eyes. And when we succeed in seeing the world through our partner’s eyes, applying the platinum rule comes easily and naturally.
Having now read all ten unlikely facts, you may wish to go back and re-read the previous nine “unlikely facts of married life.” If you do, you will see that each of those nine unlikely facts presupposes the reader’s ability to empathize with another person. Whether it’s placing ourselves in the passenger’s seat when we are driving the car or imagining how our spouse might feel about being asked to forgo his daily hour of tennis, the one over-riding quality of a loving spouse is the willingness to learn enough about the other so as to be able to treat him or her the way that person would want to be treated.
My final suggestion: Begin right now to live by the platinum rule and you will find that the other “unlikely facts” will seem much less unlikely.
I invite you to contact me by phone at 410-377-4343 or email me, or if you prefer contact me to schedule an appointment or to discuss any issues or questions you may have. Please keep in mind that since I have limited my practice to online or virtual therapy, and since as a Maryland licensed psychologist, I am able to meet with individuals or couples living anywhere in the state, those of you living in Baltimore, Towson, Pikesville, Columbia, Bethesda, Annapolis, Frederick, as well as those living in other more remote towns and cities in Maryland are welcome to contact me to explore treatment options.