20 Habits of a Healthy Marriage

INTRODUCTION

It seems that when a married couple sets out to make improvements to their relationship, they usually focus first on what’s broken and what needs to be eliminated in order to improve.  If a critical nature is present, then they work to remove it; if a short fuse is what is interfering with their desire to have a happy relationship, they address it and do everything they can to change it; if they realize that selfishness is a problem,  they work on getting rid of it.

There is certainly nothing wrong with working on what areas are dysfunctional and need to be eliminated in our relationships.  In fact, it is necessary to do so.  But in order for permanent growth and improvement to take place, we must not only rid our marriages of the negative and dysfunctional parts that are causing us problems, but we must also replace them with new healthy habits as well.

It is similar to working hard to dig a hole to plant a tree.  If we dig the hole but don’t plant something new in it soon, then over time, the wind and rain will wash the removed dirt right back in.

In our marriages, we must replace the old habits that work against us with new and healthy ones that allow us to thrive.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the privilege of being intimately involved with many struggling marriages. Through my professional experience I have gained a perspective in understanding what often goes wrong when they fail, but I have also been in a position to see what goes right as they begin to improve.

So I would like to share with you some of the characteristics that often show up when these struggling marriages begin to grow and thrive.

And of course, you are always welcome to weigh in with your thoughts, ideas, and personal experiences and observations about what works well in your relationship. Your comments may even help someone across the country who is struggling in their marriage.

At the end you will find an evaluation scale that will help you and your partner evaluate how well you think you are doing in the 20 habits I have suggested here.

 

-20 Habits Evaluation Form- 

 

Please click on a Habit to learn more:

  1. Ask the question, “does it really matter?” before reacting.
  2. Avoid grudges by keeping short accounts with each other.
  3. Recognize and appreciate the personality differences and characteristics that exist between you, rather than criticizing and seeing those differences as a threat.
  4. Learn to laugh often, quickly, and at yourself as well.
  5. Be willing to take the risk of being vulnerable with each other.
  6. Avoid competing for, “the good times”; learn to be happy for the other’s fun, fame, successes, and free time.
  7. Consistently check out your assumptions before acting on them.
  8. Understand that there is no room for, “good guy-bad guy”, “win-lose” thinking in the midst of a conflict.
  9. Treat your spouse as if today were his/her last.
  10. Be willing to say, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?”
  11. Both have learned the importance of forgiving the other when they have been wronged.
  12. Each has a good understanding of the baggage they bring into the marriage.
  13. Both consistently consider the wisdom and putting their spouses needs ahead of their own.
  14. Each looks for the opportunity to brag just a bit about their spouse to others.
  15. Both place a high priority on having fun together (“Are we still having fun?”).
  16. Both make an effort to really hear the other, as opposed to just listening.
  17. They know how and when to switch from being the president, to being the vice-president and from being the vice-president to being the president (submission).
  18. Both reject the idea that in marriage, it is either control or be controlled.
  19. When they argue/conflict, their goal is to solve the problem, rather than to win the battle.
  20. Both appreciate the expected.

 

 

#1 Ask the question, “does it really matter?” before reacting.

The 20 habits for a healthy relationship I will suggest to you over the weeks ahead will not be in any particular order of importance.  That said, I do believe that none of the 21 habits that will help insure a healthy marriage relationship is more important than this first one.

In healthy and growing marriages, both have the ability and willingness to consider just how important their gripe, criticism or complaint really is before bringing it up as an issue. And usually, they get it right; they disregard and are able to ignore what is of little importance, while they express and address those issues that could do harm if not dealt with and worked through.

Interestingly, in unhealthy and struggling marriages, each  may ask the question, “does it really matter?”, but they invariably come up with the wrong answer!  Too often the issues that really do matter that need time, attention and discussion are ignored, set aside and placed into the category, “it doesn’t really matter”.  And it is usually with a destructive attitude (hurt, anger, resentment, etc.) that the issue is declared unimportant and then set aside. Likewise, those issues that are really unimportant that could be disregarded become the focal point and reason for an argument.

In short, men and women in healthy relationships make it a priority to  pick their battles, and by doing so, appropriately ignore what is not important, while dealing with the issues that really do need attending to.

 

#2 Avoid grudges by keeping short accounts with each other.

There’s nothing like a grudge to drive a wedge between people in a relationship.  Whether it is a professional relationship, a friendship, or one between a parent and their child, grudges can damage and even destroy relationships.

There is probably no relationship that the act of holding a grudge can wreak havoc in more than in our marriage. And ironically, the fallout that occurs from not keeping short accounts does more damage to  the very relationship we value the most.

Husbands and wives who want to protect their marriage from the potential destruction of unspoken resentment and frustrations make it a priority to keep short accounts with each other; they speak and deal with what ever it is that is bothering them in order to clear the air.  Of course, it is important to first consider whether the issue really does matter before addressing it (take a look back on characteristic #1 of a healthy marriage), but once they determine that it really does matter, they address their concern.

So since dealing with important and potentially destructive issues can have such positive results in our marriage, what interferes with our keeping short accounts?  I suppose laziness and indifference are both a possibility. What I have found however, is that there are several other reasons behind our temptation to sweep under the rug what should actually be brought into the light and addressed. Here are just a few that come to mind:

-Fear of the response we might get from the other;

-we may be convinced that airing our grievance will do no good;

-we may have been taught to not complain, but to “suck it up and move on”;

-we may hold the false assumption that if we have a gripe or complaint, then

our marriage has serious flaws;

-we may believe that if we complain, then we must be selfish.

There are no doubt other reasons we may resist the idea of keeping short accounts, but whatever the reasons for doing so, it is important to keep in mind the damage over time that may occur. Simply stated, there is no room in a healthy marriage for holding a grudge and the only way to avoid doing so is to keep short accounts about the things that really matter.

As always, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts and ideas.

 

#3 Recognize and appreciate the  personality differences and characteristics that exist between you, rather than criticizing and seeing those differences as a threat.

Have you ever noticed that we humans are usually drawn to people who are most like ourselves? We are naturally more comfortable with other people whose characteristics are similar to our own, and as a result, think, act and feel in ways that we ourselves do.  I suppose there is more than a bit of truth in the Greek mythology where Narcissus, who saw his reflection in a pool of water, immediately fell in love with himself. While not always the case, often when we see another person who is a reflection of ourselves, we are drawn to them.

And so it can be in our marriage relationships, that we are drawn to and most in love with those characteristics in our spouse that are most similar to how we see ourselves..

In healthy marriages the differences are celebrated rather than criticized. And this is possible because those differences are not seen as a threat, but rather, as differences that can help “grow” an exciting and more fulfilling relationship. Although those differences may at times create tension and difficult times of working through conflict, in the long run both recognize the value that is found in being married to someone who is their own person and not always just like they themselves are.

So the key to accomplishing this in our marriage is to see the differences that exist between our spouse and ourselves as challenges to grow by, rather than as threats to ourselves or to our relationship.

 

#4 Learn to laugh often, quickly, and at yourself as well.

They say that laughter is good for the soul.  While that is certainly true, it seems to me that laughter is good for our marriage as well. However, at the risk of sounding a bit pessimistic, it seems to me that as we grow older, it can become more difficult to find the humor in life-as well as the humor in our marriages-that in our youth we might have found with great regularity.

Or maybe there is a better way of saying this: as time passes and the seriousness of life increases (as it inevitably does), these inevitable life circumstances can overshadow many of the things that at one time we found so much humorous pleasure in.

I’m really not a pessimist and I do find lots in life experiences that are worthy of a laugh or two. It just seems that I have to be a bit more dedicated in my search for the funny moments in life as I grow older. And I think that most would agree with me that as they age (something most of us are doing!) they too have to work a bit harder to find the funny moments in life to laugh about.

 

#5. Be willing to take the risk of being vulnerable with each other.

Vulnerability defined: “Allowing yourself to be in a position with another person who if they chose to, could hurt you; when they don’t, then the result  is an increase and improvement in relational and emotional intimacy”.

Improving intimacy by increasing vulnerability

The desire for vulnerability seems to be a basic need that all of us human beings were born with.  If you doubt this, just spend a little time observing a toddler over the course of several months of his or her early years. As he learns to navigate both physically as well as relationally, he seems to be fearless; he isn’t afraid of falling, doesn’t seem to fear water, dogs, hot stoves or criticism from others. And-much to the chagrin of Mom and Dad-that little kid doesn’t at first seem to fear strangers either.

However, ever so slowly, and through imperfect relationships and life experiences, he begins to conclude that, “this vulnerability thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! I just got hurt!  I’d better start protecting myself from any hurt in the future”.

Just like that toddler, all of us have learned to trust less and to guard ourselves more from being hurt by others. And for many of us, it becomes easier and safer to simply settle in to a life of self-protection, rather than to pursue a life that involves taking risks in the relationships we value most. And needless to say, it is easy to bring this baggage of guarding ourselves from being hurt into our marriages.  When we do, we miss out on the benefits of greater intimacy that being vulnerable can bring. And this over-protection and fear of being vulnerable can prevent the development of deeper relationships-something I believe we all want and value, but don’t always attain to a satisfactory degree.

The key (in a nut shell) then, to overcoming your fear of being hurt, disappointed, let down, (or whatever your specific fear might be) is to step outside what you have grown comfortable with-your comfort zone-and to call the bluff of any “catastrophic expectations” that might come along with your fear of being vulnerable. Doing this will go a long way to weaken any life long patterns and fear-based behaviors that are negatively affecting your current relationship.

Needless to say, all of this is easier said than done, but it IS possible.  And your efforts are bound to bring significant changes for the better to the most important and potentially most satisfying relationship you will ever have. Step outside your comfort zone with each other, take risks, allow yourselves to be in a position with each other where you could be hurt. If you are hurt, then address it and use it as a vehicle for growth; when you are not hurt-even though you could have been-then the intimacy between you will grow, and your relationship is bound to grow as well.

 

#6 Avoid competing for, “the good times”; learn to be happy for the other’s fun, fame, successses and free time.

A common earmark of an unhealthy marriage relationship is a pattern of keeping track of and competing for, the “positive life experiences” that come to the other person. In an unhealthy relationship there is almost always jealousy, resentment, and the tendency to hold a grudge when good things happen to the other.

The common reaction of a jealous spouse who wonders when it will finally be their turn for a bit of fun, fame, or good fortune is often subtle and can even be imperceptible by others at first. Nonetheless, the one holding the grudge over the good time had by the other usually knows. And it is more often than not just a matter of time until others begin to notice the subtle signs of tension developing over keeping track of whose turn it is for a little fun, free time, or 15 minutes of fame.

On the other hand, we have all been the admiring observer of the genuine happiness and enthusiasm experienced by a spouse when good fortune has come their partner’s way. Rather than resenting the good time experienced by the other, there even seems to be a vicarious pleasure when the other is on the receiving end of something good.

 

Compare the following conversations:

1. “Well, it looks like YOU had a very carefree and relaxing day around here while I was out slaving to make a living.”

“I’m glad you were able to take a breather today. Don’t worry about what you didn’t get done. You deserve a relaxing, care free day.”

 

2. “Wait a minute. Do you mean to tell me that you’re taking another day trip with your girl friends?  When’s it MY turn?”

Yeah, I know you were gone not too long ago, but I’ll catch up with you one of these days.  Go and have a great time”.

 

3. “I get a little tired of hearing from others what a nice guy you are.  You know, you’re not exactly perfect, and they don’t have to live with you.”

“I am very proud of the fact that I’m married to a person who is liked by so many people. Yeah I know, you do have your faults, but I’m one of your fans too”.

 

4. “You seem to get so many comments about what a great mom you are.  Don’t they know it takes two to parent?”

“I’m very proud and grateful that you are such a great mom, and that your efforts don’t go unnoticed by others.  Our kids are lucky to have you for a mom.”

 

5. “Okay, so you got yet another achievement award at work this year.  Don’t forget that I gave up a good career of my own to stay home with the kids.”

 

“Your company knows a great human asset when they see one! I’m proud and thankful that you provide so I can be a stay at home Mom to our kids.

Certainly not an exhaustive list of the every day conversations that take place in our marriages today, but these examples do provide a glimpse into one of the key differences between healthy and unhealthy marriages when it comes to competing for the good times.

It is easy for the best of us to fall into the pattern of competing for positive life experiences and even resenting our spouse when they seem to be getting what we think is a little more than their fair share. But if it is our goal to have a healthy and more satisfying relationship, then it is important that we learn to experience a bit of vicarious pleasure when our spouse reaps some of the rewards and benefits of life.

Husbands and wives who are in healthy and vibrant marriages are intentional in their efforts to keep the machinery of laughter well oiled and often used.  They may often have to overlook and peer beyond some of the natural heaviness that can happen as they age, (work, disappointments, failures, and of course, the national news), but they are usually quite successful at laughing out loud-and often-with each other.

Most of us are drawn to people who can laugh at themselves from time to time. Possibly an even more difficult challenge than finding life circumstances to laugh at and about together, is being able to actually laugh at ourselves when it is appropriate and called for. Not only do men and women who are a part of a healthy marriage laugh more in general, they also seem to be able to laugh at themselves, and to allow the other in on the “fun at their expense”, so to speak. Each is careful, though to distinguish between laughing at, and laughing with, the other person.  Somehow they are able to detect with regular success when their laughing in response to the blunders, imperfections and glitches of the other is welcomed and when it is not.

It seems that emotionally healthy and well balanced children have learned the knack for doing just that at a very early age; they have somehow learned that it is ok and even appropriate to find a little humor in their own occasional slips and goof-ups.  I doubt that for most of us human beings, laughing at ourselves comes naturally, but rather, it is learned at an early age and needs to be practiced as we grow older.

So not only is laughter good for the soul; it is very good for the health and well-being of our marriage as well.

 

#7 Consistently check out your assumptions before acting on them.

Making assumptions in the process of communicating with others is inevitable. And the assumptions we make in everyday conversation are shaped and formed primarily as a result of the many experiences and relationships we have had throughout the course of our lives.

When our assumptions are correct, they serve us well; when they are incorrect (or when they are false assumptions as I will refer to them here), they can wreak havoc in our relationships with others.

As an example, suppose as a child you were constantly challenged by Mom and Dad (criticized, confronted and corrected on your behaviors or attitudes). And to show their displeasure of you, they would consistently withdraw, give you the silent treatment, and generally withhold their love from you for a period of time-perhaps to drive home their disappointment, and to get you to “shape up”.

Today in your current relationship, when you are challenged or in some way criticized, (a natural and inevitable thing from time to time in the best of relationships) you project on to your spouse the rejection and emotional withdrawal that came along with the criticism you received from your parents. In response to the criticism, you react as if you were rejected and actually told you were no longer loved, when very likely, all that happened was that you were in some way challenged or maybe criticized by your spouse.

Another example might further clarify the connection between past experiences on our current assumptions:

Suppose as a little girl, your daddy was a consistent help around the house and that you were told that the reason he was so helpful was because he loved his family so much. This is not a bad or inappropriate message to have heard in and of itself.  However, now as an adult woman you are married to a man who…well let’s just say that helping around the home is not exactly his strong suit. While your need for him to be more helpful may certainly be a problem you are justified in addressing, it may be a false assumption that his “task-passive ways” are a reflection of his lack of care and love for you.

If your response to his less than helpful ways is based on your early childhood experience with a daddy who was helpful because, “he loves us so much”, then rather than appropriately confronting the issue of your need for more help, you will likely respond on the basis of the false assumption that…”if he REALLY loved and valued me (the way daddy did) he would be more helpful around here.”

There are two reasons most of us will usually give as a justification for not checking out our assumptions:

First, we are usually convinced that we are right in our assumptions so why bother bringing them up?  Over time, this just leads to a further break down in communication, a deepening conviction that our assumptions are true, and that we are all the more justified in our reactions.

The second reason is a bit more subtle but every bit as damaging; what if we find out the assumption we hold really is true?  “What if her criticism of me really is her way of withholding her love!”  “What if his refusal to be more helpful around the house really is his way of saying he doesn’t care much about me?”  To hear that our assumptions are actually correct is always painful, but at least then we have reality to deal with, rather than the fears and insecurities we have held privately to ourselves.

So take the risk of checking out your assumptions before acting on them.  The results might pleasantly surprise you.

 

#8 Understand that there is no room for, “good guy-bad guy”, “win-lose” thinking in the midst of a conflict.

When you stop to think about it, if one person in a marriage wins an argument or disagreement, then by definition the other has lost.  When either one loses, then both have in some way lost. This is true because of how losing affects the one who has lost. Any time we lose in our relationship, the bond that is designed to hold us together is damaged in the process.

While winning in order to avoid defeat is ok in sports and world wars,  our determination to win in our marriage can undermine our efforts to build and maintain a healthy and satisfying marriage relationship. In so many marriages these days, conflicts and disagreements seem to take on the image of a tug-of-war, where both are trying their best not to be defeated in order to avoid defeat and failure themselves; each does their best to defeat and win over the other in order to survive themselves.

A more reasonable and mutually serving characteristic that is found in healthy marriages is the mutual determination to get themelves together on the same side so they can more successfully work against what they realize is the mutual problem. They both recognize that the other is not the “enemy” and that the real culprit is the issue that threatens to divide and conquer their relationship.

Being on the same side working against the common problem or conflict certainly does not rule out the possibility of anger, frustration, or a whole host of other emotions in the midst of cooperatively working through the common conflict. It simply means that each one exerts whatever effort needed to avoid viewing the other as “the enemy” or as one who must be defeated in order to solve the conflict.

When arguing to win rather than to solve the problem is a consistent pattern in our relationship, then our efforts to build and maintain a healthy marriage will almost always be doomed to fail.

 

#9 Treat your spouse as if today were his/her last.

Not too long ago I suggested this notion to a friend and he was not exactly impressed with the wisdom of such an idea.  “If I were to act as if today were my wife’s last day on earth”, he retorted, “then I would literally not leave her side”.  Fair enough.  This is true. But in taking this idea to an extreme, my friend missed the point.

So what is the point of making it a habit to treat your spouse as if today were your last day together?  A couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, there is the idea (and I would assume a goal that most of us have) of living in such a way that by the time it is our turn to exit this life, we have accumulated as few regrets as possible. Since to be human is to be hopelessly imperfect, it is inevitable that we all have some regrets we must learn to live with. But our greatest and most painful regrets usually occur when we do or say something we later wish we had not, and then realize it is too late to take back our hurtful words or actions.  Granted, when we are able to apologize or “take back” what are sorry for and promise to do better next time, we are  able to dilute the regret factor and move on with little or no harm; nonetheless, it is inevitable that the regret remains to some degree.

It might at first seem to go without saying that the death or loss of our partner-by definition-dictates that it is really too late to apologize or to take back any hurtful remark, unfair or abusive behavior, or any other actions we might be sorry for. But it needs to be said, and we all need to be reminded, because it is easy for most of us to forget.

 When we live as if this were our last day with our spouse, we go a long way in avoiding any regrets we might not be able to deal with and dilute tomorrow.

Secondly, in spite of the fact that it is highly unlikely that today will actually be the last with our spouse, when we keep in mind the remote possibility, it will result in the attitudes and behaviors that are necessary to nourish and grow the kind of relationship that most of us desire and value.  Living as if this were our last day with the one we love and cherish will have a positive impact on how we conduct ourselves in the very relationship that is supposed to be the most important and meaningful one we will have during our lifetime.

So living as if today could possibly be the last with our spouse helps us avoid behaviors and attitudes that lead to regrets, and at the same time motivates us to act in ways which are bound to bring about a deeper and more satisfying relationship.

 

#10 Be willing to say, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?”

Have you ever noticed when a child is corrected by their parent and then asked to say they are sorry, how difficult it is for them to comply?  And when they do, it is usually a weak and reluctant, “sorry”.  And usually, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to use the personal pronoun, “I”. I suspect the reason is because avoiding “I” helps them distance themselves from any possible responsibility for what they have just done.

So it could be argued that most of us come by the reluctance to apologize honestly.  Call it human nature, sin nature, or just simply stubborn inclination. Whatever the case, it stands to reason then, why saying we are sorry when we have erred in our marriage is so difficult for most of us. And while the simple explanation might well be human nature, or, as an old comedian, Flip Wilson used to say, “It’s not my fault, the devil made me do it”, there are a number of other possible road blocks that might make repenting of the mistakes we make with our spouse so difficult.

One possible reason for our reluctance to apologize is pride and fear of being vulnerable.  When we say we are sorry, we are acknowledging weakness or imperfection and we may fear what the other person might do with their new found power.  Will they in some way use it against us, bring it up in the future, or attempt in some way to manipulate us for their own gain? Will they actually forgive us, or will they insist that we must in some way earn their forgiveness? Will we be able to do what they demand in order to be forgiven?

And the habit many of us fell into early on of simply saying “sorry”- while a good start-is probably not sufficient. Owning our apology by actually using that personal pronoun, “I” will go a long way in demonstrating it is offered in sincerity, rather than doing what is required to get the other off our back.

As vulnerable as asking forgiveness makes us, we make ourselves even more so vulnerable when we actually add to our apology the question, “Will you forgive Me?”  Now THAT’s vulnerability and hard to do, but our question requests a response from the other that can lead to more connection, intimacy and communication once all is-hopefully-resolved.

While it may indeed be a normal human flaw, there is little excuse for the pattern of not saying we are sorry when we have blown it, to get in the way of the relationship that is meant to be the most important one of our lives.

 

#11 Both have learned the importance of forgiving

In the 10th “habit of a healthy marriage”, the importance was addressed of saying we are sorry and going the second step to actually ask if the other will forgive us when we’ve in some way messed up. As important-as well as difficult-as it is to ask forgiveness, it is   every bit as important-as well as difficult-to grant that forgiveness.  Of course the deeper the hurt, and the greater the damage done by the act of the other, the more difficult it is to forgive.

And just as there are risks associated with admitting to our misbehaviors and misdeeds, so too are there risks and barriers that accompany the task of forgiving when we have been hurt and disappointed.

For one, there may be the feeling that if we forgive our spouse, then our grace and mercy will make it just that much more likely for the egregious act to happen again; If we forgive too easily, then we may appear to be weak and unduly tolerant, and thus, a sitting duck for further “abuse”.

The need for revenge is another common barrier to a forgiving heart.  “Now it’s your turn to hurt the way you have hurt me”, becomes the cry of the person wronged.  Forgiveness may be an eventual possibility, but not until there has been some degree of payment for the unacceptable behaviors. Unfortunately, in that gap between revenge and forgiveness, more harm can be done.

Yet another barrier that may stand in the way of our granting forgiveness has to do with trust.  There is actually an element of truth to the notion that when we don’t trust, that absence of trust keeps us safe by justifying the withholding forgiveness.  At the very least, it gives us a sense of safety.

It works something like this: as long as I don’t trust, then I can justify my refusal to forgive. Believing this helps me argue the wisdom of keeping a safe distance; I am more able in my mind to justify the wisdom of remaining safely in my comfort zone, detached from the one who has wronged me. After all, they cannot be trusted.

Our refusal to trust and therefore to deny forgiveness, provides us with a much needed sense of invulnerability and safety.  On the other hand, If we forgive, then there is no real excuse to justify maintaining our guard-to risk trusting once again; we may not be ready to do that, so withhold forgiveness is the solution.

“Forgive and forget”, as the old saying goes.  Well, forgetting the transgression of another probably won’t happen-at least not until sometime well into our 90’s. Contrary to a rather popular notion (“How can I forgive if I can’t forget?”), forgetting is not a prerequisite to forgiving so it is possible to forgive even though the memory of the unfortunate event lingers.

In fact, it might be argued that it is a good thing that neither the responsible party for the wrong, nor the one wronged forgets, since, ideally, the memory of the painful event turns into regret, and regret into an effective reminder to not let it happen again.  So it is regret, rather than guilt that best serves us as a deterrent to repeat offenses.

Forgiveness is practiced in most healthy and successful relationships because they  also ascribe to the goal of Healthy Habit #9-“ Treat your spouse as if today were their last day”, and #2, their desire to, “ Avoid holding grudges by keeping short accounts”.

At the risk of sounding a bit morose, sadness, guilt, regret and grudges that are held as a result of “unfinished business” when a partner dies is a very heavy burden.  In a healthy marriage, that is understood and often provides the motivation to work hard at both asking for and granting forgiveness in order to avoid grudges and unneeded regret.

So it can be a daunting task to forgive.  But in spite of how difficult, it is all the more difficult to maintain the strength and quality of a relationship that carries around its neck the weight of refusing to forgive.

 

#12 Each has a good understanding of the baggage they bring into the marriage

Past experiences, relationships, messages and life observations lead to what I will refer to as current life patterns.  Some life patterns are good and they lead to healthy living and healthy relationships, while others continue to have a negative impact on our current life patterns.  Knowing what in our past-sometimes recent past, sometimes way, way back- affects us now is the kind of insight and awareness that leads to healthy current life patterns.

It’s not so much a question of whether or not we have baggage. It is a matter of knowing what the baggage is, and taking seriously the potential damage to our relationship it could bring if we ignore it and fail to work on it.

Here are but a few examples of baggage gone ignored that have resulted in the demise of countless otherwise successful relationships:

-the baggage of what I call, “past, unmet needs”. Some more than others, but we all struggle to some degree with unmet needs from our past.  I guess that’s one reason we are all-at best-normal neurotics! These past, unmet needs that could have been and should have been met and satisfied when we were younger cannot now be satisfied; you and I will go to our graves with these needs from the past unfulfilled and unmet.

Possible results: When we do not realize the presence and potential effects of our past unmet needs, and instead expect those around us to do for us what didn’t get done, we set them up to fail.  But it is failing at the impossible that others in our life fail at. The reactions of the one who feels the other has let them down can be withdrawal, anger, getting even, having affairs, to mention just a few of the responses to our partner failing at what is an impossible expectation.   Obviously, this example of baggage will wreak havoc in any relationship;

-the baggage of jealousy that comes about as a result of a spouse having had a history in other relationships of being cheated on.

Possible results: unfounded suspicion, accusations, and absence of trust that eventually leads to the end of a relationship that could otherwise have been;

-the baggage of control that develops as a result of having modeled how to be a husband/wife after a controlling and overbearing father/mother.

Possible result: a husband/wife who crushes the other with unreasonable attempts to control his/her every move;

-the baggage of personal insecurity developing out of a childhood filled with put-downs, criticisms and accusations;

Possible results: a spouse who expects his/her partner to constantly build him/her up but seldom really believing the attempts are sincere. And-when as always they do-occasional criticisms or complaints come his/ her way, defensiveness and counter attacks occur to further erode the relationship.

-the baggage of abandonment that develops as a result of distant, unavailable, or physically absent parents;

Possible results: a spouse who unreasonably insists on their partner being available; smothering, demanding and suspiciousness are standard characteristics of a spouse who still believes that being abandoned by the one she loves is right around the corner and thus must  not let their spouse out of their sight any more than is necessary.

-the baggage of “conflict connection” comes about as a result of constant fighting, bickering and conflicting in one’s family of origin.  We humans have a god-given need to connect with others; if we have not been taught to connect by way of healthy interactions, but have a history of family battle and conflict, then the current life pattern of conflict connection may kick in.

Possible results “Negative strokes are better than no strokes at all”, is the unconscious cry of a spouse who comes from a history of connecting through conflict. Of course the pattern can be broken but if it is not, the effort to connect takes the form of what one has historically become accustomed to, with fights, disputes and conflicts remaining the norm.

The argument too often is made that all of our earlier experiences-whether from childhood or from earlier adult life- are just, “water under the bridge”, and therefore harmless to our current life patterns.  Nothing could be further from the truth since our past life experiences, relationships and messages create a road map for future life patterns.

That road map, by the way, CAN be changed!

 

#13 Both consistently consider putting their spouses needs ahead of their own.

In this world where, “every man for himself” too often is our mindset, it is refreshing when occasionally we are witness to a relationship that actually operates in a more selfless manner.

I am blessed to have had a model of this alternate way of being in a relationship. My mother and father-in-law were that model (if you are thinking that must be a hard act to follow, you’re right!).

One day I asked them both separately and privately what the one thing would be that they could credit their very healthy and vibrant marriage to. Both after pausing to consider their response had a very similar response: “What’s important to her/him is what’s important to me”.

Yes, Jim and Dorothy both consistently placed before their own wants and desires, those of the other.  Neither was a doormat, neither would say they went without much, neither had to sacrifice much, and both were very happy, satisfied and appreciative people.

I am the first to say-and I say it from experience-easier said than done.

When we accomplish this habit found among healthy marriages, we really do end up sacrificing very little since while one is looking out for the needs of the other the other person is doing the same.  If I ever saw Jim and Dorothy quibble over anything it was over who was going to set their wishes aside for the benefit of the other.

One benefit that is pumped into our relationship when we endeavor to accomplish this daunting task of placing the needs of the other ahead of our own is the elimination of unhealthy and unnecessary competition. The win-lose attitude is minimized.

Since the results are in the long run mutually beneficial, then deferring to the needs of the other feels a bit more palatable.  After all, as we defer to the needs of the other, we know that it is just a matter of time until the same is offered to us. In the long run, both end up being more satisfied than they would be if they had to compete to get their way over their spouse’s.

If we could completely irradiate our relationship of all selfishness and replace it with complete selflessness (admittedly an altogether impossible task), then we would also eliminate many of the secondary “problems” that are symptomatic of the underlying cancer of selfishness. While thinking that we might be able to accomplishing this completely is fool hearty, simply coming closer than we normally do might be a good start.

 

#14 Each looks for the opportunity to brag just a bit about their spouse to others.

We’ve all been to parties and other events where we felt held captive by, and subjected to, a braggadocio spouse reporting on all the successes of their partner. You found yourself wondering if it would ever end, and thinking, “do I really even care about all their accomplishments?!

That’s not what we’re talking about here.

What we are talking about, however, is occasionally communicating to others how proud and thankful you are of your spouse.  Maybe it would be wise to spare your audience all the details, but just a simple reporting of his/her quality, accomplishment or achievement might add petrol to your relationship.

Have you ever noticed the response of a young child who has been acknowledged for a task well done or for some other form of success? Clearly their recognition warms their heart and their confidence is given an extra boost because they have been recognized

As we grow older, perhaps it could be said that a bit of recognition goes a little longer way than when we were a kid, but we do still benefit when we are recognized, just we did when we were that young child. Most of us are just not willing to admit it.

And giving/getting that recognition once in a while from the one we love the most is even more important.

 

#15 Both place a high priority on having fun together (“Are we still having fun?”).

Show me a happy and successful married couple and I will show you two people who still know how to have fun.  I say, “still”, since in the beginning don’t most couples start out having fun together? It kind of begs the question, what happened to all the fun we started out having together?

I’ll tell you what happened; work, mortgage, more work to pay the mortgage, the toilet seat is constantly left up, the lights, unnecessarily left on, more work to pay the light bill, the newness of the relationship begins to wear off just a bit. Lots more we could add to this list of fun busters.

Oh, and, did I mention kids? Babysitters and more work to pay for the babysitters?

At first glance this may sound fatalistically bleak and hopeless.  But there is hope.  True, all the above life events do happen and with each one we lose a little more of our ability to experience the spontaneous fun we had in the beginning of our relationship.

The hope is found in the realization that fun can still be had by all, but it may now take more effort and intentionality to replace the now fading spontaneity that was present before all the complexities of life were introduced.

The new ingredient required? effort and intentionality.

The probability is high that in the couples who are still having fun-whether they have been married 6 months or 60 years-are exerting a greater effort to keep the fun in their relationship than was necessary when they first met. And too, they have determined to intentionalize their efforts.  They’ve seen the necessity to plan ahead together in order to make room for the fun times. They accept that although they seldom had to look ahead and plan for the fun times early in their relationship, they do now. And, they have probably agreed not to easily cave into their new-found weariness that comes with not only age, but with the newly acquired stressors that were somehow not there in the beginning.

 

#16 Both make an effort to really hear the other, as opposed to just listening.

Philosophers for years have asked and debated the question, “When a tree falls in the wilderness and there is no one around to hear, does the falling tree make a noise?”

I suppose I am not smart enough to come up with a reasonable opinion on the subject, let alone enter into a debate with the more wise and learned scholars who contemplate such thoughts.  What I do know and can say for sure is this: when someone talks and no one is listening, then communication does not occur.  This is the way it is in many struggling relationships.

When men and women are asked to describe the style and pattern of communication when they talk with each other, there is often a rather consistent difference in how men describe the experience, and how women report it.

The description may vary a bit from couple to couple, but generally, men report that when their wife is talking, she “goes on and on” and tends to say the same thing over and over. And more often than not she’s talking about FEELINGS!  “Why does she always have to be talking about FEELINGS!?”  The repeated message from her may be packaged a bit differently each time, but he is invariably presented with the same message multiple times.

Women on the other hand report their observations a bit differently (so what else is new?).  What wives say is that they end up doing all the talking and their husband just sits there looking bored.

Now granted, this may not be a universal pattern, but it is reported regularly enough to be a problem in lots of marriages.

A common and recurring issue that leads to a monologue conversation rather than a more productive and satisfying dialogue, is that the husband doesn’t catch on to the importance of both verbal and non verbal signs that indicate he is with her, hearing every word, and that he thinks he understands what it is she is saying.

Since the wife is not getting the verbal and non verbal signs indicating that she is really being heard, she repeats herself, thinking that somehow saying it again will finally sink in and surely then, she will get a response of some kind from him.  Usually her repetition is to no avail.

But nonetheless, in a futile effort she continues to repeat herself, and in response, he privately turns his attention to things that to him really matter: golf, the account at work that is falling through, how ‘bout them Dodgers?, whether he will have time before work to swing by for a latte, if  he will be able to cover this month’s mortgage.  You name it and his mind goes there-anywhere but the here and now, and the repetitious droning from his wife.

In a healthy marriage, the man has figured out that his wife wants to really be heard, rather than simply be listened to.  Somewhere along the line he realizes that he needs to develop some communication skills that will send the message to his wife that not only is he audibly listening, but that he is actually hearing what she has to say as well.

A strategically placed, “hmmmm, really?”,  “Tell me more”, “how’d you feel when she did that?” and, “sounds like you really had fun”, comes to mind as possible responses.  And maybe even throw in a little eye contact for good measure?  But then, if you try to make eye contact, you’ll probably have to put down the paper …(CRAP!).

It’s not long before the wife actually begins to believe she is really being heard and maybe even kind of understood. And coincidentally (or not), it is at that point that she stops repeating herself ad nauseam, and an actual dialogue-rather than a monologue takes place.

 

#17 Each knows how and when to switch from being the president, to being the vice-president, and from being the vice-president to being the president.

It seems to me that this topic speaks to the issue of submitting-submitting not so much to the others’ needs or desires, as we considered in #13 (“Both consistently consider putting their spouse’s needs ahead of their own”), but rather, submitting to each other based on expertise, experience and area of strength.

Certainly there may be some difference of opinion as to who really holds the expertise in any given area, but once that is clarified, then it becomes more obvious and workable whose vote should carry more weight.

It might be helpful to look at this issue of President, vs. vice-president in terms of percentage rather than simply shifting autocratic rule back and forth based on who has more experience, strength and expertise.  Regardless of who the “expert” is in any given issue, the vice-president should be seen as having a 49% vote, with the 51% majority vote going to the president.

In other words, in a healthy marriage there is little if ever a place for autocratic rule.  Rather, the emphasis is placed on the task of first deciding who in any given situation is most “qualified” and therefore will act as president, and at the same time, who will be the vice-president with a minority vote-but a vote nonetheless.

This initial decision is often not an easy one and may bring with it some serious discussion and maybe even an argument or two.  But once it is clear who and why one should hold a 51% say, and who will hold the minority vote of 49%, well, that’s the hard part and usually the rest of the decision making will occur with greater ease.

So how to go about the process of agreement when it comes to voting influence:

First, let’s get this one out of the way from the start. Sorry guys, but who is in charge from situation to situation is not a gender thing (my wife made me add this part).  In marriages where the man plays the gender card-whether it is due to religious conviction, family of origin modeling, or for any other reason-it’s not usually a pretty picture these days. “Because I’m your father”, doesn’t usually work well in parenting; nor does “Because I’m your husband”, work in our marriages. At least it doesn’t work very well or for very long.

-If the husband does most of the cooking and they go shopping for new pots and pans, the wife “just loves” the color of a particular set.  But the handle is awkward and not easy to use—who is the president with the 51% vote?

-if the wife heads up the yard work and wants a particular bush or flower because it is easier than another one to maintain—who is the president with the 51% vote?

-If the husband by mutual agreement takes the primary role in the finances because the wife isn’t real swift with numbers, and there is a debate over the purchase of one couch that costs twice as much as another and the husband says they’d better buy the cheaper one because the more expensive one would cause financial stress—who is the president with the 51% vote?

-If the wife is the primary cook and bottle washer and the husband wants to have friends over for dinner at the end of a tiring week for both, but she is too exhausted to agree to entertaining this particular night—who is the president with the 51% vote?

Granted, these examples are a bit simplistic and some of the easier ones.  The more difficult situations, due to the greater complexities involved, simply would be too laborious and lengthy to present here. But the process and principles are similar to what is described here regardless of the fact that many conflicts over who will preside as president, and who as vice-president, are far more complex and difficult to work out.

Care to weigh in on what you think?

 

#18 Both reject the idea that in marriage, it is either control or be controlled.

Of all the possible underlying issues that lurk below the presenting symptoms that send couples into therapy, the most common is the issue of control.  More specifically, it usually shows up as a result of the subtle-and often, unconscious-misconception that in life, it is either control or be controlled. Again, it is more often than not subtle, but the false notion that drives so many secondary problems is this: “If I don’t want to be controlled, then I’d better be the one to control”.

Sometimes the need to control is overt and quite obvious.  One person feels controlled by the other and they’re not going to take it any longer. Sometimes, one person readily admits (usually a husband) that he is controlling because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Control (they usually call it submission to make the notion more palatable)  is essential because, “me Tarzan, you Jane”. Actually, these more overt and blatant attitudes are easier to address than are the more subtle ones.

In fact, much of the time, it is the very subtle and manipulative efforts to control that are the most difficult to detect and eliminate.  And it is interesting too, that much of the time the true underlying need of the one attempting to control is not really their need to be in control of the other. Often the motivation behind one’s effort to control is not their need to be a “little Hitler”, but rather, their need to avoid the feeling of being controlled themselves.

Confusing I know, but let me explain:

(You might want to review #12 (Each has a good understanding of the baggage they bring into the marriage).

When a child grows up in a family where they are consistently and unduly controlled by an unreasonable and autocratic parent, they can easily conclude that there are basically two roles in a relationship: the controlling party, and the one being controlled.  Of course, in good relationships this is not true, but try telling that to a little kid with a sponge-like brain that initially comes to conclusions about himself, life and others, from his early childhood experiences and relationships and messages.

So it is likely that as that little kid grows and matures, he has to decide based on the two possible roles, one of two ways of living.  Either he says to himself, “When I grow up no one is going to control me!  I’m going to take on the other role”.  And thus a controlling spouse is born.

Or, for many reasons too numerous to go into here, that little kid may decide the very opposite from the above scenario, and conclude: “I guess this is my lot in life; I am the one to be controlled”

And guess who-sadly- these two little kids eventually find to marry!? Their pathologies dovetail beautifully-or should I say, tragically.

Found in a healthy marriage is the habit of refusing to believe that in their relationship, they must control or they must be controlled. And they both understand that controlling the other is not necessary in order to avoid being controlled. So rather than putting their efforts into controlling as an antidote against being controlled, they are able to put their energies into all sorts of other things that grow their relationship.

Remember, the roadmap from childhood can still be reshaped and reconfigured.

 

#19 When they argue/conflict, their goal is to solve the problem, rather than to win the battle

So much of what was suggested in habits of a healthy marriage in #8 could be repeated here. However, here it is important to understand that if #8 is to be accomplished (“……Strive to be on the same side, working against the common problem”) we must first agree to work toward solving the current issue in concert with each other, taking into account the needs of the other, rather than trying to win our position in order to satisfy our own needs at the expense of theirs.

Solving the problem, rather than winning the battle requires a number of things:

-A realization that my spouse in no more the problem than I am;

-A belief that my spouse’s needs/opinions are as important as mine (agreeing with them is beside the point);

-A belief that my spouse is not trying to control or manipulate me into taking the position he/she has taken;

-My spouse really does believe his/her position is the right one and isn’t insisting on  his/her position to spite me or for pride’s sake;

-My spouse isn’t trying to beat me (isn’t trying to pull me into the alligator’s jaws);

-I don’t have to win in order to avoid losing;

-Must realize that If I win the argument, then my spouse loses-what will life be like today living with someone who has lost?

-Neither of us is arguing simply for the sake of arguing; rather,we feel strongly about the issues.

Notice the habit of a healthy marriage is NOT the habit of eliminating conflict; it is the habit of doing the conflict well.  When the conflict is done well and constructively many other potentially destructive issues are avoided, since so often one unresolved and messy conflict become the foundation for the next…..and the next…..and the next…..

 

#20 Both appreciate the expected.

It seems to be assumed these days that in our relationships, if something is expected or required, then it isn’t really deserving of appreciation or acknowledgment.  If the task, responsibility or attitude is expected or required of the other, then it is unreasonable to think that acknowledging their efforts is in order.

In the little I’ve read about the field of management and business, this is not the attitude that is being taught.  There are many tasks and responsibilities that if not performed up to the expectations of the boss, then the employee is at risk of termination.  Nonetheless, current teaching tells us that even though an underling is required to perform or else, what is of greater motivation than the fear of termination, is the satisfaction of recognition.

I suspect that it is similar in our relationship. And yet we can grow lax in our efforts to give signs and words of appreciation for the tasks, duties and responsibilities that we have come to expect.

In a healthy relationship, both make it a habit to appreciate and to recognize the efforts of the other.  Certainly there are many duties and obligations that we must perform simply because they are expected and we have agreed to do so. While our commitment to follow through with what we have promised is reason enough to perform, does it not make sense that hearing from the one who loves us that they appreciate our efforts would feel good and even provides a bit more motivation for continuing to do so?

“Thanks for being such a great Mom”. “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” (Yes, but doesn’t it feel good to be appreciated for doing your job?)

“Thanks for working so hard and providing us with the life style we have”.  “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” (Yes, but aren’t you glad she/he notices and appreciates you for it?)

Once again, the list of possibilities could go on.  Suffice it to say that being recognized and appreciated for a job well done-even if the job is expected and required-feels good and usually provides an extra encouragement to keep up the good work.

Try it.  I think you will both like how it feels.

 

 

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