Last time we talked about Marriage Mythology — those things we think are true about relationships, but really are not. Wow, what an eye-opener to bash those myths to smithereens. In this final chapter, let’s talk about the wonderful secrets we all hope to know and embody in our most important relationships: the secrets to success. Read on.
Principle #1: Find your partner’s love maps
All of us have weird little quirky needs that make us feel happy and special when someone attends to them. When our partners meet them without making us feel crazy, we will follow them anywhere.
Principle #2: Nurture fondness and admiration
As much as we would like to think otherwise, fondness and admiration are not the first things that pop into our minds when our spouses hide their candy wrappers under our pillows and wipe their grubby fingers on the bed sheets AGAIN. Whether it’s coming home late from work, forgetting to pick up the one item that we had our hearts set on for dinner, or telling us that we really ought to do something about our hair, we are more likely to focus on and to remember the negative than the positive — and this gets played out in the intensity of the marriage arena BIG time. But if we then react by criticizing them, they, in turn, are more likely to remember OUR negativity than all of the positive things we’ve said and done. Communication disintegrates into a battle over who has behaved more nastily toward whom. The only way out of this dilemma is to consciously, intentionally nurture our feelings of fondness and admiration – and to express them.
Principle #3: Turn toward your partner rather than away
As Oma, my German grandmother use to say, “Ohne Anderen Leid zu tun kann Mann gar nicht leben.” In other words, not one of us can avoid hurting others at times. We all fall down on the job of friendship in one way or another now and then. Feeling hurt, angry, and resentful when our partner has failed us to pretty normal. Normal, however, does not mean “good.” When we turn away from our partners and look to get our needs met somewhere else, perhaps even by some other person, we are slowly beginning the process of pulling away. We deprive our loved ones of the opportunity to make things right. We make ourselves less available. We shrink our shared universe. Our marriages become less and less a place of joy and uniqueness and more and more just another compromise.
Gottmann advises us to move toward our partner rather than away. This small step will give our marriages the holding power to make it through the hard times, too.
Principle #4: Let your partner influence you
Sorry, gentlemen, I really don’t mean to single you out, but Gottmann’s research tells us that this principle applies primarily to you. Males, especially of older generations, tend to have difficulties allowing women to influence them.
Guess when this behavior first manifests itself. Nope. Guess again. Wrong. Give up? According to Gottmann, boys first start to exclude girls at the age of 18 months — before they can even TALK! Things only go downhill from there. By first grade, girls are fed up with being excluded and stop trying. THEY then turn away, preferring to play with other girls who are often miniature masterminds at sharing power.
Obviously, these are gross generalizations. There are lots of boys who are supremely inclusive and girls who listen only to the vagaries of their own hearts. For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter who started what. They key is to let your partner influence you!! If not, you are headed, say Gottmann, straight down Unhappiness Lane. There are few things in life that make one feel more useless than being left out of decisions that affect you.
Principle #5: Solve your solvable problems
This might sound sort of obvious, but it actually isn’t. According to Gottmann, most marital problems are not solvable, because they reflect existential matters for which there is no resolution. Unsolvable problems are often about unmet dreams. One partner might want children, for example, while the other’s dream is to keep the marriage a cozy twosome. Since one member will end up disappointed, a deeper conversation is called for, one that is about the meaning one was hoping to find within one’s life. This can’t just get fixed — it requires working through.
In the meantime, why not focus on the things that you actually can fix? Like, for example, how you are going to spend your tax return — and really think through the “how” — making it as fair and positive to each as you know how.
Principle #6: Overcome gridlock
Gridlock happens when you are both so ticked off that all you can do is finger point, stonewall, or avoid one another. You must get past this, folks, or your relationship is toast, even if you never officially land in court. Be creative. Start by finding something to apologize for. You will be amazed at how quickly a heartfelt apology — even for something seemingly trivial — will elicit gratitude from your mate.
Principle #7: Create shared meaning
I distinctly remember when I first realized that my marriage could not be saved: it was when I looked back and could think of nothing to justify it: no unambiguously good times, no happy travels, and no shared projects. Just work, effort, and struggle. Our lack of attention to honoring our time together meant that we never really did get around to enjoying one another’s company. We were too busy doing ostensibly more important things. What we didn’t realize was that our marriage WAS the most important thing. Don’t make that mistake. And if you have, start changing it now. Find ways to make your marriage meaningful to both of you.
That’s all I’ve got for the moment, folks. Let me know your thoughts.
Dr. Kara Witt is a psychologist in the Twin Cities.
This article first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Minnesota Good Age.