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March 26, 2017

Takeoffs and Takeovers: Scary Marriage

If you want to enjoy being married, it's a good idea not to frighten your spouse.

There are two big things that frighten people about relationships. Some are frightened by one or the other, some by both. And if you're not frightened by the same one, it's pretty easy to accidentally frighten the person at the center of your life.

Takeoffs

One of these two fears is you taking off. They're scared of being abandoned, rejected by someone they love and respect.

Before marriage, they may keep multiple relationships going, just to minimize the feared pain of being dumped by the one they really want (which was probably you, the one they married). Or they might have clung pretty tightly: "Will I see you again?" "Tomorrow?" "Where do you see this relationship going?" "We're soul mates, I will never leave you."

Who tends to harbor this fear? Anyone can, but it's even more likely if your spouse had a parent walk out or die early in life or an unreliable parent or if he or she depends on you for income or physical care.

This is definitely the one that affects me. Unfortunately, the fear tends to make me do things to reduce my fear that will frighten a partner with the other fear, and the way they handle that fear will increase my fear of a takeoff. What a mess! I'm really glad that my second husband and I are both aware of these fears and how easy it is to set them off.

Takeovers

The other big fear some partners have is you taking over, dictating what they wear, who they see, where they live, which dreams they pursue, what they're responsible for and whether they're handling it well enough.

They might expect most marriages eventually fail and be okay with divorce. This might even be their escape hatch in case they feel suffocated.

Who feels this fear? Anyone can, but those who grew up with a helicopter parent or a parent living vicariously through them and their talents or an unpredictable parent are even more likely to.

So, how do you scare your partner?

Danger: Prepare for Takeoff

If your husband or wife fears being left, you scare them when you start spending more hours at work or with friends or on your hobby or less time on sex or the things you normally do to show your love -- anything that hints of a lower priority for your marriage -- without enough reassurance that you still value your relationship.

Then there's the supreme takeoff, the one where you both abandon them and stay in their life, taunting them, by cheating on them. Hints of infidelity are probably even scarier, even if there's nothing actually going on, if you're married to someone fearful of abandonment.

Danger: Brace for Hostile Takeover

If you want to scare someone afraid of being suffocated or penned in by a relationship, tell them your expectations of what marriage is all about as if they come from a rule book instead of your imagination and limited experience. Try to "fix their flaws." Overbook their time without their consent. Accept a job in another city and announce the impending family move as a fait accompli.

Or, at the scarier end of the spectrum, blame your obnoxious or physically threatening behavior on drugs or alcohol or your religion, as if you have no control over it and no way to protect them from it.

Accidentally Scary

Of course, these two fears are big enough that you can trigger either of them with even an off-the-cuff comment. I just told a friend what I'm writing about today, and she said, "Oh, I think I just scared my husband earlier today. We passed a painting of a house in a gallery window. I recognized it immediately. It's my 2025 vision, the very house I'd love to buy down the road. He said, 'It's not my vision.'"

Which fear did she trigger? It could have been either one. If he's afraid she'll take off, he might imagine she means to move there without him (thinking to himself, whether accurately or inaccurately "surely she knows it's not a place I would ever like"). If he fears a takeover, he might imagine she's actually got an 8-year plan to uproot his life and force him into a house he doesn't want to live in, rather than a goal to afford such a place and find one they both would enjoy.

So, what happens next? Nothing, I hope, if she didn't trigger very much of either sort of fear. Or if he will Assume Love when he feels fear well up from something as simple as a mention of a dream house. Or if he's confident in their ability to Find Third Alternatives to whatever they disagree on.

If he sees this as a warning sign that he could be dumped, either an attempt to either hang onto to her more tightly (which she's likely to notice) or to begin preparing himself for life without her (which she's not likely to notice until it's too late).

And if he sees it as a warning sign that she's taking over his life, now that he's retired and can't use his profession as a protective wall? Well, then he might start imagining life after divorce or start subtly scuttling her efforts to continue building her career or to be able to buy such a house.

How to Dial Back Your Scariness

If you're angry at the wonderful person you married, you may not feel like reducing the fear you're triggering. But if you're feeling loving or if scaring your spouse doesn't seem likely to improve whatever's got you angry, here are some things you can do.

  • When you change your routine in a way that gives you less time with your spouse who is fearful of Takeoffs, announce the change and the reason for it and provide some reassurance that you still value him or her.
  • When you announce a goal that might be misconstrued as a step away from your marriage, announce your intention for your marriage at the same time, and don't tell yourself those vows years ago ought to be all the assurance anyone should need.
  • Don't say you don't care to a Takeoff-fearful spouse.
  • When you want something that affects your joint lifestyle with a spouse who's scared by the possibility of a Takeover, use the language of Third Alternatives to share your wish: tell them what it is about the change that appeals to you and let them know your goal remains a lifestyle that suits both of you.
  • Before you make a suggestion for how your Takeover-fearful spouse can become a better person or a better partner, remind them of what you already appreciate about them and ask if they'd like any input on whatever you see as the goal of your suggestion.
  • Don't nag or insult a Takeover-fearful spouse.
  • And, of course, do whatever it takes to make sure you don't cheat, threaten, manipulate, or harm your spouse: walk away from temptation, quit drinking, quit drugging, and stick to the loving core of your religion not the fine print justifications.

It's not about being a good or bad person. It's about creating an environment in which you can enjoy being married, because the benefits of a happy marriage are huge.

February 28, 2017

The #1 Most Important Step in Settling a Disagreement with Your Spouse

When you're married to someone you love -- or even someone you want to love again -- there is only one way to handle a disagreement over anything important. That is to find a Third Alternative, one you both like enough to happily walk away from your initial great idea that didn't fly well with your husband or wife.

The first step in finding a Third Alternative is the most important step. If you skip it, you may never find your Third Alternative. Or you may find one but lose out on the great feelings of finding it as a team.

What is this critical first step? It's jumping the net. Forgetting the competition to put yourself on the same side as your spouse. It's letting go of your first alternative before you even know what your shared Third Alternative will be. It's having confidence in your ability to give that man or woman at the center of your life the moon and the stars without giving up anything you need or crave.

It's announcing that you do, indeed want what he or she is asking for, and you're willing to work to get it. The only difference between this and caving in is that you also announce you're unwilling to use the particular strategy your spouse proposes (his or her first alternative) to get it. But you want the outcome it's intended to bring.

If you start asking questions about the specs for a Third Alternative before you jump the net, it's a volley. You're hitting a ball over the net to your mate. And your mate is going to hit it back. You won't learn the truth about what really matters to him or her. Instead, you'll get a sales pitch for an alternative you already know you don't like.

If you start proposing Third Alternatives before you jump the net and admit you'll only accept a new option that gives both of you everything you need and nothing you can't tolerate, they'll get shot down. And you won't know why or how to propose a better one.

That's because we humans do a great job of making up stories designed to change your thinking rather than reveal ours. But a successful Third Alternative -- not to mention a satisfying marriage -- requires that you learn what really matters to the person you married.

So before you work on specs or propose alternatives, jump the net. Make sure your beloved knows you're now on his or her side, not just your side. Because a successful Third Alternative satisfies you both and protects you both. And they're out there, waiting to make your life together even more satisfying than a life where all you get is what you ask for.

January 17, 2017

Do I Forgive My Boyfriend for Hitting Me?

I just had to answer a question on Quora today. Someone had been hit by a normally gentle and kind boyfriend who "just snapped." She claimed she'd done nothing wrong, but she thought it might have happened because she was studying with a male student. And she made it clear she wanted to be told it's not a problem if it happens just once.

I could not tell her that, so I wrote this, and I wanted to share it with you, too.

It may be just once, but let's get clear about it. Anyone who hits you when you do something wrong is a really bad choice for a partner. Our home should be our safe place from the dangers of the world. Sharing it with someone who feels justified in deciding what's right and wrong for you and making it unsafe whenever he chooses is NOT a healthy life choice.

If he did it because he "just snapped" it means he sometimes cannot control the way he acts. He can feel one way and behave another. This is just as dangerous but often treatable. If he gets it treated, then "just once" isn't a problem. For him, it's a blessing, for you a few awful moments in a long life.

If he does nothing about it, he doesn't care enough about your safety to live with.

How to treat it? That depends on the cause. Drug and alcohol use can cause this. The treatment then is to learn to live without drugs and alcohol. A brain tumor can cause this. The treatment then involves a team of physicians. Alzheimers can cause this, but there's no real treatment yet; you'll need others to protect you. More often, a lack of skills causes it. I like the CompassionPower approach of Dr. Steven Stosny, but there are also plenty of anger management classes available and psychologists who can teach this one-on-one.

The problem with just ignoring it is that no one who really loves you wants to hurt you. This means that every time he hurts you, he'll likely invent an explanation for doing it other than lack of self-control. Usually those explanations make you out to be a bad person and make it less and less likely over time that he'll do anything about his very serious problem.

Your own explanations for it will make you out to be a better person, a person who doesn't hurt the ones you love and who forgives. A relationship in which the two partners look down on each other is quickly drained of love and becomes just a dangerous living arrangement for them and especially for their children.

So my answer is to forgive him after he takes some action other than promises to prevent it from happening again. Or leave him before it can happen again. And make sure you have family or friends around you for a few days just in case he snaps again when you break it off.

December 10, 2016

Going to the Store to Buy Gum

We lost John Glenn this week. So did his wife, Annie. What a pair!

Although she had a really difficult time handling daily life on her own until someone finally gave her a cure for her communication-crippling stutter at age 53, Annie sent her husband Glenn off on at least 149 combat missions in two wars, numerous high-altitude test flights, the first ever American orbit around the earth when he was 40 years old and into space again at 77.

Every time, he would say, "I'm just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum."

And every time, she would reply, "Don't be long."

A great private ritual to set aside their fear of the very real risk of losing each other.

Working in careers where the invitations to cheat on his wife were frequent and many of his colleagues (combat pilots, test pilots, astronauts, Senators, and Presidential candidates) took advantage of such invitations as a way to shake off the constant stress of these roles, John Glenn spoke up for marital fidelity as essential to the role of American hero and pointed the media to the good works of his wife Annie as even more important than his own.

Their two children were very, very fortunate to have such role models for how to love.

I enjoyed these two articles in the Washington Post about their marriage. I hope you will, too.

Annie Glenn: 'When I called John, he cried. People just couldn't believe that I could really talk.' by Travis M. Andrews

John Glenn survived space and celebrity -- and still had a great marriage by Lily Koppel

And in explanation of my recent absence from this blog: Mono happens, even to 64-year-olds.

September 29, 2016

I Support My Spouse, So Why Is My Dinner Late?

"I work hard for my money, so my wife doesn't need to work. She's free to stay home and do as she pleases, as long as the house is clean and dinner's ready when I get home."

"I always thought we'd retire together, but my husband took early retirement when it was offered and now I can't afford to do the same. He's not working. Why can't he at least clean up his breakfast and lunch dishes and cook dinner while I'm at work?"

"We both work, but my wife works part-time. This makes sense to both of us, because it allows her to be home when the kids get out of school, and because I earn more per hour than she can. So why does she keep refusing to take responsibility for all of our dinners?"

What is it about meal preparation that makes it such a problem in so many marriages? And why is it so much worse when one puts in more paid working hours than the other?

I don't hear anyone asking why their spouse doesn't grow the family's vegetables in the time they're not working. Or why they don't sew a hand-tailored suit worthy of a promotion for their spouse with the full-time job. Or even why the oil in the car hasn't been changed.

Food's the big deal. We'll use the money we earn to pay other people to grow our vegetables, make our clothes, and do our oil changes. But if we have to earn an income for more hours than our spouses, we want food. Not overly expensive. But definitely tasty. Our kind of tasty. And on time. Which means, of course, when our workday dictates it's time for a meal.

And we ask why this is so hard as if it were a rhetorical question. More of an accusation.

But if we work for a living, we know just how uncomfortable any obligation we didn't choose to take on can be. So we pretend there was something in our marriage vows about cooking.

If we work for a living, we know all too well the frustration of trying to tackle two conflicting priorities at the same time, the fear of consequences for choosing the wrong one when both can't get done. But we pretend life outside of work has no such conflicting priorities, and our impatience or disappointment becomes one of those feared consequences for the person we vowed to love and honor.

If we work for a living, we must admit that some days we're not as productive as other days. We just don't get as much done. Maybe we even deliberately take some time for reflection or for socializing or for catching up on organizing our work area. And yet we still expect that the final task of our spouse's work at home will be completed on time every single day.

On those other days when we're working especially hard or producing a lot, we can really look forward to refueling and spending time with family. Coming home to a note about reheating something in the microwave or to a spouse who wants a night off can feel so unfair.

It's so easy to forget that we married for love, not to avoid paying a cook or restaurant to prepare the meals we don't feel like preparing. It's so easy to develop an expectation, a sense of entitlement.

Resentment corrodes marriages. And it's really not that hard to throw together an occasional meal or that expensive take the family out to a restaurant occasionally. If divorce insurance could be had for such a small price, I'm sure most of us would sign right up.

What if you Assume Love when there's no dinner waiting for you? What if you try on the notion that this person you married hasn't lost his or her sense of fairness, hasn't become the sort of person who would deliberately hurt you? What if you knew without a doubt the only reason for not preparing your meal while you worked was a darn good one? What would your words say then? What would your body language look like?

What next step would you take? And how would it feel to to take that step, to be that person?

And who would your spouse become if you treated him or her as someone who does the fair thing, the just thing, even when it's not exactly what you expected?

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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