Assume Love (TM): How to have a happier marriage without waiting for your spouse to change (daisy logo)

August 19, 2016

Checking Out Other Women, Porn, and Romantic Comedies

I received a wonderful request in a comment from Marie yesterday on my 2012 post, Avoid Pretending to Feel Loved When You Do Not.

Marie asked for "advice on how to manage your own insecurities, while granting your spouse liberty to engage in harmless pleasures, such as: appreciating individuals of the opposite sex and not judging occasional encounters with porn."

She provided more details on her relationship that assured me she's not dealing with a couple of circumstances where I would offer very different advice. First, she's not married to man so self-centered that he works at convincing his wife other women, women he views as somehow better or prettier than her, want his sorry self as a sadly misguided way of keeping her interested in him.

Second, she's not dealing with a man who's been so sucked in by the well-honed tactics of the psychology researchers who now advise porn producers that his porn habit has led to erectile dysfunction, a lack of interest in his real-life wife, or spending money needed to pay the mortgage on the house.

Hers is a much more common situation: the woman who feels insecure because her husband enjoys looking at women with great figures and clothes to show them off or women willing to pretend to be sex toys available to all comers. Even when he insists this is nothing more than entertainment and he's in love with a woman who is far more — and worth far more — than just the body she inhabits.

The insecurity comes from not being able to empathize, to feel what he feels. Yes, he could give up these forms of entertainment and then she would not need to get inside his heart. Or she could squeeze, starve, nip and tuck, and expensively clothe herself to compete with his entertainment, but doing so might do a lot of harm to the things he truly values about her: her great mood, her adventurous spirit, the way she gets right down on the floor with their young children, her enjoyment of a great dinner, etc., etc.

But wouldn't it be nicer to finally understand this odd difference between us, really understand it?

Think about your favorite romantic comedies. My Big, Fat Greek Wedding. Notting Hill. Hitch. Sleepless in Seattle. 50 First Dates. Something's Gotta Give. Crazy, Stupid Love. You've Got Mail. Train Wreck. The Shop Around the Corner.

What makes them such great entertainment? Romance! Men discovering how fiercely they want the love and respect of a particular woman. Men making fools of themselves only to be forgiven and loved. Over-the-top romantic gestures. Jobs, businesses, and careers set aside to put a woman front and center in a man's life. Friends dumped for interfering with romance.

Most women find them very pleasantly entertaining. But they recognize them as entertainment, as exaggeration for effect, as fantasy. They don't want the real men in their lives to shirk or dump their careers. They don't want the real men in their lives wrapped around their little fingers. They don't want their husbands embarrassing his parents to please hers. If their husbands spent the money on romance that movie budgets give these actors, most women would object.

Women watch romantic comedies as entertainment, not as measuring sticks for their husbands. When it comes to their marriages, most women want the whole experience of a real man, a real partner.

And to those of you women who prefer action adventure movies to romantic comedies, I'm pretty sure you don't enjoy it because you want to live your life with the constant threat of careening cars or exploding buildings, either.

It's just entertainment. And so is most occasional porn, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit TV show, the Miss America pageant, and trying to catch a glimpse of a hot-looking woman at work.

And while your husband likes to be entertained, it's a safe bet he also wants a wife who offers, as you do, so much more than something to watch from a distance.

If you can see it this way, I hope it will help you relax and enjoy the love of someone with different taste in entertainment from you.

If you truly cannot abide what entertains your husband (whether it's women's bodies and porn, Star Wars movies, Antiques Road Show, or TV golf), you don't have to live with it. But if you want your relationship to thrive, I strongly urge you to fill your life together with other forms of entertainment he also enjoys and avoid mocking or shaming your husband for his tastes. It's a much more successful route to take.

August 3, 2016

The Problem with Affairs

Let me set aside for the moment the obvious problem, that you promised yourself and your spouse, your family and friends, and perhaps even God you'd stay faithful. This seems to come up a lot more after the fall than while standing on the edge of the cliff contemplating letting an affair happen.

No, the problem with affairs is that their temptation is so one dimensional.

In a marriage, your relationship is about sex and vacations and income and taking out the trash. It's about what's good for your children, how you'll manage your retirement, and getting through chemo. It's about memories and growth you're proud of and business failures you're not. It's about the help your spouse gives your mother and your friendship with your sister-in-law. It's about date night and separate hobbies and the things you always do together.

An affair is almost always about just the one thing that feels missing from all that.

Sometimes it's about feeling more alive because you're offered support in taking a risk. Or it might be about a listening, caring ear for your troubles when your husband or wife is too busy to listen. It might be an offer of sex when your spouse is too depressed to enjoy it or too tired to be creative after all these years. It might be about setting aside your role as a mother or breadwinner for a few hours to become the center of someone else's world for an hour.

The resentment that grows on unwarranted expectations is what eats away at a marriage. And along comes the temptation of an affair, with all the excitement of a new relationship but -- because we're married -- only one expectation. If it fills out that one dent in the sphere that is our marriage relationship, it's heavenly. It starts us rolling right along again. Until...

And there's the problem. You don't need to go looking for an affair. You just need to grow enough resentment to slide into one when temptation strikes. All anyone needs to offer is to fill out that one dent, to provide that one thing you need while the rest of your life (with your wife or husband) proceeds as always.

And then the expectations of the affair grow. Yours. The other party's. Even if it was a one night stand, if you got away with it and you're not in a fight to save your marriage and your lifestyle and your kids' lifestyle, the expectations grow: you begin to expect someone else will offer you another one-night stand. Or your one-night stand flatters you by expecting more nights with you.

And with each unmet expectation (especially the sneaky expectation that your spouse and your lover will actually love you at the same time and not resent getting only a fraction of a partner or the other surprise expectation that someone who chose an affair with a married person actually desires or can handle a full-time relationship with you), you grow more resentful. More unhappy. And further emotionally from your spouse, further from fixing that one dent in your nice, full, round sphere of a life partnership.

So what can you do instead when temptation strikes?

If you long for someone to encourage you to take more risks, you can join Toastmasters or a ski club or take flying lessons.

If you need a listening ear, you can find a therapist, a hotline, or someone who lives alone and longs for some company (but not an affair).

If you want more sex from a depressed partner, you can drag your partner out to do anything fun or helpful to others that requires a bit of exercise, hire a cognitive behavioral therapist for marriage counseling that includes learning all their techniques for countering depression, or offer to cook healthier meals while you read up on some new things to try as soon as your husband's or wife's libido begins to return.

If you long to set aside a taxing role and be the center of someone's world again, you can find a way to find a willing volunteer or two to fill in for the two of you while you take a mini-vacation together. Turn off your cell phones, designate a relative to handle family emergencies, forbid any mention of your daily lives, and do something that brings out the best in both of you.

But don't involve someone else in your marriage -- not their sexually transmitted diseases, not their sperm or their eggs, not their unprofessional advice that just increases your expectations and resentment, not their secrets, not their inability to keep your secrets, not their expectations or their personality disorders.

If your marriage isn't happy, lean in toward your spouse. Or if there's no love left, get out, build yourself a happy life, and offer someone new the whole you, not just one needy bit of you. Because you're a much, much better lover (and spouse) when you're happy and whole. And you're the only one who can do this for you.

July 28, 2016

Bathroom Battles

What drives you nuts in the bathroom you share with your spouse? What problems did you have at first that you've found a clever solution to? Pantyhose in the shower? Wasting water? Not replacing the empty toilet paper roll? Leaving wet towels on the floor? I'm sure there are a million more.

It's a funny thing about bathrooms. We learn about them when we're so young. The words often come with such a strong sense of right and wrong or with shame for failing to understand or follow the rules. They form implicit memories that associate emotions with whatever happens in that room in a way that defies us to revise them with logical arguments.

And not many couples have the luxury of separate bathrooms when they first start out, when they are still assessing each other's values. One room can provide a lot of stress, a lot to disagree about.

So I'm betting you have some great stories of bathroom battles or, perhaps, shocks you've chosen not to make an issue of but still think about.

I hope you'll share them with me, because I'm writing a book: Love Like You Don't Share a Bathroom. And I'd really like to include your story. Thanks!

July 15, 2016

For Men: Protect Your Health by Protecting Your Marriage

A study published online two days ago (in advance of the journal's printing) offers one more reason for men to Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives: better health.

Everyone's heard that married men are healthier than unmarried and divorced men, but this study offers a bit more detail. Once they reach middle age or older (when ailments begin to increase), only men with satisfying marriages take better care of themselves. Older men dissatisfied with their marriages experience a boomerang effect, taking even less good care of themselves than those without spouses.

While you cannot control your spouse's behavior, you have a good bit of control over your satisfaction with your marriage, which is what this blog is all about.

First, when something your wife does upsets you, override your amygdala's very primitive threat management system by looking for other possible explanations for what happened. To do this, Assume Love: set aside any doubts you might have and look for explanations consistent with your mate still loving you, still possessing the character strengths you married her for. You know far more about the person you married than your amygdala will let you recall while pushing your body to fight or flea a threat to your physical safety.

Second, don't let resentment build up. Expect love, but don't dictate that love will show up as picking up your dry cleaning, earning a certain income, or wearing something in particular, because, as my friend's AA leader says, "every expectation is a premeditated resentment." And resentment corrodes a marriage.

Third, when the two of you disagree on a choice you must make together, Find Third Alternatives. Don't debate the first two. Don't look for a compromise between the first two that makes you both equally dissatisfied. Look for another alternative that makes each of you as satisfied as going with your first alternative.

I promise you'll find your marriage more satisfying, and if you're anything like the 506 unionized male workers in Canada in the Spousal Positive Social Control and Men's Health Behaviors and Self-efficacy study, you'll probably take better care of your health.

July 12, 2016

Did I Marry the Wrong Person?

Some people manage to marry a skunk. The rest of asking this question keep mistaking guinea pigs, ground hogs, and even rabbits for skunks. Here's the difference.

A few spouses, male and female but usually male, congratulate themselves on acquiring a slave without the usual financial, social, and legal costs of such an arrangements. Instead of the lash, they may use misappropriated lines from whichever religious text you hold dear to justify their domination of you or threaten you with harm to your children to keep you doing their bidding. They may also punch, burn, or throw things at you. They are firmly convinced you are their personal property, never their equal.

Your money is theirs. Your time is theirs. Your talents are theirs. Your body is theirs.

These are bona fide skunks. Your time with them is not marriage. It's bondage.

Then there are the skunks whose stripes emerge only after you've been married a good while. They become famous or wealthy and convince themselves it's all due to their own personal talents. The benefits are theirs to bestow on you or keep for themselves. They feel entitled to use the bodies of men or women impressed by their success for their own pleasure, oblivious to their marriage pledge of fidelity to you. You become nothing more than another part of their career to be managed.

They are too blinded by their own gleaming capped teeth to notice they achieved what they did because they chose a partner with different ambitions, one who took care of day-to-day problems with the house or children that could have grown into career-interrupting bigger problems. They forget who made it possible for them to get the education or take the financial and emotional risks that started their snowball of a career or bank account rolling. They forget the dips in fortune when their spouse's income was what allowed them to try again.

These are skunks, too, but they are possibly salvageable as spouses if the two of you, or even just you, get help bringing them back down to earth.

But you know what? These two categories make up a very small slice of all the spouses accused by their wives or husbands of being bad people who must change because those wives and husbands are desperately unhappy in the marriage. The rest are not skunks.

Here's how to tell if you're just seeing a shadow on a groundhog or guinea pig when you think you're looking at (and married to) a skunk.

First, pretend your husband or wife died yesterday. How many of the things that have been bothering you got better? If you've been demanding more help with the yard work or the kids, do you have it now? Is picking up the dry cleaning or your prescriptions any easier? If you've been pushing your spouse to work more hours or ask for a raise, do you have more income coming in? Are your kids getting more of the sort of attention you've been asking for?

Notice that if you've been under someone's thumb, bullied or hit or raped by your spouse, things get better, not worse, when it's over.

If that's not the case for you, you do not have a marriage problem. You have a life problem. If you've been infusing your marriage with resentment as a result, you've created a marriage problem.

This can sound harsh. When we're frustrated by a problem, the first place we look, the first place we ought to look for help is our spouse. But if it's also the last place we look, we create our own unhappiness.

When you're deciding what to expect of your husband or wife, Expect Love. It's the thing you were promised, and it comes in many forms. Some people feel loving while running errands for their spouse; others don't. Some people feel loving whlie choosing gifts for their spouse; others don't. Some people feel loving while they spend quality time with their children; others don't. Some people feel loving while they're encouraging you and acknowledging your achievements; others don't.

Second, if something happened that alarmed you and made you worry you might have a skunk for a spouse, you need to know something. Your thinking is seriously constrained by the very fact that you're alarmed. Once alarmed, your brain focuses almost exclusively on assessing the threat level. It turns off access to a lot of helpful information you've stored that would help you determine whether you're dealing with a skunk or not.

When this happens, it helps to Assume Love. Again, it takes a bit of temporary pretending, but the pretending is not the point. What it frees your brain to do is the point. Pretend you know for certain you're not married to a skunk, that you are still well-loved by a good person, and make the effort to find another possible explanation or two for what happened, explanations consistent with loving and respecting you.

Just by setting aside the question of whether you're in danger, you'll remember a lot more about who your spouse is, what motivates him or her, and what's happening is his or her life. And you just might figure it all out and breathe a sigh of relief as you understand what happened.

And this will keep you from doing or saying something alarming to your innocent and baffled spouse.

It might even rekindle your love for the wonderful person you chose as your partner in life. Try it.

The Author

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

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