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January 14, 2019

Pursuing Your Dreams and Growing While Married

It's so easy to get caught up in fears that if you pursue spiritual growth, start that business you've always dreamed of, get that graduate degree in your 50s, or take up an adventurous hobby, it will tank your marriage.

Before we start on this great new adventure, we fear obstruction. Once we find our way around the imaginary or real obstacles, we fear growing apart if our spouse doesn't drop everything and join us. If we keep going beyond this, we fear we're growing so much that we'll lose respect or interest for our partners.

Some of us, the ones with great imaginations, can run through all three of these fears in the first hour after we come up with a dream to pursue.

And if we don't pursue the dream, the fear can wreck the marriage much more surely than if we do pursue it.

Don't let it stop you. Pursue your dream. Treat obstruction as caring, and share your joy at going after you dream. Make new friends who share your passion for the real work of your new dream, friends who will drop everything and help, so your marriage won't suffer. And remember to keep asking with an open heart about everything your spouse is mastering while you're mastering this. Make a happy, healthy marriage part of your dream and then go after that dream!

January 7, 2019

How the Good Things in Our Childhoods Mess Up Our Marriages

Jerome woke up every morning to his mother bringing him a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. He'd drink it down before getting out of bed and ready for the rest of his breakfast and the school bus. It was a nice, unhurried way to start the day. And it made a lasting memory: orange juice = love, especially when it's delivered by the woman he loved most.

Rebekkah woke up to an alarm clock and hurried down to the kitchen table to pour herself some cereal. Her mother was already at work. Her father, who worked nights, was home but usually sound asleep when Rebekkah rushed out the door to walk to school.

If you had dropped young Jerome into this household, he would have felt unloved. But Rebekkah never did, because every Saturday, her family spent the entire day together. An only child, she had her parents' undivided attention as they visited museums and beaches and parks or shopped for new school clothes.

When Rebekkah and Jerome married, she planned lots of things to do together on Saturday and looked forward to having two or three kids to join them. But Jerome often had to work on Saturday. And when he didn't, he would accept invitations from his pals to do things together, then feel utterly misunderstood by Rebekkah when she pouted over his choice.

Rebekkah did the shopping. Her family had never bought orange juice and certainly did not own a juicer to make their own, so it never occurred to her to buy oranges or orange juice. She had no idea (who would, if they did not grow up in Jerome's situation) that anyone could feel less loved without a daily dose of the orange stuff. And Jerome got up before her every day, so it never occurred to her to bring him anything in bed. But she really enjoyed the freshly brewed coffee waiting for her in the kitchen when she hurried down for breakfast before work.

Fortunately, Jerome reminisced about all that orange juice while they were visiting his mom soon after they married. And Rebekkah, ever the practical one, stopped scheduling things to do together on Saturdays and had a lot more luck with Sundays.

After their first child, another expectation from their childhoods caught up with them. Neither of them caught it. It wasn't until they finally showed up for marriage counseling after years of drifting far apart that anyone noticed what was driving a huge disagreement.

Jerome had siblings, 3 younger brothers. Unlike the rest of breakfast, that glass of orange juice every morning was one-on-one with his mother. It was followed by all the activity and cross-conversations and whining you'd expect from a family of four boys at the breakfast table with their overburdened parents.

Rebekkah could never imagine that scenario. Somewhere deep inside, she remembered the loneliness of her breakfasts alone. She never felt bad about them as a child, but they drove her to be all business and no fun. Once she had a child of her own, she wanted to give him siblings to share everything with: breakfasts, walking to school, family day on the weekends.

And that's what drove them apart. Rebekkah had no real clue why she was in such a hurry to have another child, and James had even less of a clue why he never felt it was time yet. She expected the second child to improve their son's life. He expected it to have the opposite effect. And because they didn't talk about the expectations, didn't discuss whether their separate fears and hopes were even relevant to their current circumstances, Jerome withdrew from their sex life while Rebekkah pushed for it. And Jerome withdrew from family day, while Rebekkah grew to welcome the time alone with their son, because she didn't want to be around him any more.

Unmet expectations grow resentments. And most go unmet, because we're the only one who believes everyone expects them or ought to.

Rebekkah and Jerome could have turned their unmet expectations into requests if they had noticed that they were building up resentment over unmet needs. As soon as they did this, they could have looked for Third Alternatives, starting by listing what they hoped to gain and what they feared losing. Jerome might have discovered that having no more children isn't the only way to protect their son's one-on-one time with his parents or his loving one-on-one time with Rebekkah. Rebekkah might have discovered that two more children isn't the only way to protect their son from loneliness and too early responsibilities or to protect herself from Jerome's distancing.

Morning orange juice and family day were great traditions and really unfortunate expectations. And this seemed like the time to mention them, as we emerge from the season of expectations rooted in our earliest traditions.

December 31, 2018

The 2 Scariest Marriage Questions

We're all affected by at least one of them, at least some of the time.

Scary Question 1: Are you trying to change me?

Scary Question 2: Are you thinking of leaving me?

The first one may be asked instead as, "Do you no longer respect who I am? Do you no longer trust my choices, my goals, my values?" The second may be asked as, "Why have you stopped doing the romantic, loving things you did to attract me to you?"

The big, big problem is that while we're silently stewing over one of them, our outward behavior tends to push that person we love to worry about the other.

When we ask ourselves whether our husband or wife has grown disinterested or might be cheating, we start asking more about what he or she is doing at every moment of the day. And when this leads your spouse to feel distrusted, disrespected, not good enough for you anymore, he or she withdraws to avoid your disdain or suspicion, leaving you feeling even more anxious about an imminent end to your marriage.

December 24, 2018

Setting Boundaries with Your Spouse

I was recently asked how to set personal boundaries in a marriage.

What are boundaries? They are the acts we won't tolerate from other people.

"If you hit me even once, I will call the police and file a complaint."

"If you are more than 15 minutes late to meeting me, and you don't let me know there is a problem, I won't be there when you arrive."

"If you leave less than $2,000 in our joint bank account without my consent, I'll deposit my next $2,000 of income to a private bank account, because that's the bare minimum I need to feel secure."

Some boundaries you'll never need to talk about. Most people live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, in this case: Don't do to others what you wouldn't let them do to you.

Boundaries are about what you absolutely do not want done to you, not what you expect your spouse to do.

The Golden Rule takes care of all sorts of boundaries, like not pointing a gun at you, intentionally stomping on your foot, stealing your car, forcing you into sex, cutting your internet connection while you're typing a report, and lots more.

Problems arise when what you don't want happening to you would not bother your spouse or might even feel like a good thing to your spouse.

One example I recall is a young man who said something on the dance floor to his new girlfriend, who took offense. She started crying and walked outside, which is where I was standing. He ran out, apologized, and hugged her, and she bolted like a spooked cat. When he followed, she screamed, and I suggested he wait while I went to talk to her out in the parking lot.

It turned out she had a very abusive childhood and could not tolerate being held while she was upset, because it felt like dangerous captivity to her. That's a boundary he could not even imagine anyone needing: no hugs when I'm upset, or I'll scream and run away.

I know other people with illnesses that make ordinary playful or loving acts really unpleasant. They, too, have boundaries that require a bit of educating for a caring spouse.

I can't stand to share a kitchen when I'm cooking. Before I even know it, I'm growling at anyone who dares to wander into the kitchen then, even to help. I need a "nobody else in the kitchen or I quit cooking" boundary.

Some people have a "nobody else in the bathroom while I'm in there" boundary. And some of them marry people who find showering together or brushing teeth together intimate and pleasurable.

Whenever we have a boundary that's unfamiliar to our husband or wife or, worse, one that makes no sense at all to them, it's impractical to expect one-trial learning of our boundary. We need to repeat it a few times and forgive them for forgetting it.

When the boundary is unfamiliar, and our response to crossing it is vague (like "Don't do that!" or "Stop it!"), it's possible our spouse won't even recognize it as a boundary and will playfully tease us about it. (No one likes being teased about a boundary.) Or they may pick up on the wrong "that" or "it" and never again do something you didn't even notice, while continuing to do what sets you off.

So, how do you set a boundary with your spouse? Lovingly. Clearly. Specifically. And perhaps a few times, until he or she can remember this wonderful eccentricity of yours that is not part of their Golden Rule. If it continues, stay cool and spell out exactly what will happen when it's crossed again. Skip the "Do it again and I'll take your head off!" hyperbole. Make your promised response specific and relevant to your reason for needing a boundary. And do that thing you promised the very next time it happens.

All of us want to be loving spouses. When we succeed, it feels wonderful. But none of wants to follow a laundry list of arbitrary rules, especially in our own home. Eventually, once your spouse comes to understand how much you depend on this boundary to feel okay, protecting your boundary will stop feeling like an arbitrary rule and start feeling like an intimate understanding of you and a way to protect you from harm.

As long as you don't make your spouse guess which protections you need, you'll get there. And it will feel good for both of you.

November 17, 2018

How to Communicate with Your Spouse

Imagine you're cooking a one-dish dinner for the family. You pick up the frying pan. Your wrist gives, and dinner slides out onto the floor.

What do you want to hear from your spouse?


  • "Let me help you with that, and then we can order a pizza, ok?"

  • "I'm hungry! How long is it going to take to fix something else?"

  • "Your klutziness will be the death of us yet!"

  • "What the f*** is wrong with you that you can't even make a meal?!"

I'll bet you chose that first one. It's reassuring. It's clear you're both still on the same team. Your spouse recognizes an accident as an accident and doesn't imagine this was a deliberate attempt to delay dinner or waste food. On top of that, it's helpful in a stressful moment.

The second one says, "I have a need, and it's your job to meet it. How long will I need to wait?" What's happening to you at the moment and why it happened are irrelevant. Ouch!

The third one says, "There's something wrong with you." This problem stems from a flaw in who you are. Your response will likely be either to accept the criticism and feel smaller -- and less of an equal partner in your marriage -- or to come out swinging, defending your abilities and your motives.

That last one is really a relationship killer. The anger communicates your spouse's belief that your error was an intentional affront, a denial of your spouse's legitimate right to a home-cooked meal at this very moment. Wow! That's enough to make divorce look pretty enticing.

That was a whole lot of communication in just one short moment in a marriage. But it's probably not the sort of communication you're looking for if you feel communication is missing in your marriage.

So, what are you going to say the next time you start to tell your spouse something good about your day and hear only "that's nice" as he or she heads out to talk a walk to shake off the remains of a tough work day?


  • "It was great. I'll tell you the rest when you get back, ok?"

  • "Stop right there and pay attention to the rest of the story. You can walk later."

  • "You really don't have a clue about how to communicate, do you?"

  • "What the f*** is wrong with you that you can't even listen to me for five minutes?!"

Hint: it's the same question, same answers, different moment in marriage, different spouse unintentionally dropping something, in this case the conversational ball.

The Author

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

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