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

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.

October 9, 2018

Mocking Your Spouse

Do you remember falling in love with this man or woman you're married to? Do you remember standing taller, even floating on air, as another human being got to see behind your public facade and admired the real you? You were transported from ordinary person to desirable, exceptionally skilled, unusually talented, fascinating you.

Do you remember, too, that amazing feeling of doing loving acts, of choosing to say something, do something, give something with not even a hint of manipulation, just joy at the wonder of this person you'd discovered and gratitude for the blessing of having him or her in your life?

Both of these filled you up with an extraordinary type of solid fuel, and you two have probably added to it many times since then. If you've grown as a person since then, thank that fuel. If you've accomplished something that required a lot of grit since then, thank that fuel. If you've survived a terrifying challenge since then, thank that fuel.

But let's get to the point of this post. When I first went off to college in Massachusetts, I and my fellow students from the New York City area got called on the carpet one night by a local student. We'd all grown up mocking each other, but we were coming across as jerks in a new environment.

We'd grown up with mocking, and not just among us kids. We'd been mocked even by our parents, who mocked each other. We hardly noticed anymore that we were doing anything unkind. Instead, we felt clever for our quips. We felt powerful and important, because we had an easy way to enforce what we thought the norms for a group ought to be. And we'd heard so much mocking that our pain when it was directed at us was surely a lot less than the pain of those unused to it.

Under stress, I still slip back into this awful habit at times. And the person I'm most likely to mock is the one I know so well, my husband. I'm sure it hurts him and takes back some of the love I've offered him on better days. But it's also taking a melon baller to my own limited supply of stored-up love and loving. And that's going to cost me dearly.

August 7, 2018

Married to a Doormat

If you're someone with a lot of strong opinions, you might find it convenient to marry a "go along to get along" partner -- for a while.

You'll be the one choosing who does what, where you vacation, which friends you see, what big purchases the two of you make, all sorts of things. It may even feel like you've married someone who's ultra-compatible with you, that you're the logical one or the one with better taste or just remarkably persuasive.

Your friends and family may be calling your spouse a saint. And that's a warning sign.

Doormats want very much to avoid conflict. They also want to have a say in all those things you're deciding, but not at the price of conflict. And this means every disagreement is a win-lose choice with you winning and both your spouse and your marriage losing.

Eventually, the losing spouse reaches a point where it's time to deal with conflict, a long-growing pile of conflict, or to regain some control over his or her life by simply slipping away without conflict, leaving you only a goodbye note at best.

Either way, if you haven't noticed the warning signs, you are likely to be thoroughly shocked at how damaged your "perfect" marriage really was.

If you want to stay married, then long before your spouse blows up or walks out, you can hand back some say in the marriage without conflict and without feeling you've lost any of your power to get what you want. You just won't get it by wiping your feet on your wife or husband.

You need Third Alternatives, those alternatives to your front-of-mind ideas that give you what you want and give your spouse the same, the ones that are never obvious until you look for them. And you need to initiate the process of getting them just a bit differently from couples with more equal levels of certainty and conflict aversion.

Let's say you would like to spend some of your savings to replace your car. Not a problem when you're single: set a budget, choose the car you like best, done. You might not even notice how many other options you're cutting off, only that you're getting a better car: a more appealing car, a less prone to failure car, a car with newer features, or a car that can carry the gear for your new hobby.

But that wonderful person you married also has a list of desirable upgrades in mind. His or hers might include a home you'll be able to buy together sometime soon. Or perhaps the option to share a car to save money while getting some more education. Or getting ready to be good parents or grandparents in the next year or two. Or moving to an area where your new car will be impractical.

If you only knew what's on this list, you could have what you're looking for without dashing your mate's hopes. It's actually quite rare that what you're after conflicts with those hopes. It's how you go about getting what you're after that tramples them.

And if you're married to a conflict-avoider, you may never hear about the hopes that you dash, unless you ask about them before you announce your plan to buy that car. Your saint of a husband or your saint of a wife will go along to get along. And those dashed hopes will provide fertile soil in which to grow the resentment that kills marriages.

If your goal is more reliable or more impressive wheels, you can precede your announcement of your plan with a question about any big purchases on your spouse's horizon. If there's one in the works, and you'll feel good supporting it, you can look for a way to achieve your goals without killing that other one. A more reliable, better-looking car can be a good way to increase your income by more than the cost of the car: think Uber, Lyft, deliveries, transporting your real estate or architecture customers, etc. A more reliable car may not require more money, if you can downsize or if you're not fashion-conscious about your car.

If the expense ahead is more education, you two might be able to combine cars right now, and you could end up with one that's actually nicer than you were considering, but more practical for a shared vehicle.

If expense isn't on your spouse's mind, you can ask (before you announce that you want a different car) what other changes he or she has been thinking about. If it's a change that you're not averse to, choosing a car that will work for both locations or lifestyles (now and soon in the future) may actually make you happier than choosing one you'll need to give up in a couple of years.

Of course, if you're averse to that planned change, you'll want to look for a Third Alternative for that disagreement, too. No choice in marriage is either/or. They just look that way at first.

If you want to enjoy being married to your conflict-averse husband or wife, introduce your plans and wishes with a mind toward finding a Third Alternative instead of allowing your mate to go along to get along. Doormats wear out quickly. Partners don't.

July 31, 2018

Expectations that Empower and Disempower Us

We all bring expectations to a relationship. Some are life-preserving:

"I expect to feel safe from violence and life-threatening conditions in our shared home."

Some are about boundaries we need to set to allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as real intimacy requires:

"I expect to be free from any condition that turned deadly or life-threatening or intimidating in past relationships or my childhood, whether that's drunkenness, second-hand smoke, untreated addiction, or even inviting clowns into the house."

But most are about how those who love us ought to behave. We pick them up from movies, from television, from loving couples, from fighting couples, from romance novels, even from sociological studies attempting to define what's "normal."

These all could be stated beginning with "If you loved me, you would _______" or "If you were the person I thought you were, you would _______." They dictate your partner's behavior and infer from any other behavior that there's something wrong with your partner or your relationship.

"If you loved me, you'd buy me flowers once in a while!"

"If you were the woman I thought you were, you'd lose this weight you put on."

The problem with this sort of expectation isn't just that these expectations are wrong (it's quite possible to love someone fiercely and well without ever buying a flower and to be of outstanding character while overweight). They are also disempowering.

They leave you with no way to improve your relationship other than criticizing and nagging, two techniques with really lousy track records for improving a marriage. You're stuck. All you can do is wait for the person you married to turn into the one you imagined.

And it doesn't happen.

You are helpless.

And you are helpless not because you married someone flawed, but because you imagined you are the expert on how your spouse should show love or character.

There are so very many ways to show both. We get caught up in one and lose sight of the big picture. I'm betting that if your wife gave you a kidney to keep you off dialysis, you might agree that who does the dishes after her family visits isn't really a valid measure of how much you are loved. If you marry a generous man and reap the benefits of all the times he's helped people when the two of you need some serious help, you'll probably realize how wrong you were to call him weak when he wouldn't ask for a raise at work.

You disempower yourself when you stick with your ill-informed expectation that if she loves you, she'll wash dishes or if he's a good man, he'll do what it takes to make more money.

But this does not mean you should have NO expectations. You need personal boundaries. You need safety. And you empower yourself if you expect love.

Expecting love dictates your behavior, and you have plenty of power to change your own behavior. But expecting love does not mean expecting love notes via WhatsApp or kisses before you get out of bed each more. It means expecting love in all the forms your spouse offers it.

It means actively watching for signs that you're loved and savoring them. It means asking for help when you'd like some, knowing that your spouse will be able to give some of them and not others. It means asking as if you understand this and would welcome help finding help every bit as you would welcome help. It means asking for quality time together or gifts or kind words or whatever you need, knowing not everyone show love in any one of these ways. It means paying attention to what your spouse asks for and recognizing that when he or she offers this to you, it's a show of love, even if you grew up thinking "words are a dime a dozen, only actions matter" or "gifts just create obligations and awkward situations" or "it's goofing off, not taking care of a loved one, when you take time away from work to talk or play a board game or go for a walk together."

It means noticing your mate's character and not expecting something other than the amazing strengths that drew you to him or her. It means expecting a creative person to bring more creativity to your life, not great teamwork. It means expecting a very spiritual person to add more moments of elevation to your life, not exceptional perseverance on mundane tasks. You might get both, of course, but pay attention to where your spouse's strengths are, because even a persevering, highly spiritual person might be less open-minded or less interested in learning new things or less modest than you are. And that's just as it's supposed to be. Expect good character but not some imaginary character.

These empowering expectations shape how you interact with your spouse, where you look for things to fill your heart with admiration and gratitude.

They also tell you when it's time to protect yourself instead of the relationship. You'll actually know if you're being treated with love, and because of this, you'll also know when you're not. You won't need to wonder if your spouse working late means it's over or that her career's about to take off, because you'll have a multi-dimensional measure of love. If it's all gone AND she's working late, you're in trouble, and it's time to take some action to preserve your relationship or protect your interests.

What you expect from your marriage is your choice. But I hope you'll choose expectations that empower you, that keep the action in your court, where you can do something about it.

June 11, 2018

Whiskers on the Sink

I was stressed. And anxious. And trying to get work done. Problems kept popping up.

I went to the bathroom sink to get a drink of water. The first thing I noticed was how wet the front of the sink was. Then I saw all those whisker clippings. Lots of them.

My mind went right where it loves to go: what is wrong with my husband that he left this mess?! He's a grown man! Can't he do better? Do I need this on a day when I'm dealing with so much stress?

Done with the usual suspects, I quickly ran down my other list.

Assume Love: why might someone who loves me leave such a mess here today? If the point were to annoy me, he's not nearly as creative as usual. Probably has nothing to do with me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or distracted.

Expect Love: is it reasonable to expect he'll show me love by cleaning the sink every single time he shaves? Nope. He's oblivious to sink messes, here and in the kitchen, so it doesn't take much to distract him from cleaning up. Maybe he's as stressed as I am today. How would I know? I've been focused on the online messes I've been making and cleaning up.

Find Third Alternatives: what would I want from a better option? A clean sink? Not really. Encountering that messy sink might have raised my stress level, but finding it clean and dry would not have lowered it. I want less stress. Should I ask what he wants?

And then I grabbed a paper towel, wiped the sink, and tossed it into the wastebasket right next to the sink. Took me maybe 3 and half seconds, far less time than discussing a Third Alternative to his choice to leave the whiskers here. Better yet, I felt a bit more powerful. I had made a problem go away. On this day of problems, that felt good.

I filled my glass with water and went back to my desk happier. And perhaps a bit less stressed.

The Author

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

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