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Articles from May 2011

May 31, 2011

Marriage, the Journey

So much of what we do in life has a goal. We convince ourselves we will be happy when we reach the goal. We work hard to get there for as long we believe the goal lies within our reach. When we no longer believe it does, some of us double down and look for a better route to the goal. The rest of us move on to a different goal.

We pursue happiness.

When we marry, we set the goal of loving each other until one of us dies. Although moments may come and go when we believe we will indeed be happy to become a widow or widower, if we stick to the other part of the goal, loving each other until then, we do not expect to be happy when it happens.

In marriage, we hope happiness will pursue us.

We hope that if we love a spouse, he or she will make us happy. If not, many of us move on to another spouse or another source of happiness. The rest are not blessed with better spouses, but recognize that it was always loving, not being loved, that brought us happiness.

Positive psychology keeps discovering that what makes us happy is the stuff of loving: being part of something bigger than ourselves, feeling more gratitude, getting more opportunities to use our character strengths (because our partner has different ones), nurturing an intimate relationship, becoming more optimistic (because we see more clearly through another's eyes that our first explanation of upsetting events is not the only one), and finding so many opportunities for altruism.

We create our own happiness. Having someone to love makes it easier.

Once we figure this out, we hope for a long, intense journey on the way to our goal. Our differences add to the intensity. Our challenges make the journey more interesting. Our periods of day after day sameness signal success at extending the journey. Our new relationship skills promise to help us not to avoid divorce but to embrace and savor a wonderful trip.

May 23, 2011

Is It a Third Alternative or Just Alternative 1.5?

You have a disagreement with your spouse or life partner. You want one thing. We will call it Alternative 1. Your mate wants something else. Because I am a stickler for symmetry, we will call it Alternative 2.

Alternatives 1 and 2

For example, Alternative 1 might be the toilet paper you grew up with and Alternative 2 might be a new, greener brand your husband or wife prefers.

If you two choose Alternative 1, you will be happy, but your beloved will be unhappy. Choose Alternative 2, and you just swap outcomes, leaving one of you resenting your position in the marriage. Not good for your marriage or your outlook on life.

Alternative 1.5

If you decide to give a little, compromise for the sake of your marriage, you might end the disagreement, but you both agree to be somewhat unhappy for each other. This would be so noble, so admirable, if Alternatives 1 and 2 were the only ones available to you and what mattered to you about them was in conflict.

Guess what? This is very seldom the case.

Third Alternatives in the Bathroom

Your choices in the bathroom are not limited to green vs. familiar. You do not need to spend every day with a toilet paper you dislike to avoid a fight or do something like promise to clean the toilet in exchange for getting the paper you prefer.

There are many brands, many varieties of each brand, as well as bidets, lotion wipes, and the crazy option of hanging two toilet paper holders. A Third Alternative is a choice you both like, something that requires none of the compromise and disappointment of the meet-in-the-middle solution, Alternative 1.5.

Which one is your Third Alternative depends on what each of you wants from your initial alternative and what you dislike about your mate's first choice.

This is where it is always good to ask. You might hear Big Green Toilet Paper and think your mate seeks its biodegradable and recycled properties. We are not so predictable as this. We create so much misery for ourselves by trying to read a husband's or wife's mind.

Perhaps the appeal is only to support a friend's company. Your Third Alternative might include some other product from this company, leaving you free to pick the toilet paper. If it is to reduce the amount of paper in your septic tank, the bidet option might delight both of you. If it is a preference for the feel of the paper, two holders might yield two happy partners.

It's Not All Toilet Paper

Perhaps you are thinking right about now that you would feel over-the-top lucky if your biggest problem were toilet paper. But Third Alternatives work for all size disagreements.

During my first marriage, I had a long workweek and a long commute. My husband had a shorter workweek and a short commute. I was sure this meant he should take care of more of the local chores: local errands, school visits, the necessary phone calls to local businesses. He did not agree.

It wasn't until he had been dead a month or two and I was juggling all the chores on my own that I found a Third Alternative. I shortened my commute. From my new office, I could have walked to his office or met him for lunch, in addition to being close enough to do my share of those chores so easily.

As long as he had been alive, I was free to treat it as a disagreement and fight over it. Because I imagined he had time that I did not, who did what was all I had considered.

He was right. He did not have that time. And I stupidly waited until it was all gone, and I was a 34-year-old single mom, to question some of my assumptions about my own time and find what would have been a great Third Alternative for our two-year-long disagreement.

I have to disagree with anyone who says compromise is the secret to a happy marriage. If you discover them while you still have a spouse to disagree with, Third Alternatives are like getting what you want while giving your beloved spouse a great gift. That makes a much happier marriage.

May 16, 2011

3 Things to Know Before You Get Married

In answer to a question posed to me today, I think people should know 3 things before they marry:

  • How to find a third alternative to any disagreement, an option that gives each party all they were looking for in their first suggestion without the drawbacks of the other person's first suggestion, instead of arguing.unhappy couple, not talking
  • That what you can expect from marriage is love, not any particular sign of it (like a certain income, a home-cooked meal, gifts on your birthday, an eager participant in your favorite hobby, or even fidelity), and you can miss an awful lot of that love while watching for your favorite signs.
  • That our first story of why our spouse did something upsetting comes from a part of our brain that looks only for threats, so it's a huge help to assume we still have our spouse's love and see if there's an explanation for why someone who loves us might do the same thing.
Whether you marry or not, it's a very good idea to know how to earn a living, prepare meals, keep a home livable, stay within the law, repair (or get repaired) anything you rely on, and learn new things as you need to. Even if your spouse takes care of some of these while he or she can, expecting any of them just gets in the way of enjoying your marriage.

May 13, 2011

Why Be Married? To Be a Great Dad

Fathers matter so much to their children. If you're reading this blog, I know you care a lot about your marriage. You have no idea how delighted this makes me. Loving your children's mother is the number one thing you can do for those kids.

We moms often think we know best about raising children, but dads are important because they have different goals and different approaches to raising kids, not in spite of this.

Most of our presidents have been fathers, too, and the last two have supported the idea that great fathers are a most important part of a great nation. For this reason, we have a nationwide government program to help dads improve their game.

Father's Day is June 19th this year. If you would like to take your fathering up a notch before then, check out the website for lots of resources for fathers, step-fathers, new fathers, and experienced fathers ready to help other men be better fathers. Use the map there to find programs for fathers in your area. Don't forget to sign up for email updates, too. Be sure to see the Dad2Dad section for a list of non-government forums for dads, too.

Thanks, Dad, for all you do for your kids and for your country. website

May 10, 2011

The Line Between No Expectations and Doormat

Sarah posted a comment this morning on my Should I Stay Married for the Kids? post with a really great question. Here is what Sarah wrote:

I love the idea that "An expectation is a premeditated resentment"; it has me thinking. On one hand I think it is a great idea, but on the other hand I feel that if we should "Never settle for being a doormat" then we have to have expectations and make them known. Maybe it's a fine line.

Before my big wakeup call at the end of my first marriage, I, too, feared it was a fine line. If it were, we would need to be vigilant all the time, and wouldn't this suck the fun out of marriage?

You are not a doormat if you take out the trash when your husband fails to. If you were not married, there would be trash to deal with. If you take out trash AND have a husband to love you, you are well ahead of the game.

Where you shoot yourself in the foot is when you let yourself expect that if your husband loved you, he would do more around the house or be as prompt as you are with chores. Now, you have trash to take out and what looks like an unloving husband, even though it's the same husband and the same bag of trash.

And while you're stewing over the garbage, you may very well miss out on some great loving. He might have walked in the door ready to kiss you, but turned right around when he sensed your mood. He might have wanted to tell you he sucked it up at work today and did not quit on the spot because of his commitment to your wellbeing.

You are not a doormat if you expect your husband to support your plans to organize a neighborhood produce coop and instead he dismisses those plans—unless you so resent his lack of support that you resolve to stay home and be miserable instead of doing what you believe to be important and worthwhile.

If your husband spends more than you can tolerate, expecting him to spend less will make you a resentment-filled wife. Nagging him to do what feels unnecessary to him will make him a resentment-filled husband. Setting aside a savings account cushion in your own name to keep yourself comfortable while he does his thing is what will keep you from being a doormat.

If you expect a husband who loves you will not harm you or do things that any decent person would stop a stranger from doing to you, the expectation will not keep you from getting hurt. It will probably keep you watching every little thing he does for signs he no longer loves you, eventually convincing yourself to flee in fear and anger.

But your husband may still love you and do things that any decent person would stop a stranger from doing to you. If you assume love and look for a possible explanation of this, the only one is a loss of the ability to control his own behavior. Drugs, alcohol, Alzheimers, and brain tumors are some of the things that can cause this. Expecting him to stop behavior he does not want to engage in and cannot control will certainly lead you to resentment and him to shame, both of them marriage-killers. The expectation will only get in the way of protecting him and yourself from his out-of-control behavior, saving your marriage and possibly your life. You are much more likely to behave like a doormat until it's too late if you don't see through your expectation and look for signs you are loved.

There is a difference between an expectation and a request, even a request with consequences. You have every right to request help with the trash or the cooking or your political campaign, to request your mate enter rehab so you can live together again, to request he not have sex with other women. You have every right to advise him of what you will do if he disagrees with your request (and better yet, if he agrees).

And if you two disagree over your request, you have a great tool for finding a third alternative that suits both of you. My husband says no to a lot of my requests, but he often helps me find another way to get what I want, a fine third alternative for both of us. Doing this, he's avoiding being my doormat, no expectations required and fully open to all the ways I might show him my love for him.

Doormats are people who believe they must say yes to things that fill them with resentment so they can hang onto love. Expectations are attempts to gauge how much love we're hanging onto while overlooking most of it and inviting resentment over how little we find as a result of our search strategy. They provide no protection from becoming a doormat. In fact, they can convince us we're running out of love and ought to lie down to hold onto whatever's left.

When I let go of my expectations, I was completely shocked by how much love I could see in my marriage.

May 7, 2011

I Buried My Fears Today

Today, I went to the cemetery to plant some flowers on the grave of my first husband. This would have been his 60th birthday, except he died 25 years ago. While I was there, I buried my fears. I put them in the dirt under some petunias and left them there in New Jersey.

Petunias and snapdragons on graveAs I dug out the weeds and readied the soil for the beautiful pale yellow and dark red-purple flowers I had brought with me, I recalled how fearful I was in the months before he died. Everything seemed to be going wrong back then. I had been afraid then, and I have been afraid again more recently.

Digging in the soil on this sunny spring day, I realized I have only ever been afraid of one thing: that whatever I am not enjoying right now will get worse. That's it. That's fear: the belief that things might get worse.

That's fear: the belief that things might get worse.

I had been so afraid back then of things getting worse that I wanted a divorce, not so much from my husband as from our life together, so it could not get any worse. And then the worst thing I could imagine happened: he died while I was out at work.

This was, of course, not the worst thing that could have happened. It was just orders of magnitude larger than anything I had been fearing. He had died at home, not while leaping from a top floor of a burning World Trade Center tower. No tornado had lifted up the house and left the three of us half-crushed beneath it. No one had shown up to torture us for information we did not have. It was, though, much worse than anything I had been fearing.

Yet once it happened, I got busy rebuilding my life and taking care of our son. I worked harder than I ever had. I took bigger risks than I ever had. I asked for help I had never asked for. I crossed things off my to-do list that I had been sure were mandatory. I did whatever it took to recover.

As I dug in the earth over my first husband's casket today, I thought of how my current fears that things may get worse were affecting my second marriage. And I decided not to wait for the local nuclear power plant to leak or the gas pipeline to blow before I stop worrying and start doing the hard work of building the life I want around my current circumstances.

I planted my fear of things getting worse under the petunias today and stuck snapdragons around them to keep those fears from following me home. And all the way back to Pennsylvania, I felt lighter and stronger and happier. And very, very lucky to be married.

May 5, 2011

Like What You're Reading?

Not many people have discovered the shortcut to see all 270 blog post titles with links to the articles. Just click on the Archives link right below the Top Ten Marriage Blogs of 2010 badge on the right side of every page on the blog. Or, if you are reading this on Facebook or in an RSS feed reader, use the link in this post.

May 4, 2011

Should I Stay Married for the Kids?

This question brings people to this blog from time to time: Should I stay married for the kids? They ask it of Google or Yahoo! or Bing and arrive here. It is a noble question, a sign of maturity even to ask it.

I was once one of those kids for whom a couple stayed married, so I can tell you there are some real plusses. We continued to be able to afford a house and a yard in a good school district, one that got me to MIT on scholarship. I have to say thanks for this.

I had two parents helping me the day I pulled off a really great sixteenth birthday picnic overlooking the Hudson River. When both parents showed up after my husband died, they arrived together and did not add the tension a couple of divorced parents might have. Again, so much better than I see in other families that split up.

However, I believe a lot of people who ask the question picture doing what my parents did, which is staying the course, a course that took an arduous route and offered little reward other than honoring their integrity and doing right by their children.

They paid a huge price for what they gave us. Worse, we could see the price they were paying and feel the tension between them every day. Growing up, I felt fortunate, but never comfortable.

And then I became one of those parents asking, "Should I stay married for our child?" Ann Landers offered the awful advice to add up the benefits and the costs and choose the better deal. The therapist I saw offered little hope of my situation changing; we cannot remold our spouses. But they missed the point entirely.

Stay married for yourself. Stay married for another shot at a great marriage with the person your kids call Mommy or Daddy. If you have been trying to change your spouse, give it up, because 90% of your experience of the marriage — unless it involves walking on eggshells to avoid threat of bodily or emotional harm — is taking place between your two ears, and you truly have the power to change it.

Divorce gets you from -5 to 0 on the life satisfaction scale. It gets your kids from maybe 2 (if they sense your unhappiness) to -8 and leaves them powerless to change any of it. Changing the way you see your marriage and your options and living your life differently as a result can take you from -5 to +8 in a year. And for your kids, your +8 is their +10.

If you're at -5 right now, this next benefit might not yet be great news, but when your spouse finds himself or herself married to a +8 and raising +10 kids, his or her life satisfaction is going up, too, maybe even enough for you to feel yourself incredibly fortunate you didn't leave before the second act.

Three things work for me to change everything:

  1. Assume Love - Take a second look at everything that upsets you about your mate's words and deeds by asking what might explain them if you are still loved as much as ever by someone as wonderful as you first imagined.

  2. Expect Love - Everything you expect about what a spouse should do or how someone who loves you will act gets in the way of letting yourself be loved. An expectation is a premeditated resentment. If you have been waiting for your mate to fix your life, start fixing it yourself. Prepare to be surprised by the forms love takes when you stop trying to dictate what it should look like.

  3. Find Third Alternatives - When you disagree, let go of your first choice to free yourself to look together for an even better choice, one at least as good for you with the bonus of making your spouse happy, too. Never settle for being a doormat or for being right without being kind.

Afraid you might be putting on rose-colored glasses and changing nothing? Rose-colored glasses are actually part of most happy marriages. They change everything. Your kids want you to fall in love all over again with their other parent. Give it a try.

Tell me, did your parents stay married for the kids? Did they divorce? Did it affect the one you handled the rough spots in your own marriage?

May 1, 2011

Love and Fear, Part II

Becky Blanton posted this comment on Facebook in reply to my Love and Fear post, and I want everyone to see the answer, because it's such a great question.

I wanted Mexican, my friend wanted Chinese. Using your Third Alternatives I suggested getting take-out at both and having a picnic. My friend pouted and insisted on Chinese or nothing at all.

I've since dumped selfish, annoying, passive-aggressive, narcissist friend, but am curious. How committed does your partner need to be to a relationship to make this work? If you're involved with a jerk can this work? I'm in the process of kicking selfish friends to the curb, setting boundaries and clearing the decks so I can attract people and a relationship with a healthy person.

My question is can you use the third alternative process with friends, co-workers etc. as a way to practice the skill with a mate? Or is this a marriage skill only because of the commitment and love/vows to each other thing?

Third Alternatives are Great for All Disagreements

Third Alternatives work on almost all disagreements with family, friend, or foe. It failed for you, I suspect, because of what Pace and Kyeli Smith call The Usual Error, filling in the unspoken gaps because you expect others think the way you do. It is because of the Usual Error that looking for Third Alternatives works so often and so well.

Let me explain how to make the Usual Error work in your favor when you disagree.

The Usual Error: You Hear Garlic When She Says Quiet

You said, "I want Mexican." What went through your mind? Perhaps the taste of cilantro, cumin, chili powder, a hint of cocoa, shredded beef, shredded lettuce, something easy to pick up and eat with your hands.

Your former friend said, "I want Chinese instead." But quite likely not because of the shrimp, soy, garlic, broccoli, or asparagus over rice or noodles. It's really quite rare we're both focused on the same aspect. If you were in an area where your friend was familiar with the local restaurants, your friend may have thinking white tablecloths, upholstered seating, less formica, more space between tables, quieter background music.

Or your friend might have been thinking about being seen in the Mexican restaurant, which turns out to be owned by a good friend's ex. Maybe Mexican food was fine, but losing social points was not.

It might even turn out your friend owes a bar tab there or has an eye on a really good-looking waiter at the Chinese place or wants to do less driving tonight or hopes to talk you into something after dinner that's nearer to the Chinese restaurant.

I Want You to Have It

The first step in finding a Third Alternative is not generating alternatives. It is saying, "I want you have it. What do you have in mind? We'll come up with a way to make both of us happy. What makes Chinese appealing tonight?"

After you heard your friend's picture of the appeal of Chinese, maybe even asked a few encouraging questions, you might follow up with, "And what's the downside for Mexican? I want to make sure what we come up with next doesn't have the same problems."

You might then confirm the first half of the specs for your Third Alternative before adding your half: "OK. A place that is quiet, comfortable, and less expensive than the Mexican place. I am not up for Chinese food tonight, but all the rest sounds great. I want something low in calories and big on taste, a little spicy, but no soy and no rice or noodles."

A take-out picnic would not meet these specs, even though it includes both Chinese and Mexican food. However, an American restaurant with a southwest salad on the menu and no Chinese food at all might. So might a different Mexican restaurant on the other side of town.


Sometimes, what the other person wants really is to win, to feel in charge, rather than to get what they want. But you will make yourself unhappy if you jump to this conclusion from what others turn down before you offer to give them what they want.

You can also make yourself unhappy by hearing "my way or no thanks" as a threat to gain control. If "no thanks" is not an acceptable option for you, your Third Alternative specs should include what you seek, whether it's this person's company or someone, anyone, to dine with.

I don't want to rule out the existence of jerks, brutes, and narcissists in this world. There are a few, and you may quickly tire of looking for Third Alternatives with them. But there are also many look-alikes, thanks to the Usual Error, including the folks who seek something you do not associate with the label they use and those not as upset by a disagreement as you are.

Love and Fear

Fear drives out love. That tense knot in your chest keeps your heart from melting when it should.

Disagreements create fear, both fear of needing to give up being yourself to stay married and fear of losing the kindnesses, respect, shared moments, courage, and teamwork that marriage offers.

Third Alternatives end the disagreement, end the fear, and let love flow. One of the best ways to stay in love is to look for them for every disagreement, getting lots of practice before a big difference of opinion threatens your love.

Third Alternatives begin with, "I want you to have it." They end with each of you at least as happy with the agreed-upon Third Alternative as with your first one.

I want to hear about your successes with finding Third Alternatives. I also want to help if you are searching for an elusive Third Alternative. I read all comments, and I love to brainstorm and to applaud success.

The Author

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

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