At first read, a lot of folks think I must be daft to encourage anyone to Assume Love. It sounds like it would let a spouse just walk all over you.
I am not the sort of person who lets anyone walk all over me. But I was, for my first 34 years, the sort who unknowingly walked around assuming a few things that robbed me of the great marriage I could have had. When my husband rather abruptly dropped dead in the middle of a really bad spot in our marriage, it tore open the curtains hiding my assumptions.
Those assumptions had caused me an awful lot of pain. They robbed us both of many of the blessings of marriage. On my first morning as a 34-year-old widow and single mother, I saw them for what they had done to us. Over time, I saw them making a mess of a lot of other marriages. And when I started working for Martin Seligman and learning about his research, I realized that others knew what I learned that bleak morning but had not yet applied it to marriage.
When you look at the things your husband or wife does or fails to do, you see them through your own assumptions, the ones that work all the time, like it or not. These assumptions are built into what Seth Godin call the “lizard brain” and Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1.” They are the Beliefs that lead to the Consequences in cognitive psychology’s ABC (or ABCDE) Model.
See if you recognize any of them as your own.
- If you love me, you will do what is fair. When I do a lot of work for this family, you should do the same. When I put time and thought into getting a great gift for you, I deserve the same in return. If I show up on time, you should not show up late. If my commute is longer, you should take care of more of the stuff at or near our home, if you love me.
- If you love me, my needs should be important to you. I should not have to beg for what I need. I should not be alone when I am afraid to be alone or bored being alone or sad being alone. If I want sex, you should initiate it at least some of the time. If I like boating or skiing or hiking or dancing or finger dancing, you should make time for it. If it frightens me, you should never raise your voice around me. I should not feel unable to pursue my goals for lack of support from you, if you love me.
- If you love me, you will respect me. You will always defend me against outsiders and your family members. You will always speak to me with respect. You should never disagree with me in public. You should never dress in a way that embarrasses me, if you love me.
If you hold these beliefs, you will keep score and feel angry, maybe even scared for your marriage, when your spouse accepts your acts of service without reciprocating them, when any of your needs go unmet, and whenever you feel invisible or disapproved of. And you will feel this way even if your spouse still adores you and is dreaming up newer and better ways to love you.
Because you feel angry or scared, you will frantically look for other signs that it is time to forget your marriage and protect yourself. It is just the way the human brain works.
When I say Assume Love, I don’t mean tell yourself you are not angry or scared, because it will not work. I don’t mean ignore any signs of real danger (that flower pot coming across the room at you or that fast-draining bank account or the insistence that you let your mate drive you and your kids home while drunk), because that would be insane.
What I mean is assume you are loved as much as ever by a man or woman of the same character as the one your married and ask yourself what might lead such a person to behave the way your spouse is behaving. Do it because the way you are feeling (angry, scared, hurt, sad) results from your assumption about the cause of what happened, not from what happened. And your assumption just might be wrong. So try out this other assumption (still loved, no sudden selfishness or recklessness or lack of integrity) and see if it leads to an explanation that fits better.
- Loving spouses behave unfairly all the time. They do it when they place a different value on the outcome or effort involved in a task. They do it when they feel you did not notice their other contributions. They do it when they feel overwhelmed by responsibilities or illness. They even do it when their nose is out of joint because they think you should be doing something about their need or showing them greater respect.
- Loving spouses often want to do something about your need, but feel incapable of doing it. After all, if you need it, it’s probably something you yourself feel incapable of taking care of. When Rod died, and I had to meet my unmet needs myself, while taking over for many that he had been meeting, I was embarrassed to discover just how hard what I had been asking for really was.
- Loving spouses often feel so comfortable around you that they show disrespect and have no idea how awful it makes you feel. Or they get so frustrated by the unfairness they perceive that they compare you to a child just to get your attention. Or they believe you to be so strong, so self-assured that they fail to support you when they could.
I have to Assume Love all the time in my second marriage. I am not completely rid of my beliefs, not immune to being surprised or displeased. But I know now that my underlying beliefs, the hidden ones, often lead me to inaccurate explanations.
Those inaccurate explanations lead me to hurt and anger, which result in my doing things that hurt and anger Ed. When I Assume Love and consider what might make the loving man I know him to be do the things he does, it stops the automatic focus on threats and lets me recall a lot more relevant facts.
It works wonders, and not just for the small stuff. It has stopped people on the verge of divorce. I love hearing, just a few days after they have announced they want out, that their marriage is now the closest it has ever been, because they Assumed Love.
If you want to read more on how to use this technique, check out How to Assume Love in the categories list over there in the right column.