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Articles from September 2013

September 30, 2013

Don't Take It Personally

When the person who promised to love you and cherish you as long as you both live says something hurtful, it can be so hard not to take it personally. And this is why you must Assume Love.

Assume Love does not mean anything like your colleague at work saying: "You must have misheard him. I'm sure he didn't mean to hurt you. Just forget he ever said it. I'm sure things will be fine again by the time he gets home."

That is not Assuming Love. That is Pretending Love. And it's really unconvincing, because underneath all our fancy thinking, we have an Old Brain that works hard to prevent danger. And if we're upset, it's because it thinks we're in danger.

So, how do we avoid taking it personally? We deliberately look for alternative explanations. Our first explanation is that these upsetting words out of the mouth of the person we married are intended to upset us, intended to force our hand in some decision, maybe a sign we might soon be unfairly constrained or deserted.

Cognitive-behavorial therapy offers lots of tricks for thinking of alternative explanations: substitute in this particular case for always or this one little thing for everything, ask how your best friend might describe what happened and what it means, etc. But in your marriage, whatever happened came from the one person who chose you, loved you, and promised to be yours for life. So I say try explaining what happened as if you knew for sure that love and all those good intentions were still there.

Once you have an alternative explanation or two, you compare how well the evidence fits each explanation, and then you choose the one that sits best with you. If your spouse treated you lovingly last night and yesterday morning, this morning's harsh words probably don't come from a loss of love or a sudden influx of bad character traits. They probably come from something that has very little to do with you.

In other words, it's not personal.

For example... This afternoon, I was riding with my husband in his car. It's old, but it still runs quite well. However, old cars come with lots of surprises. As we reached the end of our driveway, his seat suddenly slid backwards a few notches, and he had to scoot forward in the seat to find the brake pedal.

Not a big deal, but he looked really alarmed. And he was doing me a favor, driving me to the garage almost ten miles away to pick up my car.

It was the sort of moment when upsetting words often fly. Instead, he said: "Oh wow! That brought back a memory I had apparently forgotten. I was taking off when I was first flying solo. Twenty feet off the ground, my seat suddenly slid back. I couldn't reach the rudder pedals. I was so lucky there was no cross wind, because I could not control the rudders until I was flying level. I can't believe I had forgotten that. It's such a vivid, awful memory."

And in a moment, he was off and driving down our steep hill, through the chickens that really do cross the road for no reason at all.

Then he said, demonstrating with his hands, "You really don't want to pull on the yoke to move yourself forward on the seat at a moment like that!"

We both laughed. He said, "I'm really glad we're laughing about it now."

And I thought, "I'm really sensitive today, and if he had barked at me about driving to town at that moment, I would have taken it personally, at least until I could Assume Love and figure out the moving seat was a more likely trigger of the outburst than the drive was. He loves me, he's a decent man with a well-controlled temper, and we're already 1/3 of mile underway when we reach the road."

Would I have guessed how the slipping seat could upset him? No way. But once I had moved away from the story that he was being a jerk about a badly needed favor and onto one that the moving seat was a bigger deal than it appeared, it would have been easy to ask about the seat. Because it wasn't personal.

September 9, 2013

One Incredible Birthday Gift

Expect love. It's beautiful and surprising and nothing like you thought it would be.

No one's going to put in this sort of effort for a guy who has been whining he expected his wife would serve dinner on time (or pick up his dry cleaning or stop working when the baby came) if she really loved him...

Your spouse wants to love you. It's a lot harder when you want to dictate how.

September 6, 2013

Benefit from Your Spouse's Character Strengths

At the end of my post The Strength of Strengths, I wrote:

Just being aware of our different strengths lets me see two virtues clashing. It gives me a chance to look beyond my own strength and ask how I might be an even better (and happier) person with both our strengths at my disposal.

Recently, a kind reader, Lindsey, left a comment on that post:

I get, and really identify with, these sorts of strength vs. strength conflicts. I would LOVE a whole bunch of examples of this idea introduced in the last line.

So here, for you and for Lindsey, are some ways we might benefit from our life partner's different character strengths.

Marissa is a trial lawyer fighting for the civil rights of her clients. She loves parties and often brings her camera to take pictures. People love the photos, but she knows she uses the camera to avoid talking to people, because they seem to wilt under her questions. Her new wife's top strengths include a keen social intelligence, the ability to put others at ease and figure out where their interests lie. Now that she gets to know people first, her photos are so authentic that she's being asked to shoot weddings and family reunions.

Dev is a hardworking man of impeccable integrity, but he gets so stressed when things don't go as planned at work. Fortunately, he's married to a woman drawn to the awe of nature's great beauty. When he walks out his front door in the morning, it's through a beautiful garden. On weekends, she's rented kayaks for a trip through a gorge or found a new waterfall for them to hike to. He doesn't always experience the elevation she feels, but he does forget about work long enough to relax and enjoy life more.

Jana is very creative but has always been a bit of a loner, marching to the beat of her own drummer. Fortunately, one of her husband's greatest strengths is teamwork. He's in charge of chores and outings with their four children. He makes the necessary organization and cooperation enjoyable for her and the kids, and he enjoys drawing on each family member's strengths to make their time together more fun.

Ray is kind-hearted, always willing to drop everything to help someone in need. He married an entrepreneur, always trying to find one more dollar to invest in growing the business. There were some ugly battles at first, but now they have a philanthropy budget that's more than Ray's annual salary as a special ed teacher, and he's having a ball seeing how many people he can help with it.

Chloe loves the internet. She got the energy and optimism, as well as the curiosity, to keep trying things to see what might make them enough money to move to Paris for a year. Her husband sees himself as more of a realist and doesn't want to get involved. However, his great strength is an incredible love of learning. Chloe just mentions a technology problem, and he's downloaded two manuals to read and set up a test platform to experiment with it. Once he's answered her questions, he's free to move on to learning to fly or speak Portuguese, and she's that much closer to their Paris year.

Chloe's husband really looks forward to all he can learn if they get to Paris. His job doesn't normally offer sabbaticals, but he will be able to take a year-long leave of absence, and he expects to come back a new man.

Ray's wife is tough as nails, but she's learned to really love coming home to such a kind-hearted man now that they are done fighting over nickels and dimes.

Jana's husband is on the local school board. He coaches soccer. And he's a member of a little theater group. He cannot count the number of times Jana's creativity has boosted the efforts of all these teams he enjoys.

Dev's wife really appreciates how easy it is to trust a man like him. She also loves the income his industriousness brings in, because, like so many whose top strengths include awe, she loves live musical performances, which she attends with friends and her sisters, and decorating their home with really excellent art.

Marissa's wife is proud of Marissa's legal work and her photography, and she's really glad for the life coaching clients they help her land.

Every one of these couples could devolve into fighting over whose values really matter or into condescension for a mate lacking a skill that comes so easily to any of them. Or they can be a source of respect and a definite advantage for the partner who lacks them. It's all in how you see them.

The Author

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

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