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Articles from February 2021

February 25, 2021

Annoying In-laws

Do your in-laws show up unannounced at all the wrong times? Do they demand to share all of your vacations? When your spouse is not around, do they criticize you or order you around? When your children are around, do they undermine you?

It can help to see things through their eyes. A long time ago, a tiny infant was placed in their care. They were charged with keeping this tiny child safe and fed. As the baby grew, it was their duty to teach them right from wrong. Maybe they taught what their parents taught them. Maybe they rebelled against what they were taught and emphasized different values. But it was a sacred duty.

Surely, they screwed up at times. We all do. And they had to do it while their parents and their in-laws continued to push the values that matter most to them: duty, respect, love, liberty, fairness, happiness, enthusiasm, piety, loyalty, learning, music, art, physical fitness, self-sufficiency, appreciation of the finer things, courage, whatever mattered to them. But the sum total of their efforts is the human being you admire and fell in love with.

And now it is your turn to navigate the confluence of your values, your spouse's values, your parent's values, and your in-laws' values, quite possibly while honoring that most sacred duty of teaching the most important of these values to a child.

It's not an easy journey for most of us. We could use a guide. Anyone with different values from your own who has gotten through this and managed to raise the sort of person you chose as your spouse is a great candidate. Consider asking you're in-laws, when you're not frustrated by their behavior, how they managed it.

And when you do find yourself frustrated by whatever your in-laws are doing, when they appear to be violating whatever you hold dear, consider stepping back to figure out which value they are fighting for and whether it's one that contributes to your spouse's good character.

This just might reduce your frustration level. If it does not, remember that it's perfectly fine to set your own boundaries now that you are an adult. You may not be able to tell them not to drop in unannounced if that is something your spouse values, but you can let your spouse know that when they do drop in, you'll be in your garden or watching television or out for a walk. And you can do it without anger, the same way you might go cook something while your spouse watches a football game or you might take the kids outside while your spouse's book club visits.

When you are criticized, you can acknowledge the value they are arguing in favor of and tell them what matters to you: "I know the men in your family are all great at hunting, and you all enjoy it a lot, but the world needs art, too, and that's what I'm good at and plan to focus on" or "I agree that cooking appetizing meals is very important, but today I am focused on getting some important work done to pay our health insurance bill, and I would love any help you can give me to get back to it."

For your spouse, who loves both of you, these work a lot better than "How can you think it's fun to take the lives of innocent animals?" or "Mind your own business and go eat at your own house if you don't like what I'm cooking!" And, at least for me, they feel a lot better to say, because they leave room for enjoyable future conversations without giving an inch on decisions that are mine to make.

February 14, 2021

Assume Love's 15th Anniversary

Fifteen years ago today, on Valentine's Day of 2006, I launched this blog to share some thoughts on marriage. I am so proud of the body of work that has followed. To see all of the posts, I hope you will visit the Archives.

My very first post, so that I could link to it in the sidebar ever since, was

Don't Pretend Love

You Assume Love when you take a second look at what your spouse or life partner does as if you are well-loved.

You Pretend Love when you act as if you're loved even though you don't believe it.

When you Assume Love, you give yourself the chance to receive more love by looking beyond your instantaneous, gut-level reactions to events. You pay attention to what you know to be true. You stop yourself from jumping to conclusions. You do this for you, so that you don't miss any love being offered to you.

There's a good chance you'll notice love where you didn't see it before and want to show your spouse more appreciation as a result. That's great! But it's not required, and it probably won't happen every time. When it doesn't, pretending it did is not the solution.

Thank you and happy anniversary to everyone who began this journey with me and everyone who has joined in over the years! Assume Love will continue.

February 12, 2021

Fair is Fair, No?

I received a comment recently on one of my older blog posts:

Why should we assume love but not expect our husband to assume respect???

I knew immediately that I had done a bad job of writing that post. I do not recommend anyone Assume Love for the benefit of their spouse, only for their own benefit. When we Assume Love, we stop an unhelpful but instinctual response that's happening in our own brains, a response that will make us unhappy and cause us to behave like we've gone mad.

An analogy might help. Imagine you have inherited a life-saving response, one designed to protect you from the grass fires common where your ancestors spent many millennia. Even before you could walk, your feet were making little stomping motions in place, because your ancestors' only hope was to get everyone to stomp out a grass fire before it spreads. Running barefoot could be life-threatening, so your brain feels less anxious when your feet are wrapped in leather or wearing shoes. But you live now in a place that gets floods. You cannot walk through water in shoes. You cannot run if you make tiny little steps when you're anxious. Your instincts are dead wrong for your life today. And the more anxious life makes you, the worse it gets.

Well, you inherited instincts to protect you from attacks by wild animals or marauding groups of humans who do not count you as one of them. When you perceive threat, you develop life-saving tunnel vision and make a split-second decision whether to fight or flee with no deliberation. Tunnel vision means you cannot even recall information that would be useful to a more deliberate decision. You become focused on assessing the threat and choosing which of your well-practiced skills you can bring to bear on it right now.

In our lifetimes, we encounter few threats bigger than our spouse--the person we sleep next to, the person who shares all of our assets and our children--turning on us. At the slightest hint of such a threat, all we can pay attention to is assessing how bad the threat is and whether we need to attack it or run from it.

That's what our instincts tell us to do. That's what's hard-wired into our brains. But if we are not under physical attack, if the threat is making us late or throwing socks on the living room floor or quitting their job without notice or flirting, we have the time and the safety to stop that built-in response. And the easiest way to do it is to ask ourselves, "How might I explain this behavior if I could be certain I am still loved and respected by someone who has not turned overnight into a very different person?" So, we assume, just for the moment, that all this is still true, to free our brains to remember all the rest of the information we have about the person we married. And then we can answer that question. And we will be a lot more accurate in our answer than we are capable of while we're searching for signs of danger with our laser-focused tunnel vision.

This is how we stop imagining our spouse is late because of an affair or a total disregard for what matters to us. It's how we remember the likely phone call from her sister in labor or the warning that things could go sideways at work today for him or the fact that we fell in love with this person because of his or her ability to be so totally present in the moment, which leads to ignoring clocks and warrants a reminder right now.

It's the only way we get from outrage over not being included in a decision to leave a job and speculation over what other insane financial decisions might come next to recalling the six times this year he's been a pallbearer at his friends' funerals or the story last month about her boss's sexual assault on her co-worker. It's how we shift in a flash from anger and fear to concern and caring and being the person we long to be when something goes wrong. It's how we keep ourselves the compassionate, loving people we enjoy being.

And even if we're wrong, and our spouse is, indeed, late because of an affair or out of a job because drinking on the job led to a bad decision, we're in a better place. We're better able to think instead of lash out. We're better ready to make plans for protecting our future. Because tunnel vision is of no help at all in dealing with a marriage problem other than a physical assault, we Assume Love. And we do it for ourselves, not for our spouse.

Should our spouse do the same? Well, it would do the same for them as it does for us. But expecting them to do something just because we do it is going to harm us long before it changes them. An expectation is nothing but a premeditated resentment. And who needs resentment? It's highly corrosive. It eats away at love.


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

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