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Marriage problems

December 25, 2019

The Caregiver Spouse

When we marry, we promise "in sickness and in health." Becoming a caregiver is part of the package. Having a caregiver if we become temporarily or permanently incapacitated is also part of the package. It's a great deal.

However, when it's time to step up, nothing's as easy as we hoped when we made this promise. In fact, it's not even easy to be the recipient of caregiving. So, let me offer this tip: protect your marriage and not just your spouse. Don't let burnout as a caregiver or frustration with your bad health destroy your relationship with each other.

Pay attention to your strengths and your love languages. Instead of trying to do everything for your mate, do the things you do well and the things that feel loving to you or to your spouse, and leave the rest to others.

Put your strengths to work. If you're a great organizer, get the pills and the therapy dates and the volunteers and the insurance forms organized. If you're strong, do the heavy lifting. If you're great at research, find the best doctors, support groups, equipment, and helpers you can find. Whatever your skills, do the things you're best at first. Look for others to help with the rest.

And choose what to help with based on your love language. If your love language is Physical Touch, you'll feel most loving when you give massages or sponge baths, when you hold hands through a scary treatment, or when you tackle hair washing and helping with dressing and undressing. If it's not your love language, but it's the one your mate speaks, you'll bring the most comfort and receive the most gratitude for adding these tasks to the ones you're more motivated to tackle.

If your love language is Words of Affirmation, you'll feel most loving as the person who's close at hand during visits from the doctor or physical therapist and the one who offers encouragement during tough times. You might also take on the role of keeping the rest of your mate's team motivated to help. And again, if this one is your spouse's love language, you'll want to offer more kind and reassuring and hopeful words during this difficult time.

If your love language is Quality Time, you're likely to be a great hospital visitor and the person who can keep your mate involved in a pleasant activity despite any pain or malfunctioning parts. You're also likely to stay present as your mate does those unpleasant breathing or exercise tasks, making them easier to tolerate. Don't let anyone tell you to multi-task or do something else instead. This is how you show love, what you do when you feel loving, and it's needed more than usual right now, even if it's not your spouse's love language.

If your love language is Gifts, preparing and delivering food to your ailing spouse is right up your alley. But so is finding little token gifts and treats for the rest of the team, things to keep their spirits up as they help. If this is your husband's or wife's love language, but not yours, remember that this is who that hospital gift shop and flower shop are there for. Remember, too, that you can present even that commode or walker you just got at the pharmacy with a bit of a ta-da to pick up the spirit of a loved one whose love language is gifts.

There's one more love language: Acts of Service. If this is your love language, you're incredibly lucky, because caregiving requires so many acts of service, and most of them feel like loving acts, not drudgery, to you. Anyone else trying to be a caregiver looks at you with awe, because it's all drudgery to them, done out of duty. You feel the love, and that makes it so much easier. Just watch that you don't overdo it. Ask for help from others before you neglect your own needs. And if you're caring for someone who shows love through Acts of Service, instead of complaining about the huge number of acts required of you now, try offering compliments and gratitude for all the exhausting acts that your spouse has done for you over the years. Be understanding as he or she learns to receive help without being able to offer much in return during this challenging phase of life.

Start each day using your love language. Do the less rewarding tasks after that, then schedule more love language time before you get exhausted or angry. Invite others who care for your mate to help, preferably doing whatever makes them feel loving, and hire or barter for the rest of the help you need. Don't be bullied by anyone, including yourself, into trying to do everything for your spouse yourself. It's not good for you or your relationship.

Please remember than any illness or disability affects both of you. If your spouse cannot currently meet your need for your own love language, find alternatives, so that you stay on top of your game at this very important time in your marriage: a therapeutic massage or facial for some physical touch, a phone call to a friend or relative who's great with affirming words, a weekly date with a friend or child who shares your need for quality time, a budget for buying yourself gifts or having flowers delivered, or, for Acts of Service, a supermarket or restaurant delivery service or a housekeeper.

November 26, 2019

When Your Mother-in-Law Drives You Nuts

'Tis the season for family get-togethers. Many don't go as well as we'd like. Fights between spouses often result, but most can be avoided.

Remember when your husband or wife gets together with Momma, either of them can slip, unaware, into a role from their past. Your spouse may:

  • Become that 5-year-old whose adult responsibilities are all handled by Mommy
  • Compete like an 8-year-old for Mom's attention
  • Slip back into the personal confidante role that followed Dad's disappearance from the family
  • Continue trying desperately for approval from a woman who feels too threatened to give it
  • Or take back up the teenage battle to establish a separate identity with some different values from Mom

At the same time, your mother-in-law may be angling for:

  • Deference to her greater experience and hard-earned wisdom
  • The camaraderie of life as a single mom with an only child
  • Return to a caretaking role that made her feel a lot more useful than her empty nest
  • Attention and assistance now given more to you than her

When you interrupt these dream states, you'll be more successful if you treat the two of them as arising from a deep sleep where they've been in a very different dream world. Let me give you some examples:

"Sweetie, I love that you're having such a great time with your brother, but I need you to include your mother so I can get some things done."

"Phyllis, you are probably the only person in the world that Robbie would ever allow to say such a thing to me. You've hurt us both, and I believe we deserve an apology and a promise to refrain from such insults in the future."

"Honey, I'm feeling adrift and need some one-on-one time with you. Where is the best place to get some before dinner?"

"It's great that you are catching up with your mother, but I don't think I can feed this group on time without your salad prep and potato mashing expertise. How soon can you join me in the kitchen?"

"I'm so proud of what Chris has accomplished, Mama Jo. I hope you are, too. Your mothering surely contributed, so thank you."

You are in a much better position than either of them to see what each of them needs from their time together and to tell them what you need, too.

October 30, 2019

Don't Take It Personally

A friend contacted me recently, upset. Or pre-upset, if we can declare this a word. Her husband would be miserably uncomfortable the next day, doctor's orders, and she knew this would make him say mean things to her. It always did.

Her Love Language is Words of Affirmation. There would be none tomorrow. Instead, there would be grumbles, complaints, calls to hurry up or move aside, maybe even snide remarks. She was already hurt, and they hadn't even started yet.

I almost said, "Don't take it personally."

I heard this advice when my marriage was going sideways, when I was taking everything personally. But it was useless. How could I not take it personally when it was driving me crazy and coming from the man who promised to love me until death do us part?

So, instead, I said, "Did you ever work with someone with Tourette Syndrome? Did you ever listen to the unexpected words or sounds, watch the twitches, and realize it was just the way their body shakes off stress, that it wasn't aimed at you or a response to anything you were doing?" She had. She'd had a client with Tourette Syndrome. She assigned no more personal meaning to these symptoms than to an accidental cough, sneeze, or fart from any other client.

Everything she was fearing from her husband the next day was predictable and a reaction to following the doctor's orders. It was going to happen whether she was there or not, whether she was helpful or a nuisance. It was just something that happens. It was nothing personal.

And she asked me to share this with all of you, even before they survived their thoroughly predictable next day that turned out so much better than all the ones before it had.

October 12, 2012

3 Quick Ways to Improve Your Marriage

When the two of you draw farther apart each week or the marriage feels more unfair every day, you can change your experience of it. Here are three quick ways to improve your marriage.

  1. Do less of whatever makes you angry. If it's something you can't get out of, like filing taxes or changing diapers, do less of something else you don't enjoy, like washing dishes. (Paper plates work just fine when you have important work like improving your marriage.)
  2. Tell a good listener the story of how you two met, when you fell in love, and how long it took you to say so.
  3. Plan a wickedly great date night with things you absolutely love to do and your spouse or life partner will go along with.

Don't let a good marriage slip out of reach! Act right now. Tomorrow may be too late.

October 11, 2012

Growing Up without Dad

I have no doubt that there are children who are much better off with their fathers out of the house. Children cannot protect themselves from violence, sexual predation, or the carelessness and neglect of some alcoholic or drug addicted fathers. I salute the mothers who take on the difficult work of raising children alone when this is the case and the selflessness of the step dads who assist some of them.

I also know firsthand what it's like to be thrust into single parenthood through the death of a spouse. It's not easy.

But can these cases possibly account for the fact that today one in three children is growing up in homes without their biological fathers? I suspect not. I fear it's some awful offshoot of the women's liberation movement I have been part of and will continue to support. After World War II, when our mothers had to work, they were sent home to make room at work for all the men lucky enough to return from the war. We Baby Boomers were the result. We became our mothers' important work. And there is no doubt that raising children is some of the most important and meaningful work we can ever do.

Twenty years later, our mothers were restless, and so were we teen girls as we looked at their lack of choices. We created new choices, lots of them. We also created some awful expectations, like the one that we could "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let him forget he's a man" simply by wearing the right perfume.

We Baby Boomer women divorced in large numbers. The divorce rate is a good deal lower now than when we were all deciding that fried bacon was enough, that our kids would be fine on our incomes and our schedules, that marriage was just too challenging, that sex was a bother when we were not being wooed and had to make time in a very busy day for it.

And now our daughters and daughters-in-law are facing life with lots more options automatically available to them. And many more are doing it without the experience of having their biological father in their childhood home than in our Boomer generation.

And our sons and son-in-laws, too, see lots of evidence of people growing up without fathers. As women define roles for them around their own choices, they may feel marriage now allows them choices almost as limited as their post-war grandmothers had.

Marriages can be very painful when they stop meeting our expectations. It is easy, when dealing with this daily pain, to make a plan to live on your own income and whatever a judge will grant you of his, so you can raise your child or children in peace. If you are anywhere near that point, I really hope you will work on the expectations and create a new marriage. It's possible. Every time I watch someone come back from that brink and fall back in love, I get all choked up. It's a beautiful thing.

And while I deal in this blog with finding our way back to a loving marriage, I really feel for anyone who won't consider marrying because they expect the pain.

And this is why I want to send you to an incredible new web page on the National Fatherhood Initiative's website. Before you consider single parenthood, check it out. There is nothing on it about what you should or should not do. Instead, it summarizes the findings of 65 studies on the statistical differences between children who grow up with both parents and those who grow up with their mothers. I did not know any of this when I was facing the pain in my marriage and weighing my pain against our son's. It would have made a difference to me. Maybe it will to you, too.

October 8, 2012

God and Your Marriage

I won't pretend I know what God expects of us married folks, but I like to hear what others believe about this. So, back in August, I listened to a webinar on the subject by Ustadha Hedaya Hartford. It was an intro to an 11-week webinar course on The Successful Islamic Marriage.

Unfortunately, when I went to publish this review a day after writing it, everything I had written had vanished. I had really wanted to tell any Sunni Muslim readers about it in time to sign up, because I really enjoyed this sample of her work, but it was gone. Last night, the missing post suddenly reappeared. If you're interested in the course, please contact or do a web search for Hedaya Hartford, as she appears to teach for other organizations, write books, and even show up on YouTube.

What was especially interesting to me was that much of what she said sounds like it should apply as well to Christian or Jewish marriages, even though she based everything on her own religious texts. If you are familiar with the sacred writings of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion, I would love to hear from you on how her ideas fit with what you believe.

One of her frequently repeated points was that if you cannot protect your spouse from your angry outbursts, your addictions, or your parents' meddling, you don't meet the criteria for getting married. You are not fit to do what is required of a spouse. If you marry anyway, your temper or inability to control your parents' role in your marriage is no excuse for what happens. "Fix yourself," she said.

Another was that in the wedding ceremony (nikkah), you make promises in front of witnesses and acknowledge that God (Allah) is the best of those witnesses. Your marriage thus becomes a way of worshiping God. When you swear, belittle your husband or wife, behave unkindly, withhold generosity, or hurt the person you married, there are no excuses. How badly your spouse behaves should never dictate how you behave.

Under Islamic law, you concern yourself with your own character and should not to try to change anyone else's. This includes your wife or husband. It also means wives accept their husbands' decisions, up to the point where doing so would require them to disobey God's other rules.

Her answers to questions from women all over the globe were great. I am paraphrasing here.

Q: My husband wants to take a second wife, and I don't think I could ever get along with her.
A: Islam allows him up to four wives. It does not require that you remain one of them. Talk to him about how you feel. Some women can handle this situation, but not many.

Q. I want to get married, but I am a strong and independent woman. Must I really submit to my husband?
A. I, too, am a strong and independent woman, but this does not give me permission to invent other rules I think would be better than the ones handed down to us. I made sure I found a man who likes my strength and independence and is willing to discuss things before making decisions. With any other husband, I would have a very difficult time doing what is required of me.

Q. A man wants to marry me, but he says he will only marry a virgin. I want to marry him. Must I tell him I am not a virgin?
A. No, but you must tell him you are not a suitable marriage partner for him. You cannot start a good marriage by lying or pretending you know better than he does what's right for him.

Although she got there from religious texts and I got there through trial and error, I found myself agreeing with her quite often. If you are currently incapable of protecting your spouse from your problems, fix yourself. Don't react to your spouse from your gut; behave in a way you'll feel good about. Do not try to change your spouse to fit your expectations. Don't stay married if you cannot abide the life it offers you, but do look for a Third Alternative before you go. Don't marry under false pretenses; choose someone with whom you can enjoy being married.

I don't think I expected to agree with so much. I was almost tempted to sign up for the course just to learn whether she gets into the how-to. That is what I try to offer you. How do you behave in a way you'll feel good about when you don't like your spouse's words or deeds? How do you deal with a husband (or wife) who needs to fix himself? How do you stop expecting different character strengths? How do you choose someone with whom you can make a good marriage? If you take her course, please let me know.

And if you're from another religion, please leave a comment about how her beliefs about marriage mesh with those you have been taught. And please let me know about webinars where I can learn more about what's expected of married folks by your religion.

October 7, 2012

Socks on the Floor

Sure, they are ugly. Stinky, too. And you might be right that this is not where they belong. You could probably take a poll of other people to prove you're right.

But none of this would make you happier. Want to be happier? Take 15 extra seconds when you enter a room to remove any socks from the floor Then thank your guy or gal for your hippopotamus-free home.

October 3, 2012

How to Tackle Life's Problems Together

Matt asked a very interesting question in his comment on Not All Your Problems Are Marriage Problems:

What happens when other problems get in the way of the marriage and one spouse is better at dealing with them than the other?

Marriage problems are the ones that end if your spouse suddenly dies. They are problems between the two of you, like whether 4 am sex is enjoyable or not and whether Saturdays are for family, golf, or landscaping.

The ones Matt is asking about are the problems that stay with you, like providing what your children need, bringing in enough money to buy the housing you want, finding someone to share a hobby with, or getting snow off your front sidewalk and trash out of your kitchen.

How do these problems get in the way of the marriage? Usually by telling yourself a story about what's fair. For example, "There are two of us, so each of us should do half of what needs doing."

Each of us has some must-do items we just don't like to do or believe we cannot do. These tend to be the ones we think it would be fair for our mates to do.

Each of us also has some items on our must-do list that don't show up on our mate's must-do list. They might include things like "grow fresh, organic vegetables" or "keep the garage neat and clean." Even though we married someone who is fine with going a decade or two without doing them, we still believe they figure into our spouse's fair share. Then we fail to include their "take kids apple picking every fall" and their "dust under the bed daily."

If you would be upset if your spouse earns more than you and uses some of the money to pay someone to do his or her share of this work, your story might go like this: "There are two of us, and it's only fair that we each put in the same amount of effort."

Add in something out of your control, like a dip in the economy, and your story might be this: "When your income drops, you cut expenses to match." But your life partner's version of the story might be more like this: "When your income drops, you take on more work." But this leaves less time and energy for cost-cutting measures.

The result of any of these stories? We convince ourselves we are being taken advantage of by an unfair spouse. If we keep it up long enough, we may find out the truth: Fair is you responsible for everything on your must-do list, and marriage is delightfully unfair, because there is bound to be a good bit of overlap to enjoy.

What happens when real problems get in the way is resentment and distance from someone you love. But you possess the power to stop all that. Just drop your story and do what you would feel needs doing if you had no unfair spouse.

You'll start noticing the unfair advantages of marriage, and your husband, wife, or life partner will be hard-pressed to accuse you of doing less than your share. When the old story creeps back in unwanted, as it did for me, start singing, out loud, "All You Need is Love." Love is so much richer (not to mention more abundant) without the overlay of resentment.

Who's The Better Problem-Solver?

And that brings us to the other part of Matt's question, about one of you being better able to deal with problems than the other.

It's not true. No, really. It's not true. Not even if you're married to someone deaf with no hands and an IQ 20 points lower than yours. It's just not true.

If your way of solving problems is perseverance, trying one thing after another until something works, your assessment of someone's problem-solving ability is simply an assessment of his or her perseverance. If your way of solving problems is to solicit advice and help from your vast social network, networks and social intelligence are your measures.

If your approach is to pray, agnostics and atheists probably look like dreadful problem solvers. If your approach is to look at the problem from many different angles until you can see the forest as well as the trees, those folks on their knees, on the phone, or doing a Thomas Edison impersonation probably don't look like they could possibly succeed.

If you often hop in the car as part of solving a problem, you may never notice that blind people find other ways to solve the same problem.

Just about every strength provides an effective way to solve tough problems. If you want more help from your spouse with the ones facing both of you, try a sandwich request:

  • Admire one of his or her strengths that you have a lot less of. I have always been so impressed by your ability to find bits of extraordinary beauty I would overlook.

  • Ask if there is any way to apply it to this problem. Can you think of any way this talent of yours might help us get Jake the special care he needs?

  • Admire the strength again. I'm happy to support in any way I can, but I admire your talent and I know others do, too. Maybe it's exactly what we need to fix this problem.

People using their best strengths often get into a flow state. You may get a long string of possible solutions, and they are bound to amaze you. They are not ones you can get to with your learned knowledge or your analytical skills. And if you are not the more conventional problem-solver in your relationship, they are also not the ones you will come up with using your prayers, your people skills, your leadership abilities, or your great sense of humor, all of which are other ways to solve a problem.

Marriage is doubly unfair: not only is there overlap between your lists of must-do items, but you get a lot more strengths to draw on in figuring out how to do them.

If you want a great example of just what sort of unfair advantage marriage can give you, check out the blog of a recent commenter on Assume Love: The Great Jollyhoombah. Theirs is a story of very successfully tackling life's problems together.

September 29, 2012

Not All Your Problems Are Marriage Problems

I learned this the hard way. My first husband dropped dead with no warning when he was just 35, making it quite clear how few of the problems affecting the two of us were marriage problems.

What's the difference? The marriage problems go away when your marriage partner dies or after all the dust settles from your divorce. The others, the ones that remain, were never about your marriage. Not enough money to live the life you want? Not a marriage problem. Not enough time for all the chores you consider essential without more help from your mate? Not a marriage problem. Want to do something new that will take some courage to try and your spouse isn't interested? Not a marriage problem.

If it wouldn't end when your spouse's life ended today, it's not a marriage problem. It's just a problem. One for you to solve for yourself. And having a husband or wife means you've got a support system, with very different strengths, to help you come up with a way solve it.

If you make the mistake of telling your mate you've figured out how he or she could--and therefore must--solve it for you, you add a marriage problem to your other problem. And when you wake up the day after your husband dies, it will be crystal clear which problem was which and how badly you robbed yourself of the enjoyment of being married.

July 25, 2012

Breathe Out for a Calmer Marriage?

Please ignore this blog post if you live with a violent partner or one who has ever tried to control you by harming you physically, financially, or emotionally and has not successfully treated the problem underlying this behavior. If this is you, please seek help from others capable of controlling that behavior or keeping it at a safe distance from you and your children.

For the rest of us, here is an interesting area of research to tell you about. It may come in handy when you fear your spouse may throw a temper tantrum, cut off your allowance, move out, earn too little, or ask too much. It may keep you from reacting angrily when compassion would bring you closer or from distancing yourself when what you want is a tighter relationship.

And it is so simple. Deric Bownds' Mindblog (always a wonderful read) says in a blog post this week:

Whether we are breathing in or breathing out can have a pronounced effect on our threat detection threshold. Meditation regimes and stress performance training (as for Navy Seals) emphasize prolongation of exhalation as a calming technique. During exhalation, measurements have shown a relative increase in parasympathetic and vagal activity, a relative decrease in amygdala reactivity, and lower reactivity to possible threats.

The rest of his post talks about research that shows we get the same effect when our heart is pumping out. Not much we can do to increase the time we spend on that. But we can prolong our exhalation and reduce our reactions to whatever scares us.

I suppose it would be great to breathe out slowly all the time, yet even Bownds says he doesn't do all the stuff he knows would improve his state of mind. But how about doing it right after delivering possibly upsetting news to our mates? Or as we enter a room that often holds unpleasant surprises? Or as our beloveds tell us about their day?

Let's give it a try, do our own little experiment. Tell us all what you find in a comment. Does it make it easier to Assume Love? Does it make it easier to recognize we're expecting something other than love? Does it make it easier to propose finding a Third Alternative instead of freaking out over the one we're offered? Breathe out, and we'll all find out together.

July 22, 2012

How to Avoid Getting Sucked into Your Mate's Depression

Depression happens. Unless you're Amish, it very likely you know someone in its grip right now. You may even know firsthand what a major depressive episode or chronic depression feels like.

When it hits the person you love and pledged your life to, it can be so very frustrating. You want to help, but to date no one has demonstrated that cajoling or entertaining reduces the duration or depth of depression or that spousal whining increases motivation to do something about a depression. Even if you're trained in treating this miserable mental illness, the shift in roles is likely to screw up your marriage.

So don't focus on the illness.

What you can do instead is to take extra care of your marriage while your husband, wife, or life partner deals with the depression. Make a list of the valuable things you get from your marriage and work on ways to keep getting them while your spouse is unable to provide them.

For example, if your spouse temporarily has no enthusiasm for being your tennis partner, movie date, idea person, or editor, find others to fill in. Make it clear to them and your spouse that they are temporary, and don't choose anyone with whom your mate might feel competitive. But by all means, keep doing what fills you up and makes you smile.

Or bring a favorite shared activity home. Invite friends over to watch rented movies or rehearse a performance. Let your spouse join you or retreat to a quiet part of the house. Worry about enjoying yourself. Your smiles, energy, and laughter are a welcoming beacon back to the world of the non-depressed.

If your spouse stops cooking, buy ready-made meals or start doing the cooking. Just be sure they are good, nourishing meals you will enjoy. If your mate stops mowing the lawn or cleaning the living room, hire someone to help you keep up with the work well before your resentment sets in.

Take care of your needs. If your spouse stops collecting bonus and overtime pay, supplement your income well before becoming fearful of having too little money. It's your job to protect hope, as depressed people lose their grip on it.

Protect pleasure, too. Be the one to initiate sex and get creative in building up to it more slowly and deliciously than usual.

And Expect Love. Let go of all your usual expectations about how it might appear. Instead, watch your suffering spouse for every sign of love for you. Celebrate it. Amplify it. Return it fivefold. Protect your relationship and you protect your mate's most important resource.

July 8, 2012

Got an Unhappy Spouse?

I have noticed a lot of marriage advice for unhappy couples encourages them to reduce each other's unhappiness. Personally, I never found this model very helpful.

There is a time for helping reduce your spouse's unhappiness, but it's not while you're seeing him or her as the cause of your own unhappiness. It's when you're happy. It's when love frees up your generosity and kindness and delights in doing whatever you can for the wonderful person you married.

That happiness is within your reach. In fact, while your spouse could help you become less unhappy, happiness is something you can only give yourself. But that's not the subject of today's post. This one is about what you can do, once you rediscover the happiness in your relationship, to reduce your mate's unhappiness.

  1. Look for reasons to be grateful to have this man or woman in your life. Try to find at least three new ones every day.

  2. Express your gratitude often and in as many ways as you can come up with: love letters, favorite foods, thank you gifts, small favors, public declarations, notes to be found unexpectedly, welcome home kisses with a thank you for whatever happened while you were apart.

  3. When you cannot or will not do what your spouse asks of you, instead of "no," say, "Tell me more about what you're looking for, and not just how to get there. I want you to have it, and I am willing to help come up with a better way to get there."

  4. Set aside time in your day for being present with your spouse, even when he or she is not necessarily ready to be present with you. Turn off your phone and email. Put down whatever you are reading. Turn off the TV. If your spouse is willing to talk, listen actively and reflect back what you are learning about what your mate feels or believes, whether you agree with it or not. Just feeling understood makes a huge difference. If he or she is willing to have sex, take your time and give it your full attention. Or cook a meal together, take a walk together, or play a game of tennis.

  5. Don't walk away from a complaint or a jab. Try something like, "Thanks for being married to me in spite of my shortcomings. What else could I do to make our relationship better?"

  6. When your spouse has good news, respond positively ("that's wonderful!" or "fantastic") and constructively ("what a great reward for your hard work on the project" or "sounds like your extraordinary social skills paid off again"). The way you handle good news is even more important than how sympathetic you are to bad news.

  7. Watch that you do not expect anything in return. When you give to get, you don't give at all.

Nothing in return means this is not how you fix your marriage. It is how you celebrate it. If you are not yet ready to celebrate it, first Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives every chance you get. That is how you enjoy being married.

June 13, 2012

When Your Marriage is Limping, Fix Your Life

Do you have one of those marriages that just doesn't feel so great? Nothing's awful. You're not in any danger. You don't really want a new spouse; you just want to feel terrific about the one you married again.

When this happens, before you fix the marriage, fix your life.

Is there something you love to do that you no longer do? Do 5 minutes of it a day or do it for an hour once a week, whether it's writing or painting or tying flies. Do not walk away from your job or stop coaching your kid's team to make room for doing as much of this thing you love as you imagine others get to do. Just make room for it in the life you already lead. It will change you and your marriage.

If you divorced, would you lose weight, get in shape, learn to dance, get new clothes, have a drink with friends after work? Do it! Marriage does not stop you from doing any of these. Not doing them stops you from enjoying your marriage.

Do you feel you are carrying too much of the load? That you are working a crappy job so your spouse can stay home with the kids or pursue a dream or avoid asking for a raise? That you are doing more than your fair share of chores to keep up your home or give your kids the life they should have? Absolve your spouse of his or her half of the overwhelming load. Decide how much of the load you would continue to bear if your spouse dropped dead tomorrow. Stop doing the rest. If your spouse values what it provides, he or she will pick up that part of the load. Otherwise, it's your load and you are free to drop it.

Are you depressed, finding no joy or hope in anything? Go see a psychologist, talk to your doctor, or start eating better and exercising more. Your spouse has even less control over your mood than you do.

Do you appear to like the idea of getting out on your bicycle, on the dance floor, or to a restaurant more than your spouse does? Just go. You will find out if the effort of getting out there and doing it is worth the rewards to you. And your spouse will be free to join you with a lot fewer impediments, because getting out the door is usually the toughest part of doing any of these. There is nothing more deadly than discussing doing something in the abstract as a "should."

Is your commute so long that it keeps you from enjoying your mate and your family? Change jobs. I always thought my commute was a given and got angry over what my husband would not or could not do to make up for it. When he died, I changed my commute right away, because I needed to be closer to our son's school. But what surprised me was that the new office turned out to be very close to where he had worked. We could have lunched together while our son was at school, had some much needed us time, in addition to solving all the problems my commute created.

Is your business draining you? Focus the business or hire help instead of asking your spouse to take on every other chore in your life and still be thrilled to see you when you finally get home.

When your spouse feels helpless to fix what's making you unhappy, it's a huge drag on your relationship. When you resent the fact that your spouse also will not take care of the things you won't do to improve your life, it's an even bigger drag. Before you fix the relationship, fix your life.

June 8, 2012

Falsely Accused by Your Spouse?

I learned this from a colleague long ago. It works remarkably well with clients, friends, and spouses.

Instead of arguing when you are falsely accused or when someone important to you is making a mountain out of a molehill, try saying something like this:

"I really value our relationship. What could I do that would make it right again?"

If you get stonewalled ("I can't imagine anything making things right again!"), ask what would make it a little better right now. Then ask again in a few hours or days, after you do what's asked of you.

You may be as surprised as I have been. The same imagination that blew an incident out of proportion or turned an innocent action into a suspect one can imagine the relationship being fine again with very little from you.

May 1, 2012

Unnecessary Divorce

I love this phrase, unnecessary divorce. Not a single one of us who has ever considered divorce thought ours was unnecessary. Not unless something convinced us to take another stab at loving the person we vowed to love—and we succeeded.

How in the world can we tell, in the heat of our anger and fear and frustration, whether ours would be an unnecessary divorce? I have a way you might try. It comes from my own awful experience of reaching the conclusion we should, of necessity, divorce, completely unaware our marriage was only one day away from "until death do us part."

I recited to my first husband, at the age of 34 and thick into dealing with career and motherhood, my long list of unmet needs that night. I thought they justified splitting up. I believed somehow these needs might be better met if we split up. A day later, I had full custody, all the assets, and no drawn-out battle of the lawyers, and I learned how wrong I was about my list of needs.

If your list of unmet needs includes the need to feel safe from violence and psychological manipulation in your own home, skip this one. Seek help meeting those needs first. If you need to get right with your morality and cannot do so in your current marriage, skip it. But if, like me, you feel you desperately need things like emotional support, more income, mowed lawns, washed dishes, more time off the couch and out in the world, more conversation, more help with the parenting, etc., this just might change everything.

I got none of those when my marriage was over. It was eleven years until I even met my second husband. Divorced, you can get them for yourself. But married, you can get them for yourself even more easily. Divorce over such unmet needs qualifies in my book as unnecessary divorce. Once you take those needs off the table, it turns out to be a lot easier to love and be loved.

I won't write it all out here. You can download a worksheet for free from my Enjoy Being Married website. Look for "Clean Up the Clutter of Unmet Needs" on page 4. Allow an hour or so for the exercise. And please share your insights in the comments below. You might prevent another unnecessary divorce as well as freeing yourself to enjoy being married.

April 21, 2012

Stay Married for the Kids the Right Way

The wrong way to stay married for the kids.

Sleep in separate rooms, keep separate schedules, date other people, stay angry at each other, refer to each other around the kids as "your mother" and "your father."

This is not staying married. It's just staying. You and your kids deserve better. But divorce is not the only alternative.

The right way to stay married for the kids.

Look daily for things to appreciate about the kids' other parent. Show enormous respect for the person who means so much to them. Say please and thank you and you're the best to your kids' mother or father. Keep trying until you find things you can all do as a family and really enjoy them. Hug and touch each other. Ignore cutting remarks as you would if they came from Great Aunt Betty whose dementia is worsening.

Tolerate no abuse. Involve other adults, not your kids, in protecting you and the kids and creating the motivation for stopping the abuse or its cause.

Stand together on boundaries and rules for the kids, even if it means you must sometimes defend one you could live without. Use every trick in the book to resolve your differences (e.g., The Floor from Fighting for Your Marriage and PREP, massage to release oxytocin, Third Alternatives, observing The Dance of Anger and leading into a calming dance step, taking an immediate break when there's a harsh startup, flooding, or stonewalling per John Gottman's research).

And never, ever, ever play the Isn't My Spouse Awful game with your kids.

April 14, 2012

How to Fall in Love with Your Wife

I promised this post a while ago to Ben. He wrote a heart-breaking comment on my Should I Stay Married for the Kids? post. I apologize for how long it's taken to pull this together.

The Situation

Ben has a young daughter and a wife he feels he can no longer love. He's 22 and about to start medical school. He has no time for the emotional ups and downs of a separation and divorce. He has no time for all the battles of establishing separate custody and separate time with a young child.

Ben has no time for dating to meet someone to love him. There will be no one to help him be a good father to his daughter. There will be no one to be his backstop when school and hospital demands make him an unreliable dad.

He also has no time for dealing with the grief his daughter is likely to experience dealing with this change in circumstances and in realizing the two people she loves and depends on dislike each other. And he lives in a place where his lack of an income while in school could result in losing custody of his daughter.

But he's up against a wall, and I remember that wall very well. Things at home are not good, life is very busy, and there is no obvious solution, so getting out seems like the first step to something better. It wasn't. I got full custody and all of our assets (because my husband died very suddenly of an illness), and there was nothing good about it.

My needs were not met with him out of my life. This only happens if your need is to escape harm at the hands of your spouse. Instead, there were harder to get met. And they were bigger, much bigger, without his income, his cooking, his time with our son, his wise counsel.

Is It Possible to Deliberately Fall in Love?

It looks to me like Ben's best option is to fall in love with his wife. I am sure he thinks I am a nut for even suggesting this. However, I know many people in arranged marriages, and to them deliberately falling in love with the best person for you to marry is perfectly normal and usually quite successful.

I don't come from an arranged marriage culture, so I will offer tips from our love-matched marriage culture and our researchers, OK?

Step One: Cut Way Down on Frustrations

Until you rediscover your feelings of love, you will surely face many disagreements about what to do and how to do it as a couple. If you Find Third Alternatives to the two sides you take initially, it will greatly reduce your anger and frustration. Love cannot grow in frustration.

Besides this blog, Stephen R. Covey has two books that will help you find them. The newer one is The 3rd Alternative. The better-known one is 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Step Two: Avoid Harsh Start-ups

When you start a conversation, watch out for harsh start-ups. If you find yourself or your wife getting loud or bossy or angry from the start, reschedule the conversation. Go for a walk, alone, if necessary to put a quick end to a hard start-up. They are absolute love-killers, according to Dr. John Gottman's relationship research. It's OK to argue, but if the conversation starts off without love, shut up and go elsewhere to calm down.

Gottman also discovered that couples that stay married manage to give each other five positive interactions for each negative one, even if there are a lot of negative ones. Keep count of your own negatives and wipe them out. Our sense of loving someone comes from acting toward them in a loving way.

Step Three: Learn Your Love Languages

Bestselling author Gary Chapman has explained The Five Love Languages six ways from Sunday now. If you don't know which ones each of you longs to hear, find out right away. When you want to show love, show it in her language first. Add some in your language, and you'll feel even better. And before you accuse her of being poor at loving you, watch to see how often she uses her own love language toward you. Receive these acts of love with kindness. Then you can ask for more of what will have greater meaning for you.

Step Four: Date Her

Don't expect your relationship to stay strong when all you do together is work, worry, and care for a child. Make a plan to get out together or stay home together without your child in the room once a week. It's worth the time and the money.

Combine date night with your love languages. Dress up for it if you or she gets some pleasure from this. Do something you both enjoy. Get to know each other better. Leave work and parenting behind.

Step Five: Actively Share In Her Good News

Researcher Shelly Gable says how you two react to each other's good news matters even more than how you handle the bad news. Learn to give Active-Constructive responses and to set yourself up for the same from her.

Step Six: Count Your Blessings

It sounds corny and old-fashioned, but recent research by Robert Emmons and others shows that such a simple thing, done once a day, can raise your happiness level. It's so much easier to love someone when you're feeling happy and grateful. I have a little count your blessings exercise I call One More Ray. It's pretty powerful.

Step Seven: Give Her More Opportunities to Show Her Strengths

Character strengths are powerful things. Each of us excels at a handful of them, has to struggle to live up to the others. We are happier using our best ones. We spend more time in that delicious state called flow. And we're a lot more lovable when we're in flow and at our best. Create opportunities for both of you to use yours more often. Just look at all the research that has been done in the past twelve years on what a huge difference this makes.

If one of her top strengths is Kindness, accompany her when she's doing volunteer work or helping an ailing relative. If one of hers is Judgment, ask her to explain her stand on a political issue. Instead of interrupting with your opinion, ask questions like a reporter might, to hear more of how she weighs the evidence. If Forgiveness is a top strength of hers, ask for her forgiveness of anything you now see might have contributed to the distance and friction between the two of you.

There are twenty more on the list. Just find ways to encourage her to use hers. When she does, just sit back and observe them to appreciate her at her best. You are pre-programmed (we all are) to notice when she's not, but you will find her more lovable when you give yourself more opportunities to see her at her best. When you're out on date night, consider asking her to talk about times when she feels she was at her best, whether before she met you or with your daughter.

Step Eight: Increase the Oxytocin

Oxytocin makes couples communicate better. And communicating better means lower stress levels. When your pituitary glands release oxytocin, you feel a wave of warm, positive feelings. Remember those feelings from when you first met? Increase the amount of oxytocin you both release. It will make her look a lot more lovable.

Step Nine: Change Your Expectations

I am told this is difficult. It sure was for me before that awful day my first husband died. But it has been very easy ever since. Expect Love. It's the one thing you cannot buy or trade for. Let go of all your expectations of what your wife would do if she loves you, if she respects you.

When you are suddenly widowed while raising a kid, you learn there are many ways to get your meals prepared, your bills paid, your trash removed, your bathroom cleaned. There are many people with whom you can play tennis, go skiing, dance, sing, discuss philosophy, eat dinner, and all the other things we wait unhappily for our spouses to do. You can even pleasure yourself if you need to. But there is only one way to feel loved. And most of us humans need to feel loved. We will do stupid, time-consuming, embarrassing, even degrading things to find love when it's taken from us.

If you want to feel love, let go of as many of your other expectations of a spouse as you possibly can. Put your energy into watching for all the unexpected ways you are loved and respected.

Step Ten: Appreciate the Challenge

Consider this the grad school of learning to love your wife. Harville Hendrix writes brilliantly about this in Getting the Love You Want. We become different people because of the people we love. Researcher Caryl Rusbult called it the Michelangelo Effect. No one can change us, but which of our best qualities emerge depends on the feedback of the person who loves us.

Hendrix invites us to welcome the challenges that chip away at our chunk of marble and let a better self emerge. Oprah said his appearance on her show was one of the best when she recognized "you're unconsciously drawn to your partner, because that person can heal your old unresolved wounds."

How could you not love someone who can do this for you (unless they pose a threat to you)? How could you walk away before getting the challenges you need?

Don't try to do all ten at once. Put them on a calendar. Every week or maybe every two weeks, add one to the mix. If it doesn't work for you right away, postpone it for later.

You might also want to watch the movie Fireproof or read The Love Dare, a book from the movie. If those are not your style, read Project Happily Ever After by Alisa Bowman. She succeeded at falling back in love with her husband even after mentally planning his funeral, and they are still happily together, much to the delight of their daughter.

April 5, 2012

One Last Stand Before Divorce

What a marvelous comment I received this afternoon! It came in reply to a recent post, When to Fix a Failing Marriage. This is definitely one worth fixing.

Here is the comment. I love it because it has so many of the elements of what I have heard from both men and women when their spouse suddenly gets restless or angry.

My wife told me 10 weeks ago that she loves me but she's not in love with me anymore and wants out of our marriage. This came out of nowhere..she said I didn't make her feel special and I gave too much of my time to others and not enough to my family. Her sister, brother in law, and most recently her brother had died giving my wife a sense of mortality. She told me that there's got to be more in life than what she has. I thought we were happy for 21 years and then she drops this bomb. I love her and believe she is having a Mid Life Crisis. She doesn't see it. Help!!

A mid life crisis can be seen only in the rear view mirror. For now, she's experiencing a crisis, and she does not expect that time will fix it. But look at all the great information you have to work with!

Often, when a spouse suddenly changes demeanor or wants out, I have to ask if something has happened recently to change his or her outlook on life. Here, we know what it is: three recent deaths of folks in her own generation, three recent losses of her family support network. This is a huge disruption, almost as large as if she lost you, Larry.

In a year or two, she will have rebuilt her life without these people and without her former confidence that there is still time for her plans. She will rebuild it with people who acknowledge how much an earthquake like this has affected her and who support the dreams and plans that it has brought to the forefront. If she doesn't, you would not want to be married to the shell of a woman left by pretending this was nothing. You need to be one of those people.

She says she still loves you. Believe her. If she's not in love with you, she means simply that she cannot right now feel your love for her. But you know it's there. Protect her from her mistake. Stand tall and give it another shot.

She says there has got to be more in life than what she has. Would it not be wonderful to be married to someone who finds the rest of it? Right now, she thinks she needs to divorce you to have it. All you need to do is say, "I want you to have this." And then start looking for a Third Alternative to life as usual vs. life divorced. Those are not the only two options.

The next step, after you jump to her side of the net and agree there must be more, is to learn what she's looking for, and to do it with interest, not argument. You must be open to hearing it. Once you know what it is and you have confirmed to her that she can have it and still have you, too, you can get into the details of how to get it without scaring the bejeebers out of you. Don't bring up any of that until you know what she's after.

She has given you a really big clue to why she does not yet trust you to help her get what she now feels is missing. Have you read Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages? She narrowed down her list for you. There are two that match, and I am pretty sure you know enough about her to know which one she means.

One is Quality Time, the time you spend doing things together as a couple or a family with nothing else competing. It's time when you are not thinking about anything else, taking phone calls, checking your email, or answering calls for assistance from anyone else.

The other is Acts of Service, the helpful favors you do for people. When she says you give too much of your time to others, is it doing things for them? Are there things at home you know she's wanted your help with for a long time? If so, I would guess it's this love language she speaks, rather than Quality Time.

Here's the thing about love languages: it doesn't matter how much you offer of the other four if you withhold the one that makes your spouse feel loved. The other three are Words of Affirmation, Gifts, and Physical Touch. We all have one, maybe two, that we recognize in our gut as the measure of real love.

If you want her to include you in her recovery, try offering lots of her love language, whether it's Acts of Service or Quality Time. If you're not sure which one, give her both.

When she says things that make you feel disrespected or unwanted, stop and Assume Love. Assume she still loves you and wants you in her life, but she's been set adrift by these big losses. If this is true, how might you explain her words or her actions? For example, if she pulls away from a hug, and your love language is Physical Touch, you may at first interpret her action as a rejection of love. You might think this, because you would only ever pull away from a physical touch if you were rejecting the offer of love. But someone with a different love language can love you and pull away because she's busy offering an Act of Service to one of your children or to a grieving relative right now or trying to provide Quality Time to someone other than you.

Please know that while she's feeling unloved, she is likely to show you less respect than usual. If you want to keep her around, don't spend any time ruminating on the question of whether or not she respects you or ever respected you. Lots of men get stuck there. She's been with you 21 years, so it's a good bet she respects you, but she's female and feeling insufficiently loved, so it's almost guaranteed she will feel less respect for you. It's just how female biochemistry works.

I saw a great movie yesterday, and I was thinking about writing a post about it. It's called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. In it, a man whose wife has been busy with her career and is headed off to work in Geneva for six weeks, to his surprise, gets suddenly thrown into a project that requires all of his skills and taps into all of his passions. She discovers too late that she misses him. He ends up living in Yemen with the woman who dumped the project on him.

What I wanted to say to all my readers, what I would love to say to your wife if she asked, is that it is NOT necessary or even practical to abandon your spouse to change your life. I know this from my days of dating as a widow in my 30's and 40's. To a person, every divorced person who dates again reports that they felt held back from doing things by their spouse. But each of them was one of those spouses, too. We form a picture of who we're married to that is trapped in earlier days. We stop even asking for changes. And then we end up divorced from someone who really knows us, divorced from our own past, separated from our children's family, because of a fossilized image of the person we married.

So, to you, Larry, I say this: drop everything, affirm your love for her even if you fear rejection, and start asking her what's on that bucket list of hers. Then figure out how to fit in into your plans. Ask for help coming up with new ideas that preserve what's good from your past and brings in what you've always wished to include in your life.

She's right; life is short. There is no time for a divorce. Get on with living. Either of you could die within the next ten weeks. Don't waste them on worrying about whether you still love each other. Don't wait for life to get back to normal. Just live them, fully together. Live them like they are your last ten weeks together. At the end of those ten weeks, sign on for ten more if you're lucky enough to have the option.

You do not need to pull out of the marriage in advance. Live well enough, intensely enough, that even if she leaves you in ten weeks, these ten will have been worth whatever extra pain you feel because you did not protect yourself from rejection.

Please let us know what happens, Larry. I wish you strength and love.

April 2, 2012

The 2 Biggest Threats When You Marry

Threat Number 1: You choose a partner who believes it is ever (ever!) okay to threaten, endanger, or harm you when frustrated or angry.

Threat Number 2: You fail to deal with your own problems, limitations, or disappointments because you believe your spouse ought to deal with them, help you deal with them, or at least give his or her assent.

You will know instantly if Threat Number 1 hits you. Beware, though, of Threat Number 2, because it's not that easy to recognize this tar pit until you're thoroughly stuck in it.

March 30, 2012

When to Fix a Failing Marriage

To stay on top of developments in marriage and divorce law, policies, education, and research, I monitor a bunch of Google alerts daily. As a result, I am almost certain to hear about every celebrity break-up.

This week, it is Jennie Garth and Peter Facinelli. They are divorcing. Been together long enough to leave three young daughters to deal with what they could not fix. Sixteen years, eleven of them married. Kids are 5, 9, and 14. Second marriage for her. Irreconcilable differences, of course.

He's 38. She turns 40 next week. His acting career is going great right now, hers not so much, so she's dragged their kids into a reality TV series on cable that debuts in April. In it, she and the kids move out of Hollywood to the country, accompanied by a female assistant who, if we believe the promo clips, hates the country and shares Garth's bedroom.

Facinelli has been filming in Vancouver and New York for the past two years, coming home to Garth's ranch/set in Santa Ynez on weekends. Now they plan to share custody of the kids.

She says she rejected the idea of divorce. She told People, "We both saw it unravel and it was painful. I tried everything I could to save our marriage."

If you see your marriage start to unravel, here are some things you might try to arrive at a different ending.

  1. If you must live apart for career reasons, be part of each other's weekday lives. Visit each other. Get to know the places and people your spouse lives among while you are apart. Be available by phone or internet during the day and not just late at night.
  2. If you live together but see less of each other than in the past, schedule some of your time to be available to your spouse, and keep to it even if he or she does not take advantage of it for the first month or two. During this time, make it clear you are available. Stay off the computer and the phone. Don't start anything you cannot drop at a moment's notice, nor anything that would keep you from noticing your spouse checking on your availability.
  3. When your marriage begins to unravel, spend more time on and with your spouse, not your children. A little disruption in their lives now might spare them the continual disruptions of shared custody and the many awkward life passages later.
  4. If you are unwilling to move to where your spouse is currently working, at least stay near where his or her next job might be found.
  5. Pay more attention to preserving your marriage than your income or wealth. Yes, you might lose both in a divorce, but staying married beats any individual strategy for protecting your future financial well-being.
  6. Find one more ray of love or respect every day.
  7. Assume Love when you get upset. Expect Love when you want more than you're getting. Find Third Alternatives whenever you disagree. And don't stick your head in the sand until your partner starts to move on from your unraveling relationship.
If your marriage is unraveling, be more present in it, not less. Start the mending as early as possible, before major repairs are your only option.

March 26, 2012

Do I Have to Accept Porn?

Porn is a problem in many marriages. In an earlier post, I referred to several resources from an expert on the subject, Dr. Mark Laaser. The comments on that post are also worth reading. If porn is an issue in your marriage, I hope you will check it out.

A lot of women take offense at porn. It makes them question their husbands' respect and love for them. It feels like infidelity to them. It makes it so much harder for them to respect their men.

A lot of men do not understand. They don't think of porn as having anything to do with their relationship with their wives. It is just entertainment to them. It feeds their fantasies and may make them feel more sexual with their wives, not less. It may relieve their concerns about the effects of a vasectomy, a prostate problem, or aging. It may make it easier to remain faithful to a wife who wants less sex or tamer sex than they want. It may provide relief from some other tension in the marriage that they have no idea how to bring up or resolve. Or it may have become a compulsion, because porn is marketed in a way that leads a man from one type to the next until there is no way to get the same satisfaction from a healthy relationship with a real woman.

You don't have to accept porn as part of your relationship. You don't. Even if other women find it acceptable or normal or even exciting, your relationship is between the two of you. You are not required to tolerate it.

If you cannot tolerate it, and your husband is into it, here is my advice. Do not make your husband out to be a bad person for wanting this form of entertainment or for succumbing to this compulsion. Instead, recognize that this is basically a disagreement. Find a Third Alternative. Respect his needs and offer to make sure they are met, just not this way.

A Third Alternative is one that pleases both of you, so you must do the work of learning what makes porn attractive to your husband at this point in his life. If you really want to know (and there is no other way to get to your Third Alternative), you must ask your questions non-judgmentally. Your goal is to find a way for him to get whatever he gets from porn without turning you off or making you feel disrespected or unloved like porn does.

There is a good chance that will be a lot easier than you imagine. If it's not, please find a therapist or clergy member who is comfortable talking about sex to help the two of you.

Keep in mind that "he stops looking at porn" meets only your half of the criteria for a Third Alternative. It also lacks the important half of any plan to kick a habit, the substitute for when the urge or opportunity comes up.

If you are not familiar with the steps to finding a Third Alternative, please check out my "How to find third alternatives" page. This is a powerful tool for every disagreement with the man who promised to love you for the rest of your life but doesn't always know how to do it.

March 21, 2012

If You Think You Can't Go On Being Married

On the brink of throwing in the towel and filing for divorce? Diane Sollee of Smart Marriages (website of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education) has a page on what to expect and what else to try first. I highly recommend it.

If,instead, your spouse is proposing divorce, she has another great page of resources for fighting a divorce.

There are some irreparable marriages out there, but not as many as we believe when we are in the middle of an unbearable situation or an overwhelming urge to just start over. I have been there. I know the pain. And I know how very hard it is to find a way to stop that pain without some new ideas from those who understand it. If you're there, check out the Smart Marriages resources. The first two alternatives of this pain and the different pain of divorce are usually just two of many. Find the Third Alternative.

March 18, 2012

We Just Grew Apart

That is what many people say when their marriages die.

Every day, you have a choice. Grow together or grow apart.

If you would like to grow together, find new things to do together that use the top strengths each of you brings to the marriage.

Have you tried cooking classes? An internet business? A garden? Building a canoe? Hiking the Appalachian Trail? Backpacking across China? Buying a pair of spinning wheels to enter sheep to shawl competitions? Rebuilding a car? Volunteering at your local hospital, soup kitchen, or Habitat for Humanity project? Writing each other love notes? Singing karaoke?

Pick one that lets each of you shine and feel like you at your best, and it just might entwine your lives, so you don't grow apart.

March 14, 2012

Celebrity Divorces

Judging by the amount of media space they get, we all want to read about celebrity divorces. How is it that they find a beautiful, highly successful spouse and throw the wedding of their dreams (and ours) but cannot stand each other for even as long as we less famous folk do?

John Tierney and Garth Sundern have been working on this conundrum. In 2006, they published a formula for predicting the odds of a celebrity marriage lasting in the New York Times. Yesterday, they updated the formula.

Of course, marrying quickly factors in. No time for getting to know each other, so they marry the person they invented in their mind and find the real one disappointing. And marrying young is in there, too. No one knows whether marrying younger causes unstable relationships or whether both things stem from a common cause.

A difference in ages reduces their chances. In fact, they square the difference, so ten years has a much bigger impact than five. Their combined number of previous marriages lowers their chances of success. Past performance predicts future performance unless we learn some new skills. Signs of narcissism predict an earlier end, too, because narcissism increases the odds of infidelity.

The formula notes that the woman's infidelity is more likely to end the marriage than a man's and that skimpy or sexually provocative clothing is a strong clue that a woman might be narcissistic. So is frequent appearance in the tabloids, but they have now tempered this by computing a ratio of New York Times appearances to tabloid appearances to account for how well-known a celebrity is in general.

They have had six years to test their predictions from the old formula, and they have done well. Now they have tweaked it and predict that Kate and Prince William, Calista Flockhart and Harrison Ford, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky, and Beyoncé Knowles and Jay-Z have at least as good as chance as the average Joe and his Jenna do.

You and I might have a better chance. If we married before getting to know the person we chose, we can Assume Love whenever we're surprised. It may protect us from misunderstandings that make us unnecessarily miserable. Even if we're a wee bit narcissistic, we can remember to Expect Love when we feel we're not getting all we deserve, sparing ourselves the nasty pain and self-doubt that follows. If we married young or married someone older than ourselves, we can Find Third Alternatives to resolve the differences in our opinions and desires that arise as we mature.

And we can rest assured that looks, income, and a lavish wedding cannot compete with marriage skills for insuring a great relationship that we can count on.

March 6, 2012

Improve Your Marriage Singlehandedly

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Lunch Break columnist Elizabeth Bernstein offered great hope to anyone in a less-than-perfect marriage.

She reported the results of a study by Howard Markman, one of the marriage education greats I have studied with. His lab at the University of Denver followed 300 couples for five years after receiving marriage skills training. One month after training, it did not matter if both in the couple had attended or just one. The marriages were equally improved.

At eighteen months, they saw something very interesting. If only one spouse had received the training, the marriage was doing better if the one who got trained was a woman. This is great news, because it is much more often the woman who is willing to go to counseling or a marriage education program, and it is much more often the woman who files for divorce if nothing gets better.

One woman Ms. Bernstein interviewed for the article went to counseling alone. She said it took her two years before she stopped blaming her husband and started trying to enjoy being married without changing him. Two years! If you're reading this blog on a regular basis, I know you have already made the shift that led to a happier marriage for her and her husband. This makes me very happy. Thank you.

March 3, 2012

The Stifling Marriage

You want to travel overseas. You're married to someone who will not fly.

You want to go back to school. Your spouse says, "We need you here." Here might be the kitchen, the office, the store, or even the bank account.

You want to spend Saturdays hiking. You married someone whose idea of a hike is getting the mail from the mailbox.

Marriage is not meant to be stifling. It is meant to provide a sturdy platform from which you can do more and be more than on your own.

Did you just mutter, "Tell that to the stick-in-the-mud I married"? Your husband, wife, or life partner does not make these decisions for you. You make them. You decide to stay on this side of the ocean, to turn down an education, to sit on the sofa instead of hiking.

You might make the choice to keep the peace or to be more supportive than your mate. Then again, you might make the same choice because there is an upside to going along with what your spouse prefers. Hiking, traveling, and education require us to come up with a lot of cash, to prepare our bodies and minds in advance, and to work hard to reap their benefits. All would be much easier if someone else kicked in part of the expense and cheered us on.

Unfortunately, marriage can feel quite stifling while living someone else's idea of a good life.

If you are ready to make the choice to do something important to you, please know that it is OK. Your spouse may experience great discomfort when you do, but this should not stop you. What it should do is drive you to Find Third Alternatives that eliminate the unpleasantness for your mate.

If you go hiking, the unpleasantness is not what you're doing while you're out of the house. It's the loss of your company or the wonderful things you do for your spouse. Find out exactly what your mate sees as the cost. The find a mutually satisfactory alternative way to replace what you will be taking away.

If you go back to school, it is likely your spouse disagrees because of the financial implications or the possibility of the two of you growing apart. Work together on a Third Alternative way to fund your schooling without denying your mate's dreams. Or find a better way to continue growing together than holding back on your own learning. They exist.

Whatever you do, please do not stifle yourself. It's bad for your relationship and your mental health.

February 15, 2012

3 Big Mistakes in Apologies to Your Wife or Husband

At some point in your marriage, perhaps many points, your wife or husband will feel hurt and withdraw from you. More than likely, you will feel miserable, either because you hate to see your beloved in such pain or because you feel unjustly accused. The last thing you want at this point is an ineffective apology. It will make both of you feel worse.

Here are three big mistakes to avoid when you offer your apology to your wife or husband.

  1. The too small apology. Just think of any seven-year-old muttering "sorry" to a sibling. Drawing it out, "soooooooorryyyyyyyyy," won't fix this. You must do better than a talking parrot could do, or there is really no point offering an apology.
  2. The not guilty apology. Don't pat yourself on the back for coming up with a clever way to express sorrow only for your mate's self-inflicted distress. "I am truly sorry if you thought I should be taking care of that" will not relieve any of the pain nor reduce this new distance between you, even if you are 100% innocent.
  3. The appeasement. Avoid proffering flowers, candy, poems, protestations of love, seductions, candlelight dinners, and anything else your mate enjoys. These occasionally will reduce the distance, but they often sweep the pain under the rug, where you are likely to trip over it again and again.

Want something more effective? Try this. "Our relationship is very important to me. Please tell me what I can do to make it right again."

Stand close and look into your husband's or wife's eyes as you say this. Listen closely to the answer, no matter how long. Paraphrase whatever you are asked to do. If you can, do it. If you can't, jump the net and start a search for a Third Alternative that will make your relationship solid again.

January 20, 2012

How to Get Your Mate's Attention

It happens a lot. We reach a point in our marriage where there seems to be no time for each other. So much to do! Kids. Work. Schooling. Email. Favorite TV shows or sports teams. Cooking. Taxes. Shopping.

All of a sudden, it's just too much. We want to talk. Go out to a quiet dinner together. Get some sympathy. Make time for skiing or photography or whatever it was we did together before all this happened.

There are two approaches to getting our husband's or wife's attention when we reach this point.

This one does not work:

  • We need to have a talk.

  • We never DO anything together any more!

  • You don't ever make any time for me.

  • Your stupid computer games are more important to you than I am, aren't they?

This approach is a lot more likely to help:

  • If I hire a sitter, are you free for dinner out on Thursday?

  • Can you get away the weekend after next? I would like to go skiing, and I would love it if you would join me.

  • Know how I said I would be leaving dinner in the crock pot tonight while I attended the networking meeting? Instead, I really need a shoulder to cry on. Can you please bring yours home, and I'll order in some pizza?

  • All I can think about today is how sexy you are. Can't wait to see you tonight. You have my full attention! What would you like to do with it?

Mixing the two is worse than sticking with the first one, so be sure you can take no for an answer and still come back with another great proposal soon. It's not inviting if your spouse gets an earful for declining.

January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Your Marriage

Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the United States as much as almost anyone in our history. However, he was not born into greatness. He was born into unfairness and brutal penalties for aspiring to much of anything.

He chose to risk his career, his income, his physical safety, and his wife and children to step up to the plate and take a swing at perhaps making a difference. He chose it while in college, according to his roommate at the time, who later helped me with my City Planning thesis at MIT.

His first few warmups were not quite what he had pictured, but he kept at it. Eventually, he knocked it out of the park. He was murdered for it, but what he had accomplished remained and grew.

What does this have to do with your marriage? Everything, if you are biding your time and biting your lip while you wait for your spouse to change. Everything, if you fear taking a risk to make your marriage one you could enjoy, because it might possibly result in your husband or wife choosing divorce. Everything, if your needs go unmet and you heap piles of resentment on top of this pain by expecting your spouse to meet them. Everything, if the penalty for doing what you need to do is brutality at the hands of your mate, but you fear being on your own even more than this.

When you choose to change your marriage, to make it one you can enjoy, there is no guarantee it will work. Yes, you could run into a lot of resistance. Yes, you could end up divorced or with a lot more responsibilities. It might not work, but even if it doesn't, you will become a different, stronger person, and so will your children. Better yet, if it does work, it will change the world you, your mate, and your children live in.

Worth thinking about on this day when we remember the man who stepped up and took his swing at changing everything.

January 11, 2012

How to Handle Campaign Disagreements

Most of the time when couples disagree, I strongly urge them to Find Third Alternatives. Life together rocks when you both get what you want or better.

Fortunately, though, you get two votes at the end of a political campaign. You both get to cast the vote you want, and which candidate wins probably will not depend on how your household votes.

Best advice for handling campaign disagreements? Don't talk about the campaign! Allow your mate his or her totally wrong-headed take on the issues or the candidates. Make no attempt to correct it nor to justify your vote.

People don't stay close, caring, respectful, trusting, and in love by accident. Change the subject.

January 10, 2012

10 Alternatives to "Let's Do Something Together"

When your husband or wife has settled in to watch TV or answer emails is a terrible time for "Let's do something together." And any time is a terrible time for "We never do anything together." Here are some alternatives you might want to try.

  1. I want to take you to dinner tonight. Does Chinese or Mexican sound better?

  2. It's a beautiful sunny day out, and I'm headed down to walk along the river. If you're free, it would be so much fun to share this walk with you.

  3. There's a jazz trio at the place around the corner tonight. Feel like going out after dinner?

  4. After this show ends, can I talk you into watching the movie Our Idiot Brother together? It came today.

  5. Let's put on some music and dance until the game starts.

  6. There's no rain forecast for Saturday, and we have a choice of three outdoor festivals we can take the kids to, Medieval, strawberries, and foods of the world. You up for any of them?

  7. What was your favorite date from before we got married? Let's relive it this Friday night. We have some really great times together, don't we?

  8. I want to try something we have never done before. I narrowed it down to three. One is a hot air balloon chase at sunset. Another is watching a professional jai alai game. And the third is a massage class. I would love it if you could pick one that sounds worth trying.

  9. I challenge you to a game of Scrabble. When is a good time for it today?

  10. You look like it was a really tough day. Would you like a back rub?

The trick is to be specific, considerate, and enthused.

January 9, 2012

Porn and the Otherwise Lovable Husband

I received a lengthy comment today from a reader dealing with her husband's viewing of porn on the internet.

I suggested looking up Mark Laaser, Phd, who has written some helpful stuff on the subject after finding himself getting sucked into it. One of his books is The Pornography Trap: Setting Pastors and Laypersons Free from Sexual Addiction..You can see him in this Smart Marriages 2010 video or purchase a recording of the rest of his talk plus one on Sex in the Age of Twitter by Pat Love from Smart Marriages and iPlayback.

Mark will tell you what the porn industry does to take a man from a simple, normal fantasy right into an addiction. More importantly, he tells men how to come back out again, instead of losing their wives and their integrity.

But there is more I want to say to her, because porn is not her biggest problem. Her husband promised to stop it. There is nothing more for her to do about it, except forgive if he fails but keeps trying.

It feels like something is missing from her life, and it has for a long time. When her husband came home from long hours at work and did nothing more than watch TV, she begged him to "do more things together" with her and their children. She nursed her resentments and carried on with a superficial marriage. After the kids were grown and it was just them, and the internet had joined the TV in his life, she began to wonder if she still loved him.

Forget the porn. What we have here is a man who worked to support his family, but never mustered enough energy, enthusiasm, or drive to do anything more. He retreated into electronic entertainment day after day. He withdrew from life and from his marriage. Is he a bad man for this? Hardly. He did nothing to harm them. His resentment never turned to rage or physical abuse. He never gambled everything they had and lost it trying to fuel some excitement. He never stopped his wife and kids from finding their own joy. He just never led the way.

And we have here a woman who tried to engage him and raise a family, but never mustered enough energy, enthusiasm, or drive to do anything that delighted her or drew him closer. She would implore him to do something together, but she had no passion he could join in with. When he said no thanks, she withdrew in resentment. She expected him to get up and lead, and he failed her.

She had no clue her expectation caused her resentment, and she had no clue her resentment took from him what he expected: respect. She asked him to talk about his feelings. He had no idea how to do that, and he feared hearing her feelings, because people who are happy with you seldom ask to talk about it. He withdrew from any chance of hearing his wife was unhappy with him, never realizing that withdrawing is as tough on her as losing respect is on him.

And now, years later, we have two people still waiting for the other to lead the way to a life of shared good times.

And neither is ready to lead, in part because they are not sure how. More importantly, though, both appear to feel they cannot lead until he is sure of her approval and she is sure she matters to him.

But while she disapproves, he will be uncertain how much she matters. And until she's certain, she will not approve.

If you are the man in this scenario, one that happens in many marriages between otherwise wonderful people, for Pete's sake, tell your wife her real-life body means more to you than any air-brushed photo or seductively lit video. When you pass up the opportunity to boost your libido by looking at others, know that it matters to her and makes you a bigger man in her eyes.

If you are the woman in this scenario, for Pete's sake tell your husband he is and always has a good and worthy man. When you pass up the opportunity to complain or talk about feelings, know that it matters to him and makes you more lovable in his eyes.

And no matter which you are, turn off the TV and the internet for a week to break the habit of letting others entertain you. Plan things you can do together some of the nights and things you can do separately on others to give you two something to talk about when you come together. And schedule some time and energy for sex.

Make it a no complaint, no escape week. If you are out of ideas, check this date night post or these geek date night ideas or these inexpensive date nights. You might just rediscover why you fell in love.

January 7, 2012

Will Divorce Fix the Problem?

When married life is frustrating, divorce can seem like the only way out. But it is well worth asking, "Will divorce fix the problem?"

One celebrity reporter, certain that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are on their way to divorce, writes in The Daily Beast:

Sources close to the power couple say both Will and his actress wife have strong personalities that have clashed one too many times of late.

"They just kept butting heads over the kids and other personal issues within the marriage,'' said a former long-time employee of the Smiths. "Jada's independent and focused, and Will likes to be in control. Someone has to agree to give in and that wasn't happening anymore with them.''

Clashes over the kids don't get fixed by divorce. All divorce does is force the couple to make more decisions with less communication. It also allows either of them to force the other to hire lawyers to defend their choices before a judge. Staying married and hiring a mediator would surely be a lot less expensive and a lot easier on the kids.

Clashes over personal issues? "Someone has to give in" is not true. The two stands we choose for these personal issues are almost never the only two available to us. No one has to give in if even one offers to begin a search for a Third Alternative that both will like better than the first two. And with money like theirs, they can enlist some incredible expertise to help them find more options.

Could anyone think a person who likes control would be happier with a mate who enjoys being controlled? Or that an independent and focused person really seeks a dependent and unfocused mate? I have no idea what these two celebrities are really up to, but the description of what might be tearing apart their marriage seems to suggest they are mismatched. I disagree.

If you're focused, it's very helpful to have a mate who keeps external forces under control. If you like things under control, a mate who has the focus to reach her goals can provide a lot of help keeping them that way.

Divorce will not fix either of these problems. Marriage education just might.

January 5, 2012

Is Your Marriage Loud or Quiet?

Would a stranger observing the two of you call your marriage loud or quiet?

Loud is just fine if every angry outburst is matched with at least five exuberant or encouraging ones. How can you go from angry to encouraging? Assume Love.

Quiet is just fine if it's shared intimacy and respect, rather than passive-aggressive resentment. How can you go from hurt to grateful? Expect Love.

And how do you find your way to loud exuberance or quiet transcendence? Throw yourselves into synergy and building delightful new things together. How? Find Third Alternatives.

Yep. That's it.

December 29, 2011

Refrigerator Battles

The Situation

You are preparing dinner. As you pull out the chicken and vegetables, you do a quick check for other ingredients you will need.




Everything's there. You cut up the chicken and vegetables while the oven heats up. You dump the dry ingredients for dumplings in the bowl, then reach for the milk. Your heart sinks as you lift it. You pour it into your measuring cup and confirm there is maybe an eighth of a cup of milk in the carton you bought yesterday.

The Anger

And now you are furious. Furious he would return the carton to the refrigerator with so little in it. Why?! Furious he drank the milk earlier in the day and did not pick up more while he was out. You always replace essentials when you use the last of them. Furious it's you who must make dinner, even during a week when your husband is off from work. You never get a week off. Furious you're making chicken and dumplings when there are so many Mediterranean dishes you would like better, but he will not eat.

Marriage suddenly feels overwhelmingly unfair.

Now your thoughts go looking for all the other ways your marriage gives you the short end of the stick, like when he hogs the comforter. And when you go with him to see his parents, who live 30 minutes away, but when it's time to fly out to see your parents, he claims he cannot take the time away from work.

Sound like anything you've gone through? The first shock of "I've been wronged" releases an entire cascade of them. You literally cannot think of anything else until you take back control of your thoughts.

This is where it comes it really handy to Assume Love. This technique gives you back that control. Is it wrong to be angry? No, but it's unpleasant and unhelpful.

Anger serves a purpose. It gives us the energy and courage to fight off an attack. But the only attack here is a shortage of one ingredient in a dish you don't even want to make.

Assume Love

To Assume Love, you ask yourself how the ounce of milk could possibly be the act of a loving spouse, rather than an attack.

For starters, loving you does not convey any ability to read your mind about your dinner plans. Even if he knew what was for dinner, odds are he has no clue milk is needed to make chicken and dumplings, if you do all the cooking.

If he wasn't intentionally making it harder to prepare dinner, why didn't he simply finish the milk and toss the carton? You would have noticed it missing before you started cooking.

His version of loving you might include not wasting food. His glass was full, there was milk left, ergo the milk goes back in the refrigerator for one of you to drink later, perhaps with seven ounces from the next carton.

As you consider explanations like this, you need to ask yourself if they are possible in your case. Is frugality one of your mate's strengths? Is saving money something you have asked him to do for you? Either of these would suggest putting back the milk as a loving act.

Why did he not buy more? He might have forgotten. He might not have passed a food store. He might have believed you were going to the store, and an extra container of milk could spoil before it did any good.

Again, you will know whether any of these fit your circumstances. I am not suggesting you make up excuses, but that you search for evidence that no harm was intended, no disregard for you behind the milk mistake.

All that you should aim for with Assume Love is to feel better about your husband's intentions. It won't get rid of the situation. You are still looking at an oven and food ready to go, without the necessary milk.

Expect Love

If it doesn't relieve you of all that anger, you might also Expect Love. Which of the things upsetting you would no longer be true if he had dropped dead yesterday? You would still be doing all the cooking, even on your vacations. If you ran out of milk, you would be the person who had to run out and get some or change the dinner menu. You would still need to visit your parents alone, and you would still need to pull some blankets over yourself, but in an empty bed.

None of what's bothering you actually results from having him in your life. The anger comes from what he's not doing that you expect he should do. So, take a moment to recall all the things he has done recently to add to your life. Do you live in a nicer home or have more money to spend on food because he's in your life? Did he give you a gift for Christmas? Does he take care of your car? Does his gratitude make it worth your while to cook a healthy meal?

Find Third Alternatives

Feeling better about him yet? Now it's time to Find Third Alternatives to some of your disagreements over this dinner, the refrigerator, and cooking in general. Here are a few:
  • You can ask him if he prefers to eat his chicken and vegetables Mediterranean style or rush to the store for milk immediately.
  • You can tell him that this dinner is so upsetting to you that you need an alternative to cooking it and want his suggestions on what else to do about eating tonight.
  • You can cook without the milk and ask him to join you after dinner in coming up with a way to always keep the essentials on hand, whether it's not taking the last cup of milk, the last two eggs, the last two tablespoons of butter, or replacing them immediately. You might need to help him identify the essentials and the minimum quantities for them, but make sure the solution is one he likes as much as you do.
  • You can ask for a Third Alternative to cooking on days when he doesn't work.
Just please remember that you cannot Find Third Alternatives while you are still angry and feeling like his victim. If you truly are his victim, you need outside help to fix this first. But most of the time, we are the victims of our own expectations and our brain's natural inclination to look for more injustices or threats when it spots one.

December 13, 2011

When You Disagree about a Child's Request

Parenting disagreements can be some of the toughest. When your child makes a request and one of you wants to say yes, but the other thinks yes would be a bad idea, you really need a Third Alternative.

You need one because you are in danger of planting your feet and holding your ground to protect your child at the possible expense of your marriage. Concern for a child motivates immediate action, which can take a wrong turn and become disrespect for your mate and corrosive anger over nothing more than an opinion.

Let's say your teenage daughter wants to attend a church-sponsored weekend away from home. One of you finds this an awful idea because it's not your church and you don't know the chaperones, while the other believes it would be a great step toward developing the independence she will soon need to go off to college without the two of you. How do you find a Third Alternative to No and Yes?

Jump the Net

You start by jumping the net. You agree to stop defending a First or Second Alternative to free yourself to find that Third Alternative that both of you will value as much or more.

Write Your Specs

Then you write the specs: - Allow her to take responsibility for her own choices in a strange environment but with adult supervision, so she builds her confidence and ability to handle choices. - Reward her recent school successes with something she really wants to do. - Avoid subjecting her to religious proselytizing. - Avoid encouraging her to choose a religion different from the rest of her family. - Avoid sexual predators, unsupervised opportunities for sex with someone her own age, reckless behavior of other teens, or lack of proper attention to any injuries.


And now you brainstorm ways to achieve all of this: - Meet and spend time with one or more of the chaperones. - Ask someone you trust to volunteer as a chaperone. - Discuss the differences between the two religions with her before and after she goes. - Rehearse some of the situations that might come up with your daughter in advance. - Contract with a taxi company near the retreat location to drive her home, no questions asked, at any hour, if she calls them. - Check with her to see if there are non-religious trips coming up that she might enjoy as much and with which you two would feel more comfortable. - Check with other parents at work for well-supervised trips for teens that she might enjoy as much. - Talk to your own church about organizing a similar retreat. - Offer her another reward that requires independent choices but does not require overnight travel, such as a pet, a fashion store gift card, or a party budget.

Keep referring back to your specs, and rattle off anything that might possibly help achieve them. If you like an idea, add to it. If you don't like an idea, revise the part you don't like and keep the rest. If you run out of ideas, ask your most creative or wisest friends to help add to the list.

When you get to an idea or a set of ideas that works for you, let your spouse know, but don't get attached yet. If your spouse does not like them, it might be that there is one more thing to add to your specs that was at first not apparent. Add it and get back to brainstorming.

When you find your Third Alternative, both of you will like it as much as you liked your flat-out Yes or No. You get your way and you get to give your spouse what he or she wants, plus a heap of respect and admiration.

December 3, 2011

Doing All the Chores?

You know how you start thinking you're doing the bulk of the chores? Or that you're stuck with way too many on top of your exhausting paid job?

You are not alone. Most wives feel this way. And so do most husbands.

How can this be? Surely one of us is trying to put something over on the other. Surely one of us needs to pick up the pace a bit and relieve our mate, no?

Not really. Even paying attention to who is doing how much is exhausting. It riles the stomach, kills the libido. And for what? Has it ever changed who does what for more than a couple weeks?

We all measure what we do against our own list of what needs doing. If we hate potato chips on sofas, cleaning them is on our list. If we cringe at what old oil can do to an engine, changing the oil goes on the list. If something smells bad to us, removing it is on our list. And then, to our complete dismay, the things we take care of comprise well more than half the list!

We assume that lazy bones who shares our home should be doing all of the rest and then some. How can we feel cared for or respected if they don't?

But our spouse has a different list. If chips on the sofa make no difference, removing them is just not on our list. If that is what our spouse is doing while we change the oil, we are obviously working harder. And it feels this way even if we are sitting in the waiting room while someone else changes the oil, even if those are our potato chips on the sofa. It feels this way because what we are doing is a chore and it is on our list of must-do chores, the list we always do more than half of.

And if we work in a place where the boss frowns on napping during work hours, how can we not feel this work is harder than work at home, where it is obviously possible to nap as needed? If we work at home, where it never seems possible to get things done if we stop to nap, even if we could get the kids to sleep when we're tired, we imagine that this work is much harder than work that allows for coffee breaks or lunches with friends.

If you get stuck with all the chores, change the list. Take it off your list. Your efforts to put it on your spouse's list will never succeed until everything else on your spouse's list is getting done, and that is never going to happen.

Take it off your list so you can enjoy your marriage. Eat your meals off paper plates and you can take dish-washing off the list. Move your TV into the kitchen and the chips will get swept up with the rice and peas instead of landing on the sofa. Leave the oil in an extra three weeks and see if it really matters, or if you can free up the time for one of your annual oil changes.

Or try an easier way so you can enjoy your marriage. Ask for a week of telecommuting. See if it really is possible to do more in the same amount of time at home and squeeze in a nap. If you work at home, make a daily lunch date at the local sandwich shop for every day next week and see if it makes your work feel any easier to do.

Your list is your list. You have complete control over it. Why leave any item on there that causes you to feel resentful instead of wildly in love?

November 22, 2011

Five Ways to Screw Up a Holiday

Here are five great ways to screw up a family holiday:

  • Overschedule yourselves, leaving no time to savor together the family gathering you worked so hard to create

  • Fail to notice your mate's Love Language, whether it's bringing something extra from the store as a gift, obsessing over the turkey as an act of service, or spending precious bonus time off from work trying to talk or do something together with you

  • Share your displeasure over the way things are going with what marriage researchers call a harsh startup, instead of first asking gently for whatever you would prefer

  • Agree to one thing (like gathering with your extended family) and do another (like watch football in the den while your mate cooks and your guests stew)

  • Take your spouse to visit your family and forget to create a few moments for just the two of you

Know how I know? I've lived every one of them. Here's to a great Thanksgiving this year.

November 8, 2011

Marriage Bank Accounts

A number of marriage therapists suggest couples pay attention to their marriage like a bank account. Don't make a withdrawal if you have not made enough deposits.

The intention is good. The score-keeping seems all wrong.

And so does the idea of withdrawals.

Is watching football when your wife wants to go furniture shopping together a withdrawal? Or is it just a conflict of interest better solved with a Third Alternative than by kissing her the morning before the game?

Is giving your husband an errand to run a withdrawal? If he fails to run it, does the withdrawal still count? I would expect the husband who fails to run it is more put out by the demand than one who gladly heads off to take care of it. Why not find a Third Alternative for getting the errand taken care of without either of you feeling you are treated unfairly?

And what about the research, repeated by several researchers, that shows it takes 5 times as many positive interactions as negative ones to keep a relationship strong? No bank account works that way.

I don't buy the bank account method. Work at making yourself happy in your marriage, happy enough to want to be kind, warm, generous, forgiving, and grateful toward the love of your life. And forget the score-keeping.

November 7, 2011

In Sickness And In Health? Alcoholism, Too?

drink.jpgAlcohol abuse and alcoholism harm a lot of marriages. When we take those wedding vows, pledging to stick together in sickness or in health, do we also accept the drunken rages, lost wages, and self-inflicted depression?

If staying and leaving were our only options, I would say no, we do not vow to accept all this harm. Fortunately, staying and leaving are usually not our only two options.

Al-Anon, that wonderful, free support group for those affected by someone else's alcohol abuse, offers this answer the to question What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is widely recognized as a disease of compulsive drinking, which can be arrested, but not cured. It is a progressive illness, which will get only worse as long as the person continues to drink. Total abstinence from drinking is the only way to arrest the disease. Alcoholism affects the entire family; indeed, everyone who has contact with the alcoholic is affected. Unfortunately, the only person who can stop the alcoholic from drinking is the alcoholic himself or herself. [emphasis added]

Some of the other options:

  • If you do not have enough money because of what your alcoholic husband or wife does, find some money and a safe place to keep it..

  • If you do nothing to bring joy into your life because your alcoholic will not join you, take your attention off the problem you cannot fix and pursue that joy.

  • If you do not feel safe in your own home, fix this, without waiting for sobriety. Set limits. If your wife or husband violates the limits, create a safe place for yourself and your children, whether a locked room, a separate apartment, a strong friend you invite to live in your home, or an abused spouse shelter.

  • If you have been buying alcohol or manufacturing excuses for your guy or gal, stop. Almost every serious illness comes with an unpleasant treatment we need courage to accept. We need the lifestyle consequences of the illness to motivate that courage. Getting in the way of the consequences of drinking is a lot like sabotage.

  • If you have been avoiding contact with friends or family to avoid feeling shame, invite them over and remind yourself you have and have always had almost zero control over your mate's drinking. Keeping touch with reality is especially important when you live with an alcoholic.

What does it mean to Assume Love when you are married to an alcoholic? It means you understand that the disease creates a disconnect between your spouse's intentions toward you and his or her actions. It means you can see and appreciate the intentions, but you are the only one who can protect yourself and your relationship from those disconnected actions that hurt you physically, emotionally, or financially.

At first, you will see the intentions in sincere apologies offered while sober for what happened while drunk. Take this as a serious sign that you need to act to protect yourself and your children.

As the disease progresses, you will see the intentions in the excuses invented to preserve your mate's self-perception as someone who cares for you. It is likely your spouse will blame you or outside factors for provoking his or her shameful behavior. You might want to find a therapist to help you with an intervention at this point, closing off the avenues of escape from the many consequences of the problem for your spouse.

If the situation reaches the point where your spouse loses all shame for what he or she does to you, remove yourself and your loved ones as far as you can from your spouse. Keep your distance until you learn he or she is sober and seeking to show love for you again.

November 3, 2011

Not the Fairy Tale I Hoped For

My husband does not often suggest subjects for this blog. However, when he read this quote from Kim Kardashian's blog, he said, "You have to write about this." And so I will.

About her very brief marriage to Kris Humphries, Kim Kardashian wrote:

It just didn't turn out to be the fairy tale I had so badly hoped for.

Fairy tales entertain, and they teach. And still some folks see only the princess and the prince dressed in their finest outfits and the part about living happily ever after.

Cinderella: Happily ever after is not granted to the stepsisters who dressed the part, but to the one who works hard day after day and treats everyone kindly. Happily ever after was granted to the crown prince only after he put in the effort to track down the right woman, first by holding a ball and then by a house-to-house search that required getting on his knees over and over with an abandoned shoe.

Snow White: Happily ever after for her came after hiding out in the woods doing housework for a bunch of hard-working men, getting poisoned, and surviving a lengthy coma. For the prince, it came after hacking his way through thick undergrowth to rescue his bride.

Beauty and the Beast: Only virtuous people see the virtue in others. They end up in good marriages. Beauty's sisters marry for good looks and wit and end up stone-hearted statues doomed to watch their sister live happily ever after. And, one presumes, their equally vain husbands don't find their cold, hard statue wives all that enchanting, either.

Perhaps it turned out Kim married into a nightmare. Maybe she discovered the man she married has no capacity for love or empathy. Perhaps he posed a grave danger to her, thanks to an uncontrolled temper or addiction. If so, my heart goes out to her and I fully understand her desire for a divorce and admire her discretion in not broadcasting his flaws.

But it sounds like she really expected that putting on the princess dress for a day would result in every good thing she ever expected from her prince and more.

Cinderella, Snow White, and Little Beauty know that happily ever after comes from being able to see the best in your mate, being able to recognize love in all its forms, and being willing to be hard-working, flexible, and grateful. It does not come from demanding it as your right because you wore the fairy tale dress.

November 2, 2011

What Would You Miss?

If your marriage is like most, there are things about your spouse that upset you. Because they upset you, you spend more time thinking about them. Guess what this does to the quality of your time together?

Want better? Mentally go through the next 24 hours of your life. What would you miss if your spouse were suddenly no longer in it? No divorce. No splitting up your assets. You have full custody of any kids and pets. And Prince Charming or Snow White have not yet shown up.

Not enough to make you ache for your mate? Try going through your favorite day of the year, whether it's Christmas, your birthday, a sunny vacation day at the beach, or a lazy Sunday at home.

What would you miss?

And what can you do to encourage more of this from your husband or wife while you are fortunate enough to be together?

October 28, 2011

10 Bogus Excuses for a Crappy Marriage

Here they are, ten really lousy excuses for the two of you drifting off to an "irreconcilable differences" divorce.

1. My Husband (or Wife) Won't Let Me

Really? You feel free to decide whether or not to stick to those vows you made, but you have surrendered the decision to take a job you want, sport a different hairstyle, try skydiving, or meet your friends after work? Find a Third Alternative, a way to do whatever you need to do that doesn't ruin your spouse's life or make him or her a scapegoat for your loss of enthusiasm.

2. She (or He) Has Lost Interest

Not buying it. Try something new. Not something phony, but something so very you that the person who fell wildly in love with you will be unable to resist.

3. We're Just a Bad Match

This is just the flip side of lost interest. Too much sameness or too much difference both reflect a shortage of creativity. Get a notebook. Write in it every time the two of you agree on anything, from whether stop signs should be red to whether pumpkin tossing is entertainment or a bad waste of good food.

Once a month, take an hour to brainstorm ways to use your points of agreement to find more to agree on. If you agree red means stop, get everything red out of your bedroom. If you agree pumpkin tossing is entertaining, start your search for pumpkin tossing events to visit together or poll your friends to find out which ones would come to your own pumpkin tossing event. Or experiment a bit and try some watermelons on the next Fourth of July.

4. He (or She) is a Workaholic

Workaholic are looking for praise or for escape from something less pleasant at home. You have the power to praise for things at home. You have the power to make coming home an absolute blast for your spouse. If you want your spouse at home more, start competing with his or her work.

If the only thing you want him or her home for is to mow, cook, watch the kids, or remodel, a subscription to Angie's List might be your best gift to yourself. You two are not the only ones who can do these things. Plan something more likely to keep you having a blast until it's suddenly your 50th anniversary and you wonder how the time flew.

5. He Doesn't Show Me Any Affection Any More

News alert! Few men have any natural ability to be truly affectionate. Men figure out affection through trial and error or copying some other man who gets what he wants through affection. If you're getting less affection, it's quite possible it's because your response to his affection changed. He may be really confused about what works and what doesn't now. And because he's a guy, he will stop doing whatever he suspects will lead to rejection from you. Tell him when he's getting warm. Better yet, show him.

6. She No Longer Has Any Respect for Me

Another news alert! Few women have any natural ability to offer respect. They tend to think it's something you must earn, rather than the very basis of a relationship. She may act like she distrusts your driving. She may seem to take the work you do and the income you bring in for granted. However, if she is always be trying to improve you, it means you are still OK in her eyes and worth the effort. Pick up on her implied respect and show her lots of affection (kisses, hugs, touches, flowers, other gifts, and any words that suggest you will be there for her) whenever you spot it. Women can learn about respect.

7. We are Too Busy to Spend Much Time Together

Not true. You may choose time on kids' activities over being together. You may choose money-making and ladder-climbing activities over being together. You may choose gym time or friend time over being together. In the long run, though, your kids will benefit much more from your rock-solid marriage than an afternoon of rock-climbing lessons and your life will be much richer for long-term love than for whatever you manage to put in the bank.

8. I Think He (or She) is Seeing Someone Else

And just to cement your suspicions, you are holding back on your time and attention, your affection, your respect?

9. The Economy (or a Job Loss) is Putting a Strain on Our Marriage

OK. So? Why is this difficulty not bringing you two together to look for Third Alternatives to all the new challenges? Why are you not offering him lots of extra respect while outsiders heap on rejection or shame? Why are you not showering her with affection and security while it feels like the rug is being pulled out from under your family? Do you have any idea how much harder divorce will be on your finances than marriage is?

10. I Thought He (or She) Was My Soul Mate, But I Was Wrong

Or perhaps you are wrong now. Perhaps you are not sad or angry or frustrated or bored because you are not soul mates, but not recognizing what soul mates you could be if you stopped being sad or angry or frustrated or bored. There is only one expectation of a husband or wife that will build your marriage up: Expect Love. All those others things you expect just keep you from seeing the love and being a soul mate.

Unless you are married to someone abusive or with an addiction or mental health problem that puts you in danger, you have plenty of choice about whether your marriage succeeds and lots to look forward to if it does.

October 26, 2011

The Marriage Blister

Have you got a marriage blister? That would be an irritation resulting from something that rubs you the wrong way, day after day after day.

For example, you find a raised toilet seat offensive, and you have to lower it several times a day. Or you make the dinner and expect this means you will not have to wash any dishes, but they are still on the counter at bedtime at least every other day. Or you try for a kiss only to hear, try after try, "No! I haven't brushed yet."

That's a marriage blister, inflamed by a minor irritation that gets repeated over and over. After one forms, no matter how much you like the shoes, you will dislike wearing them.

Here are three ways to heal a marriage blister.

  1. Find a Third Alternative, a mutually satisfying alternative that reduces the friction. A toilet that lifts with a foot pedal and lowers automatically might work.

  2. Expect Love. If you lived alone, unloved, there would still be dishes to wash after making dinner. Why tell yourself that unwashed dishes are a valid indicator of whether or not you are loved? Break out the paper plates and look for other signs that you are loved. Maybe the shoe is fine, and it's a burr on your foot causing the blister.

  3. Assume Love. Before you get all red and sore, ask if there is some way your mate could be trying to show you love, rather than rejection, by delaying that first kiss? Perhaps if you received the love gratefully, the closed-lip irritation would disappear in short order.

When the blister's gone, the shoes look so fine!

October 24, 2011

Floods that Wipe Out Good Marriages

Researchers call it "diffuse physiological arousal." Therapists call it "flooding."

You start out a little bit angry or anxious. Your stress grows. When it reaches the point called "flooding," you can no longer think clearly about anything except fight (hurting or stopping the person or thing you are upset about) or flight (getting away, even if just inside yourself, stonewalling the person trying to get you to talk).

Your nervous system is flooded with the stress chemicals, cortisol and adrenaline. You become physically stronger. Your time horizon gets very short. You don't consider the long-term consequences of what you do or say.

You are physically aroused, and the arousal is diffuse—it affects every part of your nervous system. No one else needs to get inside your head to tell you are highly upset. They could take your pulse, check your blood pressure, see you sweat.

If you are a man, you reach this point more easily than a woman. If you are a woman, you may have unwanted tears streaming down your face at this point.

If your disagreements with your husband or wife put either of you into flood stage more than once in a blue moon, you've got a problem. You need a better way to resolve those disagreements, or your marriage is highly likely to fail.

Two suggestions: avoid getting to this point and stop talking about the disagreement immediately if either of you even comes close to this point.

To stop talking about the disagreement, it might help to have a private code phrase either of you can use to change the subject, for example, "Let's head for higher ground" or "How about those Lions?"

To avoid getting here, learn to begin a search for Third Alternatives as soon as you realize you disagree. Here are some great how-to posts:

What is a Third Alternative?
Find a Third Alternative - Step One
Find a Third Alternative - Step Two
Find a Third Alternative - Step Three
Is It a Third Alternative or Just Alternative 1.5?
Big, Hairy Problems
Great Real-Life Example of a Third Alternative

Don't let a flood wipe out your marriage. Whatever your disagreement, it is not worth driving yourself to doing something you will feel ashamed of later. It is not worth the damage to your heart and blood vessels. The disagreement will not end during a flood, but your chances for a lifelong bond with another human being may very well get flooded out.

October 22, 2011

You Were My Sunshine

Man in classic red convertible with both arms raised high with delightWe marry someone who fills our life with sunshine. It feels so good, we cannot help but sing—and say yes.

Turn a few calendar pages, and suddenly, it's a dark day. The sun is almost completely hidden by dark clouds that get our clothes wet and frizzle our hair. Worse yet, it's the eighth dark day in a row. No tornadoes ripping the roof off. No hurricane knocking the trees over. No flood destroying everything we own. Nothing awful enough to call in the Red Cross. But we're not singing any more, and we miss it fiercely.

Our self-protective, threat-aware lizard brain urges us to escape. Don't wait around to find out how much worse it will get. The best defense is a good offense. Rain on your spouse's parade and move yours to the other side of town.

Our friends, equally protective of us but a bit more worldly, tell us to hurry off to see someone who can fix our spouse. If he or she won't join us, we can whine, plead, beg, cry for sunshine.

But the most effective strategy? Whomp up some sunshine! Do things you enjoy. Try new things that sound like fun. Smile compassionate smiles at everyone and feel the warmth of their response. Say and do the nicest things for your mate, but only the ones that make you feel like a real superhero.

Bad weather is temporary, even in a marriage.

October 21, 2011

Before You Ask for a Divorce

I know from personal experience how overwhelming emotions can get when your marriage feels like it's not working. Before you announce you've had it, try this.

Make a list of the things you would do after you divorced, other than flirt or find a new sex partner, and do them for three months. Go out for dinner with your friends. Take a trip without your spouse. Learn to dance. Lose weight. Join a gym. Get a new hairstyle. Take a bubble bath every evening. Stop running errands for your spouse. Change jobs. Take your kids out to dinner without their other parent. Shop for an apartment or a smaller house. Maybe even rent a place of your own.

That's it. Don't work on your marriage. Work on yourself. Take your post-marriage life for a test drive. Get your mind off what you would get away from and onto what you would move toward. Don't say you're leaving. Don't promise to stay. Take 90 days to get to know yourself and be yourself again.

While you are doing this, there is a good chance your husband or wife will begin to see you and your marriage very differently. And you might, too.

October 18, 2011

3 Ways to Get Your Wife's Respect

Want more respect from the woman you married? These should help.

  1. Be you, at your best. Find more ways to use your greatest strengths (creativity, humility, generosity, gratitude, perseverance, curiosity, social intelligence, integrity, leadership, perspective, bravery, etc.) when you are with her.

  2. Show more affection. Without affection, women have a hard time paying attention to anything else. Let her know her respect matters because she matters so much to you. This may be hard to do when you feel disrespected. Do it anyway, because you're not getting any respect by being distant or mean.

  3. Ask for it. Really. She has no idea how much you crave her respect. She does not need it the way you do. Because of this, you might need to explain it to her. Point out positive examples, not her failings.

You might think your wife has changed or that she never respected you to begin with. You might be wrong about this. Her cues have just changed. Change them back.

October 17, 2011

Wear Something Gaudy

Patty as a clownI was just reminded that today is Wear Something Gaudy Day. We were first introduced to this bit of fun by Larry Dallas, a character on the 70's sitcom, "Three's Company." There is a good chance he introduced us all to Wear Something Gaudy Day at The Regal Beagle.

Some years before that episode, around 1969, I had a favorite gaudy outfit I had made for myself. It included a hot pink satin peasant blouse. I paired this with a pants in Chinese red homespun with a wild paisley print. The waistband was the width of a cummerbund. Two huge pink buttons attached a pair of wide suspenders to it. Down below, on my ridiculously long legs, were paisleyed elephant bells, gathered at the waistband and widening into a 36" hem on each leg.

No match for the Drew Carey Show's Mimi, of course, nor for Lady Gaga, but definitely gaudy. And fun. The outfit always picked up my spirits, always made me feel like dancing.

Many years later, a widow already, I had to show up for a photo shoot, in a suit, at a corporate client's office. It was Mardi Gras, and I was missing New Orleans. I brought a bunch of feathered masks and beads for our final shot. We were in the cafeteria. A young woman who worked there came up after we finished to ask where we got the masks. She knew her husband would go wild if she had one. She blushed as she said that and again as I handed her a mask and some very shiny beads to go with it. Gaudy is fun.

If your marriage is running a little ordinary and humdrum these days, today's your chance. Put on something truly gaudy and dance your spouse around the house. Playfulness and celebration are hallmarks of a thriving relationship. Enjoy being married!

Links to photos of your Wear Something Gaudy Day celebrations are greatly appreciated—unless all you are wearing is a feather mask and beads.

October 15, 2011

Best Friends, Respectfully

Ken Solin, a 50+ guy looking for love, decided to try something new. He wrote about it in the Huffington Post last Wednesday. I think you might find what he said interesting for your own marriage.

I had noticed that in great relationships the partners were also best friends. Alternatively, I had never seen a bad relationship that embraced friendship.

He set out to find a female best friend. And he found one. Notice what he says about getting through the tough spots with her:

When all else fails, we remind each other that best friends treat each other respectfully, particularly when they disagree.

Most of us women would say kindly, gently, lovingly, with forgiveness and concern. Men say respectfully. Women who pay attention to this difference have a much easier time getting the kindness, gentleness, love, forgiveness, and concern they value.

We haven't failed yet to find workable solutions to our problems, because we truly are friends, and friends always manage to work it out with dignity.

Workable solutions. Work it out. Dignity. Sounds like Third Alternatives to me.

I like this guy.

October 13, 2011

5 Ways to Get Your Spouse to Spend Time with You

Unfortunately, whining seldom works. Neither does asking why your spouse has too little time for you or talking about what other couples are doing together. So, how can you get some more quality time together?

  1. Make your request specific. Suggest a particular event or activity at a particular time. "I would like to hike around the lake on Saturday morning, and I would love for you to join me; are you available then?

  2. Choose something you both are likely to enjoy. Save the things you want your mate to try for a period when you spend lots of time together.

  3. Make it a Strengths Date. Choose something that brings out your best self and your spouse's best self. For an avid learner, make it a museum or lecture or tour. Skydiving or spelunking work for someone with lots of curiosity and courage. Go to a party or a gala with a mate with really high social intelligence. Make it an art opening if one of you thrives on appreciating beautiful things. Invite a courageous mate with a love of life for some white water rafting, Suggest a volunteer activity like housebuilding, feeding the poor, or playing with hospitalized kids for a big-hearted spouse or a natural leader.

  4. Be completely present in whatever you do. Leave your cell phone with someone who can handle any emergencies. Don't discuss bills or childcare issues. Be fully there, listening, affirming, encouraging, and enjoying your beloved.

  5. Savor the good times. Take photos, record sounds, make a sketch, or pick up a souvenir, and put your reminders somewhere where they will lead the two of you to recall the great time you had together. If there were bad times, too, let them fade away as you recall the good ones.

Spending time together matters. It weaves the threads that make you a couple. It makes you happier, and happier spouses last longer. If quality time is the primary Love Language for either of you, it is so satisfying. If it's not, it still reminds you what a wonderful person you married.

October 12, 2011

When Spouses Grow Boring

Husbands and wives grow boring when we stop discovering new things about them. Some of us think we would prefer they get out and try new things to keep us interested. The rest hope they spend more time at home, where they would surely be more interesting than at work or working on that hobby of theirs. The real difference between boring and interesting spouses just might be us.

Here are some very interesting things about husbands and wives:

  • How they chose their first best friend

  • What they would say if they were invited to dinner with the chairman of the corporation they work for, used to work for, or hope to work for

  • How they felt and why on the one day in their life they believe they were at their very best

  • What painter or songwriter they would like to meet and what they would ask

  • Why they chose their college major

  • What cheerleading or gymnastic moves they remember from high school

  • Where they would go if they had 24 hours and $24,000 and you at their side

  • What song or rhyme they most enjoyed as a child

  • What they do when you take them to a place likely to fascinate them

What have you discovered about your spouse this week?

October 10, 2011

I Need More from This Marriage

We all get there. The marriage is not enough. An empty hole drains us. We are certain our spouses have the ability to fill it, but they don't. We cannot get by on this much money, help, sex, support, appreciation, or recreation. One more day of this is just too much.

The answer? Expect Love. Everything else we expect from our mates causes us grief or anger. Sure, some husbands take care of the yard work. Yours loves you a different way. Some wives cook great dinners seven nights a week. Yours loves you a different way. Some are willing to dance, go skiing, or check out museums. Yours loves you a different way.

Recast the disappointment. What are you getting instead? And how much more will you get when you stop complaining about or begging for the rest?

Recast the expectation. What is it you need? How can your husband or wife help you get it, without being the one responsible for providing it? Where can you meet people who like to dance, ski, or tour museums? How else can you get great meals without cooking them? How else can you have the yard you desire?

If you resent not getting what you need, you suck the life out of your own enjoyment of the marriage. If you abandon the marriage, your list of unmet needs grows longer, not shorter. But if you take responsibility for getting what you need, you free yourself to love and to welcome all the other forms of love your spouse offers.

This is what I realized as I reviewed my list of unmet needs the day after my husband dropped dead. I have the needs whether or not I have the husband. I need to meet fewer of them for myself as long as someone loves me. But no matter who this is, he is unable to fill them all—and delighted to fill the ones he can when I am not whining about the others.

October 8, 2011

When Your Wife Criticizes Your Driving

Does your wife caution you to slow down, pass that car, take a different route, keep up with traffic, stop riding that bumper? Does she wince, grab the dashboard, brace her feet, check the side mirror?

And does it make you wonder why in the world she agreed to marry someone she trusts so little? Does it make you feel like a kid with a learner's permit again? Especially if you have been driving accident free for years?

Assume Love. If you are loved and respected as much as ever by this woman—and you probably are—what would lead her to behave like this? If she does not do it out of distrust, what other reasons are there?

  1. Anxiety - With nothing to do but watch the road, she has plenty of time to imagine the worst happening. Withdrawing or getting angry will increase her anxiety. Try some tender distraction. You might even add occasional reminders that her safety is very important to you.

  2. Misunderstanding - Men are far more attuned to distrust or lack of respect than woman are, thanks to our hormones. Let her know this affects you and ask her to speak up only when there is imminent danger. And try to keep in mind that her biochemistry leaves her highly attuned to any lack of affection.

  3. Habit - If she is raising or teaching children, she may just be in the habit of critiquing. To break the habit, respond as an adult—a loving, kind, patient man.

Looking at a problem through your spouse's eyes gives you the power to change the situation and the compassion to strengthen your relationship as you do.

September 19, 2011

Should I be Mad at My Mate?

A comment I received yesterday on this blog encouraged me to write this. I am so glad she asked! I'll bet most readers have asked this same question at some point in their marriages.

I'm writing this as I need to blow off steam and see if I am right or wrong about getting mad at my husband. I was busy Sunday afternoon catching up with work. My husband and I weren't planning on doing anything. His family calls him up to invite us somewhere. He automatically says he'll go since I was working, but didn't even bother to ask if that was OK with me. Next thing you know he just tells me..."hey honey, I'm going to such and such place with my family. I'll see you later!" I was furious he didn't bother asking me if that was OK. I let him know too. Should I be mad? Thanks so much!

Should you be mad? I remember wondering many times if I should be angry over something my first husband did. I was angry, but I needed to ask other folks if I should be. And, of course, since most of them wanted to please me and be my friend, they said yes. I believed them. As a result, I lost any chance to feel the love of the marvelous man I had married during what turned out to be the last two years of his life. He died at age 35. It still brings me to tears to realize what I lost by asking the wrong question.

Unless your husband's going out to a family event without you posed an immediate threat to your wellbeing, you have plenty of time to use a technique I call "Assume Love." (Can you tell from the blog title how valuable I find this technique?)

Here is how it goes.

  1. Interrupt the search for evidence of wrong-doing. We don't really want to know if we should be mad. We want to know if we are no longer loved and respected.
  2. Ask, "What might explain this behavior if I am still loved and respected by my spouse as much as ever?"
    • Is he doing for me what he would want done for him in the same circumstances?
    • Is he mistaking my current circumstances for other ones in which I actually suggested he should do this?
    • Was he torn between two loyalties and trusting I would support his choice?
    • Was he saying yes to his family while I am busy so he can say yes to me without any family guilt when I am not busy?
    • Was he unaware of any possible way his staying home could benefit me?
    • Did he grow up in an environment where everyone was free to do as they please as long as it hurts no one else, rather than one where family members ask before taking their leave of the others?
    • Could he be angry at me and doing this to keep his anger from interrupting what I must get done?
    • Could he be angry at me and trying to get my attention by doing something he knows will upset me but not harm me?
    • Are there any other possible explanations for a husband who adores me not asking my permission?
  3. After considering the ways a loving action might have accidentally pushed your "done me wrong" button, let your spouse know if you're feeling loving or angry or if you need more information to decide.

There are many, many ways to love a person, and many, many ways to be mean.

Some are so loving that we do not need to ask if we are loved. Some are so mean we will not need to ask if you should be mad. But most fall in the middle, and it makes a big difference whether we ask "should I be mad?" or "could I be loved?"

When we react to a loving act as if it were mean, our action is likely to discourage more loving acts from either of us.

When we recognize a loving act disguised as a mean one, because we Assume Love and look for possible loving explanations, we feel loved, safe, and able to ask, lovingly, for something different in the future. And then love grows and so do respect and trust. And that's why I write this blog.

September 14, 2011

Marriage Tips from a Long-Married Wife

This is a guest post written for Assume Love by Elizabeth H. Cottrell.

My husband and I are about to celebrate our 39th anniversary. In case you haven't already covered these "secrets," I share them now:

Listen to each other — REALLY listen, and confirm that you've heard by saying it back, "So, am I understanding that what you mean is...?"

Physical touching every day is so important — a full body hug, a quick hug around the waist, a sneak-up-behind kiss, and an "I love you."

Don't assume your spouse can read your mind. He/she can't and it's so unfair to think (or act like) they can.

Forget the giving 50/50 to a willing to give 150%.

The worst advice I've ever heard: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." If you hurt your spouse or you did something stupid, you've GOT to be willing to say "I'm sorry." It can diffuse so much anger.

All of this, of course, is in the context of a normal relationship. I realize that pathological or toxic relationships may need a whole different set of rules :-).

Elizabeth H. Cottrell (@RiverwoodWriter) helps committed life-embracers learn to strengthen four essential connections: with Self, with Others, with God, and with Nature. She blogs at and is on a mission to revive the art of personal note writing! At, Elizabeth offers writing, editing, self-publishing and online visibility services.

September 12, 2011

Biggest Lesson Learned from 9/11

It was a trending hashtag on Twitter this weekend. My biggest lesson had a lot to do with marriage and family:

Patty Newbold

#biggestlessonlearnedfrom911 Our excuses for not making time for others are lame. We all CAN drop everything to do what matters.

September 8, 2011

Not Enough Sex? Look for a Third Alternative

It happens in a lot of marriages. One spouse starts saying no to sex so often that the other stops asking. Or, worse, that partner begins demanding, whining, or insulting. a huge turnoff that seldom leads to a blissful intimate moment.

What's the solution? Surely it is not the remedy doled out by a French judge this week, ruling that the uninterested spouse pay the other more than $14,000.

I believe it is looking for a Third Alternative. This means recognizing that almost any disagreement results from partners taking stands on just two of the many possible options. The two options get wrapped up in language that suggests there are no others: sex vs. no sex.

Elsewhere, others are happily married and enjoying quickies before they open their laptops after the kids are in bed. Some spend the weekend in a resort with nothing on their minds but slowly pleasuring each other, enjoying a leisurely recovery together, then doing it all over again.

Some shower first. Others prefer not to. Some use oils, others whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

Some start the romance over breakfast and keep it up all day, climaxing right before they sleep. Others wake up ready for a great start to their day. Some use sex toys. Some use one or two body parts. Others use them all.

Some seek orgasm. Others delight in being pleasured, whether or not it leads there. Some use prescription drugs or natural herbs to coax their bodies to behave as they once did. Some use alcohol to get in the mood. Others use music or candles or dancing.

Those with medical conditions or injuries that make the experience temporarily unpleasant seek only intimate conversation for themselves but find ways to pleasure their partner physically.

Some have a schedule. Others have a secret signal, a flower on the pillow or a raised eyebrow in the middle of a party. Others wing it.

Instead of, "Do you want to?" some ask, "How do you want to?" Others ask, "How soon do you want to?" Still others ask, "Where do you want to?" or just, "May I?"

In some couples, one does all the asking, and the other enjoys the freedom from rejection in such a sensitive area. In others, both ask and both feel free to say yes or no.

Some are timing their sex to improve their chances of conception. Others are using whatever works for them to prevent conception. Some are beyond conception and working with their bodies' new responses as they enjoy the freedom.

Some hide their bodies in special clothing, under the sheets, or in a dark room, enjoying sex more this way. Others flaunt them and watch the action in a mirror on their ceiling, adding to the experience for them.

Some seek therapy to learn to reduce any negative thoughts that interfere with their pleasure, thoughts planted there in their childhood, in a sexual assault, in the shock of learning their mate cheated on them, or in a bad prior relationship. Others seek it to learn how to avoid triggering thoughts that ruin the moment for their spouse.

When your spouse says no, it is no only to his or her expectation, seldom to all the other options open to the two of you.

Finding a Third Alternative to a sex/no sex disagreement requires dropping the catchall word, sex. If you replace it with your specific likes and dislikes and your partner's specific likes and dislikes (his or her current ones, because our bodies and minds are always changing), then you can find the sweet spot where both of you enjoy yourselves. Then you can give instead of taking, feel generous and happy instead of rejected.

And I am willing to be the outcome will be worth a lot more than to you than the French judge's $14,000.

August 21, 2011

What to Do When You Stop Loving

Last March, I answered this question on Quora:
If you are married with a kid, but you and your wife do not love each other, what should you do?

Twitter tweet by Quora: Awesome Quora answer @married

My answer:
Love your kid's mother. It's the greatest gift you could ever give your child.

Regardless of your emotions toward her, be as generous, forgiving, caring, brave, fair, trustworthy, nurturing, helpful, complimentary, and welcoming as you possibly can. Use every ounce of your creativity, everything you have ever learned to find ways to make your child's mother feel welcome in your life.

Smile a compassionate smile when you are around her.

Ask everyone who knows her to remind you of her best qualities.

Do not let disagreements get in your way of loving her for what you agree on.

Let go of your expectations of what she would do if she loved you. Stop tapping your toe waiting for anything. Pay attention instead to all the good things she gives you, does for you, says to you, does with you, or does to make your body feel great. Savor each one.

What would you change about yourself if you divorced? Unless it will break your vows and your child's heart, do it right now. Lose weight, get in shape, write a book, go out for a beer with your friends, take a trip your wife wants no part of, give your kid a second bedroom and fill it with furniture and toys that are even nicer than what they have now, give them two sets of gifts at every holiday, take twice as many vacations with them, and never eat another brussels sprout.

Should unhappy parents ever divorce? Sure. But the ones who should are unlikely to describe their situation as "you and your wife do not love each other." This is just the very common trough between when you love because you feel loved and the day you feel loved because you chose to love.

While in this trough, you feel frustrated. You want to love and be loved. You can tell your kids are getting cheated, and you imagine it would be better for them to have the two of you happy again, even if it is because you are loved by and loving people they don't give a hoot about. You think it would be better even if you were happy elsewhere and they still lived in their current home, even if their other beloved parent were bitter.

The trough is a horrible place to be. But most marriages come out the other side. They come out when one spouse makes an effort to love again or lets go of believing only divorce would remove the constraints they see on their current life and start being themselves again. The other side of this trough is a very nice place to be.

Have you come through the trough? Did your parents? Add a comment about it. Help anyone who might be coming through the trough now.

August 17, 2011

Is Financial Irresponsibility Grounds for Divorce?

A reader asks how to help a newlywed friend. She's paying the bills, keeping careful track, budgeting for every predictable expense. He's running up unexpected bills, failing to warn her what they will owe this month or to turn over needed paperwork on time. And it's drowning her in distress.

Can this marriage be saved? Can she live with a man like this? Of course she can. How long have preachers been warning right at the altar that richer and poorer are both possible and even a normal part of marriage?

Marriages can work and be outrageously happy with little money or with lots. But they are almost always unpleasant when we believe our mate causes the problems we experience.

Please do not let me imply it is OK for anyone to run their husband or wife into debt looking for that next dopamine hit or to sit at home playing sudoku while their mate does all the work. It's not OK to do this, and it's not OK to provide anyone else with the means to do this.

But the thing that starts most divorce-bound resentments is nowhere near this big.

The Source of the Money Problem

Is a surprise bill for $500 a problem? Not if you have $50,000 cash on hand. Not if the source of the bill surprises you but your budget includes $750 a month for surprises.

Your resentment comes not from the expense, but from your expectation about what a wise or loving person would do with the money.

You will find it much easier to love your spouse when you let go of the expectation that money means the same thing to both of you and you should therefore agree on how much you need or how it gets spent.

If you need a budgeted amount or a cash reserve to feel secure and to perhaps even enjoy paying for something your spouse needed or wanted, why not add it to the budget or start building the cash reserve?

It is quite normal to have different risk tolerance levels, different long-term financial goals, different reactions to spontaneity vs. predictability. When you disagree, find a Third Alternative, an option that gives both of you what you need.

A good friend, like the one who asked the question, can help morph a complaint about differences into a set of specs for an alternative that works for both of them. Friends can also help brainstorm creative ways to get what both want.

Belief Gets in the Way

Some will say we cannot find more money or more time. I know for certain we can. I know it because my husband dropped dead, and I had to. Suddenly it became possible, because I was willing to work harder, take more risks, and do less unnecessary stuff. I know it because every couple that divorces, claiming they never had enough money, finds the money for two homes, duplicate bedrooms and toys for the kids, separate vacations with the kids.

Many will say, "Unfair! Why should I bring in more money or spend less on something else when my spouse could fix the problem by becoming more responsible with money?"

Marriage is always unfair. Just add up what you would spend to live alone, what chores you would need to do living alone, how much you would spend on looking for love, how much time it would take to help your kids maintain close relationships with both parents. Most married folks have an incredibly unfair advantage. Why would they consider jeopardizing all this over a squabble about how much more money and time they could be saving?

A friend can help an embattled spouse measure what's happening against a realistic alternative, instead of the alternative of a fantasy spouse who thinks just as we do. A friend can help come up with ways to deal with the real problem instead of turning it into a marriage problem.

Could, Not Should

I do not mean to say the more money-cautious spouse must be the one to fix this problem. Not at all. But for me, in my first 13 years of marriage, the idea that I could be the one to fix our problems never occurred to me. The idea that my spouse could be perfectly at ease with a situation that created stress for me and that my stress and my reaction to it were the real problems getting between us never occurred to me. The idea that fair is not half as satisfying as close never occurred to me.

And then he was dead, and I had to earn all the money, pay all the bills, make everything work. There was no one to whom I could say, "We have to talk." (By the way, no matter how you mean this, it almost always sounds like, "Bad dog. Come! Sit!") All I could say, to my reflection in the mirror, was, "One more problem solved. What's next?"

It was bone-crushingly depressing to realize I could have done the same while I still had a chance to enjoy the very special man I had chosen to wed.

Want help figuring out how to enjoy whatever time you have with your husband or wife, in spite of money issues? Use the comments section. Give yourself a phony name and a blank URL to remain anonymous. But please include your email address. It will not be published. It will let me notify you when I post a reply and perhaps include some extra, unpublished suggestions.

August 2, 2011

How to Crush Your Spouse

If you're married to a woman, let her overhear as you talk with a woman from work and share feelings you have not shared with her.

If you're married to a man, tell him you should have married someone else.

July 25, 2011

We're Never Going to Get Divorced

Author and journalist Susan Gregory Thomas has a new memoir out. It looks like a great read. An excerpt appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal as their Saturday Essay. It broke my heart to read this from this Generation X latchkey kid, part of the 50% of her generation from split families:

"'Whatever happens, we're never going to get divorced.' Over the course of 16 years, I said that often to my husband, especially after our children were born. Apparently, much of my generation feels at least roughly the same way: Divorce rates, which peaked around 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970."

But hers was not one of the marriages that survived. In spite of each of them marrying their best friend, in spite of testing their compatibility as roommates for eight years before they married, in spite of waiting until they were in their 30s to have children, they reached a point where they slept separately, talked only about logistics, and quietly seethed over all they were not getting from each other.

When you expect your spouse to be your best friend, you leave yourself very little room to get what you need. It is a triple-whammy to discover your children's other parent, your lover, and your best friend all agree that what you want to do or talk about is not interesting. It puts you in danger of waiting until you are divorced or widowed to do the things you dream of or long to try. It lets you both see your mate as an obstacle, instead of the fervent supporter he or she longs to be.

When you expect your spouse to be a compatible roommate, you eliminate all the easy things you could use to practice finding Third Alternatives together. It is the creative Third Alternatives you discover for the really big differences in your life that make marriage so worth having, a source of so much growth and joy.

Expectations make such a mess of our marriages. Expect just one thing: love. The moment you notice it taking a back seat to avoiding disagreements or juggling parenting duties, drop everything and pay much closer attention to the tiniest ways your spouse shows you love. I cannot promise you will never get divorced, but it will certainly improve your chances of staying in love for the rest of your lives.

I am so, so, so sorry marriage fell apart for Susan Gregory Thomas, as it did for me. I look forward to reading In Spite of Everything and learning from her experience. Have you read it already? Is it as good a read as it looks?

July 16, 2011

Enjoy Being Married for a While

bridebouquet.jpgLike many bloggers, I have several Google Alerts delivering me stories daily. One of my standing queries is for mentions of my marriage resource website, Enjoy Being Married. This one also sends me lots of marriage announcements of big-time and local celebrities.

Nick Lachey and Vanessa Minnillo "are probably going to enjoy being married for a bit," says reporter Julia Bodeeb.

From a blog: "What's next for you as a couple? Right now we want to enjoy being married to each other."

Christine Bleakley, recently engaged to British footballer Frank Lampard, "made it clear she would want to enjoy being married for a while," in a June article by Rob Leigh in the Mirror.

Carrie Underwood, who married hockey player Mike Fisher, "just wants to enjoy being married for a while," according to reporter Kinsley Goldman.

What will put an end to all this enjoyment? I will let "ImgonnabeMrsC" answer, with her post on the discussion forum. "Although I would LOVE to have kids right away, it is just not in our budget yet! I think we are going to enjoy being married for a whole year, take 2 years to save and try in 3 !"

If you think it would be great to still enjoy being married after you become parents or financially responsible, I encourage you to visit You will find ebooks, podcasts, a newsletter, relationship video and book reviews, and even a self-study course for those who might enjoy being married while they launch a new business.

June 27, 2011

Is Your Marriage Unfair?

So many marriages go down the tubes because one spouse or the other feels taken advantage of. Sometimes, a spouse will keep quiet about it until he or she suddenly erupts. The rage that follows overwhelms any feelings or acts of love.

Other spouses, often the children of who watched the spontaneous combustion of a doormat, attempt to even the score daily or hourly. They give orders or exact their pound of flesh with mocking criticism.

As you may have discovered through trial and error, none of these approaches help you enjoy being married, even when one temporarily reduces the bedroom floor's sock or dust bunny population.

What will help you enjoy being married? Getting your needs met.

Get Your Needs Met

When my first husband refused to handle the local chores—pharmacy pickups, landscaper quotes, cable installer appointments, and the like—it felt so unfair to me. We lived close to his office. Mine was in another part of the state.

It felt unfair to him, too. He had all the chores he could fit in his week. When he promised to take care of any of these, he never could get around to them. He did not like being asked to do the impossible.

Only after he died did it occur to me that an office closer to home would free me to take care of those chores. Tell me why your mate should do any chore. Now you know what needs fixing in your life to enjoy being married. You will find it right after the word "because."


  • "He should wash the dishes, because I cook the dinners." If someone else cooked the dinners (Stouffers or Lean Cuisine, a neighbor looking to pick up some cash while working from home, your husband), you might enjoy your marriage a lot more.
  • "She should go back to work full time, because I might lose my job soon." Something keeps her from finding the time or will. How about looking for a more secure job or doing something at work to secure this one, so you can enjoy your marriage again?
  • "He should weed the rock garden, because he's the one who wanted it." Perhaps he wanted it weeds and all. Stop weeding. Start planning how you will use the space after his weeds kill his garden. Get back to enjoying your guy.
  • "She should help me wallpaper, because I do not have enough time to finish it myself." People who hate wallpapering (or have exams to grade or a report to write) do not speed up the job. Who else do you know that might help? What can you buy at the wallpaper store to make the job easier? How could you free up more of your time?
Doormats, bossies, mockingbirds, and judges, why wait for your spouse to change when you can enjoy being married without the wait?

June 7, 2011

When Your Romantic Overture Fails

I received a comment today on this blog from JS, who is looking to put some romance back in his or her marriage. Like so many of us, they have fallen into parents-instead-of-lovers mode.

For their anniversary, JS arranged a romantic weekend without the kids at a hotel and spa she likes, but it backfired. She did not like being surprised. She claimed to be ill and refused to go, then went shopping. She is a woman who sets high standards for herself and others and measures love in acts of service that do not always manage to meet her standards.

JS asks, "The big question in my mind is how I could try to get her to change her expectations and try to see the things I try to do as a sign of love."

Here is what I recommend to JS and to you if you ever find yourself in the same shoes.

JS, isn't it just horribly frustrating when we try to change the people we married so we can have the marriage we expect? It's enough to leave any of us in tears. People are not easily changed.

Many women would be thrilled to have a surprise romantic getaway. Others feel blindsided by any surprise. Not much hope of changing one into the other.

"My way or the highway" does not work very well in a marriage. When she did not accept your proposal for how to celebrate your anniversary, you chose to get out of town until you cooled off, using the kids as an excuse, and she chose to buy things to make herself feel better/prettier/wealthier, using illness as her excuse.

Neither of these made the two of you feel any closer, probably not even any happier. Both, however, are perfectly natural responses from people who do not want their love to end. We tend to protect ourselves from the horrible suspicion we may not be loved by acting as if we no longer care if we are loved. Fortunately, when we do this, it is usually because we care a lot.

Assume Love

Instead of trying (in vain, I am sure) to change her expectations, why not try to change your experience of your marriage. It turns out to be much, much easier. Assume, just for the sake of this exercise, that she loves you dearly and wants a romantic relationship as much as you do. If you knew this for certain, if there were no question of whether she finds your loving acts good enough, how else might you explain her reaction to the surprise romantic weekend?

I do not know your wife, so I will just get the ball rolling with a few possibilities. You can keep adding to my list until you come to one (or two or three) that sound like her.

  • She hates surprises in general and feels life is out of control when hit with one.

  • She loves that spa but can only feel comfortable there with the right clothing or haircut or weight, so she feels she needs more notice.

  • She expected the weekend to involve more sex than usual and did not feel well enough or in shape enough or happy enough to enjoy it.

  • She has recently felt you call the shots a lot, and she needs to flex her muscle a little to feel comfortable in the marriage.

  • She already had plans for the weekend, whether reading a book, watching a movie, or lunch with a friend.

  • She had her heart set on some other way to celebrate the anniversary and your plans made it clear she was not going to get whatever she so looked forward to.

  • You heard an off-the-cuff "no" based on some momentary upset, but your reaction to her "no" killed her interest, so she did not change it to a "yes."

  • Your anniversary coincides with another anniversary that makes her feel sad or with an allergen outbreak that makes her feel ill.

The purpose in this Assume Love technique is to help you see the story you tell yourself while you digest a rejection may not be the real story. In fact, the way our brains work, it almost certainly is not the real story, because our distress at rejection floods our brain with chemicals that force it to look for other threats, not better explanations.

Remember, though, you Assume Love only to help you come up with the other possible explanations. If your I-am-not-loved explanation is still the best fit, do not feel you must select one of the others. This would be Pretend Love, nothing I recommend.

Expect Love

Let's say you recognize that it is possible she still loves and just does not show it in the way you expect, like running off with you for an impromptu romantic anniversary weekend. If she loves you, you can stop trying to love her well enough to get the loving you want and instead put your attention on noticing all the ways she shows you she loves you.

Since you know her love language, you know what to look for first: acts of service. But look, too, for the other four love languages. Just start making a list (privately, of course). If you get a kiss on the way out the door, take note. If she does something with the kids, take note. If she prepares a meal, take note. If she says something encouraging or complimentary to you, take note.

Do nice things for her when you feel inspired to. Skip doing any you resent doing. If asked to do something you will resent, say, "I am sorry. I cannot do this today. Can I help you find another way to get it done?" You probably will not need to do this much, because once you are actively managing your resentment and actually seeking out signs of her love, you just might find yourself scrambling to find nice things to do for her.

You may also find that as you express your delight in the things she does, you can ask for more, knowing that she is free to say no, just as you are.


Give it a try. I would love to hear your experiences with these two techniques. This includes anyone who reads this, not just JS.

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 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?

April 22, 2011

Change or Lose Your Spouse!

I tuned in to a bit of Dr. Phil's show again today. He had on reality TV celebrity couples with relationship problems. As always, they complained about each other's habits, and he told one or both of them to change or expect to wind up divorced and alone.

Here's my thinking: No!

My goal is not to get a marriage only to the point where it won't self-destruct. And it is certainly not to tell anyone, "You should do this" or "You must do that."

You're married. You thought enough of another human being to vow to love them, honor them, cherish them through better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health. More than anything in the world, I expect you want to do exactly this. But when you seek help, it's because this is turning out to be much harder than you expected, and you fear you will fail at the biggest thing in your life, with the person you most want to care about you and stand by you.

Who, in all human kindness, would say this to you at such a moment? "Well, you are going to fail, unless, in the middle of your fear and frustration, you change what you're doing and do something that feels unnatural to you, because that's what you should do." No!

My goal? I want you to Enjoy Being Married, not just keep your husband or wife from walking out on you.

My approach? Techniques you can use to help you enjoy being married. If they sound good to you, you try them. You benefit. They make the marriage more enjoyable for you whether or not your spouse does anything different. You experience less frustration. You feel more loved. You feel more respected. And you no longer need to should on your wife or husband. And I expect this is going to help your spouse enjoy being married a whole lot more, too.

Assume Love. Expect Love. Look for Third Alternatives. Not because you should, but because you still want to enjoy being with the most important person in your world and feel the way you felt about yourself when you vowed to stay the course through whatever life brought the two of you.

If you have tried these three tools and want some more ideas on how to apply them to your current frustration, I want to help. Let me know what's up by leaving a comment or sending me an email. There is a real good chance lots of others reading this blog have the same problem and are just waiting for someone to ask about it.

April 19, 2011

This Mess of a Marriage is Not My Fault!

This mess of a marriage we have is NOT my fault. Why should I be the one to change?Wife, glaring

I have heard this question from people who do not see why it would help to Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives. I have even asked it myself before that horrible day that opened my eyes. So perhaps you ask it, too.

Here's the thing. Should is the wrong word. When you ask why you should be the one, you run face-first into all those issues of fairness. If you suffer the pain of the messed-up marriage, surely your mate should suffer the pain of fixing it. It's only fair.

What if it could be unfair but in your favor? It can. Instead of asking why it should be you, you ask, "How can I be the one who is happy with this marriage?" Can you really accomplish this without forcing your partner to change? You can. So what if it's not your fault things got to this point? You have the power to choose to Enjoy Being Married a whole lot more.

And this is why I write this blog and offer more resources, including a newsletter, on the Enjoy Being Married website.

March 29, 2011

Not True! Marriage Ends When...

I just read this quote about marriage in the Times of Malta:

Marriage does not end with divorce but the moment a couple stops loving and respecting each other, Michael and Juliet Mifsud believe.

They are a happily married couple, married for 16 years. They are both Catholics, but they favor a divorce law, the subject of a referendum in Malta yesterday.

I do not disagree with the Mifsuds about the value of a divorce option. What I am hopping up and down about is their notion that the moment a couple stops loving and respecting each other marks the end of their marriage.

This drives me mad because I see it so often. Couples stop loving and respecting each other all the time. The ones who believe loving and respecting lie outside their control give up when it happens. The rest learn how to deal with it.

Awesome Quora answer tweet

Someone asked this very question on Quora last week, and the good folks at Quora called my answer "awesome" on Twitter. Even so, you will see Quora users voted up an anonymous answer that includes this: "Life isn't a fairytale, and not all love is forever."

No question about this. Not all love is forever. But know that restoring love (and respect) may take no effort, just a different perspective. Know that 80% of couples who stay married through a time when they are unhappy or very unhappy find themselves happy or very happy five years later.

While you feel no love or respect or feel you receive no love or respect, marriage can feel awful. If you do nothing, you may squander an awful lot of your happiness and your kids' security. But do not fall into the trap I fell into. Divorce is not the only option here. If you can think of no others, reach out, because they exist.

I believe marriage ends when one of you will no longer consider reconnecting. You can be this one, or you can be the one who believes love is not just something you feel, it is something you do.

March 28, 2011

Are You Sorry You Married?

Are you sorry you said "I do" to the man or woman who shares your bed? None of us has any idea what we are getting into when we marry. Some get "for better." Some get "for worse." Some get "richer." Some get "poorer." Some get "sickness." Some get "health."

Some of us get confused. I sure did.

Confused about Why I am Unhappy

I married a man with a chronic illness, but I knew about it before we married. Even so, his illness affected both our lives. In my confusion, I let it affect them a lot more than necessary. If he blamed his illness for not wanting to attend a dinner party or learn to dance, I let my desire turn to resentment. I stayed home.

You know what I discovered after he died? I stayed home because doing those things I wanted to do would be uncomfortable for me, a physically inept introvert, and I wanted him by my side to protect me from discomfort.

He did not need me to stay home when he did; both of us traveled for work, just like grownups. His illness might have made those activities more uncomfortable for him, but you know what? We went camping and hiking. We drove 1,200 or 2,400 miles at a time. We carried our sailboat to the roof of our car when we wanted to get out on the water. When he wanted to do something, he did it in spite of his illness.

He avoided saying no because he had a ready-made explanation for what he did not want to do. And I avoided doing slightly scary things I wanted to try because I had a ready-made explanation, too: "My husband does not want to."

If you are sorry you married because your husband or wife will not join you in some activity or interest, how will your situation be any better after you separate, after you give up your shared interests and your shared memories?

Confused about Addiction

Some folks are sorry they married because the person they married has become addicted to alcohol. They get confused, too.

They recognize the addiction has taken away their husband's or wife's ability to do what they intend to do. Instead of dealing with this, they do what they can to prevent the consequences. They deliver phony excuses to employers or relatives. They ride in the car with a drunk driver to avoid angering him. They stay away from home or go to bed early to avoid seeing and hearing what they don't want to see and hear.

Then they lecture, or they beg. And they let themselves off the hook. Nothing they do to harm their relationship, including avoiding and lecturing and begging, deals nearly the blow addiction does, so they cannot be called on it. They may not even see their behavior would be a problem in a healthy marriage.

If you are sorry you married because your husband or wife became an addict or alcoholic, how will your mate ever find the strength to do the hard work of recovery when there are few consequences to remaining addicted and your role in their life has turned into scolding parent instead of partner?

Confused because You Could Have Had a V-8

Some folks are sorry they married because the person they fell in love with and married feels rather ordinary after a few years and someone younger, better looking, or wealthier flirts with them. Maybe they even have an affair that lifts them out of the ordinary for a while.

Ordinary, by definition, is whatever you encounter day after day. And both flirting and affairs, by definition, allow you to experience another person outside the context of ordinary life.

If you are sorry you married because the husband or wife you fell in love with has become an ordinary part of your life, how will you keep the next person in your life from becoming an ordinary part of it? And why do you think doing this will be easier with a stranger than with someone you already know so well?

Confused about Divorce

When I was sorry I married, I fantasized about life after marriage. I imagined new people in my life who would want to do the things I wanted to do. I pictured somehow paying for services like lawn care and home repairs and laundry on half the income. I would be free from childcare responsibilities on the nights when our son was with his father.

I did not divorce. My husband died. Our son was spared the difficult life of shuttling between two locations, two sets of rules, two ever further apart views of how life should be lived, two sets of secrets. Not that losing a father is any better, but I was spared the guilt of damage I had not considered while rehearsing my future.

I had to work awfully hard to pay for the lawn care, laundry, household repairs, and child care, a lot harder than I had ever worked. It did not leave a lot of time to invest in new friendships or new interests.

Clear about Love

Eleven years later, I married again. And I do not believe I will ever be sorry I did. I know now to expect love and only love. Some love comes in the form of shared interests. Some comes in the form of yardwork or laundry. Some comes in the form of chicken soup for your cold or breakfast in bed. Some comes in the hard work of overcoming an addiction or a physical limitation. Some comes in the form of great, adoring sex. But the moment you specify any one of these, you leave just a small crack for love to come in, instead of throwing the window wide open.

I hope you are never sorry you married.

March 22, 2011

For Better or for Worse? Married to a Prisoner

For better or for worse? In sickness or in health? How about at home or in prison? How do you sustain your marriage while one of you serves time?

I had never really thought about this question until the radio show Hip Hop Justice followed me on Twitter. Now I will get to discuss the topic on the show with its host, A. Scott Washington, J.D., an expert in restorative justice and the re-entry of former prisoners to their families, communities, and neighborhoods.

Join us tomorrow (Wednesday, 3/23) at 8 pm EDT at or on 94.9 FM in New York's Hudson Valley. The show is on from 7 to 9 pm EDT. I will be on around 8 pm.

Dr. Washington grew up in LA and joined the Crips Street Gang at age 13, has been convicted of multiple felony offenses, and began the rehabilitation process 21 years ago. Today he is Program Chair and Assistant Professor of the Criminal and Social Justice Program at the University of St. Francis in Joliet Illinois.

Please add your comments below right away to share your experiences with a spouse's or parent's time in prison or the county jail. Or with keeping your marriage strong while living apart for a military deployment, career move, or schooling. If you want your comment kept private, just mention this, and I will not publish it.

I share Dr. Washington's goal of restorative justice, repairing the harm caused by crime, and his goal of re-entry of former prisoners to their families, communities, and neighborhoods.

The phone-in number for this music and talk radio show is (815)768-4883.

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March 20, 2011

Congratulations, Tish and Billy Ray Cyrus

Congratulations on your 17+ years of marriage and on your decision, almost six months after filing, to call off your divorce. May you find ways to forgive each other and to find new roles in each other's lives. Not easy for anyone, surely much harder for those who must live their lives in public.

May others on the verge of divorce find courage and inspiration in your decision. And may you still find warmth in each other's arms many years from now.

January 31, 2011

Bad Days Happen in Every Marriage

When I get upset with my husband, I sometimes come to Assume Love to remember what I'm supposed to do about it. Here are two of the quotes I find very helpful.

Twice now, I have been blessed to have love in my life. Love includes some side benefits that lighten the load of living, but when we specify which ones with our expectations, I've learned we drive away the love. [August 2006]

Your spouse may well be the single most important person in your life. If you can't get him or her to agree with you, it feels scary. If you're human, you withdraw from your spouse to reduce the fear or you argue louder to get the agreement you need to feel safe.

So, how do you skip all the usual pain?

Jump sides and, TOGETHER, look for the Third Alternative that gives both of you everything you like about what you're arguing for and nothing of what you're arguing against.

In other words, win every argument, and be a hero to your spouse at the same time. [January 2009]

I hope they help you through your bad days, too.

January 26, 2011

Go Meet Your Friends for a Beer!

Agi Smith is interviewing folks going through divorce for the Huffington Post. Yesterday's interview was with a NJ man who now must fly to another state every other weekend to maintain a relationship with his 10-year-old son.

He says he absolutely, absolutely needs love in his life but oddly misses nothing about his marriage except what his son has lost. What he claims to like best about being unmarried is that he can meet friends for a beer after work, watch what he wants on TV, and listen to his choice of music.

We all need love in our lives. If you are lucky enough to still be married, please go meet your friends for a beer! Not to escape the person you pledged to love until death but to remain the person he or she pledged to love until death or to become a better one.

A sure route to a ruined marriage is to do what your mate wants and resent it. Diane Sollee of says habitual avoidance of conflict is the number one cause of divorce.

Should you change the music in your home or grab the TV remote? No. Try a couple of iPods while the two of you cook together or work on a jigsaw puzzle or polish your shoes. Record the shows only one of you likes, or find them on Hulu, and watch while the other is off at the gym or the supermarket. Or find a new shared hobby that's so much fun you don't even miss the TV.

January 18, 2011

Stay Married for the Kids?

When a marriage grows distant or unsatisfying, one partner or the other may ask, "Should I stay for the kids?"

Sure. If you stay married for the sake of your children, they will avoid the overscheduled life of a child of divorce. They will find more money in their education account or better food on the table thanks to the economies of a shared household. And they will probably manage their aggressiveness and sexuality better during the teen years.

Much better, though, to fall back in love for the children. You spare them all of your resentment. You confirm their view of their other parent as loving and worthy of love. You show them how to succeed at marriage. You demonstrate how to receive love with open arms, how to grow in concert with another human being, how to let yourself be influenced without giving up yourself, how to love another without living in fear of abandonment. You give your future grandkids a pair of secure arms to hold them.

To fall back in love, let go of everything you think you know about what someone should do if they love you. Take nothing for granted. Look for every opportunity to feel grateful. Look for every opportunity to feel generous. Look for every opportunity to feel gracious.

Do the things you dream of doing if you divorced. Lose the weight. Quit smoking. Get more exercise. Take a course. Spend some of your hard-earned money on a cruise or a trip to Tuscany. Schedule a weekly visit to a spa. Sing. Serve chocolate chip pancakes with mashed bananas for dinner. Dance. Lift your spirit, because love flows in more easily when you feel healthy, happy, and alive. Lift it while you're still in the vicinity of the person your kids most want you to fall in love with.

January 9, 2011

Husbands and Sad Movies

Do you cry at sad movies? In an odd series of scientific studies in Israel, scientists have discovered that a chemical in women's sad tears literally turns men off.

The women's tears were collected while watching sad movies. Men were then given tears or saline solution to smell. Neither they nor the researcher applying the little pads to their upper lips knew which they got.

The men could not detect any difference in the smell. But the sad tears reduced their sexual arousal and, apparently, nothing else about them. They did not change their ratings of attractive women in photos as sad or empathetic. They did not increase the men's own sadness or empathy while watching sad movies, either.

But physiological indicators and even fMRI's of their brains agreed with their self-assessments: the women in the photos and movies aroused them less when the pads under their noses contained women's sad tears.

Curious, no? So, sad movies might be a really bad choice for your romantic date nights.

But what's the deal with make-up sex? Is stopping the tears a turn-on? Or are angry and hurt tears different from sad tears? And is the effect of women's tears on female partners any different? What do you think? Leave me a comment.

December 22, 2010

How to Make Christmas Truly Miserable

Here are some ways people make themselves miserable at Christmas time, just in case you would like to avoid them and boost your happiness level:

  • Ask your very busy husband or wife to join you for caroling or Aunt Maggie's Christmas Eve eggnog tasting without mentioning that sharing such events with your mate matters far more to you than a pile of gifts under the tree or help with the gift shopping. We all have different Love Languages, as Gary Chapman explains so well. Don't keep yours a secret.

  • Point out the odd angle of the reindeer when your husband invites you to admire his outdoor decorating. Husbands want to look good in your eyes. Emerson Eggerichs points out they find it much easier to show you their love when they know they have your respect.

  • Stand near the mistletoe silently waiting for a chance to kiss your wife, who's helping your nieces wrap their gifts while baking cookies for the folks at the nursing home (another Love Language mismatch). When she heads back toward the kitchen, ask, "What's the matter with you? Are you blind?! Get back here and do the mistletoe thing, you miserable excuse for a wife!" John Gottman's research shows harsh startups are one of the biggest clues your marriage is on its way down the tubes. The road to divorce is almost never a happy one. Don't go there.

  • Instead of telling your life partner how happy you are that your friends and family all eagerly agreed to the invitation to your place on Christmas Eve, share the news by handing over a to-do list. This way, you can be sure not to receive the active-constructive response that Shelly Gable's research shows to strengthen relationships.

  • Measure how good your Christmas is by how closely it matches the ones you remember fondly from your childhood (or, worse, your first marriage). Don't allow your mate's strengths, your financial circumstances, or your one shared Love Language to shape something new and different that brings the two of you closer together. Tap your foot impatiently until you get what you want and you will be quite unhappy. When you expect something particular, you cannot Expect Love and enjoy the fullness and richness of your marriage.

  • Grumble to your spouse all day Saturday about how too much is made of Christmas in a country of so many religions. Or complain that Christ's birthday has lost all its meaning. "In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)." Grousing's effects on us are a bit less enticing.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas. Let me know what you do to make it even more delightful for yourself, whether you observe the holiday or not.

November 10, 2010

Facing the Holidays Short on Cash

Money, especially a shortage of money, may wreck your marriage. Holidays can ramp up the pressure.

If money comes between you and the most important person in your life this month, stop yourself before you lash out, become secretive, or avoid your spouse to avoid a confrontation. This is your chance to build a stronger, lasting bond. Don't blow it.

Holidays celebrate love: God's love, your love for your children, your love for each other. Love costs nothing. It needs no gift wrap. It requires no alcohol, no roast, no stamps.

Stay home from the mall, the Post Office, the supermarket. Stay home and write from your heart to those who matter in your life. Or record your memories of those you love. Love is what matters, no money needed.

October 4, 2010

Women Outearning their Husbands

The recession hit men's jobs harder than women's. As a result, a trend we were already experiencing increased even faster. Wives found themselves the main — or only — income earners for their families. And many men found themselves in the awkward or happy position of being provided for, perhaps for the first time since they left home.

Did it happen in your home?

We see ourselves and our mates differently when the rules change, but differently need not mean negatively. Keep looking for every opportunity for gratitude. It will strengthen your marriage. Unmarried women need to work, too; pay close attention to the non-financial blessings of having a mate when the weight on your shoulders feels heavy. All men find it tough to be out of work or earning less; when you feel frustrated, take note of how much easier life is with a partner and how many other reasons your wife has to respect the man she married.

August 8, 2010

Why Do Women Say Cruel Things to their Husbands?

Sometimes: Because they fail to recognize how much their admiration means to their men, and the words just slip out.

And other times: Because they hurt so much that they want to sting with their words, illogically hoping the response will be a loving one.

August 7, 2010

What I Like About Being Married

I think it's great, at times of extreme stress, to have someone who remembers who I am and what I believe when the stress is not there.

July 31, 2010

Four Ways to Look at Your Current Mess

Let's say you intended to stay home with your babies, but now your full-time job is the only way to pay the rent and buy the groceries. Or perhaps you have a burning passion to launch a business, but it is not practical right now, because you want to be available to get your mate to dialysis appointments. Or you are this close to a college degree, but you cannot register for courses next semester, because your wife's mother is gravely ill, four states away.

It is a mess. You don't like it. Your mate will get hurt if you do as you please. People will look down their noses at you. But you feel frustrated, maybe even cornered. So you snarl. And you lose your wife's respect. Or you drive your husband back into dead silence, with no communication.

You have four ways to look at your mess:

  1. Marriage is a trap. Your mate lost a job, got sick, or made a promise to a relative, and now you are stuck picking up the pieces.

  2. Marriage is hard work. Sometimes you must sacrifice, but your turn to be on the receiving end will come.

  3. Marriage means commitment and commitment means putting yourself second. You will get your reward in the afterlife.

  4. Marriage has nothing to do with your mess. Married or not, you would do the best you could for your kids and you would lend a helping hand to those in your life who need one. Marriage is not the source of the problem. Instead, it is your best opportunity for love and support as you look for a creative way around your current obstacles.

You choose. And what you choose determines how you feel about the mess, about your mate, and about your future.

July 17, 2010

TV Star Caught on Set Fighting with His Wife

Many thanks to my son for spotting this and to for letting me share it with you.

Cartoon from xkcd. Caption reads 1981: An audio recorder on the set captures Fred Rogers fighting with his wife. Speech bubbles: 'Sometimes when we disagree, I feel frustrated. But I never forget how lucky I am to have you in my family. Always remember how special you are.' Black screen with [No video] behind bubbles. Check the image's title for comment from the cartoonist.

July 12, 2010

I'm Not Happy

"I'm not happy." How awful to realize this, awful enough to make you want to make a big change, like leaving the person you imagined could make you happy for the rest of your life.

"I'm scared silly" would be different. So would "I'm really angry, and I'm not going to take it any more."

"Not happy" carries no danger, no adrenalin racing through your veins, no cowering when you hear the car in the driveway or the pop-top on a beer can. "Not happy" conveys a deep loss, something important missing, an unspoken promise quietly broken.

When "not happy" hits your marriage, try this. Do the things you would do to restore your happiness if you had no spouse. Skip the ones that violate your vows, because a lack of integrity really gets in the way of happiness, but don't overlook any that violate only your mate's expectations.

Tell yourself you will leave as soon as happiness returns, if you like, but not a minute sooner. Happiness first, happiness in spite of your sad marriage.

Dance. Hit a karaoke bar. Head to the beach. Buy something beautiful. Climb a mountain. Write poetry. Ride a bike. Eat chocolate, really, really good dark chocolate with outrageous fillings and a gazillion calories. Have dinner with old friends. Help Habitat for Humanity build a house. Spoil your dog. Keep at it until you feel genuinely happy again.

And perhaps, like me, you will find you like your wife or husband a whole lot more when you feel happy, much, much more than you could possibly like anyone you just met.

July 6, 2010

We Did Not Know Any Better

From a disturbing report on All Things Considered, right before the start of this year's Smart Marriages Conference:

"Many of these parents are children of divorce -- born in the early '80s when divorce rates peaked. Today, these parents say they'd rather raise a child alone or with multiple partners than risk putting that child through a divorce."

I want to give every one of you parents a huge hug and beg your forgiveness. My generation just did not know any better.

We told you people just grow apart, fall out of love, need to leave to find happiness, because we did not know any better. We grew up on mythical TV families, then came of age to Free Love and No-Fault Divorce.

We told you partners cheat on each other because they are rotten apples and "once a cheater, always a cheater," because we did not know any better. We had no idea how to stay close enough to resist temptation or how to mend such a huge mistake once it was made.

Things change. With events like the Smart Marriages Conference in Orlando this week, and with all the classes, books, videos, and retreats offered all year 'round by those who speak there, there are better options for your children than our divorces or this new single-parent-from-infancy game plan.

Marriage education changes lives. If you can get to Orlando next Sunday at 4 pm, you can attend your choice of 90-minute seminars with well-known therapists, authors, and researchers for just $15 and stay for a marriage film festival.

June 27, 2010

More on Turning Disagreements into Shared Victories

How did you do with yesterday's challenge to solve a toothpaste cap disagreement?

A Third Alternative is a solution to your disagreement that will make both of you feel respected, loved, and in control of what matters to you.

You create shared specs for your Third Alternative. They include the outcomes each of you values from your initial alternatives. They protect both of you from anything you dislike or fear about the other's alternatives. And they are not as hard to find as most expect.

To help get you there, here are some questions designed to get you free of the conventions, customs, and rules-of-thumb that normally make life easier but make brainstorming harder.

  • How many of something a couple should have
    Two toothpaste tubes? Two sinks in one bathroom? Two drawers to toss the toothpaste into so the other doesn't see whether yours is open or closed?

  • When something should be done
    Remove the cap once and store the tube in something that does the work of the cap without the effort of the cap? (no laughing at your mate's idea of effort, please)

  • Where something should be done
    Store your open toothpaste tube in the refrigerator and brush in the kitchen sink?

  • Who should do it
    One of you opens and closes the toothpaste tube for both of you?

  • How something should be done
    Toothpaste in a pump bottle or a jar? Baking soda for brushing? Preloaded travel toothbrushes that let you squeeze the handle for toothpaste?

  • Whether both of you need to get your benefits at the same time
    Leave the cap off in oyster months only, because there are more bugs in May through August?

  • Whether both of you need to get your benefits from the same thing
    Two tubes? Or worth it to handle the cap your spouse's way in exchange for having the dish towel hung your way?

  • Whether both of you need to get your benefits in the same place
    A second bathroom where one of you could brush? An open tube on the sink and a close one put away neatly?

  • Whether a product and its packaging are inseparable
    A clean tennis ball in place of a cap? Toothpaste in a pastry bag? Toothpaste in a salt shaker?

  • How long you would continue to feel silly doing something odd if it made both of you happy
    Shared happy secrets strengthen the bond between you. If houseguests notice your method, just grin and say, "It makes us happy." You might even want to stick a photo of the two of you sharing a happy moment right next to your solution.

  • Whether any of the things you two didn't list are slipping back into your specs just because you haven't yet heard of an option that doesn't include this feature
    A flip-top tube that lets you flip the cap open or unscrew it? Liquid toothpaste? Powdered toothpaste? A toothpaste tube sterilizer? A hands-free toothpaste dispenser? They all exist.

  • Whether expense is really a limitation, when you consider the possibility of this one issue becoming the thorn that pushes you over the edge into paying for a divorce lawyer, two homes, and all those extra accommodations for your kids
    Most toothpaste solutions don't cost a lot, but few couples ever try to figure out how they could get an extra room, an apartment in the city, or space for an annoying hobby until they get to the point where separate homes and a divorce is the only thing they can think of. That's sad.

If these questions give you even more ideas for a toothpaste conflict, or perhaps a bigger disagreement in your marriage, please share them with us. You might save someone's marriage.

June 26, 2010

It's Disgustingly Normal to Disagree

Married couples disagree. The ones who stay married the longest disagree just as much as the ones who divorce.

Disagreements become angry battles or festering resentments only when you fall into the trap of thinking a disagreement requires a choice between your two points of view.

You start out thinking Option A vs. Option B. If you argue for Option A or Option B, you lose. Jump the net instead. Offer your mate all the desirable benefits of both options and none of the feared negatives of either. Find the Third Alternative.

How? First, you must find out which benefits of A and B each of you find desirable and which you fear. Skip this step, and you'll be tossing around alternatives for weeks. You have to ask. You have to be ready to hear the answers and treat them all as a given for your Option C.

Once you know the specs, you brainstorm. Together. Without critiquing each other. Just create ideas, the wilder the better, until one matches your specs.

A simple example, the toothpaste cap: on or off between brushings? Whichever side you're on, what are the benefits you actually enjoy from doing it your way? Include only the ones that really matter to you, not the ones you would pull out for an advertising campaign. And what truly distresses you about the other way?

If you're a cap-off person, imagine your mate has a phobia about bugs getting into the toothpaste. No chance at all of any bugs in the toothpaste is the design spec, along with all the things you like about keeping the cap off.

If you're a cap-on person, imagine your mate simply cannot tolerate tiny twist caps and will come to bed miserable and start off every day in agony after twisting that cap. No twisting goes in your design spec, along with whatever matters to you about keeping the cap on.

In your comment, list as many ideas as you can come up with to keep both of you happy, feeling in control of your bathroom, and certain you are loved and respected by your mate, at least on this issue.

Got three or four ideas already? Tomorrow I will tell you how to come up with even more. But first I want to hear your great ideas. Please post them in the comments. Thanks!

June 17, 2010

When You Want More from Your Partner

I love this in Steven Stosny's recent blog post:

"Your best chance of changing your partner's behavior is to change what he/she reacts to in you. Your partner is likely to respond in kind to your behavior, whether it is loving, compassionate, and supportive or resentful, demanding, and critical.

"But regardless of how your partner responds, you will feel more authentic and remain true to yourself if you behave like the partner you most want to be."

April 28, 2010

Angry Mate? TV Show has Answers

The Discovery Health Channel on cable TV will be showing Enraged this week, which "follows the dramatic and compelling stories of two families close to the breaking point because of a loved one's explosive anger." Steven Stosny appears, with a glimpse into his powerful Boot Camp for couples dealing with anger.

The schedule:
Sunday, May 2 at 10 pm
Monday, May 3 at 12 am
Tuesday, May 4 at 10 am
Wednesday, May 5 at 12 am
Saturday, May 8 at 12 pm and 9 pm
Sunday, May 9 at 1 am and 4 pm

No one wants to be enraged at their spouse or to have to walk on eggshells. Stosny's got answers. I'll be watching the show. If you do, too, let me know what you think.

April 17, 2010

The Temporary Marriage, through a Child's Eyes

The marvelous Pam Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation writes today about divorce through a child's eyes. Pam is the mother of an adorable five-year-old now. Check out the photo of Pam at that same age, just before her father decided to find himself, minus the wife and kid, and how long it took Pam to find herself again as a consequence.

She doesn't mention if her father ever found himself, or whether what he eventually found was actually less than who he had been while keeping his commitment to the woman he married and the child he fathered.

Pam's post is part of Hugh McLeod's Remember Who You Are series. Life with other people gets difficult at times. It's tempting to think if we offload those other people, life will get better. This is true only when we are in the clutches of someone dangerous, and none of us is dumb enough to leave children behind then.

Better to remember who we are. We are not just frustrated or confused or uhappy. We are also forgiving, compassionate, fair, and the product of all the memories we share with those other people and all the promises we have made to them. Capable of growth. And able to reach out to others for help growing in a new direction.

My April 28th teleclass is all about Finding More Love in the Same Old Marriage. Join us if a temporary marriage is not what you had in mind.

April 12, 2010

Are You Being Taken Advantage Of?

Feel like you've got too much cooking and cleaning to do? Too much grass to mow? Too many chins to wipe? Too much responsibility for bringing in income? Wishing your husband or wife would pick up more of the load?

There are two ways to split responsibility with another adult. One is to divide it all in half. This is next to impossible, as the two of you look at the same situation and see differing responsibilities. And most of us do a terrible job at figuring out how many diaper changes equate to an oil change. You almost certainly end up resentful if you look at it this way.

The other way is to divide it into what you would need to continue doing if your wife or husband died tonight and what you do for love. You get to choose on any given day how much to do for love. And you can call on your mate at any time for help figuring out how to do more easily whatever you would need to do whether married or not. Works a lot better. You can't be taken advantage of.

February 25, 2010

Great Real-Life Example of a Third Alternative

Writer, speaker, comedian Patty K and her guy Joe ran into one of those "what do we do now?" choices recently. She enthusiastically encouraged him to go after a dream of his only to find it landed her in her idea of a nightmarish lifestyle.

Should Joe give up his dream? Should she tolerate being miserable? Did he have to choose between love and an unhappy companion? Did Patty have to choose between love and privacy? No. Our either-or decisions generally reflect only the limits of our vision, and these two have lots of vision between them.

I invite you to visit Patty K's blog and read about their Third Alternative and how it's already changing their lives.

February 24, 2010

Stop! Before You Communicate Anything...

Pay attention to Steven Stosny's wonderful advice about using at home the communication techniques you learned in the therapist's office or in a book.

In Marriage Problems: How Communication Techniques Can Make Them Worse, Stosny writes:

Early in your relationship you chose to feel connected, just as, if you're thinking about communication techniques now, you're choosing to feel disconnected.

Stop and think:

Don't think of how to get your partner to do what you want or, if you prefer the euphemism, how to "communicate" with him/her. Rather, ask yourself these questions:

Do you want to feel emotionally connected with your partner?
How curious are you to learn his/her perspective?
Do you care how he/she feels right now?
What do you love and value about your partner?

Instead of manipulating your partner, how about reconnecting and looking together for a Third Alternative that provides what you need without manipulation?

February 22, 2010

From Tiger Woods' Announcement: 48 Words We All Need to Hear

"I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled."

At some point in your marriage, there is a high probability you will reach a point where temptation hits at the exact same moment you feel you have worked hard to make money your spouse takes for granted, worked hard to care for a mate too ill to meet your sexual needs, worked hard to stretch a dollar year after year for a partner who won't even buy you a bunch of flowers on your anniversary.

You just might feel entitled. You might even feel getting what you deserve would reduce the tension in your marriage. And you might run straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by.

Deal with your resentment long before you walk into that temptation.

Find a Third Alternative to giving or doing so much that you open yourself to temptation, an alternative that works for both of you, one well within the boundaries of marriage. Don't exchange that tension, that feeling of deserving something more because the effort in your relationship is out of balance, for the even worse tension of being out of integrity with your own values and the cause of enormous pain for the man or woman at the center of your life.

February 10, 2010

How Much is Your Nurturing Worth?

Are you the sort of person who takes good care of your mate? Brings a fresh box of tissues bedside during the flu? Gets up to make breakfast every morning? Washes, matches, and lovingly folds socks? Shows up for a goodbye kiss at the door? Fusses over the kids to make sure they feel securely cared for?

How much nurturing do you feel you deserve in return?

Great kindness is a character strength. Exercising a character strength impresses other folks, but it also makes us feel really good about ourselves and what we know how to do. It is its own reward. At least it is until we're feeling needy and start keeping score.

When we keep score, we get it wrong if we expect as much nurturing as we have given. Our mates possess--and feel good about using--different strengths. What we get in return may be creativity or integrity or perseverance, and all the benefits they generate.

My husband, Ed, has the world's greatest sense of humor. He knows how to lighten a mood and how to approach work playfully. I could never offer him as much good humor in return. It's not one of my top strengths.

Which strengths of character does your spouse use to express love and concern for you? Are they same ones you use, or are they different?

February 7, 2010

The Preventability of Divorce

Whenever I declare that there are things worth learning about how to succeed at marriage, I risk offending good friends and even relatives who have divorced. Divorce is often painful, almost always life-disrupting. How cruel to even suggest it wasn't necessary and the result of a bad match-up of partners.

I was thinking about this earlier today and how similar it is to a business failure. There is a point in any business at which almost nothing can be done to stop its bankruptcy or its failure to successfully reorganize even with the protection of the bankruptcy laws.

Sometimes that point comes in the first month of business, when someone releases a product that makes your brand new buggy whip no longer relevant to most buyers or when terrorists blow up a building in the neighborhood of your new restaurant.

Sometimes it comes when an unprecedented season of forest fires spares your store, only to fill it later with mud and rain and ash during a promotion you planned for months.

But sometimes it comes before you open for business, when you might have done something about it if you knew better. If your teachers and mentors had ever talked to you about the difference between profit and cash flow or the importance of market research and test marketing, you might have been prepared for what sank it. Your legislators and government could have alerted you to laws that made your plans a lot more expensive than you ever guessed.

Or that point of inevitable failure may come when you fail to recognize a turning point and change course. If only you had thought to bring on a team of advisors or hire experienced executives when your business took off faster than you expected, presenting you with non-stop challenges well beyond your current abilities, the business failure might not have happened. If only someone had told you that it's much, much easier to hire on customer-facing employees with an inate urge to make people happy than to train anyone else to provide great customer service to angry customers, that quality control blip would not have been fatal to your business.

I do not in any way blame anyone for walking away when marriage becomes more painful than they can bear. I was ready to do it myself in my first marriage. I do not blame anyone for staking out their separate, disconnected territory in a marriage they don't want to end but can't bear continuing as is. It is how my parents survived 50+ years together. And I surely don't expect anyone to stick around and endure torture or even the threat of physical violence in their own home.

I just don't want anyone else to get to any of those points because they didn't know what to do back when it wasn't yet inevitable.

February 4, 2010

Big, Hairy Problems

When you're facing a big, hairy problem, you can curl up in a little ball and beg your spouse to solve it for you. Or you can come up with a possible solution and try to talk your spouse into joining you in implementing it. Most of the time, both of these will just leave you with a big, hairy problem and an unhappy relationship.

Since, of course, you deserve better, these will probably also leave you angry--and prone to saying things that take a long time to repair.

While you are in fetal position or flailing your arms on the bed, your spouse will likely suggest a few things you could do to tame the problem. When you hear them, it will become clear to you that you married a crazy person, who is now riding your big, hairy problem like a rodeo rider on a bull and coming right at you. It's not a pretty moment, but it pretty much comes with the wedding rings.

Is there another way? Yes. It is called the Third Alternative.

Two Scary Alternatives and One that Works

Sure, the big, hairy problem often poses as big a threat to your spouse as to you. After all, you are a couple. Whether your spouse is blithely unworried about the problem, scared silly and feigning helplessness, or just rattling off solutions you know would never work for you, the answer is the same. If you don't agree on what to do about a big, hairy problem, you need a Third Alternative.

Alternative One is whatever you propose, whether it's hiding under the covers while your spouse makes everything OK, drawing up a plan together, or implementing your own battle plan. What we know about Alternative One is that it pleases you, but there's something about it so dreadful to your spouse that no amount of love for you could make it palatable.

Alternative Two is whatever your spouse hopes will happen, whether it's that he or she can ignore the problem, postpone dealing with it a while longer, or get you to carry out his or her battle plans.

Just a small note here. There would be no Alternative Two--and no issue between you--unless something in Alternative One scares the bejeebers out of your spouse and something in Alternative Two has the same effect on you.

What Does a Third Alternative Look Like?

The Third Alternative is not ever Alternative One or Alternative Two, so don't waste your breath arguing for or against them. Leave yours at the door. Walk away and back into your spouse's arms, because it will take two of you to find the Third Alternative.

Here's what the Third Alternative looks like. It has at least as much benefit for you as Alterrnative One, but none of the OMGs of Alternative Two, the stuff you just know you couldn't do or won't do or don't want to do or find just plain icky. It lets you protect your spouse from whatever it is about Alternative One that scares your spouse. And it lets you give your spouse the moon and the stars--all the benefits of Alternative Two and maybe even more.

Fake Bacon (It's always about bacon, isn't it?)

If you're not clear about the two sides, consider Raven, who is panicked about their financial crisis, and Mike, who won't give up buying high-priced Beggin' Strips for the dog during belt-tightening, not even for a lower-priced substitute.

If Raven argues with him about price, she will never find the Third Alternative. It's evident he cares about price and values the price reduction of the substitute, but if he's still not on board, it's because there is a big negative associated with not having Beggin' Strips. For Raven, there is no positive associated with not having Beggin' Strips. She's interested only in saving money, and it looked to her like this was a place to save some.

Their Third Alternative saves money, which they both want AND includes having Beggin' Strips for the dog, which Mike needs. Raven could debate the importance of these treats for the dog, but it would signal she doesn't trust his judgment. Sane men don't fight for fake bacon unless it matters. Far better to work together to find other areas where they can cut costs and to find free or less expensive sources of Beggin' Strips.

Bigger than Bacon

Your big, hairy problem might be a lot bigger and hairier than buying Beggin' Strips when you can't pay your electric bill. You might be choosing between chemotherapy and living like you're dying: windsurfing in a hurricane, bungee-jumping, giving all your money away. Or the two of you may be trying to figure out whether to take one six-figure job in Akron or two jobs that pay half that in Raleigh, where you will be close to your aging father. Or whether it is crazy, in this economy, to take time out to get a PhD at the age of 44.

The Third Alternative can only be found by laying out both sets of valued positives and both sets of feared negatives and brainstorming together (or even with other people) to find a way to accommodate all of them. And the only way to get honest participation in this from a spouse is to (1) stop arguing for whatever you propose, (2) stop arguing against whatever he proposes, and when it's clear you have done this, (3) offer to give him all of what he needs, (4) share what you need to get and avoid, then (5) ask gently for what he needs to get and avoid, and (6) start brainstorming together, with no criticism of any suggestion, until you find one that qualifies as a Third Alternative.

Your Turn

Have you and your mate resolved any big, hairy problems? Or is there one on the table right now? Let me know in the comments. Thanks!

February 1, 2010

We Need to Stop Spending So Much Money

Having trouble communicating about the issues in your marriage? You may not be speaking the same language.

"We need to stop spending so much money." It's a simple statement of an opinion, yet an utterly uninviting, unencouraging one. We could use some alternatives.

"I'm looking forward to doing a lot of things together after the kids are grown and we're retired, so could we please brainstorm a few ways to put more money into our retirement account?" [A better approach, especially if your spouse values quality time together.]

"May I repair this for you instead of getting a new one?" [A good approach for a loved one who sees love in doing things for each other.]

"I want to shower you with great gifts -- not a bunch of flowers, but an entire garden, not a new comforter for the bed, but an entire new bedroom, not new gadget for the kitchen, but a kitchen where you'll feel right at home. I want to buy a house for you, and I'd like your help to think of ways to afford it." [An inviting way to appeal to spouse who loves to receive gifts and views them as sign of love.]

"I want to spend more long, loving Saturdays in bed with you. Where could we cut costs on stuff that hardly matters, so I can spend less time working and more time with you?" [Works for a mate who especially enjoys the physical side of love.]

"Let's skip the club this Friday so we can get up early on Saturday and play tennis. I love watching your serve." [Works if you two have gotten into an expensive rut and your spouse eats up your loving respect.]

What would work with your mate? Let me know in a comment. Thanks!

December 19, 2009

How to Feel Close Again - Quickly

Thanks to the always informative Smart Marriages newsletter, I have a great link to share with you today, a downloadable version of the cover story in January's Scientific American Mind.

Research shows some simple exercises can make you feel closer to just about anyone. I recommend you stick to trying them with your spouse.

December 2, 2009

Loving and Compassionate? Not Right Now!

Steven Stosny gets it. His take on resolving marriage battles changes everything, whether your marriage is abusive or just stressed out.

In Dr. Stosny's November 30th blog post, he looked at our two options for dealing with this pair of competing thoughts (cognitive dissonance), so common for us married folks:

"I am a loving and compassionate person.
Yet I am not loving and compassionate to you at this moment."

Option 1 (likely to lead to an authentic sense of self and a better relationship):

"Therefore, I must try harder to understand your perspective and sympathize with any discomfort or pain that underlies it."

Option 2 (likely to lead to self-righteousness or a victim identity and failure at any attempts at an intimate relationship):

"Therefore, there must be something wrong with you - you are selfish, irrational, ignorant, unworthy, crazy, personality-disordered, abusive, damaged by childhood, etc."

How do you understand your mate's perspective? Assume Love. It's a powerful tool.

November 3, 2009

Free Church Wedding

If you're engaged and waiting until you can afford a wedding, take this idea to the prettiest church you know. In today's news, beautiful Espoo Cathedral, in Finland, has scheduled Friday night of the Valentine's Day weekend as a "wedding night." They will open the church to perform up to 100 weddings at no charge.

Anyone with the Finnish equivalent of our marriage license can invite guests and show up to be married. They can book a time in advance or wait their turn. The weddings continue from 7 pm until 4 am.

Espoo got the idea from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Lawrence in Vantaa, who first did this last September. They wanted to encourage cohabiting couples to get married.

I have known many couples here in the U.S. who have slid into a life partnership and put off the work of planning a wedding or who have accidentally added a child to their relationship and found it impossible to afford the wedding they had hoped for.

I think there is a lot to be said for a formal ceremony and celebration of your commitment to each other (and to any kids you've created together). So, print this page and take it to the most elevating church, temple, or wedding hall in your area and suggest a local wedding night.

Then, because this is the U.S., see if you can't find a local bridal store or thrift shop with weddings gowns to loan those who want them, and a dry cleaner to get them back in shape for resale at the thrift shop, and a wholesale florist with bunches of cut flowers people can make into their own bouquets and return for others to use after them. Find a couple chamber music groups or folk guitarists to donate their services.

There must be so many more groups that could help support such an effort and perhaps benefit from the publicity surrounding the event. Who could entertain the kids while they wait to watch their parents walk down the aisle? What could be donated to help these couples remember their special evening? And what can we do to help these couples keep their commitments to each other after the wedding? Please post your ideas in the Comments section. I know I have some very creative readers.

Thanks to Diane Sollee of Smart Marriages for the heads-up on what's happening in Finland.

October 23, 2009

Marriage without Compliments?

sh_logo_small.pngWant to know what I really like about this advice I give you and usually follow myself, to Assume Love? It leads to some really amazing discoveries. The one I write about in today's My Husband Made Me Eat It column at Second Helping Online is that the failure to compliment can be a great way to show love.

Are you making any great discoveries like this from assuming love in your own marriage?

October 13, 2009

Free Honeymoons Save Marriages

Yahoo! put it in their odd news category today, but I think it's clever. A state can end up spending a lot of money on food and social services when a marriage fails. So why not offer second honeymoons to struggling couples, if marriage counseling suggests it will help?

That's what the state of Terengganu (that's in Malaysia, between Singapore and Cambodia) is doing. The two-night honeymoons cost them less than $450 per couple and offer battling couples a chance for reconciliation. They started with a pilot for 25 couples and, based on the results, plan to launch a full-scale program by the end of the year.

And why wouldn't it work? Playfulness frees our creativity to find third alternatives for our disputes, rebuilds our hopes for the future, and lets us see again the qualities that drew us together. It's not easy to hang onto resentment on a romantic vacation.

But why wait until you're ready to split? What would be your ideal honeymoon to keep a good marriage going strong?

October 8, 2009

Childhood Cancer Survivors Less Likely to Marry

Double bad luck: people who have cancer as children are less likely to marry than those who don't. Around 70% of Americans marry by the time they are 30 years old. But not childhood cancer survivors. Only half of them do, according to a large follow-up study reported today.

Why not? Short stature, poor physical functioning, and cognitive problems are the factors more common among the people who remain unmarried. These known side effects of chemotherapy and radiation may make it harder to find a mate.

Fortunately, childhood cancer doesn't hurt anyone's ability to keep a marriage going. The divorce rate was no different for those treated for cancer as kids than for their siblings or the general population.

Nina S. Kadan-Lottick, M.D., M.S.P.H., assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center, led this study of the effects of childhood cancer treatment on marriages, which was reported in today's Science Daily. It followed up on 10,000 children with cancer, treated at 26 different institutions, after they reached adulthood.

October 6, 2009

Want a Fair Marriage?

What makes a marriage fair?

A while before my first husband died, I thought it was unfair he wouldn't take on consulting work, like other professors did. We needed the money. In the months right before his death, I thought it was unfair he wouldn't accept a semester of disability pay, allowing him to take on more work at home but less work overall with no loss in pay.

Then he died, and I had to do without his salary at all. So I worked hard, focused my efforts, increased my hours, paid a housekeeper, and doubled my income in twelve months. Now I wonder just how fair I had been, working at only half my ability all those years.

Before he died, I thought it was unfair I had to make all the phone calls about the house we were building, because I spent two and a half hours a day driving to and from work. We lived near his job. He got home in less than 15 minutes. We didn't have cell phones. Car time was useless time.

Then he died, and I realized there was no way I could afford to spend two and a half hours a day driving, so I moved my job closer to my house. It wasn't nearly as difficult as I believed it would be. How unfair had I been to him, wasting all that time driving and bugging him about making phone calls. He hated making phone calls, while I made them easily.

What would you do if you had to do it all yourself? How would you pay the bills? How would you keep your kids healthy? How would you entertain yourself? How would you maintain your carpets and your gutters? How would you keep learning? How would you make sure you had other adults to talk to, other parents to help out in an emergency?

If you're not doing these things now, have you noticed how incredibly fortunate you are to be in such an unfair marriage? People who do are happier and enjoy their marriages more. Expect love. Any other expectations just make you miss the sweetness of being loved.

September 27, 2009

Lean Into Marriage Issues

Some folks scream bloody murder when things don't go their way in a marriage. Others avoid conflict. Neither works.

Both of these involve pulling away from your marriage, distancing yourself from your partner in life. Harder to do, but much more likely to succeed: lean in. Get closer. State your case and affirm your love.

Be sexier (not pushier) when you ask for more sex, even if it risks a harder fall if you're turned down. Be kinder, more generous (not more demanding or whining) when you seek favors, even though it means you might have a bit less to fall back on if you don't receive what you're after. Be more fair in other areas if you feel some area of your relationship has become unfair.

Why? Because we learn to handle our relationships like a dance. If one pulls away, the other follows at a constant distance or pulls back as a counterbalance. The way to change the dance is to lean in, inviting your partner to lean in, too, or to lead somewhere new.

Lean in and trust this person who fell in love with exactly who you are. Don't demand your mate solve your problems, but give him or her the opportunity to help you solve them. Lean in.

September 26, 2009

IT Managers in the UK Make Marriage Mistake

In addition to my work as a Marriage Educator, I have for 35 years been paid to advise managers in major corporations on how to improve employee performance. There's a strong link between the two. When a company tries to get more or better performance at the expense of an employee's marriage, it backfires.

The latest to make this huge mistake? Those responsible for information technology (IT) in the United Kingdom.

A survey by the IT Job Board, reported in Tech Republic today, says more than half of these UK IT workers bring work home with them, and one out of every 14 puts in 60 to 75 hours a week, basically working two jobs for the price of one.

Is it a bargain for their employers? Hardly! When there's no time for employees to enjoy a close relationship with their spouse or life partner, the company faces profit-draining consequences:

  • Expensive presenteeism while employees deal with the stress of a failing relationship

  • Time-sapping distraction of other employees with the complaints and concerns of an employee whose marriage is failing

  • Costly extra absenteeism during a divorce and in the single-parenting aftermath

  • Additional health care and disability costs for employees going through a marital crisis or divorce

  • Increased risk of affairs with clients, competitors, or subordinates, with the possibility of sexual harassment lawsuits, leaked competitive information, lost contracts, and non-working time charged to your company or your clients

  • For IT executives, increased risk of compensation details revealed during divorce proceedings or Sarbanes-Oxley ethics violations due to affairs

All these come on top of the performance hit suffered by all overworked employees in a field where attention to detail and creativity for problem solving are critically important.

September 19, 2009

Air Force Gets Married, Stays Married

Fascinating news today from the Air Force Times. While 10.5% of the adult civilian population is divorced, only 4.4% of Air Force officers and 7.3% of enlisted airmen are.

Think it's because they don't bother to marry, given all that times away from home? That's not it, according to author Erik Holmes. Airmen are more likely to be married, especially officers. 70.9% of Air Force officers are married, compared to just 50.5% of the general population. And deployments don't appear to affect the likelihood of marrying or divorcing.

Why not? There are plenty of anecdotes about the difficulties of keeping a marriage together through a deployment, but the Air Force also provides marriage education, on-base and off-base marriage counseling, as well as marriage retreats for airmen and their mates. Couples who navigate a tough patch together create stronger bonds for whatever else comes their way.

August 6, 2009

Buggy Marriage?

Funniest marriage tip of the month award goes to Slashdot user dotancohen. It comes in reply to a self-reported gaming/Linux geek preparing to marry his literary geek girlfriend. They asked for some more helpful advice than the stuff written for "an alpha-male jock and a submissive cheerleader-style wife."

So dotancohen offers a geekier approach to a happy marriage:

"Set up a home bugzilla server. Every complaint she has she can log into bugzilla, from household repairs to you forgetting the anniversary."

Thanks to my wonderful and always funny husband Ed for sharing this.

July 16, 2009

Spontaneously Boring Spouses

"My husband never plans anything fun. If we take a vacation, travel to visit family or even go out on a date, it's because I came up with the idea and made all the arrangements myself. If I left things to him, we would never do anything unless we could do it right now, right here, in whatever clothes we're already wearing. And it's not just him. Most of my friends avoid planning anything, too. If I don't set a date, make the reservations and figure out who's driving, nothing happens."

Sound familiar? If you want to know why you get stuck with the planning, what it says about your relationship, and how to make a change, get yourself a copy of the August 2009 issue of Going Bonkers? magazine. My article is on page 29. This issue contains a bunch of other great relationship articles and one by Wayne Dyer on changing your self-defeating thinking habits, too.

If you can't find Going Bonkers? at Borders, Barnes & Noble, or Books-a-Million, let me know, and I'll help you get your hands on a copy.

April 10, 2009

Six Words about Marriage Problems

SpeakerNetNews is running a contest to write a complete speech in six words. Here is mine, for all of us who have ever been distressed by something the love of our life did.

Assume love and reconsider what happened.

~ - ~

February 19, 2009

It's the Way I Look Now, Isn't It?

Today's post is by guest blogger Russ Lane of Second Helping, a website about life after weight loss. It is unusual to address dating in Assume Love, but what Russ experienced affects us married folks, too, when our fears get in the way of seeing what is really going on.

I never dated before I lost 200 pounds and transformed from wallflower to Mr. Adventure. Back then, I blamed this and every other failure on my weight. Now that I'm in relationships, I found I still play that same game, just now it's with loose skin. And here I thought I broke my broken record.

Understand that years of food contortionism, weight lifting, and running doesn't create a Charles Atlas body out of the obese. I carry loose skin on my legs and abdomen that can't adjust to smaller me. Normally it's no big deal: 23 years of being obese certainly teaches you how to dress to minimize.

But meeting a man with whom there's great chemistry, all the time knowing what they see isn't what they'll get, provokes nothing short of loose-skin-shuddering terror.

I recently met the man of my dreams shortly before I moved from my hometown in North Carolina to New Orleans. He was handsome, shy, strong. Those were just perks: his integrity humbled me, and his spirit enchanted me.

And I was in the best shape of my life, longing for a fresh start after returning home for my mother's death two years prior. This goal didn't cooperate with a long distance relationship, but this man was worth considering a change in plans. I'd even move back to a city that just reminds me of ghosts: both my mother's and my own. I was awestruck by him.

Continue reading "It's the Way I Look Now, Isn't It?" »

February 6, 2009

When Marriage and Careers Collide

This is a comment I wrote in reply to a post by Pam Slim today, in Escape from Cubicle Nation, asking how to handle a situation in which one spouse's new business launch conflicts with another spouse's planned job change. Don't miss the other great comments there if this is an issue for you and your spouse.

Pam, Dave, thanks so much for this opportunity to comment. Marriage and work are both topics I get passionate about.

Dave wants us to pick between the two options he and his wife have laid out, to support his view or convince him of her view. In any dispute, there is only one marriage-supporting choice, and that is the one that lets you give your spouse the moon and the stars without giving away whatever you need for yourself.

As soon as one of you objects to the other's proposed solution or proposes another, it's a dead giveaway neither is the one you are looking for. You need a third alternative.

A third alternative is one that satisfies each of you as much as your preferred option, without causing the problems for you of the other one.

Dave and his wife need a solution that (1) gives his wife the financial cushion she needs to take her career risk without feeling constant fear or embarrassment and (2) lets Dave avoid getting locked into a position with his uncle that would prevent him from enjoying the fruits of his success with his new business.

So, Dave, can you turn down the next phase with your uncle and stay in his employ? If not, do you have the skills to quickly move to another full-time job, perhaps a sales job, where you could gradually reduce your hours and pay as your new business succeeds, or where you could leave without harming a family member? You need to stay employed only until your wife has made her move or your business has taken off.

Alternatively, could you leave your uncle's employ and invest 75% of every workday for now in helping your wife secure her new position? You two would need to decide in advance how many weeks to invest before you switch to spending that 75% looking for your own next job if she hasn't found what she's looking for and your new business isn't yet bringing in an income she's comfortable with.

If it's too early for her to start looking for new teaching jobs, can she help you line up and serve coaching clients, so you can add more clients before you make the leap to self-employment? Or can she help you cut expenses enough that the year of savings becomes 18 months worth?

Two heads brainstorming together on a single problem is a much better use of your minds than dreaming up ways to convince each other your own goal or strategy is the right one.

February 1, 2009

Surviving the Recession Together?

The Oprah Show is

"looking for couples who have grown closer despite tough economic times. If you've lost your job, your home, your car, or other possessions but managed to save your marriage in the process, we want to hear from you. Has the economic downturn somehow opened up new opportunities in your life -- perhaps the change to spend more time with your kids, or reassess your priorities? We want to know your secret to surviving a recession."

If your secret is to Assume Love, Expect Love, or Find Third Alternatives, I hope you will tell her producers I'm working on teaching these to married people everywhere. Thanks!

January 2, 2009

How to Cheer Your Unemployed Spouse

"Andrew Clark, an economist in France, has recently shown ... if you are unemployed, you will, on average, be happier if your spouse is unemployed, too."

- Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want," in the NY Times this week.

November 25, 2008

Will this Marriage Survive?

Here's a fascinating bit of unexpected support for marriage education. Your willingness to consider the possibility that there's something valuable to be learned, in and of itself, predicts you are more likely to succeed in marriage than someone who believes it's a matter of how good a match you made.

November 19, 2008

Guest Post: Miscommunication and the Usual Error

Today's guest blogger, Pace, is a communication educator. She and her wife Kyeli started a business called the Usual Error Project to help people build communication skills in relationships. Their first book, The Usual Error, will be published next month, but until then you can read their blog at

When we miscommunicate with our partners, we often feel defensive or angry, because we feel like we've done something wrong. But miscommunications happen all the time. In fact, one cause of miscommunication is so common that we call it the usual error. But there is a light at the end of the communication tunnel: when we miscommunicate, we can remember to assume love instead of reacting defensively.

When we feel misunderstood, we often take it personally. We blame ourselves for not communicating clearly enough, or we blame our partner for failing to understand our intent. On the flipside, when we misunderstand our partner, we play the same blame game. But there's no need to cast blame. It doesn't need to be a question of which one of us made a mistake in communicating. There is a third alternative: to accept that miscommunication happens. People have different points of view, people have different definitions for the same words, and people have different emotional reactions to the same phrase or concept. People are different, and so we'll each interpret words in our own unique way.

Continue reading "Guest Post: Miscommunication and the Usual Error" »

October 28, 2008

In Praise of Lazy Husbands

I have never tried embedding a video in this blog before, but I think you'll enjoy this one. The song, the performance, and the videography are all the work of a friend's self-proclaimed lazy husband (szabo23 on YouTube). If you've ever accused your guy of being lazy, you may think he stole the lyrics from you.

September 10, 2008

World's Worst Marriage Advice

Need some marriage advice to help you through a disagreement? Mine would include this:

Stay away from!

What in the world are the anonymous folks behind this new website thinking? It's the "Isn't My Spouse Awful?" game taken to a revolting new level: invite everyone on the web to take sides in your dispute. Instead of resolving your differences and honoring the wonderful person you chose as your life partner, pile on a whole heap of hot, stinking "proof" that the two sides you've chosen up are your only available options, and one of you doesn't have the smarts or decency to choose it.

Please, please, please don't do this to your marriage. There is almost always a Third Alternative that beats, hands-down, the two you are fighting over. Here are a few past posts on how to find them:
Third Alternative for a Disagreement over Collecting Too Much Stuff
Third Alternative for a Disagreement over Weight Gain
Third Alternative for a Disagreement over Design of a New House

Sept 10 Teleclass: Insults and Putdowns

Join me for a free teleclass tonight on dealing with a common marriage problem:

Handling Insults and Putdowns from a Spouse

Wednesday, September 10, 2008, 9 pm EDT

September 1, 2008

Men Who Stray -- and their DNA

Some men have an easier time being married than others. Now we learn DNA plays a big part in marriage.

A brain hormone called vasopressin influences men's bonding with a sex partner. More vasopressin makes men feel closer and want to stick around. Hasse Walum at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and his research team report on the effects of a variation in the gene that determines the placement of vasopressin receptors in the brain.

Around 40% of all men inherit this variant from one or both parents. In this study of Swedish men, one copy increases the likelihood that a man will avoid marrying his partner or experience marriage problems big enough to make him consider leaving. Two copies increases it again, to more than double the divorce risk for men with no copies and more than one-third considering divorce each year.

Does this mean their marriages (or their wives) are doomed? Not at all. It means men with this genetic makeup need some way other than fleeting emotions to advise them on whether it's worth fixing a problem instead of walking out or starting an affair. For them, it can be very important to assume love and take a second look before acting on their initial, emotional interpretation of an incident.

I am sure others will claim, once again, that this is proof we're not meant to marry for life, that we should just move on -- or have an affair -- when the sex gets stale or we disagree. I think watching a little boy whose father has just moved out, a teenage girl who never knew her father, or a pair of 85 year-olds helping each other enjoy life makes it clear we humans have many excellent reasons to bond.

For more on the study, see The Washington Post or Bloomberg.

August 15, 2008

Marriage: Keeping it Healthy through Tough Times

A good marriage can make tough times a lot easier. Tough times can make a marriage better or worse. I was thinking about this question yesterday, listening to John Michael Montgomery sing, "Do you remember the times of nickels and dimes...and love?"

Almost all of us can remember such times, when we pulled together to get through difficult times. We felt close. We felt loved. We felt blessed to have this person we share a lifelong commitment with.

Reminds me of that marvelous form of happiness Aristotle called Eudaimonia, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls Flow, and Martin Seligman calls Engagement. It's a quiet sort of happiness, one where we don't even notice whether we're happy or not. We're content, but engaged with something other than how we feel. Time flies by. When we notice how we are again, it's just sort of a warm glow.

The "times of nickels and dimes...and love" are Flow for Two. We don't have to check how our relationship is going, because we're just in it, engaged in what we're doing together. When we come up for air, we just notice we feel very close to this other human being.

Csikszentmihalyi set out some criteria for Flow. They include working at something that's just a bit of a stretch for our current abilities, not routine and not so hard we can't go on. Making do, managing limited cash and time, sharing tasks -- those are stretches, exactly the sort of challenges for which we need a life partner, a spouse.

His criteria also include working at something where we have a way to tell, from moment to moment, whether we're succeeding or not. For a couple, a limited budget provides such a measure. So does a tight schedule and a shared to do list. Even if we forget to congratulate each other on our progress, we both know how we're doing.

So, if we "remember those times of nickels and dimes...and love" together, perhaps whatever problems pull us apart later are not flaws in our mates.

  • If we are overwhelmed, as a couple might be after a fire or a cancer diagnosis or stricken child, maybe we need to bring in some outside help, to take the challenge down to the level where it's just a stretch for us as a couple.

  • If we are fighting over money or parenting, perhaps what we need is to stop and find the same measure for success, so we can work on the problem together again.

  • If we are drifting apart, maybe all we need is a new, shared goal, one that's just a little beyond our current abilities.

On the title song of that album, John Michael Montgomery sings, "Life's a dance we learn as we go." How true.

August 11, 2008

Boring Marriage Teleclass

Following up on my July 29th blog post, my Enjoy Being Married teleclass on Wednesday, August 20, 2008 will be When Marriage Gets Boring. We will look at what we can learn by assuming love when we feel bored, how expecting love can bring back excitement, and tips to help us look for third alternatives to the choice between boredom together vs. pursuing our own interests separately.

The teleclass is free for all subscribers to my Enjoy Being Married mailing list. I hope you can join us.

July 30, 2008

Too Many Expectations in Marriage - a Universal Problem

"Divorces are mainly caused by too many expectations from the spouse."

Shabana Azmi, actress, activist, and Member of the Indian Parliament's upper house (the Rajya Sabha), said this Monday at the opening of a premartial counseling center in India's capital.

Although Azmi spoke of Delhi's mostly arranged marriages, she could have been talking about marriages in the U.S., too.

We fear lowering our expectations. None of us wants to be taken advantage of. However, marriage succeeds best when we expect love and little more. Our laundry lists of how we ought to be loved just get in the way of being loved.

July 29, 2008

Married and Bored? Don't Talk about It

This morning, I read a newspaper columnist's response to a woman who's become bored with her 19-year marriage. The woman can't see any way out of her boredom except to divorce. Unfortunately (or perhaps very fortunately), she could afford to divorce only if she wins the lottery or lands a rich boyfriend, because they are in debt.

The columnist suggested she talk to her husband, so she can discover he's bored, too. I was flabbergasted. Talking about boredom is BORING! And it seldom leads to excitement.

She could, instead, assume love. Why would someone terrific who loves you fiercely bore you? Here are some possibilities:

  • You've put the job of keeping your life interesting on his shoulders, and he hasn't any better idea than you do what might entertain you. Take back this job. Try new things. Get excited about life, and your husband will almost certainly look a lot more exciting.

  • He's tried to regain your interest, but you've been unreceptive, perhaps complaining about the cost or the time it takes. You never noticed the love you were being offered, and he felt you rejected it.

  • He's trying his best to interact with you in the way he believes you like best. Perhaps your tastes have changed, but you haven't let him know this.

  • He's struggling way too hard at something else, like getting out of debt or banking enough for retirement or winning some competition. Once you figure out what it is, you may be able to inject excitement and closeness by pitching in on his project.

  • Somewhere along the way, he handed you responsibility for keeping your sex life interesting, and you have run out of ideas. There are lots of people to ask and books to read for more suggestions. Or you could simply ask him to come up with one and give it a willing try.

  • You have stopped asking the interested questions you asked while you were dating, so he's stopped looking interesting. You may think you already know all about him, but he has been changing and growing and might seem utterly fascinating if you met him today. Pretend you just met and see what happens.

The purpose of assuming love is to come up with a list of explanations like this. Trigger your memory by moving your thinking away from the problem and back to the core of your relationship.

While assuming love, you can imagine the most saintly spouse in the universe loving the world's most loveable person in the same way your spouse is loving you. Just explain how this could happen.

Keep adding to the list until you suddenly get the "aha!" that jogs your memory and points the way toward a fix for the two of you. Or keep going until you realize there are more OK explanations than bad ones for what is happening, and you get the "Ahhh" that makes everything fine again. Only if you come up empty handed should you even consider ending your marriage.

Nineteen years of shared history offers more richness than any new relationship could. As long as you two still harbor some love for each other, a really great marriage remains within your reach.

July 14, 2008

From the First Anniversary to the Fiftieth

In today's Seattle Times, marriage advice from seven siblings, all of whom have been married to the same husband or wife for fifty years.

  • Faith

  • Eat together

  • A lot of give and take

  • Family time

  • Stay in touch with close relatives

  • Humor

  • Good cooking

  • Accept each other's idiosyncrasies

How do you manage that give and take? How do you accept each other's idiosyncracies? How do you find the humor in tough situations, like the ones all of them have faced in recent years? Assume love, expect love, and look for third alternatives.

May 26, 2008

Vinegar Hill

On Saturday evening, I watched the CBS made-for-TV movie, Vinegar Hill. I found myself yelling "Assume Love" at the screen many times.

The movie's based on an Oprah Book Club selection by A. Manette Ansay. It opens with a close-knit and cheery family of four packing up in Chicago to move in with his parents on their farm. Ellen and Jake have lost their jobs, and she'll be able to teach at their hometown school while he looks for something to let them get a place of their own again.

Almost instantly, their marriage and family start to crumble under the weight of his parents' unhappy marriage and their grief over his brother's recent death. Jake reverts to his childhood role as his father ridicules him and compares him to his dead brother. He fails to stand up for his wife against his mother's whining demands and his father's constant disapproval.

Ellen's in a mighty uncomfortable spot: no money, her kids exposed to their grandparents' awful role models, her husband withdrawing from her and behaving like a child. So what does she do? Does she Assume Love and recognize that the husband whose character was so upbeat, strong, cooperative, and loving a few days ago in Chicago must be under fierce pressure to change so much in just a day? No, she appears to assume he must not care much for her if he won't protect her from them, and so she turns to the old high school flame who still carries a torch for her.

When she realizes staying with his parents is tearing them apart, does she Expect Love, instead of one particular way of showing it? Does she recognize the situation is hers to deal with, whether he's there or not? Does she look for a way to get the four of them to a safer place if he can't make this one safe? Does she ask any of the old friends she's reconnecting with to help them find some other place to stay? Does she ask her mother, who lives in the area, but further from the school, to help them out? No. She makes it pretty clear this is her husband's problem to solve, and if he loves her, he'd better get on it.

When he's upset by her obvious dismay, does he Assume Love and see it's just the best she can do in the face of his bossy but timid mother and his angry father? Does he suggest they try to find a Third Alternative together? No, he takes off with their car for a make-believe sales job requiring he be on the road. When he stops to buy her a lingerie gift out of guilt, he ends up in a motel room with the sales clerk. When this makes him feel even more guilty, he hurries home, only to find she's with her old flame, his long-ago rival.

By now, I should not have been surprised neither of them could Assume Love and at least try to explain how a loving spouse could turn to someone else for comfort during a crisis like this. Instead, both seemed to leap to the conclusion everything they knew and loved about the other at the start of the movie had all been fake and what they saw now was the real Jake or Ellen. She leaves. He stays.

In the end, they come back together again, but it takes an incredible plot twist to get them there. In real life, they would have been on their way to divorce, even worse financial stresses for them and their kids, and perhaps, for him, a lifetime of replaying an unhappy childhood role.

If they told their stories later, anyone would have believed there was nothing else they could have done in such a stressful situation except divorce. But just maybe, if either of them would just Assume Love and try to explain their spouse's behavior as if it's possible the love and the admirable qualities seen as they packed their car were still there, they could have found their strength in each other and created a very different ending for this tale without all that dying and revelation of past crimes.

We're into another period with the possibility of severe financial stresses for lots of us. If it forces you and your loved ones into a really rotten situation, try to remember to Assume Love. And try to remember to draw on each others' strengths and love, instead of pretending they never really existed.

May 21, 2008

Divorce, Affairs, and American Morals

The folks at Gallup released a poll on Monday about Values and Beliefs. Topping the list of moral acceptability: divorce. Seventy percent rated it morally acceptable. Only twenty-two percent said it was morally unacceptable.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to jump to the conclusion that divorce has become no big deal for most of us.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of sixteen morality issues, the likely reason for why so many accept it: only seven percent find affairs between married men and women acceptable. A full ninety-one percent say such affairs are morally wrong. More of the people they surveyed found extramarital affairs unacceptable than found polygamy, human cloning, or suicide wrong.

So, let's look back at a Gallup poll from March for a qualification on what we Americans really think about divorce. We know affairs happen. There is plenty of evidence many of the ninety-one percent who find affairs morally wrong have them anyway.

How would you react if your husband or wife committed what you and almost everyone else feels is an immoral act? The March poll revealed sixty-two percent of Americans believe they would definitely or probably divorce a spouse who had an affair.

Would they divorce because they see nothing wrong with divorce? Or do they view divorce as acceptable in some circumstances, because they simply cannot imagine staying together after an immoral act against them and would not demand anyone else tolerate this?

I believe it is the second of these. In the May poll on moral issues, sixty-one percent said sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable for those who are unmarried. Only seven percent said it's acceptable for those who are married. The only difference between the sixty-one percent and seven percent is wedding vows. They still matter to us. We still find it morally wrong to ignore them. But we don't demand one side honor them when the other side does not.

By the way, you can count me among the thirty-seven percent of married Americans who probably would forgive an affair and remain married, if my husband sought my forgiveness. I know he considers cheating on me immoral and trust it could only happen under extraordinary and temporary circumstances. He's way too good a man to let go over anything temporary.

May 13, 2008

A Different Sort of Healthy Marriage

The U.S. and Saudi governments are both rolling out Healthy Marriage initiatives. But what a difference!

Here in the U.S., a healthy marriage is defined as a mutually beneficial and satisfying relationship between two people with deep respect for each other and the skills to communicate and handle conflict. The initiative involves supporting and strengthening secular and faith-based marriage education programs and using the media and the internet to motivate couples to learn relationship skills.

In Saudi Arabia, a healthy marriage is one without hepatitis B or genes likely to lead to unhealthy children. They are making it easier to get pre-marital blood and genetic tests.

In both cases, the reason for the initiative is the well-being of the nation's children. May both succeed.

May 11, 2008

Staying Married

Sometimes, it seems it must be awfully difficult to keep a marriage going for very long. After all, for every two couples marrying in the U.S. each year, another couple gets divorced. But it's really not true caring for each other as long as we vow rests on anything as random as a coin toss.

Saturday, in London's Westminster Cathedral, 700 couples married for ten years or more renewed their vows. These 1,400 people have been married for 43,000 years. They didn't beat Pittsburgh's recent record, but that's a lot of marriages going well.

March 24, 2008

Being Married: The Value of Closing Off Options

Another upside to being married: It's the rational thing to do.

In MIT Professor Dan Ariely's new book, Predictably Irrational, he shows how irrationally we'll behave to keep our options open, whether it's TV surfing, paying extra for features we don't even know if we have any use for, or pursuing interesting opportunities that distract us from our goals.

Professor Ariely teaches behavioral economics. When he labels this irrational, he means we'll do things to keep our options open that cost us what we value. We'll hand over our money, squander our time, or damage our relationships just to keep a door open.

So what can be done? One answer, Dr. Ariely said, is to develop more social checks on overbooking. He points to marriage as an example: "In marriage, we create a situation where we promise ourselves not to keep options open. We close doors and announce to others we've closed doors."

Source: John Tierney, New York Times, February 26, 2008 -

January 31, 2008

Married to a Collector of Stuff? Don't Ask Dr. Phil to Set Him Straight

From time to time, I watch the Dr. Phil Show to see what sorts of problems married couples bring him. Yesterday, his guests wanted him to make their spouses get rid of junk cluttering the house. The accused spouses, of course, did not see it as junk.

Dr. Phil made the mistake I've heard so many therapists and marriage counselors make: he served as arbitrator. He took sides. He encouraged the collectors to make more room for their spouses. He missed a chance to actually strengthen their marriages.

What could he have done? He could have walked them through finding a third alternative together. That's an alternative that both spouses like at least as much as the one they're defending. Finding one is like giving your husband or wife an incredible gift that costs you nothing. Your spouse wins. You win. Your marriage wins.

Continue reading "Married to a Collector of Stuff? Don't Ask Dr. Phil to Set Him Straight" »

November 7, 2007

How to Remain Attractive to Your Spouse

Want to look your most attractive? Smile and look into your sweetie's eyes.

That's the word today from the Face Research Laboratory in Aberdeen. The report appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science.

Here's what they found. First, people look more attractive to others with a smile on their face than with a disgusted look. But you knew that. Second, in general, people look more attractive to the opposite sex. You knew this, too, I'm sure.

So, what's new? Whether you're male or female, and whether you're smiling or looking disgusted, you're more attractive if you're looking directly at the other person. The extra attractiveness is small but real with a look of disgust. It's much greater when you're smiling.

If you're a woman smiling at a man, you get the biggest boost in attractiveness when you also look directly at him. However, even men get a significant boost, just by remembering to look at her.

So, assume love to turn your distressed looks into smiles, then stop what you're doing and really look at the person you married. It will make you more attractive than you already are.

October 4, 2007

Can Baseball Save Your Marriage?

Howard Markman, marriage guru from the University of Denver and one of the creators of the very popular PREP marriage education program, noticed something interesting about Major League Baseball.

When Denver was hoping to lure a major league team ten years ago, he found that cities with a major league team had a divorce rate 28% lower than cities seeking one. Seven years after the Colorado Rockies played their first game, Denver's divorce rate has dropped by 20% to 4.2 divorces for every 1,000 people. Phoenix and Miami added major league teams, too, and their divorce rates dropped by 30%. Tampa's dropped by 17%, which is still above the 15% average drop nationwide.

I checked out our local stats. Pennsylvania, with two MLB teams, has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country, 43% lower than Colorado's.

Markman suspects baseball is providing the sort of shared fun that keeps couples together. Here in the Philadelphia area, where the Phillies are in the playoffs against Markman's Rockies, baseball's a shared passion for lots of couples.

September 22, 2007

Not Married?

Yesterday's local headline sure got our attention. Our county Register of Wills, who also handles marriage licenses, issued a warning. My husband and I might not be married.

When I told a friend today, she said, "But I saw you two get married with my own eyes!"

A judge in York County handed down a ruling earlier this month. So far, it applies only in that one county, but it leaves things rather murky in all the rest. Ordained ministers without a congregation that meets regularly, the judge says, don't have that "power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" they claimed at the wedding. Even though the county took our money and issued us a marriage certificate, the existence of our marriage could be contested -- by either of us to avoid a divorce settlement, by a relative coveting an inheritance if we didn't have wills, or by a district attorney hoping to force one of us to testify against the other, just for starters.

So we'll be counting on the friend who saw it with her own eyes and all the rest of our wedding guests if we ever need to call on Pennsylvania's Common Law Marriage provision. It was still in effect when we married. Because they heard us say our vows back then, we're still legally married.

A lot of other Pennsylvanians who got married more recently will need to start over with a new marriage license and a different officiant or face the possibility of seeing their married status vanish into thin air right when they most need it.

September 19, 2007

The Pitfalls of Looking for Love Online

While the story circulating on the internet may well be a hoax, it points to something so very true about marriage. According to the news item, Prince of Joy fell for Sweetie and she fell for him during online chats. Both lived in Zenica, Bosnia, and each was unhappily married and delighted to meet someone so good to them.

They decided to meet. Sana Klaric (27), aka Sweetie, showed up at the designated meeting place, where she first saw Prince of Joy. He turned out to be her husband Adnan (32). Both were stunned to learn the person who said such sweet things online and offered such sympathy about their marriage problems was the same person who had nothing sweet to say at home. And now they knew they were being cheated on. They plan to divorce.

It's not just the story of the Sana and Adnan's marriage. It's the story of so many marriages. Online or dating, we assume love. We gather up and hold dear every sign of love. We feel loved, so we feed back love to this person we're just getting to know. We look for the best possible explanation of everything we learn about this person, and we feed back heaps of respect, and it feels great. Then we marry.

At the first sign things won't be all sweetness and light, we start assuming there's some risk to this partnership. We gather up and grab onto every sign of threat to our independence, self-esteem, financial well-being, or sense of power. We feed back our fears and our indignation, and these become more evidence of risk for our spouses.

Sana and Adnan proved to themselves there was still much to love about each other. They proved they still could see the best in each other and reflect it back as love and respect. They demonstrated what a different response they'd get if they did this at home. But they chalked it all up to bad judgement, because they've already assumed trouble and treated everything they could as evidence of trouble.

I'm sure they think things will be different if they just find the right person. There is no right person when you operate with the wrong assumption. To enjoy being married, assume love.

July 29, 2007

What Do You Need?

Are there things you need but aren't getting from your spouse? More encouragement? A bigger bank account? A little private time? Someone to really listen when you talk? Before you let needs ruin your marriage, try this little test.

1. If you wake up tomorrow to learn your spouse died overnight, will you still need it?

2. If so, must you remarry in order to get it?

3. If so, will you be willing to marry someone who doesn't love you just to get it?

If your spouse isn't the one responsible for your need, if it's not something you can get only from your spouse, and if it's not worth a loveless marriage, the best way to keep the love alive in your marriage is to stop blaming your spouse and start involving him or her.

What's the difference? Blaming starts with "You don't..." or "You won't..." Involving starts with "Will you help me think of some ways I can..."

June 8, 2007

Away from Her

I saw the movie Away from Her this week. Based on an Alice Munro short story, written and directed by Sarah Polley, it's the story of a marriage and the value of assuming love -- or at least that's what I saw.

Continue reading "Away from Her" »

May 4, 2007


Today, I want to tackle another of Tammy Blankenship's challenging questions about assuming love.

My husband has gotten better in the past 10 years, but I can't seem to forget about what an ass he was when we first got married. How do I know he won't revert back into the jackass he was?

You don't. You can't. You can Assume Love and verify for yourself that he's behaving like a loving spouse today, thereby opening your heart to receive all the love he has to offer you and reflecting back to him gratitude, caring, and respect -- or you can refuse to receive all of the love you're offered today and reflect back suspicion and distrust.

Assuming love doesn't mean pretending you're loved, so you'll instantly spot a non-loving act and know what to do with it. In the meantime, why deny yourself the joy of being loved?

April 23, 2007

Broken Promises

Thanks again to Tammy from Creating Success Stories for this great question.

When we were married, my husband and I agreed that I would take care of the inside of the house and he would take care of the outside…he is lazy and does nothing and I want you to help me do something about it! What should I do to make him do what he promised to?

Continue reading "Broken Promises" »

February 28, 2007

Weight Gain and Divorce

Diane Sollee, author of the marvelous Smart Marriages newsletter, recently asked marriage educators on her mailing list to address a complaint from a husband contemplating divorce.

As he put it, "You end up thinking you are marrying a Ferrari and you get a Mini Van." He'd lost his libido as his thin, sexy wife became an overweight soccer mom, and he wanted out. But first, "I am writing to you because my divorce isn¹t final and I want answers."

In most cases where a spouse complains of an unmet need, I'd suggest first trying to find a way to get that need met outside the marriage. But sexual attraction is one of those needs that must be met within the marriage. And for that, we need a Third Alternative.

Continue reading "Weight Gain and Divorce" »

January 25, 2007

Changing Your Husband or Wife

You will change your spouse. But you won't get to choose how.

Allow yourself to be loved by the person you married.

December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and hoping you'll remember to Assume Love when your husband or wife fails to

  • Join you for caroling (some folks don't enjoying singing for others)
  • Carve the turkey correctly (unless he's CEO of Butterball)

  • Try your bread pudding (she really could be full)

  • Give you any presents (Gary Chapman says there are four other Love Languages)

  • Keep your mother entertained while you and your dad visit (need I explain?)

  • Vacuum, dust, or replace the nearly empty roll of toilet paper

  • Stay cheery

  • Get serious

  • Read your mind

Continue reading "Merry Christmas" »

October 22, 2006

The Marriage Calculator

What does it take to get married and stay married if you're not earning much or can't find work? More than it does otherwise. The US Government provides a Marriage Calculator to help parents who receive public assistance (and state and federal legislators who determine the rules) determine how much more assistance they and their kids will get if they're divorced and living apart or lying about living together.

Continue reading "The Marriage Calculator" »

October 15, 2006

Oh Say Can You See?

How often do your fears keep you from seeing what's really going on in your marriage? Fear of debt can turn your husband's generosity or normal risk-taking into a sign you're unloved or unsafe. Fear of being alone can force the two of you into activities neither of you has any real enthusiasm for, until you're both married to low-energy, unenthusiastic people. Fear of abandonment can lead you to minimize your spouse's accomplishments, even though your support and encouragement is the real glue that will hold you together. Fear of doing the wrong thing can keep you from selecting any gift for a wife who sees gifts as proof of your feelings for her.

When you feel the fear, assume love immediately. Ask yourself how you'd see the situation if you knew for certain that the wonderful person who committed his or her life to you remains every bit as wonderful, in love, and committed to your wellbeing.

September 30, 2006

The Good for Nothing Husband

Vanessa reached her front door as her two preteen kids gathered their beach gear from the backseat of the car. She put the key in the lock. As she turned it, she knew her marriage was over. John hadn't changed the lock.

Continue reading "The Good for Nothing Husband" »

August 5, 2006


The question of the day in Compuserve's Family Forum was addressed to those who have divorced. It asked whether changing expectations in your marriage led to the divorce. I want to share my reply here.

Yes, my changing expectations led to divorce, or darn close to it. When my husband died very unexpectedly just a day after I told him my long list of unmet expectations led me to believe divorce would be best, I became a widow instead. And I woke up to some very painful recognitions about expectations.

Continue reading "Expectations" »

June 20, 2006

Disrupting His Baseball Game

Mike's watching a baseball game on TV. Melanie wants him to go with her to the nursery to pick out some flowers for the garden. Melanie knows if they don't go soon, they won't be able to plant tomorrow. Recently, gardening's been the one activity they actually enjoy together. She walks into the family room and asks Mike when he'll be ready to go. He doesn't even answer, just waves her off. Melanie seems uncertain whether she'll cry or heave the bowl of chips across the room. This would be a very good time to Assume Love.

Continue reading "Disrupting His Baseball Game" »

April 19, 2006

Dating? Don't Assume Love

My advice to Assume Love applies only in a marriage or another relationship in which both partners have made a commitment to the longevity of the relationship. Until then, it might be wise to Assume the Worst.

When you assume love, you deliberately seek out evidence of your mate's love for you. Any actions with an ambiguous cause you can safely attribute to love because you have a partner committed to sustaining the relationship, even if that commitment sometimes wavers. You can view any hurtful behavior in the context of years of loving behavior and an intimate knowledge of who you're dealing with. To do so, you must repeatedly draw on that memory of when you knew without a doubt you had found a wonderful person.

None of these will help you determine whether you've found a wonderful person. In fact, they may well obscure the truth about people you date. You will fare much better if you repeatedly assume a deceitful, untrustworthy person who seeks to manipulate and exploit you, and try to explain the actions you've observed from that what-if picture. The more often this fails, the more likely you've got the sort of person to whom you can commit yourself for the rest of your life.

Continue reading "Dating? Don't Assume Love" »

March 19, 2006

The Disappearing Husband

Recently, my husband and I attended a weekend event with speakers' presentations in several of the ballrooms and a hospitality suite on the top floor for eating, drinking, and mingling. We've both gone to these before and know lots of the other folks who show up. So why did my worrying mind go into overdrive when I noticed he'd vanished from the seat next to mine at one of the presentations?

He'd been right there for over an hour. Now he was gone. And he'd said nothing, given no signal of his departure. I could see him at the back of the room, heading for the exit. My first thoughts ran along the lines of I'm invisible, he can sit right next to me and forget I exist, I deserve an explanation, he should tell me before leaving, I've been wronged. Really. Even after years of Assuming Love. There's a little switch in my brain that lets loose wild demons when anything smacks of abandonment.

But I quickly switched from Assume Abandonment to Assume Love. What would lead a good, loving husband to silently slip away from his wife during such a presentation? A bathroom break came to mind first. After all these years, I know that my husband will never, ever reveal that he's headed there. Then it occurred to me that he might be bored by the presenter but way too well-mannered to add insult to injury by talking before he walked out. He might even have noticed that I was quite interested -- and among friends -- and decided not to disturb me.

Once those thoughts had brought me back to a calmer state, I enjoyed the rest of the talk and caught up with my husband, who was, indeed, trying to be polite to me and to the speaker by leaving silently. We were back in the hospitality suite, where I could appreciate just how funny and sociable this terrific man is. If I'd come back feeling mistreated by his silent departure, I might have missed that.

February 24, 2006

When Will You Be Home?

When KT married Ben last year, she loved to get a call from him during her workday. She'd look forward to 5:30, when she'd arrive home to a big hug and a huge smile. With her new job, she can't count on leaving as early. She's often rushing to get out of the office, then racing through traffic only to get home closer to 6:00, when she gets only Ben's icy greeting from the sofa.

Today, she returned from lunch to an urgent request from her boss. She's offered to take KT to lunch tomorrow if she completes the task by the close of business, a first in her two months here. KT's in a mad rush to finish in time when Ben calls.

As she reaches for the phone and sees his number, KT's asking herself, "Is he checking up on me again? Why can't he see that it's the job that makes me late? Why does this matter so much to him? Why is he so insecure and childish? Why can't he be happy to see me whenever I come home? I feel like he's got me on a short leash, and so does my job. He's wrecking my career chances!" No matter what Ben says now, KT will not hear any love in it.

Continue reading "When Will You Be Home?" »

February 17, 2006

Dirty Dishes and Open Toothpaste Tubes

We've all got our pet peeves when living with someone else, and spouses get a special break only for the first few months. What should you do when you encounter dirty dishes in the sink, an open toothpaste tube on the sink, wet bathroom floors, sweat socks in the dining room, spice bottles lined up alphabetically instead of by height and all the rest of the annoying things that real people do?

Continue reading "Dirty Dishes and Open Toothpaste Tubes" »

February 14, 2006

Loves Me... Loves Me Not...

This website is for anyone who's ever wondered if their husband, wife, or life partner really meant that "I do" or whether they are still loved today. It's for everyone who's found a partner but still battles with unmet needs, unresolved conflicts, and questions of what's fair and what's not.

I learned a few things when I lost my first husband. First, marriage does not require hard work. Second, it seldom benefits from compromise. Third, knowing how to communicate is not enough. I hope to explain myself more over the coming months.

My goals: happier marriages, fewer divorces. For all of us, even the folks who can't or won't get a marriage license. One partner we can count on for the rest of our lives. One family our kids can count on for the rest of their lives.

Four Steps to Assume Love

Here's how you Assume Love. Consider doing it every time your spouse does something or fails to do something and you feel anger, resentment, hurt, fear, shame, frustration, or superiority taking hold of your emotions:

  1. Assume you are completely loved by a wonderful person.

  2. Attempt to explain how such a person might come to do what just happened.

  3. If you can think of one or more explanations that might possibly apply to your real life situation, too, decide whether you choose to react to the negative explanation or to one of these positive possibilities.

  4. If you choose one of the positive ones, check whether it teaches you something new about how your spouse loves you.

Here's an example...

Continue reading "Four Steps to Assume Love" »

The Author

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

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