Assume Love (TM): How to have a happier marriage without waiting for your spouse to change (daisy logo)

August 7, 2018

Married to a Doormat

If you're someone with a lot of strong opinions, you might find it convenient to marry a "go along to get along" partner -- for a while.

You'll be the one choosing who does what, where you vacation, which friends you see, what big purchases the two of you make, all sorts of things. It may even feel like you've married someone who's ultra-compatible with you, that you're the logical one or the one with better taste or just remarkably persuasive.

Your friends and family may be calling your spouse a saint. And that's a warning sign.

Doormats want very much to avoid conflict. They also want to have a say in all those things you're deciding, but not at the price of conflict. And this means every disagreement is a win-lose choice with you winning and both your spouse and your marriage losing.

Eventually, the losing spouse reaches a point where it's time to deal with conflict, a long-growing pile of conflict, or to regain some control over his or her life by simply slipping away without conflict, leaving you only a goodbye note at best.

Either way, if you haven't noticed the warning signs, you are likely to be thoroughly shocked at how damaged your "perfect" marriage really was.

If you want to stay married, then long before your spouse blows up or walks out, you can hand back some say in the marriage without conflict and without feeling you've lost any of your power to get what you want. You just won't get it by wiping your feet on your wife or husband.

You need Third Alternatives, those alternatives to your front-of-mind ideas that give you what you want and give your spouse the same, the ones that are never obvious until you look for them. And you need to initiate the process of getting them just a bit differently from couples with more equal levels of certainty and conflict aversion.

Let's say you would like to spend some of your savings to replace your car. Not a problem when you're single: set a budget, choose the car you like best, done. You might not even notice how many other options you're cutting off, only that you're getting a better car: a more appealing car, a less prone to failure car, a car with newer features, or a car that can carry the gear for your new hobby.

But that wonderful person you married also has a list of desirable upgrades in mind. His or hers might include a home you'll be able to buy together sometime soon. Or perhaps the option to share a car to save money while getting some more education. Or getting ready to be good parents or grandparents in the next year or two. Or moving to an area where your new car will be impractical.

If you only knew what's on this list, you could have what you're looking for without dashing your mate's hopes. It's actually quite rare that what you're after conflicts with those hopes. It's how you go about getting what you're after that tramples them.

And if you're married to a conflict-avoider, you may never hear about the hopes that you dash, unless you ask about them before you announce your plan to buy that car. Your saint of a husband or your saint of a wife will go along to get along. And those dashed hopes will provide fertile soil in which to grow the resentment that kills marriages.

If your goal is more reliable or more impressive wheels, you can precede your announcement of your plan with a question about any big purchases on your spouse's horizon. If there's one in the works, and you'll feel good supporting it, you can look for a way to achieve your goals without killing that other one. A more reliable, better-looking car can be a good way to increase your income by more than the cost of the car: think Uber, Lyft, deliveries, transporting your real estate or architecture customers, etc. A more reliable car may not require more money, if you can downsize or if you're not fashion-conscious about your car.

If the expense ahead is more education, you two might be able to combine cars right now, and you could end up with one that's actually nicer than you were considering, but more practical for a shared vehicle.

If expense isn't on your spouse's mind, you can ask (before you announce that you want a different car) what other changes he or she has been thinking about. If it's a change that you're not averse to, choosing a car that will work for both locations or lifestyles (now and soon in the future) may actually make you happier than choosing one you'll need to give up in a couple of years.

Of course, if you're averse to that planned change, you'll want to look for a Third Alternative for that disagreement, too. No choice in marriage is either/or. They just look that way at first.

If you want to enjoy being married to your conflict-averse husband or wife, introduce your plans and wishes with a mind toward finding a Third Alternative instead of allowing your mate to go along to get along. Doormats wear out quickly. Partners don't.

July 31, 2018

Expectations that Empower and Disempower Us

We all bring expectations to a relationship. Some are life-preserving:

"I expect to feel safe from violence and life-threatening conditions in our shared home."

Some are about boundaries we need to set to allow ourselves to be as vulnerable as real intimacy requires:

"I expect to be free from any condition that turned deadly or life-threatening or intimidating in past relationships or my childhood, whether that's drunkenness, second-hand smoke, untreated addiction, or even inviting clowns into the house."

But most are about how those who love us ought to behave. We pick them up from movies, from television, from loving couples, from fighting couples, from romance novels, even from sociological studies attempting to define what's "normal."

These all could be stated beginning with "If you loved me, you would _______" or "If you were the person I thought you were, you would _______." They dictate your partner's behavior and infer from any other behavior that there's something wrong with your partner or your relationship.

"If you loved me, you'd buy me flowers once in a while!"

"If you were the woman I thought you were, you'd lose this weight you put on."

The problem with this sort of expectation isn't just that these expectations are wrong (it's quite possible to love someone fiercely and well without ever buying a flower and to be of outstanding character while overweight). They are also disempowering.

They leave you with no way to improve your relationship other than criticizing and nagging, two techniques with really lousy track records for improving a marriage. You're stuck. All you can do is wait for the person you married to turn into the one you imagined.

And it doesn't happen.

You are helpless.

And you are helpless not because you married someone flawed, but because you imagined you are the expert on how your spouse should show love or character.

There are so very many ways to show both. We get caught up in one and lose sight of the big picture. I'm betting that if your wife gave you a kidney to keep you off dialysis, you might agree that who does the dishes after her family visits isn't really a valid measure of how much you are loved. If you marry a generous man and reap the benefits of all the times he's helped people when the two of you need some serious help, you'll probably realize how wrong you were to call him weak when he wouldn't ask for a raise at work.

You disempower yourself when you stick with your ill-informed expectation that if she loves you, she'll wash dishes or if he's a good man, he'll do what it takes to make more money.

But this does not mean you should have NO expectations. You need personal boundaries. You need safety. And you empower yourself if you expect love.

Expecting love dictates your behavior, and you have plenty of power to change your own behavior. But expecting love does not mean expecting love notes via WhatsApp or kisses before you get out of bed each more. It means expecting love in all the forms your spouse offers it.

It means actively watching for signs that you're loved and savoring them. It means asking for help when you'd like some, knowing that your spouse will be able to give some of them and not others. It means asking as if you understand this and would welcome help finding help every bit as you would welcome help. It means asking for quality time together or gifts or kind words or whatever you need, knowing not everyone show love in any one of these ways. It means paying attention to what your spouse asks for and recognizing that when he or she offers this to you, it's a show of love, even if you grew up thinking "words are a dime a dozen, only actions matter" or "gifts just create obligations and awkward situations" or "it's goofing off, not taking care of a loved one, when you take time away from work to talk or play a board game or go for a walk together."

It means noticing your mate's character and not expecting something other than the amazing strengths that drew you to him or her. It means expecting a creative person to bring more creativity to your life, not great teamwork. It means expecting a very spiritual person to add more moments of elevation to your life, not exceptional perseverance on mundane tasks. You might get both, of course, but pay attention to where your spouse's strengths are, because even a persevering, highly spiritual person might be less open-minded or less interested in learning new things or less modest than you are. And that's just as it's supposed to be. Expect good character but not some imaginary character.

These empowering expectations shape how you interact with your spouse, where you look for things to fill your heart with admiration and gratitude.

They also tell you when it's time to protect yourself instead of the relationship. You'll actually know if you're being treated with love, and because of this, you'll also know when you're not. You won't need to wonder if your spouse working late means it's over or that her career's about to take off, because you'll have a multi-dimensional measure of love. If it's all gone AND she's working late, you're in trouble, and it's time to take some action to preserve your relationship or protect your interests.

What you expect from your marriage is your choice. But I hope you'll choose expectations that empower you, that keep the action in your court, where you can do something about it.

June 11, 2018

Whiskers on the Sink

I was stressed. And anxious. And trying to get work done. Problems kept popping up.

I went to the bathroom sink to get a drink of water. The first thing I noticed was how wet the front of the sink was. Then I saw all those whisker clippings. Lots of them.

My mind went right where it loves to go: what is wrong with my husband that he left this mess?! He's a grown man! Can't he do better? Do I need this on a day when I'm dealing with so much stress?

Done with the usual suspects, I quickly ran down my other list.

Assume Love: why might someone who loves me leave such a mess here today? If the point were to annoy me, he's not nearly as creative as usual. Probably has nothing to do with me. Maybe he was in a hurry. Or distracted.

Expect Love: is it reasonable to expect he'll show me love by cleaning the sink every single time he shaves? Nope. He's oblivious to sink messes, here and in the kitchen, so it doesn't take much to distract him from cleaning up. Maybe he's as stressed as I am today. How would I know? I've been focused on the online messes I've been making and cleaning up.

Find Third Alternatives: what would I want from a better option? A clean sink? Not really. Encountering that messy sink might have raised my stress level, but finding it clean and dry would not have lowered it. I want less stress. Should I ask what he wants?

And then I grabbed a paper towel, wiped the sink, and tossed it into the wastebasket right next to the sink. Took me maybe 3 and half seconds, far less time than discussing a Third Alternative to his choice to leave the whiskers here. Better yet, I felt a bit more powerful. I had made a problem go away. On this day of problems, that felt good.

I filled my glass with water and went back to my desk happier. And perhaps a bit less stressed.

May 31, 2018

Marriage in Trouble? Don't Work Too Hard at It

When the resentment level was rising quickly in my first marriage, I heard lots of advice about working harder at being married. So I did. And when it didn't work, the resentment rose twice as fast, until I knew I could stand no more.

No one said to me what I will say to you today. Unless you've been staying away, sleeping with someone else and leaving your spouse with all the chores and all the bills, do not work any harder at your marriage.

What you do for your spouse when you work hard at marriage doesn't help. It's actually manipulative, which is why you feel so much worse when it doesn't have the effect you hoped for.

You know how to love well. You know how to make your spouse, this particular man or woman you married, feel loved. You know how to shower him or her with affection. I know this because you two are married. Unless you married to escape your parents' home or an eviction notice, you've done a great job of loving your spouse.

And you would do it again in a flash if you felt loved. And respected. And cherished. No one would even need to suggest it. You'd do it because it's what follows from feeling that way.

You'd do it brilliantly and with joy, not resentment.

So instead of working on your marriage, work instead on feeling loved.

Be present. Take your time. Notice more. Focus only on the positives. Erase "yes, but" from your mind. Remember your spouse's strengths. Lock eyes and see if you still see your soul reflected back at you even a little bit. Smile or say thank you for anything that deserves it. Don't wait for the resentment to drain away first.

Watch for signs you are trusted, respected, admired, cherished, wanted. Many of them are so ordinary after a few years together that they are easy to overlook. Pay attention.

Don't try to love harder. Just try to feel the love you're offered.

It's like a seedling. At first, you'll notice just a tiny bit of green poking out of the dirt. But then there will be two little leaves. And a stem will branch into two and sprout two more. And all four will grow larger, even as another stem branches off and starts anew. Flowers will bloom. Just keep adding the sunshine and water of your attention to the love you're offered.

These have been missing as you focused your attention instead on what you thought your husband or wife ought to do to bring back your sense of being loved.

No one will need to tell you what to do next. When you feel loved, respected, and cherished, you are a great lover, an irresistible one for the man or woman who married you.

And two people in love are a powerful force. You won't need manipulation to get what you need in a disagreement or a clash of interests when you've got a powerful ally again.

March 14, 2018

Worrying is Not a Love Language

You don't worry about your spouse's health, mental health, physical safety, career, and friendships because you love your spouse so much. It's definitely not a measure of how much you love. And it's certainly not a way to show your love.

Think about this. When you show your husband or wife your love with a kindness, a kind word, a gift, your full attention, or an orgasm, you feel great: floating on air joyful or deep down life-is-good satisfied.

That's not how worrying about whether your guy's eating enough fiber or your gal's putting up with too much from her boss makes you feel. Worrying makes you feel crappy.

Worrying is not a love language.

It's a protective trait gone seriously awry in our current environment. When we humans developed this trait, staying hyperalert after any hint of danger was life-preserving and, more importantly, reproductive-ability-preserving. And more worriers than non-worriers survived to produce your ancestors.

So you worry. You worry not because you love someone, but because you have worrier genes, a great imagination, and way too many hints of danger, almost none of which will require urgent action in the next few minutes.

So you (and I) stay hyperalert way too long. We focus in on the threat and search constantly for signs of increasing threat. And while we're hyperalert, we're less creative, less able to pursue our goals, and (uh oh) less able to be loving.

Moods are contagious in any relationship, and especially in a marriage. Your anxiety ramps up your in-danger spouse's anxiety. It keeps you from noticing and responding to positive news from your spouse in a way that amplifies his or her good feelings, something called Active-Constructive Responding, far more important than your sympathy for the health of your marriage. It keeps you from remembering that a healthy marriage needs five times as many upbeat interactions daily as the negative interactions, including your nagging about the threat that worries you. It keeps you from showing the trust and respect that for most men is the very foundation of any relationship.

Worrying comes naturally. Stopping it is not so natural, but it's necessary in a world where the things that threaten us aren't typically a wild animal or avalanche that will or won't kill us in the next 90 seconds or a disease that already killed 25% of our community in a month or a lunatic willing to murder us to take our spouse or child. Staying hyperalert too long damages your relationship and your health.

And because I do a lot of worrying, I've collected evidence-based ways to cut it out. Here are a few.

  • The first step in stopping worrying lies in letting go of any feeling that worrying about a spouse is responsible or loving. It's not. Acting to stop a threat is both responsible and loving. Worrying about it is not. It's counterproductive: normal, natural, but harmful to you and to your relationship.
  • An easy way to stop worrying is to take action to prevent the threat. Get your husband a heating pad to stop the pain he's trying to endure without drugs. Praise your wife's abilities more often while she's dealing with a psycho boss. Make a concrete plan for surviving whatever you fear might happen.
  • If you're catastrophizing about a threat (imagining the awful consequences of the consequences of something that might possibly happen to your spouse, like losing your home because of a heart attack that might follow from the clogged arteries that might happen as a result of your husband eating too much salt), here's a trick from Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and Flourish author and researcher Marty Seligman. Consider the probability of each of these steps happening. Now, just as vividly imagine the results of an equally improbable string of good luck. It's magic! And scientifically proven to work.
  • Let go and let God. If you're religious, stop praying to prevent what you fear and instead trust God will handle it for the two of you. Also scientifically proven to work.

And if none of these work, please ask a psychologist or psychiatrist for help selecting an approach that works for you. They have a bagful of tricks that work.

One thing I learned when my first husband dropped dead at age 35, the day after his doctor said his health was finally out of the woods, is that we are all helpless to control death. When my second husband was very abruptly encouraged by vicious new managers to take an early retirement the year after we married (only to learn two months later that this was not a punishment but a reward, as everyone else in his department was let go without a retirement package), I learned we are helpless to control our careers. Friends who have suffered fires learned we are helpless to control our possessions. But none of us have been helpless to control what happens next.

If you want to truly protect your marriage from death, career disasters, or loss, do it by focusing on enjoying every moment of your marriage, by being loving every chance you get and rolling around like a blissful puppy in the love you're shown. And keep the worry at bay by remembering all the hard times you've come through. You'll come through them again. Make sure you'll have some great memories of the good times to savor when you do.

The Author

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

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