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.
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.