My husband and I just celebrated our 3rd wedding anniversary (Anniversary Pear Cake with Berries and Whipped Cream above) and I think we are the happiest married couple that I know. Maybe it’s because there are a number of couples we know that are breaking up or maybe it’s because at my engagement party, my cousin and brother-in-law said, “Just wait a few years, you won’t think marriage is such a great idea”, which made me so determined to not end up like them. Whatever the reason, it seems that we have something that many other couples don’t have. That got me thinking about why our relationship is so successful while others are grumbling, some even in their first year of marriage.
What can go wrong?
When I look at the couples having difficulties, it seems to come down to two basic problems.
1. Expectations about what marriage is or what they think it should be.
2. How they problem solve when an issue comes up.
Let’s talk about the first issue, expectations of marriage. One thing I’ve noticed is that while a couple is dating, they behave with a “dating mentality”. They behave in a way that they think dating couples should behave, but once married, they go back to how they normally would behave or how they believe they should act within a marriage. For example, the man may tolerate eating Asian food then once married, he will not tolerate eating Asian food even if that is what the couple had done the entire time they were dating. The man may be generous during the dating phase and then once married, go back to his frugal ways. Or, the woman may be surprised that once married, her husband isn’t as adventurous sexually but wants her to do all the cooking and cleaning, serve him meals and quit her job to have children because these are his expectations of what marriage looks like. These types of behaviors can be shocking to a woman once they finally tie the knot. She could say that she never saw it coming. Then there could be other more serious issues around finances or child rearing. A woman who enjoys shopping and has always had her own bank account may find that her husband doesn’t agree with how she spends money. He may see her spending as excessive and a threat to their financial security, while she may not agree with being tied to a financial leash. With children, it becomes more complex because our decisions can affect the child’s life-long wellbeing. Of course the man can also be surprised that the woman doesn’t see eye to eye with him anymore and she may have changed her ways once married as well.
It seems to me that most couples don’t discover these issues until they begin to experience the problem. By then, one issue affects a series of others, emotions escalate, and things tend to snowball. The couple is so overwhelmed that they can’t seem to pinpoint what the initial issue was that started the turmoil. They may try to work it out or fight it out, but many times the basic issues are hidden beneath layers of other issues and emotions that it is hard to get to the bottom of it.
So what can you do to avoid this downward spiral?
The best thing to do is to start off the relationship right by understanding and really getting to know each others’ expectations of marriage. Literally talk about everything that you can think of. You can email me for a suggested list of things to consider at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once you’ve talked about everything you might encounter in marriage, if you and your spouse have different expectations, it will be easier to workout before you’re having the problem. This might be a dose of reality for a couple that is not meant to be together. If there are too many things that you cannot agree upon, it may be better to be honest with yourselves and call off the marriage before you get in even deeper.
If you are already married and have not addressed these issues, it may sound nearly impossible to change the dynamic that has already taken hold. But consider the consequences of doing nothing– the longer you ignore the problems, the bigger the snowball and the negative consequences engulf your life even more. You’ll slowly drift apart and end up acting like roommates more than husband and wife. This is when a spouse will be attracted to someone who is supportive and seems to understand them… a nice friendship then can lead to an affair.
It’s important to realize that as in all relationships that endure over time, you may feel like you’re a match made in heaven at times and at other times you may not feel as connected. Some people freak out when they are not feeling that total connection. But if you realize this is a natural ebb and flow (if there are no glaring red flags to address) then you can relax and enjoy your marriage as it is at this moment. The thing is, is that life changes and we change over the years, so we should expect our relationship to change and change again and change again whenever we are going through another phase of life. Why are we so afraid of change? Do we hang on to an unrealistic expectation to stay the same? If we take it as a given that each person in the marriage is going to change over time and go through many changing phases, then we can expect it rather than be surprised by it. For long-time married couples, just being open and flexible to renew your definition and expectations of marriage will open up new possibilities of building an even stronger bond.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that some couples constantly bicker. As each fights for what they want, someone has to eventually give in. There is a constant tug of war going on and someone always ends up feeling like a loser. This creates an on-going battle with each trying to get something from the other to win. To stop this cycle, you have to get on the same team. With a team approach, both of you are working toward the same goal of making the team healthy and happy. Everything you do is for the betterment of the team which means both your needs get met because both of you are doing whatever you can to support the other to make that happen. Being a good team player means that all your actions are motivated by this mentality of taking care of the team. So when my husband is out doing things, I know that it is to help the entire family in some way. It takes away any feeling of doubt, jealousy, even resentment that one might have if he is out doing something just for himself, especially at the expense of the other. Even when my husband goes out to surf or kite board, I know that he is being a good team player by taking care of his mental and physical health so that he has enough energy and good spirits to bring home to the family.
Another way to create a supportive team is what I call 80/80. Instead of meeting your partner half way (50/50), if you give eighty percent and your spouse gives eighty percent, then each of you feels totally supported because your partner is going beyond just what is fair. Instead of trying to get something from your partner, there is an overall feeling of giving from both sides. When he feels your support, he will want to support you even more. When you feel his support, your emotion/energy tank gets filled with love and energy that you in turn give back to the team.
Okay, so now that you have the tools to create a happy marriage, what happens when a problem does come up.
Here’s a scenario that happened between me and my husband to illustrate how we deal with issues. After our second child was born, things in our household became very intense dealing with two babies only fifteen months apart. I was worn out and irritable all the time (which is so unlike my normal, happy self). My husband felt maxed out working three jobs and coming home to a crying, chaotic household and a crabby, stressed out wife. We found ourselves not enjoying our life anymore. My husband started trying to find space from the stress by staying out after work. He would call me from Home Depot or Lowes hardware store and ask if there was anything I needed from the store. He was just wandering the isles and deep down feeling guilty for not wanting to come home. We would look at each other knowing there was so much love there, but not feeling the joy anymore. We knew this was not how we wanted to live life and we talked about what we could do. In acknowledging our true feelings, we realized that we both needed our own time for ourselves. Once we figured out how to do that, a big cloud of tension disappeared. My husband didn’t feel guilty anymore because I gave him “permission” to take time for himself after work to go read a book at the beach or go surfing. And I felt so much better because he would come home happy, refreshed and ready to help me at home. He helped me find time for myself by paying for a membership at the YMCA. I could bring the children to the child-watch program and get a ninety minute workout for myself. On tired days I might even read a book or listen to a CD while riding the recumbent bike. This gave me the respite I needed and as an unexpected bonus I also gained more energy and lost weight from all the exercise. My husband and I felt that we totally turned our life back around to that happy existence we were used to.
So what can you do when a problem comes up?
• First, keep in touch with your own emotions. When you start to feel bad, that is a red flag telling you that you need to look at something that is not working for you.
• Check in with your spouse periodically. Ask if there is anything that you can do differently to make each other happier. Is there anything they can do to make you feel more supported or loved.
• Acknowledge your true feelings and your spouses true feelings. Don’t ignore those red flags!
• Talk compassionately about how you see they might feel hurt, angry, unsupported, etc. in the current situation.
• Brainstorm together about how you might help each other resolve the problem.
• Talk about how you can support the other in what they are trying to achieve.
• Come to an agreement about the way that you can make these changes happen.
• After resolving the issue, talk again about how you see these changes have made a difference to your spouse.
If you do this whenever any issue comes up, it becomes easier and easier. Even doing this with small things helps to resolve problems as they come up so that there is not a huge build-up of feelings around a bunch of problems.
Girlfriends, there are some other important things you need to know about men in general in order to keep your husband happy. I will write about them in another blog post called: What Men Need From Their Wives.
Now that you know my secret recipe… go and create your happily forever after marriage!
Your Sensible Girlfriend,
P.S. I also do know some very happily married couples, so if you are one of them, you can share what you think keeps your marriage happy.