Welcome to Marriage Myth #6! As you read the article and read on here, you might consider talking with the people in your life about what marriage means. What do you believe is the purpose or point of marriage? When I talk to my spouse about our beliefs about marriage, our connection grows, our patience increases and our love deepens. Give it a shot and please let me know how it goes! (PS – What did you and your spouse discover about your endorsement or rejection of Myth #5?)
Myth #6: I must first feel better about my partner before I can change my behavior toward him or her.
While I’ve certainly bought in to this myth at various points in my marriage, I know that the more accurate statement is: “I must first feel better about my partner before I want to change my behavior toward him or her.” It’s tough to keep working on a relationship when you’re not feeling great about your partner. It’s normal to want your partner to make the first move towards reconciling. It’s easy to indulge in self-pity or to hold a grudge. Sometimes it feels good to do so. Unfortunately, that fleeting good feeling will almost certainly fade. It’s been my experience that a walk down the self-pity path rarely leads back to a satisfying relationship with your partner.
McGoldrick and Hardy (2008) advise: “the need for acknowledgement of the particular injustices we have endured can drive us into a symmetrical, mutually isolating competition to be heard “ (p. 421). They were referring to race relations, but I think the same principle can apply to marriages.
I’ve noticed this cycle in my own relationship. For example, I’ve repeatedly requested that my husband wash our dogs once a week. He’s agreed to do so, but it doesn’t always happen. As you might imagine, I’m bugged when he doesn’t follow through. Without a bath, my dogs will shed overwhelming fur balls all over my living room couch making it practically impossible to host company or even sit comfortably on our furniture. On top of that, my trust is damaged when his promise to me isn’t kept.
From my husband’s perspective, my lack of compassion for his situation leads to damaged trust as well. Before the dog agreement, I promised him that I’d support him in launching an independent contracting business. We both knew that the launch would be a huge undertaking that would claim a considerable portion of his time and energy. When I get upset about the dirty dogs, he feels unsupported in his efforts to create the business that will feed our family.
So there we are: dirty doggies, furry furniture and tarnished trust. At that point, we have three choices: 1- We can continue to criticize each other for not keeping up our respective ends of the deal, 2- I could let up on the dog washing and cut him some slack (or wash them myself), or 3- He could recommit to better organize his time to include a doggie bath moving forward. Choice 1 is likely our automatic response. However, it is also the choice that will lock us into McGoldrick and Hardy’s “symmetrical, mutually isolating competition to be heard”. Boo. Choice 2 or 3 seem much more likely to move our relationship ahead. The tough part is trusting that your partner will graciously accept your efforts.
When our relationship is going well, it’s like a fully loaded bank account. Then, one of us ends up doing one of the annoying or stupid things that we all do in relationships (like not washing the dogs or like nagging incessantly about furry furniture). Each muddy paw print and each harsh reminder pull funds out of the relationship bank. Good news is: if we’ve been diligent caring for our relationship, the balance of our relationship account should be able to take the hit.
To protect against unexpected withdrawals, my husband and I can use what John Gottman calls “repair attempts” to reinforce our faith in one another. When we are in the midst of a marital death match, each of us has the option to send the other a little reassurance message in the midst of our bickering. A little smile might mean “this sucks for right now, but I still want to be with you forever”. A touch could reassure that “we’ll get through this”. Simply stated, “repair attempts” are small efforts to pull our relationship back together when challenges threaten our connection. When we aren’t fighting, we can build up bonus trust by holding hands, by sharing stories from our day, or by giving each other compliments and such. Daily efforts toward small trust-building activities help protect the relationship when conflict later occurs.
In my own relationship, I’ve seen the tone of a disagreement change dramatically when I’m able to reassure my husband that I’m glad that I married him. When he is reassured of my commitment to our marriage, he tends to spend less time defending his side of the argument and more effort towards collaborating on a solution.
McGoldrick, M. & Hardy, K. V. (Eds.). (2008). Re-visioning family therapy (2nd ed). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.