Every marriage completes something in us and omits something we need. The sense of completion is what draws us to each other while the familiar void of the omission is what we fuss about. For instance, if we come from a large loving family we may feel a sense of completion when we marry someone who is kind and wants a family too. Yet, if we were personally overlooked because individual needs were sacrificed for the sake of the larger group, we may feel the familiar edginess of not being taken into consideration when our spouse suddenly announces “we’re going to Spain on our next vacation”. How we manage the struggle for completion is often what characterizes the strength and resiliency of a marriage.
The following five ways to promote marital health and harmony can assist you in finding the marital balance we all desire.
1) Learning how to say something about your spouse to your spouse (and, how to hear something being said to you about yourself), also known as Telling the Truth:
It’s often said that no one knows you better than your spouse. Living together will expose even the most subtle aspects of one’s personality. Consequently, spouses are the only people who can legitimately speak openly and freely about each other to each other. The problem is, they don’t. The reasons vary, but usually when it is time to be honest the other spouse often ends up being defensive.
There are three common defensive reactions we have when we hear something about ourselves we do not like; we boomerang it back, we generalize it, or we internalize it. The following are some examples of common reactions when saying something about our spouse to our spouse.
Statement from one spouse to the other about the other:
I really don’t like it when you use text-speak instead of words. .Hearing you say OMG all the time makes me feel like I’m listening to a teenager.
(With a pained expression) What else do I say that you don’t like?
(With a hurt look) You mean you don’t like how I talk?
(With an angry look) You say a lot of things I don’t like either but I don’t tell you not to say them! And, don’t call me a teenager!
The one response you generally do not hear is, “I can understand that. I’ve just been keeping up with the Kardashian’s too much lately. I’ll try my best not to do that around you.” After a few months of defensive interactions we quite naturally stop being honest and become impatient, sarcastic, withholding and even hostile instead.
2) Being the sexual custodian of your spouses’ sexual expression:
Sex distinguishes a marriage from a friendship, companionship or roommate arrangement. It is the personal/intimate part of our lives that we almost exclusively share with our mate. It is so powerful that if one spouse decides to become celibate, the other spouse, by default, must become celibate too. If one spouse decides to go outside of the marriage, they bring potential disease and unexpected deception to the other spouse. If one spouse is physically boring the other spouse is relegated to a boring sex life too.
Sex is a tacit agreement in all marital vows, yet it is never spoken out loud. As an unspoken part of the marital vows, sex needs to be negotiated and implemented with care and consideration. By keeping in mind that you are the custodians of each other’s sexual expression you can move towards mutual sexual satisfaction rather than seeing sex as a demand, requirement, obligation or accommodation.
3) Argue, fight and Bicker:
If you are not occasionally arguing you are not being honest. Two people cannot live together without having differences that sometimes gets on each other’s nerves. Arguing relieves tension, freshens the soul, and creates an environment where ‘letting it fly’ isn’t a destructive practice (as long as you don’t take it literally and chuck something at your spouse).
A good way to see if you’re avoiding arguments is to do the simple “I like it” “I don’t like it” test. Divide all of your interactions into two categories; I like it or I don’t like it. Then ask yourself if you are sharing the things you like and don’t like with your partner. Once you identify those things you don’t like, even if you don’t like them 1% more than you like them, try sharing your reaction with your partner. Simply say, “you know, although it’s not a big deal, I didn’t like what you said just before.” You’ll be surprised how this can open up some healthy lines of communication, including fighting and bickering about things that were there all along but never taken seriously enough to express.
Once you start arguing, you have to learn to resolve your differences. This is one of the skills we lack because no one teaches us conflict resolution until the conflict is so great we end up in therapy. Just think back to your family of origin. I bet most of you will be surprised to find that you come from families where there was either very little conflict between your parents or from families with high conflict. High conflict families resolve tension by exhausting themselves in the fight, and then when they are refreshed they do it all over again. Low conflict families do not model conflict resolution because resolution was either done in private or there was no need for it. Consequently, our mental model for conflict resolution is largely missing.
Typically, the thing we do not do well we avoid. Thus, conflict avoidance is one of the greatest obstacles to a healthy relationship. If you can’t resolve conflict you will end up avoiding arguments altogether. Consequently, instead of building up a healthy capacity for differences and resolution you will end up diluting the substance of the relationship.
From Mark Twain saying that “money is the root of all evil” to Albert Camus declaring that “it is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money,” there’s no denying the role money plays in our family life. No matter what value you place on money, you have to learn to deal with it one way or another. Here are some signs that money is an issue in your marriage:
- You talk about budgeting but never do one
- You create a budget and then act like you don’t have one
- You spend more than you make
- You hide what you spend
- You can’t ask your spouse about it without it turning into an argument
- There are power plays when one earns more than the other
- You’re unaware of your financial resources and how they are being used
- You compensate for your spouses’ spending by being thrifty
- You take financial risks thinking you’ll strike it rich and won’t have to worry about money any more
- You overspend during holidays and birthdays to compensate for not having enough to spend during the year
- Your retirement plan is to earn more money
Without the ability to talk about money it will undoubtedly be one of the biggest issues in your marriage.
Look to these five keys for marital strength and resiliency the next time you feel the gap widening in your marriage. By engaging in these discourses rather than avoiding them, you can rejuvenate the sincerity of your marriage and open yourself up to the growth that comes from crucial conversations with your spouse.
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About the AuthorLarry Laveman, LCSW, BCD, is a Psychotherapist and Author in Solana Beach, California. His publications include topics on marriage counseling, supervision, mental health and spirituality. He is the former Chief Clinical Director for Harmonium, Inc., a community based nonprofit organization specializing in children, adolescents and families. You can find contact him via Google +, LinkedIn, or this website's contact page.