Below is a draft of Chapter 2 of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.
“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare (Hamlet)
If your partner tells you, “We have a problem,” does your chest tighten? Do you forget to breathe? What goes through your mind? A problem! Agh! Does that mean he (she) will leave me? Is our relationship doomed? Do you jump to the conclusion that something is terribly wrong with the two of you as a couple, so wrong that it may be impossible to fix?
If this sounds like you, you are probably being duped by one of the harmful marriage myths that will be described below.
What you think a good marriage looks like will greatly influence how you feel about your marriage. So it is important to identify harmful myths about marriage that many of us accept as true. Let’s take a look at some common false beliefs that cause unhappiness in marriage and gain a more realistic viewpoint for each of them.
Destructive Marriage Myths
- A good marriage has no problems.
- You shouldn’t have to work on a marriage.
- My spouse should know how I feel and what I want: I shouldn’t have to say it.
- I shouldn’t have to settle; I deserve better.
- In a good marriage, all problems get resolved.
- It is important to keep the peace at any cost.
- Love is all you need.
- A weekly Marriage Meeting can save any marriage.
Marriage Myth #1: A good marriage has no problems.
A happily married couple shouldn’t have problems, right? Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim is credited with having said that the biggest problem with the American family is that it thinks it should not have any problems.
Whether because of the fairytales we grew up with or because schools teach nothing about the realities of marriage, many people think that in a good marriage a couple is not supposed to have any problems. They will pretend all is rosy until the stress of keeping their feelings inside builds to the point where it comes out harmfully.
Here are a few signs that may indicate that you are ignoring a relationship issue: Your sex life is not good. Your child is too quiet or too aggressive. You think your partner doesn’t love you. One of you is depressed, angry, or jumpy. You may find that you are drinking, eating, or gambling excessively.
Each of us of has wants and needs – which don’t always mesh with those of our mate. When we try to ignore what keeps us upset for too long, it can erupt like a volcano. Your particular challenge my may concern intimacy, parenting, sex, money, in-laws, work, or something else.
Do not wait to deal with anything that puts your relationship at risk. Marriage Meetings provide a safe, sure time to talk about what’s on your mind. You get to re-connect with each other lovingly, nurture yourselves and your relationship. You maintain the good feelings by dealing with small irritations before they grow into big ones.
The Potential for Conflict Exists Everywhere
Marriage and relationship educator Ellen Kreidman, Ph.D gives a simple example that shows how the potential for conflicts exists in any marriage by referring to one small room: the bathroom. One spouse wants the toilet paper to unroll from the top; the other wants it from the bottom. One leaves the toilet seat up; the other wants it down; one likes a sparkling clean sink; the other leaves hairs or specks of make-up in it. One likes the door open; the other insists on privacy. And so on…
If you’re thinking separate bathrooms, I’m with you! But that is not always possible. Still, by being creative and resourceful in addressing concerns, you can often come up with ways to lessen annoyances.
The Risk of Concealing Differences
Lilly and Jonathan illustrate the danger of taking too long to identify and deal with a sensitive issue. Still childless after eight years of marriage, they finally adopted a baby girl. When Lilly first met Jonathan, she admired his take-charge manner. She felt protected by him. Soft-spoken and diplomatic, she acquiesced to him on most matters.
Lilly’s parents had fought a lot and eventually divorced. She didn’t want this to happen to her. She believed it was important to go along with her husband on most matters in order to keep the peace. Before they became parents, he encouraged her to give up her career as an emergency room nurse to stay home with their child at least until kindergarten.
Lilly thought this was a small price to pay for having her dream of motherhood come true. Lilly squelched her doubts about giving up work she loved. She went along with Jonathan’s idea for her to be a full time mother. She told herself that it was “the right thing to do.”
But after two years at home, Lilly thought she would lose her mind. She loved her little girl, but she sorely missed the hustle and bustle of her hospital work, fraternizing with colleagues and caring for patients. She also missed the salary, which she had been free to spend as she chose. Now she earned nothing. When Jonathan objected to a small purchase she made, he justified his right to do so, saying, “I’m the breadwinner.” Lilly felt her chest tighten. Wanting to keep the peace, she said, “I’ll take it back.”
Lilly pretends all is well until it is too late
In public, Lilly played the part of a smiling, contented wife and mother. Privately, she began to feel distant from her husband. She lost interest in sex. She resented him but said nothing. She felt ignored and invisible—until she served a stunned Jonathan with divorce papers.
Is Jonathan a villain? Lilly shared none of her frustration with him. Should Jonathan have read her mind? Either partner might have saved their marriage by initiating an honest conversation. Jonathan could have asked his wife whether something other than her “headaches” was causing her to withdraw sexually. She could have told him about her unhappiness and said what she really wanted, even if she felt selfish or guilty.
This couple might then have found ways to compromise, perhaps by agreeing for her to return to work on a part-time basis. Lilly might have suggested to Jonathan that it would be fair for each of them to have a certain amount of money to spend with no questions asked, regardless of who earned it. By talking it out with honesty and mutual respect, they may well have created a way for practical solutions to emerge, for trust to grow, and for the return of emotional and physical intimacy.
Marriage Myth #2: You should not have to “work” on a marriage.
Fairytales promote the effortless happily-ever-after marriage myth when we are at an impressionable age. Later we view romantic movies and read novels with happily-ever-after endings.
As a result, many adults hold unrealistic expectations about marriage. They spend more time maintaining a car—checking tire pressure, changing the oil, and getting the recommended inspections–then they spend on keeping their most important relationship in good working order.
Obviously, we humans are more complicated than cars. We have infinitely complex bodies to maintain. We also have feelings, different ways of thinking, hopes and dreams. And then, when you put two of us together…
Romance can occur after marriage, but not automatically. The payoff from investing periodic maintenance in your relationship is that the two of you can continue to enjoy love, intimacy, and passion now and in the future. Together, you can create and maintain a fulfilling marriage that lasts for the rest of your life.
Marriage Myth #3: My spouse should know how I feel and what I want: I shouldn’t have to say it.
“I shouldn’t have to tell him. He should know what I want,” Cindy thinks about her husband. She believes he should know when she’s in the mood to go out for pizza, not sushi and vice versa. He should know what she wants for her birthday. He should know what turns her on sexually. She wonders how he can be so clueless but she doesn’t say a word.
Actually, there are people who are able to get their needs met without saying a word. They
are called infants. A mother learns to read her baby’s cues. She soon knows which kind of crying means “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” or “I’m uncomfortable; I need my diaper changed.” She understands which body movements and facial expression say “I’m scared,” “I’m happy,” and “I want that.”
Adults who find partners who can read their mind exist in fairy tales and romantic movies. There, charmed couples don’t need to be told how to give the perfect kiss, gift, and massage.
What do these examples of mind-reading have to do with real life adult relationships? Very little, even in the best of marriages.
Usually the best way to feel understood by your partner is to clearly communicate what’s on your mind kindly and respectfully. Even the most sensitive, intuitive spouse cannot live up an expectation of being able to read your mind any more than you can expect to be able to read his or hers. Yes, in a good relationship there will be some tuning into each other. Just don’t expect miracles.
If your self-expression was stifled when you were young, you will have some catching up to do as you learn to feel more comfortable saying what is true for you. This is okay. Doing so will become easier and easier as you continue to practice speaking up, using the communication skills described in Chapter 8.
Marriage Myth #4: I shouldn’t have to settle; I deserve better.
A woman wanted to get married. She met many men but was always disappointed. None of them had the combination of traits she felt she deserved. Despairing, she consulted a famous rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who was respected around the world the sage advice he gave to whoever sought it. She told the Rebbe that she wanted a man who was always kind, considerate, generous, sensitive, assertive, a good listener, handsome, healthy, reliable, responsible, who would be a good provider and a good father to the children she hoped they would have.
“I’m afraid I’ll never find such a man,” she added.
“Certainly, you can find him,” the Rebbe replied. “You can find him in a novel.”
In real life people have imperfections. (Yes, you too!) So when your partner disappoints you, ask yourself how important it is in the grand scheme of things that he or she does what you were hoping for.
For example, you may have a husband who is a considerate, responsible partner who has a great sense of humor, and/or other traits you value. It happens, though, that you love receiving flowers from him but he rarely gives them because he thinks they are a waste of money. Do you want to kvetch and whine that you shouldn’t have to “settle” for this “inconsiderate cheapskate?”
What if you are annoyed by your wife’s habitual lateness? Yet you value her joie de vivre, creativity, helpfulness, and other fine traits. Will you grumble that you deserve better and think if she really loved you she would be on time?
Instead, let go of unrealistic expectations.
Buy your own flowers or live without them. Work around her lateness when it’s not crucial to be somewhere on time and tell her in advance when it really matters. Negotiate creatively; see Chapter 8 for how to do this. Appreciate your partner’s strengths and work around the limitations and let your partner will do the same for you.
If your relationship is basically healthy, you are not settling in the sense of accepting less than you deserve. You are settling down into a living in harmony with your spouse. You have a marriage that is reality based. It is less than 100 % perfect. It is real life.
Marriage Myth #5: In a good marriage, all problems can be resolved.
During my early workshops, I used to say that couples can resolve virtually any problem by holding a weekly Marriage Meeting. One wife present who been married for 50 years, blurted out: That’s not true. Many problems can’t get resolved.”
According to psychologist/author John Gottman, she was right. His groundbreaking research found that a whopping 69% of problems in marriage do not get solved. His good news, though, is that many problems can be managed. Gottman states that couples can live with non-resolvable conflicts about perpetual issues in their relationship if they are not “deal-breakers.”
Simply put, it is not the presence of conflict that stresses the relationship; it is the manner in which the couple responds. Positive, respectful communication about differences help keep a marriage thriving.
Here is what I actually meant when I said couples can resolve virtually any problem by conducting Marriage Meetings: The meetings foster a spirit of good will and acceptance, a “live and let live” respectful attitude that allows partners to be themselves. The process results in the ability to minimize or manage conflicts that may not be resolvable.
Non-resolvable conflicts do not have to be deal-breakers
Here are a few examples of non-resolvable conflicts that you can probably learn to live with, assuming the two of you get along well most of the time:
- You think your spouse is too strict (or too lenient) with the children.
- You are irritated by your partner’s habitual lateness.
- Your partner has an okay job, but you wish he or she were more ambitious.
- Your spouse leaves crumbs on the counter even though you’ve said you don’t like that…
- Your spouse is forgetful.
How can you accept quirks and habits of your partner that have been bothering you for some time despite your efforts to change unwanted behavior? Look at the big picture. All in all, are you glad to be married to this person? If yes, do you want to keep carping and become a source of irritation to your spouse, or do you want a happy marriage?
Ask yourself, “Am I so perfect?” In a healthy relationship partners accept their mate’s foibles as part of a package that is precious.
Certainly, you may address some of these concerns during Marriage Meetings. Even if neither partner is likely to change very much about what irks you, both of you will get to express yourselves constructively. You can expect to feel heard and understood. You may get small improvements.
For example, Lew is bothered by his wife Elli’s frequent lateness. During the Problems and Challenges part of their Marriage Meeting he tells her, “I want us to be on time for the dinner party my boss invited us to. Please say I can count on your being ready by six o’clock Saturday night.” He adds for emphasis, “This is really important to me, and for us, because I want that promotion.” Of course, if Ellie complies, he is generous in expressing appreciation.
How to manage conflicts that are not deal breakers
During Problems and Challenges, say what’s on your mind. If you a situation is coming up soon in which you want your partner to behave in a certain way, this is a good time to ask for that. Lew has told Ellie he would like her to be on time for a specific event. You can do the same regarding something that is bothering you about your partner. Focus your comments on something fairly easy to change, especially during your first four to six Marriage Meetings.
Character traits are not likely to change, at least not without a great deal of effort. Lew did not ask Ellie to start being on time regularly. That would have been unrealistic. Her habitual lateness is too entrenched. He is learning to live with that.
Lew realizes he’s not perfect either. He appreciates Ellie for putting up with his forgetfulness and for finding ways to work around it. Lew is minimizing their conflict by managing it. He is encouraging his wife to be on time when it really matters to him. He does this when he has her full attention during their Marriage Meeting.
Ask yourself some questions before your Marriage Meeting
Choose carefully what you decided to bring up at the meeting, by first asking yourself:
Is this a big enough deal to make a fuss about?” You might decide to try to accept your spouse’s behavior. If you can succeed, great. If not, ask yourself:
- How crucial is it for me to get my way about this?” If the two of you are at odds over something, ask yourself: On a scale of one to ten, “ten” meaning that the matter is very important to you and “one” being very unimportant, pick a number. Then let whoever feels more strongly about the concern have it go his or her way.
- Are you willing to consider alternative solutions? If yes, brainstorm for more ideas. Then implement a mutually acceptable one. A simple example: About the toilet paper, you might end up agreeing that the best idea is that whoever replaces the roll gets to choose how to set it up. Chapter 8 explains how to generate a list of suggestions for resolving a more complex issue before deciding which one(s) to implement.
Then remember to express your appreciation when your spouse cooperates with you.
Minimize non-resolvable conflicts by managing them.
You can find out whether a non-resolvable conflict is manageable by talking about it directly, like Alan and Cathy did about the saved oatmeal in the previous chapter. They managed a non-resolvable conflict by agreeing that she would leave his oatmeal alone as long as it looked fit to eat. They resolved the immediate oatmeal problem, but a non-resolvable conflict remains. They will continue to have differences about how much clutter each thinks is okay to keep around. This conflict will not be a deal-breaker, as long as they continue to come up with respectful ways to handle their differences about clutter.
Keep Your Expectations Realistic
Maybe your partner will agree to change. Wonderful! Just understand that our basic nature and character traits are likely to remain the same. So don’t expect an introvert to become the life of the party, a frugal person to become a big spender, or a sensitive person to become thick-skinned.
However, behaviors that have not become habits are fairly easy to change–if the person wants to. The key word is “want.” Your partner may or may not want to change. You may have heard the joke: “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one–but the light bulb needs to want to change.”
Longstanding habits take more effort and time to change. If your spouse agrees to change one, be glad. Also be patient. When your partner makes an effort, let the compliments flow anytime, and especially during the Appreciation part of your Marriage Meeting. If you see no progress, and you think your partner will accept a gentle reminder, offer it during Problems and Challenges.
What if the change still does not happen? If your partner’s fault is not a deal-breaker, strive to accept what you cannot change. As Rabbi Joseph Richards said, People are annoying. So find the person who annoys you least and marry that one!
Keep irritations in perspective. Look at the big picture.
Some non-resolvable conflicts may be deal-breakers
Still, it can be life-saving to recognize when a conflict is severe enough to cause a couple to end their marriage. Here are some examples of conflicts that are deal-breakers for many couples:
- One wants children the other doesn’t.
- One wants quality time with partner who is a workaholic and comes home mainly to sleep.
- A partner is unwilling or unable to give up an addiction, such as to addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
- A partner is unfaithful.
- A partner is emotionally and/or physically abusive.
- Partners’ values are too different for them to agree on major issues, such as who will work, where to live, and how to spend leisure time.
Although the above conflicts may end up being deal-breakers, if you still hope to save your marriage, seek individual and/or couple therapy to help you communicate more constructively and/or to set goals and work toward achieving them.
If you and your partner are willing to hold Marriage Meetings, first conduct several low-key ones with plenty of appreciation. Keep the early meetings positive and light. If you are able to establish a pattern of successful meetings, after four to six of them, you can bring up a serious concern. This may sound like a long time to wait, but if you are seeing a therapist, you have a place to talk about serious issues.
During a later Marriage Meeting, just as you might say about other matters, “Honey, I’m concerned about your lateness,” or “Dear, I’ve noticed that you’ve been putting on weight; I’m worried about how this might affect your health,” you can express your distress about your spouse’s drinking, drug use, abusive behavior, or something else. Use the positive communication skills described in Chapter 8.
Example of a couple with a likely deal-breaker: emotional infidelity
Virginia and Cliff, an unmarried couple, illustrate an unresolvable conflict that is probably a deal-breaker. Virginia, an attractive business executive with a six-figure income, fell in love almost instantly with Cliff, a charming, talented artist. Thinking he was kind, honest, and financially solvent, she let him move into her home soon after they met.
For a while, Virginia accepted Cliff’s continued friendship with an ex-girlfriend—until she realized that the two of them were having an emotional affair. Meanwhile, Virginia was paying all the bills because it turned out that Cliff had no money.
About a year into their relationship, Virginia phoned to request couples therapy, saying, “If he doesn’t stop seeing her, I know what I’ll do,” implying she would break up with Cliff. During an early couple therapy session, Cliff proclaimed his love for Virginia and resolved to stop contacting the other woman. Within a few weeks, he was “sneaking around behind my back again,” Virginia said. Contrite, Cliff again told Virginia how much he loved her and promised once more to end the other relationship.
A few weeks later, Virginia discovered an email in which Cliff had written to the woman: “I love you,” and “I can hardly wait to see you.” During the subsequent therapy session, Cliff lashed out at Virginia for “never trusting me,” for looking at his emails, and for having pathological “abandonment fears.” Virginia said, “When you’re living with someone, you don’t tell another woman you love her and sneak around making phone calls to her and arranging to see her.” Cliff continued to imply that Virginia is being ridiculous. He said she should trust him, that he would never sleep with the other woman, that Virginia is “number one” with him, and “Why can’t she let me be myself?” Cliff was basically telling Virginia not to trust her feelings. He has partially convinced her that her hurt and anger are unreasonable, that he is innocent and she is the one with the problem. Virginia says, “I want him to validate my feelings.” Of course, he cannot. Giving credence to her feelings would make it too difficult for him to continue justifying the other relationship. Is Cliff the villain in this drama? It would be easy to think so. Yet, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can take advantage of you without your consent.” Virginia fell in love with a fantasy of a perfect lover. She quickly committed to an intimate a relationship with Cliff, before knowing some important things about him that were at odds with her fantasy. Now she is in the heartbreaking position of being emotionally bonded to him, yet furious because he refuses to fit the mold she has shaped.
Virginia still hopes her relationship with Cliff will improve. So far, she has not recognized that their different approaches to fidelity are a deal-breaker. He is splitting his emotions between two women and will never be likely to commit only to her. His behavior is not conducive to a monogamous relationship, which is what she needs to be happy.
For many people, and probably for Virginia eventually, Cliff’s behavior would be a deal-breaker. Most partners would refuse to tolerate his continuing infidelity.
Marriage Myth #6: It is important to keep the peace at any cost.
How do you know when you are closing your eyes to a sensitive issue because you want to keep your relationship pleasant?
Gain awareness about what is upsetting you; then deal with it.
If you are not conscious of what is wrong, how can you do anything about it? You can become aware that something may be amiss in your relationship by noticing changes that occur in your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and bodily sensations. You may find yourself complaining and feeling less tolerant of your partner’s shortcomings. You may feel unappreciated and unloved. Try to understand what these changes mean. If you realize that a conflict exists, think about how to deal with it constructively.
Failing to address a conflict puts a relationship at risk
As described earlier in this chapter, Lilly unconsciously blamed her husband Jonathan both for feeling trapped at home with her child and for being unreasonably critical about her spending. She noticed that her chest tightened when he expressed disapproval of her for buying something he considered unnecessary and when he would move toward her in bed. She had lost interest in having sex. She realized, “I no longer feel close to him.” Seeing no way out of her misery except to leave him, she finally asked for a divorce.
Making waves can save a marriage
Lilly might have saved her marriage by asking herself these questions: “Why do I feel distant from Jonathan? What am I unhappy about in our relationship? What am I unhappy about in my life?” “What would it take to make me happy?”
She might realize, “I’m feeling angry at Jonathan for trying to control me.” She might have then opened up her world by asking herself: “What would it take to make me happy?”
After coming up with answers to these questions, Lilly could have decided to have an honest, constructive conversation with her husband about her real feelings, wants and needs. The couple then would have had the opportunity to do the kind of creative problem solving that can lead to a solution that satisfies both partners. For example, they might agree for Lilly to return to work, but part-time and/or to a budget that gives Lilly money to spend as she chooses.
Unfortunately, Lilly had bought into the “keep the peace at any cost” myth until it was too late to save her marriage.
Marriage Myth #7: Love is all you need.
The Beatles notwithstanding, if you’ve read this far, you know that for a good lasting relationship love is wonderful, but the brain needs to be engaged to keep (what the Righteous Brothers called) “that loving feeling” alive and growing.
Singles who want to get married are often advised to make a list of ten characteristics they are looking for in a mate. If you are married to someone who meets your basic requirements for a life partner, be grateful. But that is just the beginning. Love can grow or fade. If you want to maintain that loving feeling, it is mainly up to you. A simple way to keep your relationship on track and the love flowing is to commit to maintaining it with weekly Marriage Meetings that cover all the basics.
Marriage Myth #8: Marriage Meetings Can Save Any Marriage
It would be nice to be able to say that with the right tools and help, every committed relationship can become a lasting, successful one.
But this is not true. Some relationships are doomed to fail because the couple got together for the wrong reasons. They did not recognize an unresolvable conflict that would become a deal-breaker, like when Virginia let Cliff move in to her place before knowing that his definition of fidelity was different from hers. When disagreement exists about a strongly held value, no amount of Marriage Meetings or couples therapy will assure a successful relationship.
A marriage can fail because at least one partner is not invested enough in the relationship to invest enough energy into making it work, which can include committing to individual and/or couple therapy.
About the Guarantee: Read the Fine Print
Given all the challenges marriages face, how do I have the chutzpah to use the word, Guarantee, in the title of this book? First, I begin with the assumption that marriage partners take their vows seriously. They sincerely want to create and keep a fulfilling relationship for themselves and their partner. Marriage partners who take their vows seriously know that marriage is a journey, not a destination. The long term relationship they’ve always wanted is not an effortless happily-ever-after fairytale come true but an ongoing process that requires regular proactive maintenance by both of you.
Guarantees come with stipulations. Typically, a guarantee applies when the product is used as directed. By reading this book, you will know how to invest a small amount of time each week to continually create a reality-based fulfilling relationship that supports the growth and vitality of both your partner and yourself.
Because most of us are human, not saints, we are naturally selfish. Our challenge is to set a higher priority on the success of our relationship than on replaying less-than-healthy, entrenched patterns that provide a familiar sense of comfort. Rather than entering into a win-lose power struggle with your partner, strive to respect both of your rights to have different perspectives on an issue. Only then can you journey toward mutual understanding, and in the process, find solutions that honor both your partner’s and your own desires and needs.
Successful weekly Marriage Meetings can reduce or eliminate the need for therapy and counseling. However, the meetings alone are not a cure-all for every relationship. Some situations call out for assistance from a compassionate skilled, professional who can help you identify and resolve or manage issues that continue to fester.
My guarantee is evidence based. About half of the couples who attend my Marriage Meeting workshops continued to hold the meetings afterwards. A follow-up survey showed that every one of these couples reported a happier, more loving relationship.
Knowledge is power
When you find yourself stewing about something that is at odds with your view of a good marriage, dig inside to discover whether you are tuning into fact or fiction. You may be listening to a marriage myth channel. Once you clear up your thinking, you are on your way to the kind of marriage you really want– a happy, fulfilling one that lets each of you be who you really are, and with room to grow.