The Disappointing Spouse

There is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what makes a successful marriage. If we ask people what would help their theirs, almost invariably they’ll start with a polite generality about getting more help, or better communication, or more intimacy. But in fairly short order we’ll find most of the complaints line up on the partner.

Rarely do we find people who are working hard on themselves as a part of their marriage, and yet that is why arranged marriages often test as happier. If we start off thinking we’re a match made in heaven then even the smallest mistake is going backwards.

Two people where either one has a huge a list of wants ends up being entirely unsustainable in any kind of long term healthy way because eventually the partner doing the serving will wear out.

On the other hand, if we go into an arranged marriage we know that we already have a lot in common, but we also know we now we need to learn to appreciate each other. Only then the marriage is on a sustainable path because that makes us active in our awareness about the other person. We are looking for what we like, while in the un-arranged marriage at least one person is watching for things they don’t like.

The line defining when to care versus when to let something go requires a subtle balancing act between being ourselves, and the choice to trade the sacrifices to self for the advantages of a partnership. And thanks to pressures of daily life, no one stands still on that wide grey line. Everyone is always in a constant state of balancing, including the very happiest couples.

But what’s their advantage then? The happy ones? Their advantage is largely humility. Someone posted a reply on Reddit a few years back that speaks very well to this. It’s a good example of someone being courageous, self-aware and loving. Through her own realization she has managed to shift from want to appreciation, and she does it so well that I’ll just let this wife speak for herself:

My “Aha Moment” happened because of a package of hamburger meat. I asked my husband to stop by the store to pick up a few things for dinner, and when he got home, he plopped the bag on the counter. I started pulling things out of the bag, and realized he’d gotten the 70/30 hamburger meat – which means it’s 70% lean and 30% fat.

I asked, “What’s this?”

“Hamburger meat,” he replied, slightly confused.

“You didn’t get the right kind,” I said.

“I didn’t?” He replied with his brow furrowed. ” Was there some other brand you wanted or something?”

“No. You’re missing the point, ” I said. “You got the 70/30. I always get at least the 80/20.”

He laughed. “Oh. That’s all? I thought I’d really messed up or something.”

That’s how it started. I launched into him. I berated him for not being smarter. Why would he not get the more healthy option? Did he even read the labels? Why can’t I trust him? Do I need to spell out every little thing for him in minute detail so he gets it right? Also, and the thing I was probably most offended by, why wasn’t he more observant? How could he not have noticed over the years what I always get? Does he not pay attention to anything I do?

As he sat there, bearing the brunt of my righteous indignation and muttering responses like, “I never noticed,” “I really don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” and “I’ll get it right next time,” I saw his face gradually take on an expression that I’d seen on him a lot in recent years. It was a combination of resignation and demoralization. He looked eerily like our son does when he gets chastised. That’s when it hit me. “Why am I doing this? I’m not his mom.”

I suddenly felt terrible. And embarrassed for myself. He was right. It really wasn’t anything to get bent out of shape over. And there I was doing just that. Over a silly package of hamburger meat that he dutifully picked up from the grocery store just like I asked. If I had specific requirements, I should have been clearer. I didn’t know how to gracefully extract myself from the conversation without coming across like I have some kind of split personality, so I just mumbled something like, “Yeah. I guess we’ll make do with this. I’m going to start dinner.”

He seemed relieved it was over and he left the kitchen.

And then I sat there and thought long and hard about what I’d just done. And what I’d been doing to him for years, probably. The “hamburger meat moment,” as I’ve come to call it, certainly wasn’t the first time I scolded him for not doing something the way I thought it should be done. He was always putting something away in the wrong place. Or leaving something out. Or neglecting to do something altogether. And I was always right there to point it out to him.

Why do I do that? How does it benefit me to constantly belittle my husband? The man that I’ve taken as my partner in life. The father of my children. The guy I want to have by my side as I grow old. Why do I do what women are so often accused of, and try to change the way he does every little thing? Do I feel like I’m accomplishing something? Clearly not if I feel I have to keep doing it. Why do I think it’s reasonable to expect him to remember everything I want and do it just that way? The instances in which he does something differently, does it mean he’s wrong? When did “my way” become “the only way?” When did it become okay to constantly correct him and lecture him and point out every little thing I didn’t like as if he were making some kind of mistake?

And how does it benefit him? Does it make him think, “Wow! I’m sure glad she was there to set me straight?” I highly doubt it. He probably feels like I’m harping on him for no reason whatsoever. And it I’m pretty sure it makes him think his best approach in regards to me is to either stop doing things around the house, or avoid me altogether.

Two cases in point. #1. I recently found a shard of glass on the kitchen floor. I asked him what happened. He said he broke a glass the night before. When I asked why he didn’t tell me, he said, “I just cleaned it up and threw it away because I didn’t want you to have a conniption fit over it.” #2. I was taking out the trash and found a pair of blue tube socks in the bin outside. I asked him what happened and why he’d thrown them away. He said, “They accidentally got in the wash with my jeans. Every time I put in laundry, you feel the need to remind me not to mix colors and whites. I didn’t want you to see them and reinforce your obvious belief that I don’t know how to wash clothes after 35 years.”

So it got to the point where he felt it was a better idea — or just plain easier — to cover things up than admit he made a human error. What kind of environment have I created where he feels he’s not allowed to make mistakes?

And let’s look at these “offenses”: A broken glass. A pair of blue tube socks. Both common mistakes that anyone could have made. But he was right. Regarding the glass, I not only pointed out his clumsiness for breaking it, but also due to the shard I found, his sad attempt at cleaning it up. As for the socks, even though he’d clearly stated it was an accident, I gave him a verbal lesson about making sure he pays more attention when he’s sorting clothes. Whenever any issues like this arise, he’ll sit there and take it for a little bit, but always responds in the end with something like, “I guess it just doesn’t matter that much to me.”

I know now that what he means is, “this thing that has you so upset is a small detail, or a matter of opinion, or a preference, and I don’t see why you’re making it such a big deal.” But from my end I came to interpret it over time that he didn’t care about my happiness or trying to do things the way I think they should be done. I came to view it like “this guy just doesn’t get it.” I am clearly the brains of this operation.

I started thinking about what I’d observed with my friends’ relationships, and things my girlfriends would complain about regarding their husbands, and I realized that I wasn’t alone. Somehow, too many women have fallen into the belief that Wife Always Knows Best. There’s even a phrase to reinforce it: “Happy wife, happy life.” That doesn’t leave a lot of room for his opinions, does it?

It’s an easy stereotype to buy into. Look at the media. Movies, TV, advertisements – they’re all filled with images of hapless husbands and clever wives. He can’t cook. He can’t take care of the kids. If you send him out to get three things, he’ll come back with two — and they’ll both be wrong. We see it again and again.

What this constant nagging and harping does is send a message to our husbands that says “we don’t respect you. We don’t think you’re smart enough to do things right. We expect you to mess up. And when you do, you’ll be called out on it swiftly and without reservation.” Given this kind of negative reinforcement over time, he feels like nothing he can do is right (in your eyes). If he’s confident with himself and who he is, he’ll come to resent you. If he’s at all unsure about himself, he’ll start to believe you, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neither one is a desirable, beneficial outcome to you, him or the marriage.

Did my husband do the same to me? Just as I’m sure there are untold numbers of women who don’t ever do this kind of thing to their husbands, I’m sure there are men who do it to their wives too. But I don’t think of it as a typical male characteristic. As I sat and thought about it, I realized my husband didn’t display the same behavior toward me. I even thought about some of the times I really did make mistakes. The time I backed into the gate and scratched the car? He never said a word about it. The time I was making dinner, got distracted by a call from my mom, and burned it to cinders? He just said, “We can just order a pizza.” The time I tried to put the new patio furniture together and left his good tools out in the rain? “Accidents happen,” was his only response.

I shuddered to think what I would have said had the shoe been on the other foot and he’d made those mistakes.

So is he just a better person than me? Why doesn’t he bite my head off when I don’t do things the way he likes? I’d be a fool to think it doesn’t happen. And yet I don’t remember him ever calling me out on it. It doesn’t seem he’s as intent as changing the way I do things. But why?

Maybe I should take what’s he always said at face value. The fact that these little things “really don’t matter that much to him” is not a sign that he’s lazy, or that he’s incapable of learning, or that he just doesn’t give a damn about what I want. Maybe to him, the small details are not that important in his mind — and justifiably so. They’re not the kinds of things to start fights over. They’re not the kinds of things he needs to change about me. It certainly doesn’t make him dumb or inept. He’s just not as concerned with some of the minutia as I am. And it’s why he doesn’t freak out when he’s on the other side of the fence.

The bottom line in all this is that I chose this man as my partner. He’s not my servant. He’s not my employee. He’s not my child. I didn’t think he was stupid when I married him – otherwise I wouldn’t have. He doesn’t need to be reprimanded by me because I don’t like the way he does some things.

When I got to that point mentally, it then made me start thinking about all the good things about him. He’s intelligent. He’s a good person. He’s devoted. He’s awesome with the kids. And he does always help around the house. (Just not always to my liking!) Even more, not only does he refrain from giving me grief when I make mistakes or do things differently than him, he’s always been very agreeable to my way of doing things. And for the most part, if he notices I prefer to do something a certain way, he tries to remember it in the future. Instead of focusing on those wonderful things, I just harped on the negative. And again, I know I’m not alone in this.

If we keep attempting to make our husbands feel small, or foolish, or inept because they occasionally mess up (and I use that term to also mean “do things differently than us”), then eventually they’re going to stop trying to do things. Or worse yet, they’ll actually come to believe those labels are true.

In my case it’s my husband of 12+ years I’m talking about. The same man who thanklessly changed my car tire in the rain. The guy who taught our kids to ride bikes. The person who stayed with me at the hospital all night when my mom was sick. The man who has always worked hard to make a decent living and support his family.

He knows how to change the oil in the car. He can re-install my computer’s operating system. He lifts things for me that are too heavy and opens stuck jar lids. He shovels the sidewalk. He can put up a ceiling fan. He fixes the toilet when it won’t stop running. I can’t (or don’t) do any of those things. And yet I give him grief about a dish out of place. He’s a good man who does a lot for me, and doesn’t deserve to be harassed over little things that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Since my revelation, I try to catch myself when I start to nag. I’m not always 100% consistent, but I know I’ve gotten a lot better. And I’ve seen that one little change make a big improvement in our relationship. Things seem more relaxed. We seem to be getting along better. It think we’re both starting to see each other more as trusted partners, not adversarial opponents at odds with each other in our day-to-day existence. I’ve even come to accept that sometimes his way of doing things may be better!

It takes two to make a partnership. No one is always right and no one is always wrong. And you’re not always going to see eye-to-eye on every little thing. It doesn’t make you smarter, or superior, or more right to point out every little thing he does that’s not to your liking. Ladies, remember, it’s just hamburger meat.


 

Whirling thoughts about expectation and obligation can end up accidentally whipping our partners if we’re not careful. Today, look at your own relationships and find your own examples of “hamburger meat.” Because we all have them. And yet if we really want to impact our relationships positively, we’re often better to invest our energies in thinking about other things.

peace. s

Romantic Chemistry

Winner: 2015’s Blog of the Year!

If it’s working well you simply shift from a me to an us. That’s what relationships are. The couple is an entity unto itself. The mixture has a personality of its own and it routinely exhibits itself throughout the day, whether the couple is together or alone. But most of us get the management of this fact wrong. At least it’s for good reason.

732 Relax and Succeed - Until we have seen someone's darknessWe start as a baby and there isn’t even a world. Then we can see the world but there is no us—that’s why babies don’t recognize themselves in mirrors. Then our toddler selves develop an identity, and as children we learn about property and ownership and then people start marketing to us.

Due to those influences, for a period of time we become increasingly self-centered human beings from roughly 13 to 21, and then—if we’re paying attention—we grow increasingly less self-centered in about seven to eight year increments, which is why a lot of people find the quality of their relationships improves as they age.

Our first loves are when we are most self-centered. So we’ll believe all the fairy tales and we’ll think our partner is the other half of our pre-written story. In the wealthy world that’s where she’s loved and seen as beautiful; and he’s envied and seen as strong.

But the problems come when you try to turn that fantasy into a life because as soon as the other person doesn’t fulfill their part of our personal story, we tend to feel they’ve us and we break up. That’s why most relationships are so short when we’re younger. Our standards are ones no human could really meet.

This is due to how we choose to think about each other. When we first meet almost all we do is focus on all of the traits that are most important to us, plus however well the new person fills the particular holes left in us by our previous relationships. Any time we think that positively about anything we’ll be flooding our brains with the chemistry for awareness and gratitude and love—and it feels wonderful. But then…

732 Relax and Succeed - Maturity is when someone hurts youLife is busy, right? So life happens. And we get distracted. It used to be work was hidden at separate places and only fun was had together. Now we’re scheduling time together and there’s laundry and bill-paying and errands rather than all the fun. It’s domestic. It’s routine. It’s real.

And it’s disappointing compared to where we were focusing our thoughts previously. That fact means we’ll tend to start blaming the other person for that shift in our thinking, and therefore in our chemistry.

By now we’re focusing more on disappointing things and that’s what we’re talking to friends about, which only serves to lengthen the suffering unnecessarily. Eventually others and we come to notice, and focus on, so many differences that we’ll wonder why we’re even with someone and we’ll leave.

Meanwhile, the original person with all of their original qualities is still there, just waiting to be noticed. The only thing that makes it survivable is that both parties are variably doing it to each other.

When we’re younger we’re more absolute. If this person gets even one thing wrong then they are not our “soul mate” and so they must go. Then after a few painful losses we’re a bit more mature. We are more aware that it’s common for potential issues to arise, so the drug isn’t such a dizzying high at the start and we stick it through at least one of those tough patches.

That’s actually a big achievement for a person –to learn to accept mistakes. At least some mistakes. But after that rescue, we tend to have another good run for a while. But eventually we break up on the second or third trouble spot. Which is fine because again for people that are paying attention: we learn from each of these.

732 Relax and Succeed - The Velveteen RabbitLater we’re older and wiser. Plus as we age we know we both have more invested in our lives with each other so there’s more to lose and less time to make up the difference. Sometimes that makes us stay when we shouldn’t. Other times it makes us try a bit harder to make things work and often times that’s why it does.

I know a couple that get along stunningly well for about seven weeks and then they’re absolutely certain they need to divorce immediately. That lasts less than a week and they’re back in touch with why they fell in love. In fact, they’re particularly good at noticing each other’s qualities during those other seven weeks.

The wisdom that keeps their relationship healthy is half-gratitude and half-patience. Because now when the blow-up happens, deep down they both know that it’s a pattern and that it will go away when they change their thinking. They just have to wait. That’s a mature relationship. That’s people who know how to forgive. That’s what love looks like in the trenches.

It’s not easy being loved. Most of us tell stories to ourselves about ourselves that lead us to believe that we can’t possibly deserve to be truly loved and so we fight against it in strange ways. It’s like a gift we feel is too generous for little old us. But that’s only because we focus too much on our mistakes and not enough on our qualities.

Again, if we’re paying attention and are being introspective about our lives, we’ll learn over time that everyone is fallible and we too are as deserving of love as anyone else. By genuinely feeling that way we become vulnerable and thereby open ourselves up to the greatest sensations of love we will have ever known.

732 Relax and Succeed - Sometimes you forgive peopleWe should enter every relationship knowing that our brain chemistry will naturally shift after seven or eight straight months of thinking wonderful things about the other person. When it changes we shouldn’t panic.

We shouldn’t think something’s wrong with our relationship when all that’s happened is that there’s been a natural and necessary shift to our thinking to suit the relationship’s more mature stage. Nothing can stay new and exciting when we see it every day.

We must accept that trouble will happen but it will always only be as meaningful as we make it. We must remind ourselves that when we’re struggling we’ll want to control our partner’s behaviour—we’ll want to define their role in our life.

As soon as we can sense ourselves doing that we can consciously shift toward thinking about our partner’s many qualities instead. It’s not like they’re not there. We’re not stupid. We were attracted to them for a good reason.

Let’s all be more patient. More understanding. And be grateful. Let’s do those things as much as possible, because that’s as good a recipe for a great relationship as any. We just shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a lifetime to learn how to forgive ourselves for when we fail at that.

Now let’s go create a great day by appreciating the qualities of our partners and of everyone else around us. And don’t forget to include ourselves in there too.

Much love, s

Increasing Intimacy

Winner: 2015’s Blog of the Year #9

I used to do a very popular couples group that some people asked me to get going again. It was a fun weekend of lively, positive discussion where I would guide the attendees through a conversation that would inevitably provoke various insights about their partner, themselves and their relationship. Sometimes those insights were actually gentle, even comfortable realizations that maybe the relationship should actually end. However in the vast majority of cases the reaction to the sessions was a particularly tender re-connection.

672 Relax and Succeed - If you love a personTo teach someone how to behave in a relationship would be like teaching a dog to shake your hand. Yeah the dog is making the motion of shaking your hand but because they don’t get the real meaning behind that motion it’s useless. It’s faux. It’s not like them licking you. It’s not a real connection. I can’t create a set of rules for a good relationship. I have to wake people up to what the happy couples are paying attention to and what they do not pay attention to.

What you pay attention to—that is your life. I mean that completely literally. As Aristotle said, “To be conscious of what we are perceiving, or thinking, is to be conscious of our own existence.” That’s why I can’t reignite relationships by giving advice or lists of things to do. But the insights I provoke do lead to an increased awareness of each other and of the relationship. And that increased awareness very naturally leads to the same sorts of warmer and more romantic expressions that were evident when people first met. They are reminded of the core qualities that attracted them in the first place. Qualities that are easy to take for granted.

That blush of emotion we feel when we first meet cannot be sustained of course, because without being juxtaposed to something else we would never even know we were experiencing that bliss. But it can be regularly resurrected in any reasonably healthy relationship. That’s what relationships do. They undulate like that. They’re like sailing.

672 Relax and Succeed - It's not about giving up on the fairy taleA relationship is like two sailboats. They can start off from vastly different harbours and they can be different sizes and types of sailboats. People can be from very different places and backgrounds and can have very different experiences throughout their life. Sometimes the differences are the cultures you grew up in. Or disparities like extreme fame or wealth or ability. If two boats come from vastly different places they will often meet at very perpendicular angles. That might result in an awesome crash together, but after that you’re often left picking up the pieces in an ocean of doubt. And yes, if someone’s super famous or rich or powerful and their partner is not, that can make sailing together more difficult too. But you know what? It doesn’t matter who you are or what it is, problems like that are just barnacles.

Yeah, they’re always hidden below the water line but everyone’s got barnacles on their hull. Everyone pushes through life with the weight of these past experiences that just seem to cling to our individual psyches. In fact our only escape is to not have an individual psyche. And you can start by trading just yours for one that includes you and your partner. That is to say, the point of me  generating the insights is to try to get each partner to consider each other’s position and personality more completely before reacting to any given words or behaviour. Essentially they learn to listen better.

So while it may be true that two boats from very different places are less likely to sail together, and that different shaped boats make for different sailing experiences, it is nevertheless true that any boat can choose to sail next to any other boat. (Yes, even if the two boats are both shes.) So boats are people and our course represents who will be in our key relationships, because no one can truly sail beside us unless they are genuinely going the same way.

672 Relax and Succeed - We've got this gift of loveAt its best these two boats are rubbing gently against their soft bumpers as they nuzzle together in some safe harbour. This level of calm and warmth allows the two souls on board to intermingle, treating their separate worlds as one vessel. At their worst one or both boats are taking on water and are tacking for the wind using different strategies, leaving them both floundering and alone. Nevertheless this is all sailing.

You can sit on the shore and not live life at all, but if you’re going to go out to sea and venture forth into life and into a relationship then you absolutely have to be prepared for very rough seas. In fact your relationship is only as good as your performance through those challenging times,. And you can rest assured that even the greatest relationships included those periods of terrible sailing, be that from being knocked around by storms or being tortured by the boredom of a dead calm.

It is also possible for other variables to impact one boat or both. Maybe you strike an obstacle. A death in family, some serious financial crises, cheating, a health issue. This kind of experience can require an immediate restart from scratch in a whole new direction. Or, maybe one person is doing particularly well and they’re leaving their partner to struggle behind them. This increases the distance between the boats and the only way to fix it is to either wait for the wind to change, or for one of the two boats to tack a new direction. Even then, this is still all just sailing. Every relationship that’s made it 20 years would have faced these kinds of rough seas at one point or another.

672 Relax and Succeed - A happy marriage is the unionThere are no relationships where the boats rubbed up against each other in perfect seas with the wind at their back from coast to coast. And we don’t even want the boats that are so distant they are meaningless, nor do we want ones filled with too much conflict. The boats rubbing, yes. The boats smashing, no. So a good partner is still their own boat. They are choosing to sail alongside you because it’s worth it. It’s that simple. And pretty much everyone is worth it if they’re with a reasonably matched person. In the sessions all I had to do was make sure that each person knew how to see the value in their partner.

So remember, if you’re ever feeling lost and you’re wondering if there’s even a point of staying together, keep in mind that you may just have had to tack for a very good reason and that your fundamental course is still true and together.

I suspect I will do those couples courses again. As I’ve thought about them to write this I remembered how much laughing we used to do and how wonderful and warm the insights were. It was very easy and enjoyable to witness people reconnecting. In the end I just acted like a lighthouse. I simply shone a light on who people truly were and that was enough to bring them back on course and sailing again side by side.

May the boats in your life have the wind at their back.

peace. s

Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.