Saturday, June 18, 2011

Marriage Tune-Up

Both DH and I grew up in families in which marriages lasted a long time.  DH's parents had already been together about two decades by the time his was born and they lasted about two more before his mom died of cancer.  My parents were well past their 50th wedding anniversary before my father's death separated them.  And while both marriages suffered their low points -- my parents bickered more and more the older they got; DH's mother seemed to have hidden money away in secret bank accounts and there were murmurs that she wasn't always happy with her husband -- our parents generally seemed satisfied with their unions.

It is, perhaps because of these models of marriage that DH and I struggled a bit when we encountered turbulent waters of our own.  I pin the change in our relationship to the arrival of our beautiful munchkins.  Caring for little ones is exhausting, stressful, and never-ending.  To make matters worse, when our first child was but a baby, DH took on a new job that required considerably longer hours and lots of travel.  Childcare and household chores had never been shared equally, but with his new responsibilities, he pitched in even less.  Ultimately, it felt like his only contribution to family life (and his only interest) was his paycheck.

For many months we had weekly meetings with a marriage counselor in an attempt to get back on track, but we left each session more angry with each other than we had been before.  Our fights would last for hours.  Round and round we'd go.   I'd cry.  He'd cry.  It seemed we couldn't find a way to understand each other.  It was awful.

Eventually we gave up on the therapist and used the money that would otherwise have gone to a gripe session for a hotel room instead.  We reached a detente and vowed to plow on.

But still, we don't always have the passion or the fun that we used to in the years before we had kids.  We don't fight as much as we did for a while, but we don't always connect either.  And so I eagerly read articles for tips and tricks for repairing our relationship.  A recent issue of Elle had an article by Louisa Kamps called "It's The Little Things" that made some sense to me.  She refers to How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It by Steven Stosny and Patricia Love, which blames misunderstandings between the sexes on men's tendency to fight (criticize) or flee (tune out the bothersome talk) when they feel stressed and inadequate about a relationship; while women talk more (often increasingly angrily) when their husbands criticize them or tune them out (and so a vicious circle is begun).  The cure?  Six 6-second hugs per day plus more affection at four key times: first thing in the morning, before leaving home, upon returning in the evening, and before sleep.

Kamps also found good ideas in Five Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great by Terri L. Orbuch, which encourages couples to set aside 10 minutes each day to talk about anything other than kids, work, and household tasks/responsibilities.

She closes with a quote from James V. Cardova, author of The Marriage Checkup, who says, "You and your partner are engaged in and endeavor that at its heart is constantly changing and will constantly change for the rest of your lives... So the only way to relate, the only way to be truly intimate, is to pay attention."

Since DH and I are both MBAs, perhaps it is fitting that the Redbook article "5 Business Strategies That Can Strengthen Your Marriage" caught my eye.  Here's the gist:

1) Know Your 5 VIPs - the 5 top things that you need from your spouse.  Share the list.  If all 5 things are generally being met, you'll realize it is easier to let the little stuff slide.
2) Think 4-to-1, that is, motivate the behavior you want by delivering 4 positive messages for every negative one.
3) Don't send your duck to eagle school.  Your relationship will be more successful if you focus on matching responsibilities to appropriate skill sets.
4) Conduct a 360 degree review.  Look at your relationship from a different perspective.
5) Win the client.  Doing so takes some effort -- and so does keeping your spouse happy.

Another helpful article: Marriage Rules.

Recipe for happiness; what happy couples do:

• Show interest in each other’s thoughts and feelings
• Share joy – let each other know when you’re excited/delighted
• Show affection, touch each other, doing thoughtful things
• Accept/respect each other’s feelings
• Listen w/o being defensive
• Express appreciation and display pride in each other
• Demonstrate empathy; show you’re trying to understand
• Check in often
• Joke around, play, have fun.

I found the weekly discussions with our marriage therapist extremely unsatisfying.  Sure we got plenty out in the open - but that had never really been the problem.  The therapist didn't seem to be able -- even after months and months -- to help us move beyond simply airing our grievances.  He never provided us with tools or exercises to help us see things from a new perspective, and so we just rehashed and rehashed what we didn't like about each other.  A new online therapy, called The Power of Two, sounds more like what we might have needed.

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