Marriage as a verb.
When we think of marriage we often think of it as an object, as a noun. As a “thing” or “entity” that we have little control over. When we see marriage in this limiting way, we can lose sight of the fact they are in fact ever changing and evolving “things” that we have actually have some level of control over! We can actually control and guide their direction and even their quality. When it come down to it, each person in a marriage can choose to make an effort in how they think, act and behave and this can significantly effect the quality of any relationship.
Choosing to work on our marriage, to honestly and truly make an effort… is the most important thing we can do to make it a better one. Trying new books and strategies and even trying therapy won’t be much help unless you first decide to put forth real effort. That means actually reading the whole marriage self-help book, taking it to heart and trying the things it’s suggests. Or going to marital therapy and really making an attempt to pay attention to the ideas and concepts that your therapist helps with. Even just making a decision to treat your partner with kindness and generosity. And I mean really making an effort to treat your partner well. Listening and responding to them with a sense of respect, affection and compassion. The effort to just be kind to your partner can make a night and day difference!
Here is a great article on how kindness and generosity can improve your marriage:
Avoiding the Blame Game by taking responsibility
A big problem that often keeps people from making an effort is that sometimes it’s really hard to admit that they are more likely than not partially at fault for the problems in their relationship. It takes two to tango. Marriage at a fundamental level is really about how two people interact together on a daily basis. When things go sideways and conflicts happen…. people often feel emotionally hurt and put the blame on their partner side skirting their own role and shortcomings. For many, it’s easier to just blame our spouse than it is to accept that we may be imperfect or flawed in some way.
Realistic Expectations and Blame
We often have super high, even unrealistic expectations for our spouse. Or we might have a mistaken belief that relationships should always be easy — and when they aren’t, we can end up feeling inadequate, lost and couples start to blame each other and pull apart rather than pulling together as a team to tackle the relationship together. The blame game starts and the couple starts splitting apart emotionally and may even start seeing their partner as an opponent or as someone who is inadequate, fatally flawed or isn’t trying. They say things like. If only my partner would “start doing this or that” or “stop doing that thing all the time” everything in the marriage would be fine. This can cause them to shift the blame to their spouse and ignore their own faults and marriage damaging behaviour.
This denial of our own role can also make us feel hopeless and helpless about the fate of our relationship — we feel that we are on a runaway train — when in fact, we can begin to make changes in ourselves that may change our relationship for the better. I’ve often counselled individuals about their marriages and they have been able to improve their relationships significantly just by making small changes in themselves and how they act and react toward their partner.
Like Gandhi said:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
By changing ourselves our marriage and partner may follow suit.
We have to accept the reality that sometimes relationships can be a hard row to hoe. One perspective I’ve often heard in modern culture and sometimes from clients in my private practice of marriage therapy is that if a relationship is meant to be, it will be easy and have few difficulties.
To that, I say: “define easy”.
Of course, there are some people whose relationships are seemingly “blessed” and it really does seem to come easy. But those are probably few and far between. Relationships by their very nature are sometimes difficult. It’s hard to always get along with someone and improbable that we will always discuss and negotiate all of our conflicts in a calm and productive manner. Frankly, for most people, marriage will be challenging and in order for them to work, we have to put in a substantial and focused effort. That piece of information is one of the true secrets of making a marriage work.
When it comes to marriage, like most things in life: effort = reward.
If you want a marriage to work you have to accept the fact that sometimes it will take significant effort and time. If you want a relationship to work long term you have to accept and work within this reality.
Making an effort is being intentional in your marriage
According to marriage expert John Gottman:
“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.”
GOTTMAN, May 2009
And that right there is one of the most important things to know. To create the needed positive interactions that Gottman suggests, there has to be an effort. Sometimes that takes a concerted effort to put the relationship and your partner first in your list of priorities.
According to Gottman spouses have to:
“make it intentional how we move through time together. Those actions are about working towards shared meaning.
GOTTMAN May 2009
The word “intention” is super important here. Intention is about approaching your marriage with an open minded determinedness and commitment — and truly believing that with the right amount of effort you can make it work. Doing things like being focussed on the good things about your partner rather than emphasising their faults. We need to develop an attitude that doesn’t dwell on the last three disagreements or that our partner often forgets to do the dishes or leaves the milk out. It’s about developing an attitude of intention that chooses to focus on the good things about our spouse and accepts their imperfections and peccadilloes WITHOUT grumbling. It’s about accepting that we are ourselves a flawed human being who has married another flawed human being and that sometimes this will end up in disagreements, arguments or negative feelings. We have to realise that we won’t always be happy in a marriage and that is OK too. It’s about having realistic expectations.
One of the most important ways to “try” is to start to listen! Here’s how: Good Listening
I have worked with hundreds of couples in my practice and the one crucial thing that seems to really make a difference in whether or not they successfully repair or improve a marriage is the amount of determination and effort that they put into fixing the relationship. I know making an effort seems obvious, but often when we are entangled in a marriage that isn’t working, our strong emotions, resentments and grudges can keep us from truly making the effort that’s needed. Accepting our own role in the problems, deciding to be intentional and making an honest effort are the most important things you can do to make your marriage work and last.
Here is a list of some great ways to start to be more intentional in your marriage:
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press
Horne, Amanda. Gottman’s “Art and Science of Love” November 3, 2009 http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/amanda-horne/200911034418