How to Create a Remarkable Marriage

Harriet Lerner, author of "Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up", gives us a crash course in marriage wellness.

by Harriet Lerner, PhD

A story is told about two little kids who are playing together in a sandbox with their pails and shovels. Suddenly a huge fight breaks out and one of the runs away screaming, “I hate you! I hate you!” In no time at all they’re back in the sandbox playing together happily again.

Two adults observe the interaction from a nearby bench.  “Did you see that?” one comments in admiration. “How do children do that? They were enemies five minutes ago.

It’s simple the other replies. They choose happiness over righteousness.

Grownups rarely make such a choice. Married folks have a terrible time stepping aside from anger, bitterness, and hurt. We know that life is short but damn it, we’re not betting back in that sandbox until the other person agrees to having started it and admits to being wrong. 

A great deal of suffering could be avoided if we could be more like those kids.  Of course married life is not always so simple as the sandbox story. We need both to lighten up and to have a strong voice when the situation calls for it. Here’s what the challenge requires.

1. Get More Bite Marks on Your Tongue

Dial down the criticism.  Many people value criticism in courtship stage of relationship, but become allergic to it over time.  Remember that no one can survive in a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged than admired.

2. Respect Differences

One of my favorite cartoons, drawn by my friend Jennifer Berman, shows a dog and a cat in bed together.

The dog is looking morose and reading a book called “Dogs Who Love Too Much.” 

The Cat is saying, “I’m not distancing!  I’m a cat, darn it!”

Lighten up about differences. We all view reality through different filters depending on our class, culture, gender, birth order, genetic makeup, and unique family history. A good marriage requires us to stay emotionally connected to a partner who thinks, feels, and believes differently, without needing to change him or fix him up.

3 Apologize and repair disconnections

You can say, “I’m sorry for my part of the problem” even if you’re secretly convinced that you’re only 14% to blame. Marriage goes best when at least one person can apologize or find some other way to cut right through the nonproductive “whodunit” or “who started it” mentality. We know that the failure to initiate repair attempts—or the failure to respond to a partner’s attempt to offer the olive branch and move forward—is a flashing red light in marriage.

4. Warm your Partner’s Heart

During the courtship stage (or “Velcro Stage,” as I call it) of relationships we automatically focus on the positive and make our partner feel valued and chosen. The longer people are married, the more this “selective attention” flips.  Now we automatically pay attention to what we are critical about and that is what we notice and speak to. (“Why are you putting so much water in the pot for the pasta?” Don’t you know that’s the wrong knife to cut a tomato”).  We automatically fail to notice and comment on the positive. Be intentional about making positive comments (“I loved the way you used humor to deal with your brother on the phone tonight.”) even if you’re feeling angry and resentful.  Your partner won’t make use of your constructive criticism if there’s not a surrounding climate of love and respect.

5. Practice Pure Listening

Loweryour defensiveness and truly listen. Listening is the greatest spiritual gift you can give your partner.  Practice listening without interrupting, offering advice, defending your position, or correcting distortions and exaggerations. Listen only to understand. Save your defense for a future conversation.

6. Focus on your self, not your partner 

First Published January 3, 2012

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