Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lunasea's 10 Tips For a Happy Marriage

Being a couples' counselor has been great for my marriage. Mostly because I get home after a particularly hairy session and kiss my husband and thank him for not being anything like the people I just worked with. In general, I find people are more vested in being right than in saving their marriages. I'm actually not seeing couples anymore unless it's for my full fee - it's just too hard to jar people's feet loose when they've got their heels firmly dug into the cement.*

In a few weeks, G and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage. In some parts, that's not very much at all. G's parents just celebrated 50 years of marriage. But in California, we're well above the average.

So, I got to thinking, what exactly do we do to make our marriage work? Because I'm telling you, it's not that we are exemplary people. We're both just fine, but most of the people who walk into my office are just fine, too. So at the risk of sounding completely self-congratulatory, what are they doing wrong that we're doing right? I'm going to give you my best ideas. These are things that I think would put me out of business if all couples did them:

1. Figure out what's really important to you in a partner. I have my couples make 3 lists of virtues they need in a partner: Non-negotiables, negotiables (things that would be nice but aren't mandatory) and optional (frosting on the cake).

There should only be 3-4 things on the non-negotiables list. Mine were:

1. Wants children
2. Kind to others
3. Ethical, honest
4. Has a sense of humor

These were the deal-breakers. I couldn't stay with someone who wasn't kind to me and everyone else. I wasn't going to stay with anyone who lied to me or hurt others with unethical decisions. And it would be hard to understand me if he didn't have a sense of humor.

The negotiables list is longer:

1. spiritual
2. psychologically aware
3. has good boundaries
4. loves books
5. loves music
6. enjoys nature
7. sexy
8. really funny (you can have a sense of humor and not be really funny - I pretty much always fell for the guys who made me laugh)
9. gets along with his family
10. gets along with my family
11. would be a great father

I'm sure there were more, I forgot the rest because it's all blended into what who I'm with: G.

I've also forgotten what was on the optional list. No surprise, because these two lists aren't nearly as important as the first.

My advice is to never settle for anybody who doesn't fill all the checkmarks on your non-negotiable list. Abuse, emotional and physical, of course, should never be tolerated.

But don't cut someone out of the running because they don't have all the virtues on your negotiable list. I always thought I'd end up with a bookworm, like me. It still amazes me that I'm with a man who doesn't particularly like bookstores. Maybe I could have found someone who loved bookstores if I'd waited longer. But then, guaranteed, he would have been missing some of the things G. has. And now that I love him, I'm not willing to give those up.

That was a long one. Let's make the rest shorter.

2. Choose your words carefully. It's a lot easier to take some time to figure out what you want to say then to clean up the mess after hurling horrible insults. You can't swallow words back into your throat after they've been released. Maybe you'll be forgiven for the horrible things you said, but they probably won't be forgotten.

3. Stay on topic. You're disagreeing about the evening routine? Stick to the evening routine. Don't bring up the morning routine, his mother's routine, your mother's routine, his disgusting habits and who filled the gas tank last.

4. Say what you mean and mean what you say. In any discussion, ask yourself, what do I really want to get across here? Say that and stick to it. If you have to restate it, restate it. Your partner isn't necessarily going to know which part of what you say is the most important. It's so weird when couples tell me about one of their fights - they both remember completely different parts of the conversation, and they both are shocked by what their partner remembers. "She keeps bringing that up but that wasn't at all important to what I was trying to say!"

5. Listen. Make sure you listen carefully and understand where your partner is coming from before you make your point clear. This is right out of Couples Communication 101, and I am telling you, if your partner thinks you understand what he/she is saying, they will be a hell of a lot more willing to listen to what you have to say about it.

6. You are not the King (or Queen) of How to Do Everything Right. You've already told your husband that your way of doing the dishes is superior, several times in fact, and he still doesn't do it your way? Let it go. He heard you, he just doesn't care. And hopefully, "Does the dishes my way," is not on your list of non-negotiables.

7. Know what makes your partner feel loved. People usually do for their partners what they want done for themselves. Tell your partner what you really appreciate and wish they'd do more often. At the same time, realize that there might be things your partner does to show his/her love that you're not fully appreciating.

8. Chill the fuck out. (G. calls this "Don't be so reactive." I call it chilling the fuck out). Most of the time, your partner is not actively trying to piss you off. If you don't like the tone of voice they're using, tell them. Don't do it back to them to teach them a lesson (BTW, I think that's a bad strategy with kids, too). Think about what's happening - is it really important? OK, then go say something. Calmly, directly. You think maybe it's not that important and maybe you're in a bad mood? Recognize that and keep your mouth shut until you chill out. So many of the couples I see don't argue about anything all that important, but they keep making huge dramas out of everything.

9. Which reminds me, don't threaten to leave. Don't threaten to end the marriage. You can leave any time, of course, if it really isn't working, but don't threaten to do it in the heat of anger. To sound like a hippie-dippy therapist, it brings up all sorts of unresolved abandonment issues in your partner that, trust me, are better left unactivated.

10. Hmmm. Maybe you should fill this one in.

This is a working draft that I'm sure will be revised many times and hopefully eventually posted on my professional website, perhaps without the expletives. I'd be very interested in your thoughts and comments.

*I should mention here that there have been couples who have been really willing to work with each other and who have left therapy in a much better place and those situations are always very rewarding. But the ones that don't, break my heart.


Anonymous said...

I ♥ you.
1) Because you're brilliant.
2) Because you use that one, special expletive. You didn't throw it around carelessly, you used it at the most important time/place. I know that probably sounds ridiculous... but it makes 'it' and 'you'... 'real'.

Lunasea said...

Thanks, Anon! Now if you tell me who you are, I can tell you if I return the sentiment.

JenK said...

These are all really good and extremely helpful. I especially enjoyed number 6 and number 8. I think they go together.

Of course, *I* am perfect but most people aren't. ;)

Anonymous said...

I like this post a lot. Chill out is a good one. I find that if I am given time to think about something then I realize if it is important or not...usually it is not!
Also I find that it is good to think over the things I like about my husband. I don't know, it just kind of rekindles the warm feelings. I remind myself that what bothers me might be what drew me to him in the start. I am bothered sometimes by his lack of intensity in a situtation, but like that he is patient and slow to anger with me.
Thanks for throwing out this great info. I hope it helps many couples!

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