Lots of the conventional wisdom about marriage is simply untrue. Well, some of these may be true for some marriages, but not any relationship you’d want to be in! Here are some commonly-believed lies about good marriage and how you can change your reality if any of these happen to apply to you.
1. Communication is the key to a good marriage
It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? Good communication must be central to a healthy relationship. That’s how couples resolve their differences. That’s how you work as a team.
There’s just one problem. It isn’t true. Says who? Science!
Researcher John Gottman studied couples across multiple decades. He has analyzed videos of them arguing with each other. He has “coded” all of their communications. He tracked how their marriage worked out after 5, 10, and 15 years. He crunched the numbers and discovered something fascinating. Good communication isn’t the critical element in making marriage great.
The research pointed to seven keys to a good marriage, but none were “communicate better”:
- Know your partner really well
- Maintain fondness and admiration
- Engage with each other regularly
- Let your partner influence you
- Solve the solvable problems
- Overcome gridlock
- Create shared meaning
In fairness, bad communication (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) was cited as an indicator that a relationship was doomed. The research showed, though, that having the seven above elements could overcame bad communication; and good communication would not fix a marriage that was lacking most of these elements.
2. When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy
There’s a word for people who threaten to make everyone else suffer if they don’t get their way. They’re called terrorists.
In any relationship, somebody is going to be unhappy from time to time. That’s normal. They will get over it. If “momma” threatens to blow up (emotionally) the entire house every time she’s upset, it will slowly tear the family apart. (This isn’t gender specific; it applies equally well to “poppa.”)
In an emotionally healthy family, the adults have the ability to calm themselves down and deal with the issues. It isn’t easy to cast off the resentment, anger, disappointment, and frustration that life’s problems throw our way, but that’s part of what it means to be a grown-up.
Dispelling these powerful emotions in a constructive way, through meditation, exercise, hobbies, sports, or connecting with friends, is the first step. Don’t just numb them with TV, video games, drinking, or drugs. Numbed and unresolved emotions just add to the explosives that will eventually blow up.
Once we have calmed ourselves down, we can talk to our partner, and try to resolve the issue. (Or not. See the following sections.)
So what should you do if your partner is the emotional terrorist? You have to combat their emotional reaction with a calm, reasonable, approach. This script works in most cases: “I can tell how upset you are. I want to help work through this with you. Take a little while to calm down and think through the issue and then we’ll talk about it.”
If the emotional outbursts continue, you can just repeat over and over, “We are not going to make any progress while one of us is upset. Take a little while to calm down and think through the issue and then we’ll talk about it.”
Ultimately, the best way to combat the “momma” routine is to not let yourself become unhappy just because momma is.
3. You’ll never run out of jelly beans
Have you heard the one about the couple who put a jelly bean in a jar every time they had sex before getting married? After the wedding, they took a jelly bean out of that same jar. In all their years of marriage, they never emptied the jar of jelly beans.
This story is often told to guys about to get married; told by guys who have been married a few years and who (presumably) have seen their sex life dwindle. And whom is to blame for this tragic decline in frequency? The storytellers typically fault their wives, some going so far as to suspect a premeditated bait-and-switch.
The reality of the decline, though, is usually more complicated. Just look at the difference between how this couple, Don and Amelia, interacts with each other and that same couple after a few years of marriage.
When they first started dating, Don and Amelia both worked really hard to make each other happy. He planned special dates and romantic trips. She did her hair and put on the lacy panties even for a casual dinner at the local pub. After a nice night out, both would wonder if things would get intimate later on and they tried hard to be both interesting and interested. When it was time for the good-night kiss, there was a lot of positive emotional tension driving them to want each other.
Contrast this with how Don and Amelia interact after a few years of marriage. It’s Friday, “date night,” and both of them are late getting home from work. They touch base with the kids and give the sitter directions for dinner and bedtime. Jumping in the car, they realize neither one of them has made reservations, so they head to whatever restaurant is close and won’t be crowded or cost too much. With all the rushing around, they never switched out of work- or parent-mode, so dinner conversation revolves around the kids, their jobs, and other obligations.
They get home, pay the sitter, check on the kids, change into pajamas, and finally, after a long day at the end of a long week, plop themselves in bed and turn out the light. After five minutes of silence, Don asks, “Wanna have sex?” With zero emotional tension between them; with zero intimate conversational connection all night (all week?), there is absolutely no desire built up in Amelia. (If you’re wondering what this condition is called in women, it’s generally referred to as a “headache.”) I don’t need to tell you how this story ends.
So how do awesome marriages overcome the jelly bean trap? They don’t act like married couples! They make plans and get excited over even routine nights out. They generate sexual tension all night long; he hints at what new things he’s going to do in bed later, and she gets to be excited (maybe a little nervous?) at what’s to come. (Pun intended.) These married couples continue to “date” each other and sustain the spark, mystery, and excitement over many years.
Does it work? Many couples report that they have more sex after 25 years of marriage than they did in the year before and the year after getting married. That’s a lot of jelly beans!
4. Couples must resolve their differences and agree
When imagining the ideal couple, it’s easy to assume that they resolve all their disputes with civil discussion and end up agreeing. But this couple only exists in a fantasy dream-world with unicorns and magic rainbows. The reality is much less pretty.
For people who are unhappy in their marriage, about two thirds of their problems never get resolved. In good marriages, by comparison, about two thirds of their problems never get resolved. That’s the same number!
Some things are just not solvable. A couple can talk all they want, but they’ll never “resolve” whether it’s better to vacation in the mountains or on the beach. Or is it better for the kids to attend every day of school or occasionally miss it for an interesting excursion? Or how important is it for everything you consume to be free of dairy, grains, and sugar? In most cases, you’ll never agree.
So if 66% of the time people are not going to resolve an issue with their spouse, what separates the good marriages from the bad ones?
In marriages where people are happy, they recognize their differences and don’t let the unresolved issues bother them. They’ve discussed the issues many times before and don’t need to revisit them. In fact, they can joke with each other about them.
Jane and Dave are a good example. She likes to place interesting plants all around the yard. He is a firm believer that anything in the yard that can’t be mown is a waste of time and money. Every time Jane notices an interesting plant, Dave jokes that it’s likely to appear in their yard sometime soon. Jane smiles and fake-scolds him with a wagging finger. “When it does, mow around it, not over it!” Dave puts a silly, dumb look on his face like he’s never heard of mowing around something. It makes Jane laugh.
Note that Dave jokes about the plant appearing in their yard as a way to amuse Jane, not chastise her. The same is true of Jane’s teasing—she does it for his amusement, not to put him down. They’ve turned their disagreement into an inside joke that they both like. Instead of tearing them apart, it brings them closer.
5. Your kids come first
As a society, we seem to swing between opposing attitudes when it comes to raising kids. In the 1940s and 50s, mom stayed at home and made the kids her priority; dad was always at work. In the 70s and 80s, more women entered the workforce, and a generation of self-sufficient, but unguided, latch-key kids grew up. In a backlash to this trend, the helicopter parents started to appear. These families prioritize the kids’ multiple activities (like soccer, lacrosse, band, debate, swimming, theater, and the all-summer space camp) over everything else in their lives.
None of these unbalanced extremes is desirable, for the kids or their parents! Latch-key kids see their parents focusing primarily on things outside the family. They may resent being ignored while simultaneously internalizing their parents’ selfish ways.
The helicopter parents are setting the exact opposite, but equally ambiguous example. Their kids are likely to grow up thinking the world revolves around them—because it has for their whole life! Want to try the trombone? Someone will buy you one and take you to the lessons. Want to play soccer? Every kid makes one of the teams and, of course, all the teams get trophies. Kids see their helicopter parents as infinitely selfless and utterly unhappy. Eventually 40% of these parents end up divorced, and another 50% stay married but are still not happy. That’s a terrible role model to set for our kids!
Some balance is in order, here. Happy couples tend to put themselves first, their spouse second, the kids third, and everything else (career, hobbies, etc.) after that. Kids learn that they are important members of the family, certainly more important than their parents’ careers, but the world doesn’t revolve around them. They can participate in all kinds of activities, and Mom and Dad will be there, but they have to choose what they really want to do and maybe work harder at it. Best of all, they get to internalize a marriage dynamic that demonstrates how much mom and dad value each other.
Max Lorenz founded Husband Power (HusbandPower.com), which helps men create awesome lives for themselves and their families.
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