An old man sat outside the walls of a great city. When travelers approached, they would ask the old man, “What kind of people live in this city?” The old man would answer, “What kind of people live in the place where you came from?” If the travelers answered, “Only bad people live in the place where we came from,” the old man would reply, “Continue on; you will find only bad people here.”
But if the travelers answered, “Good people live in the place where we came from,” then the old man would say, “Enter, for here too, you will find only good people.” – Yiddish Folk Tale, Author Unknown
This old folk tale beautifully reminds us that we have the choice to view people and even life, as good or bad. We can demonize others or look for the beauty in one another. How we see the world is what we will find in it. This rings true for marriage as well. We can choose to see our partner as a gift or curse. We can focus on what our spouse does wrong or we can look at what they are doing right. If we tell ourselves we have a good marriage, we will be focusing on what we like about it. If we think of our marriage as a bad one, our attention will be on the negative aspects of our relationship.
Marriages are not always exclusively good or bad
I want to make it clear that I am not saying there are not bad marriages in this world. There are people who do need to exit a marriage because of incompatible values, infidelity, abuse and other reasons. I also am not implying that marriages are exclusively good or bad. For most of us who are married, our wedded life involves recognizing the redeeming qualities and negative attributes of our chosen partner.
Many of us probably know a couple whose relationship ended, because they started to focus on what annoyed them about their partner, instead of what of what they adored them. When we affirm our partner by noticing who they are and what they offer us, it builds intimacy in the relationship. When we criticize our partner, we start to build a wall between one another and if we are not careful, the wall can become so high that we can’t even see each other. And when we stop seeing one another, there is no intimacy, life or joy in our marriage.
Making an effort to acknowledge efforts
My husband has been sick this week with a stomach bug and so I picked up some soup, electrolyte water, ginger ale and crackers at the store for him. When I got home with these items, even though he was pathetically sick, he thanked me twice for stopping to get these items for him. I was aware of his intentionality to say thanks, not just once, but twice. Despite the fact that he felt awful, he made the effort to thank me and his simple words left me feeling grateful and connected to him. This is such a simple story, but it is a reminder that when we see one another and appreciate our partner, it can build intimacy in our marriage.
Recognize what your partner brings to the table
If we want our marriage to last, we have to let our partner know what we appreciate about them and recognize what they are bringing to the table. Instead of focusing on what the marriage is not offering us, it is important to see the daily gifts our partner extends to us. For example, maybe we are frustrated with a dwindling sex life in our relationship. This is tough and needs to be addressed, but in order to have a great sex life we need intimacy and so it is vital to look for what your spouse is doing well. It will help our marriage, if we go out of our way to tell our other half through spoken and nonverbal expressions, exactly what we appreciate about them.
Affirming our partner is how we foster connection, which can lead to emotional and physical intimacy. For example, maybe our spouse is a great parent, handy in the house, witty, a wonderful friend or a good listener. If we tell our partner what we appreciate about them, they will feel closer to us and we will feel more connected to them.
Foster connection with your spouse
I am advocating for us to find the places of joy and connection in our relationship, by seeing the strengths in our marriage and communicating these to our spouse. But even though I am asking us to see the good in our partner, we do not need to dismiss the growing edges in our relationship. It is important to be honest with our significant other if we need more time with them or more physical connection. But we need to be careful how we communicate this. Here is an example of how to and how not to communicate with the one you love.
How not to communicate: You are late again. I’m so over your addiction to your job. You’re so freaking selfish. You never called to tell me you would be late. You don’t value this marriage and you don’t make time for us.
How to communicate: I was worried when you did not call. I know you have been juggling a lot at work, but I value our time together and I need you to communicate with me when you are going to be late. I’ve missed you lately and I want us to carve out some quality time together.
Which one of the interactions above is going to foster connection? Obviously, the second interaction is a mature way to respond, when your spouse has let you down. But we have all likely been guilty of using you-statements when we feel let down by our partner. When we start to criticize our loved one and use you-statements, we are putting our partner on the defensive, and likely causing them to shut down and not hear us. I-statements force us to be responsible for our own feelings and invite our partner to understand what we need from them and why we are hurting.
Learn to be less accusatory
Take a moment to consider whether you have been disparaging your partner lately. How could finding the good in our partner and expressing our disappointments in less accusatory ways, help us to find a more life-affirming relationship? If we have built a wall between our self and our partner, I believe that complimenting our spouse, saying thank you, and using kinder language to assert our needs, can serve us well, as we seek to tear down the dividing wall. When this barrier is down, we will be able to see one another and then we can find our way back to tenderness and pleasure in our marriage.