Marriage: A Shopper’s Guide

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SPRING CLEARANCE SALE on POTENTIAL MATES

Wise car shoppers kick tires and consult Consumer Reports, Kelly Blue Book, or Motor Trend Magazine before buying a used car.

Choosing a vacation spot is easier when we read reviews, ask friends, or talk to a travel consultant.

Wise business owners conduct extensive interviews because they know it’s easier hiring the right employee than retraining a wrong one.

Even going to the movies or choosing a restaurant is easier when we ask what others think of the plot, the service, or the value.

When it comes to getting married, however, some people don’t put a lot of thought into one of the biggest decisions of life. They feel the urge and take the plunge! Over the years I’ve heard many different reasons why people got married.

She is smokin’ hot!
He’s rich!
I wanted a big wedding because I was skinny and wanted to be ogled and envied.
I was drunk.
I didn’t want to be alone.
I wanted to get away from my parents.
She’s pregnant.
I was pregnant.
Why not? If I get unhappy I’ll get a divorce and find a new partner.
Our sex is amazing!
I was a single parent and this person was willing to help me raise my kids.
I didn’t want to get married but we already sent out the invitations.
They make me look and feel good.
They’ve promised to meet my every need.
I found someone who will give me what my parents never gave me.
I can control this person.
An imperfect mate is better than no mate.

If I were to write an instruction book for people “shopping” for a marriage partner, I’d suggest the following checklist. Some of these marriage criteria are counter intuitive but I believe courting couples ignore them to their peril.

How does this potential partner treat their parents? It’s not uncommon for old relational patterns to return once the glow of hormones wears off.

How long have you dated? We recommend at least a year so you can see what your future partner is like during every season. Summer lovers can become winter Grinches and vice versa. Better to find out sooner rather than later.

What are your prospective mate’s life goals? It’s hard to feel close if you’re headed in opposite directions.

What common values to you share? If you love risk taking and your partner is risk averse you’ll struggle. If you’re a saver and they’re a spender you’ll struggle. If you’re a dancer and your partner is an irredeemable klutz, somebody’s going to be unhappy.

How adept are the two of you at resolving disagreements? It isn’t conflict that tears marriages apart, it’s poorly managed or avoided conflict. I often give love struck couples in premarital counseling the following assignment, “Go have a fight.” It usually gets a big laugh but I’m serious. Why wait until the honeymoon to discover how well or poorly you handle stress, anger, and fear?

What are you and your partner’s expectations about marriage? This isn’t easy to answer when we’re infatuated, love struck, and just getting to know each other. But unmet expectations are one of the biggest conflicts couples have.

What did your criminal background check reveal? This is a painful reality: some people lie. Better to find out sooner rather than later the truth about military service, degrees, awards, debt, criminal records, affairs, previous marriages, or kids. I’ve been shocked to learn how sneaky some people can be. Check ‘em out!

What about your partner are you hoping to change? The person who thinks they’re going to help their partner eliminate their irritating mannerisms or character flaws, change their weight, hair style, religion, or personality is in for a huge disappointment. Making personal changes is hard enough. Feeling pressured to do so is almost guaranteed to fail.

How do you manage your anxiety? A person often chooses a mate because they believe their spouse will become their “anti anxiety drug.” Rather than dealing with fears, worries, and anxieties themselves, they make their future partner responsible for their moods. This puts tremendous pressure on a marriage. A future partner may be willing initially to be that anti-anxiety drug but will eventually poop out.

What do your family and friends think of this person as your potential life partner? If those close to you have doubts about how well suited you are for each other, pay attention. Those who are objective see what we in our love struck subjective state can’t.

How tolerant of differences are you both? Many people go bonkers when their partner voices a contrary opinion or expresses a preference that differs from their own. Two becoming one does not mean two becoming the same.

How willing are you both to work at making a healthy marriage? Even couples who agree on the above questions will go through marital stages. And each stage requires adaptation, compromise, and negotiation. Marriages put on “auto pilot” often end up in counselor’s offices because good marriage don’t just happen. They require attention, conversation, and new skills.

God puts us in marriages partly to make us better people. If we’re single we don’t have to learn how to get along in intimate relationships. But if we share a bed, budget, or kids either the marriage will work on us or we’ll work on the marriage. I hope these questions will help you kick a few tires before signing the marriage license.

The Parable of the Stingy Scuba Diver

In our ongoing quest to demystify how to achieve marital happiness we offer another one page cartoon. Before a partner drowns because of unmet needs we hope this analogy will nudge people into action. Share the oxygen!

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Annoyances in Marriage, Part 2

annoying-203x300 Two brave souls, Joe Palca and Flora Lichtman, did a scientific study of things that are annoying. They published their results in a book aptly titled, Annoying. They say a thing is annoying when it’s unpleasant, repetitious, and we don’t know when it’ll end. Think of hearing half a phone conversation, something they call halfalog (as opposed to dialog or monologue). It’s unpleasant because we don’t know what the other caller is saying, it’s repetitious because we hear a voice then silence then a voice then silence over and over, and every second the conversation continues past our tolerance level the more our agitation grows. The same goes for pesky mosquitoes, nails scraped on a black board, texting at the dinner table, snapping gum, knuckle cracking, pop-up ads, and someone clipping their nails in public. I read this book with fascination since I love doing two things: helping individuals deal with their partner’s annoying habits in healthy ways, and helping individuals eliminate their own annoying habits. With wit and humor the authors describe why spouses have a low tolerance for each other’s annoying behaviors but a high tolerance for the annoying behaviors of others–we can get away from others but we’re stuck with our spouses! Also, in public we know life is hard but at home we expect a comfortable environment with agreeable people! How do we protect ourselves from disillusionment and the annoyances we called in our last blog post, surprising reversals?

  1. Remember every good trait has its inherent down side; there can be too much of a good thing. Life wouldn’t be so difficult if we didn’t expect it to be so easy.
  2. Remember that a growing irritation might reflect our diminishing tolerance level more then our partner’s increasing irritations. Are they more irritating or are we more irritable?
  3. If our partner’s irritating mannerism occurs only occasionally, try to ignore it.
  4. Be mindful of our own irritating mannerisms and be willing to reduce their frequency. Reciprocating irritations escalate in a negative feedback loop. Decreasing irritations by one party can trigger decreasing irritations in the other.
  5. Seek equity. Make sure there is fairness in the amount of love each gives and gets in the relationship. If you get more love and your partner gets less, they’ll be unhappy and easily irritated. Solution? Increase your deposits into their emotional love bank (be kind, generous, thoughtful) and decrease your withdrawals from their love bank (reduce the frequency of your irritating mannerisms). The old saying, “Love covers a multitude of sins” has merit. A full love bank can stand a few withdrawals. An empty love bank can’t handle overdrafts.
  6. If you get less love in the relationship and your partner gets more, you’ll be unhappy and easily irritated. Solution? Ask them to give more. If after several sincere and calm requests that doesn’t work, you’ve got some hard choices to make–separate bedrooms, separate vacations, separate lives?
  7. Accept your partner, irritations and all. Wanting a perfect spouse is like wanting see-saws that only to go up.
  8. Become boring. Some passive-aggressive spouses love to push buttons because they want revenge, drama, or entertainment. If you don’t want your partner to get your goat don’t let ’em know where it’s tied up. Wear an invisible Teflon coating. Become a duck and let the irritations roll right off. Be as impervious to their annoyances as a wind up alarm clock is in an electrical storm.

Next blog post: more tips and insights for Managing Marital Irritations (plus a free book).

When Optimists and Pessimists Marry

glass half full

“The glass is half empty AND half full!”

Some people are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias. Either by training or temperament they:

  • Walk around feeling lucky, blessed, cheerful.
  • Don’t need to be told they are lucky. They already feel it.
  • Look on the bright side of everything.
  • Are resilient when things go awry.
  • Dodge depression, illness, and anxiety.
  • Live longer, take better care of their health, adapt to hardship more readily than pessimists.
  • Take greater risks in business, invention, and investments.
  • Think failure happens to others, not them.
  • Inspire morale in employees, loan officers, family, and friends.
  • Are persistent in the face of obstacles.

But not all is rosy in optimistic land. Optimists also tend to:

  • View the world more benign than it actually is.
  • View their attributes more favorably than they actually are.
  • Think goals are more achievable than they actually are.
  • Exaggerate their ability to forecast the future and predict outcomes.
  • Think they are being prudent and cautious when they are not.
  • Gamble more than most.
  • Throw good money after bad.
  • Confuse optimism with delusions.

Some famous optimists: Pollyanna “Let’s play the glad game,” Winnie the Pooh, “Oh joy, oh rapture” and Baloo, “Accentuate the positive.” Some famous pessimists: Eeyore and Puddleglum.

When optimists marry optimists both are happy. When pessimists marry pessimists both are happy.

But in a mixed marriage the pessimist says to the optimist, “You’re so unrealistic!”

And the optimist says to the pessimist, “You’re such a downer!”

Solution? Mutual influence. Optimists do well to let the realism of the pessimist temper their over confidence, and pessimists do well to let the hope of the optimists temper their doom and gloom.

When optimists and pessimists work together they see a half empty glass as full and a full glass as half empty.

Free eBook: The Quantum Couple

Quantum Couple Logo

In 2008 I began to list ways science and marriage overlap. I planned to write a 60,000 word humor book entitled, The Quantum Couple: Marriage Myths Compared to Science Facts. My purpose was to help pre-married (and married?) couples view their marriage as a laboratory and themselves as scientists.

The Quantum Couple Click link for free 25 page book.

After 7400 words I pooped out. My enthusiasm for this project has waned and I have neither the time or inclination to finish. Instead of trashing the manuscript however I thought I’d make available what I’ve done and show this unfinished ebook the light of day.

From the back cover:

About the author

Erik Johnson is a marriage counselor and mediator specializing in family conflict resolution. He practices in Bellingham, Washington. His hobbies include writing, cartooning, and helping couples understand that a failure to grasp anti-matter and dark matter doesn’t really matter. But getting along with one’s partner does.

He invites couples to put on their white lab coats, fire up their energy particle accelerators (everyone has a super collider, right?), and enter the wild and wooly world of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and human relationships!

Research marriage bonds! See marriage is a laboratory! Split the atom!

Or at least pick up your socks.

 

(Sorry about these multiple postings. I’m drowning in blogs).

Marital Expectations are Goodish

"What kind of expectations are we talking here--lowered, reduced, or unrealistically high?"

“What kind of expectations are we talking here–lowered, reduced, or unrealistically high?”

Every once in a while a client will look at me sheepishly and confess, “I have expectations in this marriage.” 

I love when this happens because I get to be the bearer of good news. I say, “Expectations aren’t bad. The reason we exchange vows is because we expect our partner to practice fidelity, sobriety, monogamy, chastity, integrity, and so forth. And our partners expect the same from us. How would you feel if your partner said they don’t care how you behave, didn’t expect you to be kind and loving, or didn’t expect you to come home at night?”

At this point the client perks up.

I then add, “It’s how we  behave when our expectations aren’t met that gets us into trouble. Unmet expectations often become an excuse to rage, explode, hit, scream, yell, throw, guilt, shame, manipulate, drink, control, act out, or leave.”

If the client is still engaged I’ll add, “If you expect your partner’s undivided attention 24/7, if you expect them to answer the phone ten times a day during work hours, if you expect your partner to look at you longingly in every aisle in every grocery store, if you expect him or her to turn in every receipt, account for every mile they drive, recall every conversation they have throughout the day with whom and what they were wearing, if you expect them to enjoy your hobbies and forsake their own, if you expect your partner to eat, exercise, and spend according to your plan, if you expect them to stare at the ground when they walk in public to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex, if you expect them to control their dreams, restless leg syndrome, or snoring, be my guest. But please respond calmly if those expectations are not met.”

Shifting the focus from spouse control to self control puts clients in a good place.

When that happens I then expect something—progress!

Thesaurus Therapy: Confuse These Words At Your Own Risk

Collegiate_ThesaurusHere’s a list of important words with very different meanings. We fail to grasp these distinctions to our peril. 

Cause vs. Contribution. A partner or family member may contribute to our irritation, anger, frustration, or unhappiness, but they do not cause it. There’s a fine line between what others do and how it affects us.  It’s what goes on inside our minds, not what goes on “out there,” that determines how annoying or troublesome another’s behavior feels. This is good news because we can control our inner world more easily than controlling others. Application: replace the comment, “You make me so mad,” with, “The story I tell myself about what you did makes me so mad.”

Criticism vs. Complaint. As a family conflict mediator I encourage complaining. It’s a healthy way to make our wishes known, initiate helpful dialog, and foster positive change. But there’s a world of difference between saying, “I feel bugged when you leave your dirty socks on the floor,” and “You are a slob and a sorry excuse for a human being.” One is a complaint, the other is a criticism. Application: resist the temptation to attack your partner; attack the problem instead.

Reacting vs. Responding. If you throw a rock into a pond you’ll see waves. That’s a response. If you throw a rock into a pond and see see a tsunami, that’s a reaction. Too often we react like a tsunami when a family member bugs us. Those reactions are impulsive, thoughtless, and explosive.  A response involves taking a deep breath, becoming curious about what the other person is thinking, and giving a soft reply. Application: be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

Oneness vs. Sameness. When “two become one” it doesn’t mean “two become the same.” Expecting our partners to think, act, talk, eat, and relax just like us is to overlook the fact that we are one (shared bed, kids, budget, goals) but not the same (emotionally enmeshed, codependent, and blurred boundaries). Marriage is not the melting of a blue and yellow crayon into a green blob. We are still blue and yellow. Application:  give your partner and yourself permission to be different.  See The Green Marriage

Assertiveness vs. Confrontation. The conflict avoidant person will cower at both of these words. But if the thought of being a perpetually passive, compliant, floor mat doesn’t appeal to us we should embrace assertiveness (the ability to say what we want and not want, ask questions, make our needs known) and eliminate confrontations (pulling the pin on a hand grenade and throwing it at our partner). Application: speak the truth in love. 

 

Have You Ever Been Annoyed By a Family Member?

Built into the human body is an aversion to irritation. Scraping a fingernail on a black board makes our ears hurt, rancid tastes make us gag, pop up ads offend us, drippy faucets unnerve us, advertising jingles become ear worms and make us crazy, and pesky mosquitoes can drive us bonkers.

There are four ways to cope physical annoyances. For example, to minimize the irritation we feel when cutting onions we can either:

tupperwareQuarantine the onion by putting it in Tupperware

Insulate our eyes by putting on a gas mask

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Let nature take its course and flush out irritating onion odors with cleansing tears

Stories-at-Work

Re-frame the irritation by telling ourselves a new story.

“This is the price I pay for adding flavor to omelets.”

“My tears may mean I’m using too many onions in this dish.”

“Onions boost my acting career by giving me authentic tears for my stage performance.”

“Onion odors are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

As a family conflict mediator it’s my privilege to coach couples, parents, and teens on ways to reduce family irritations. Just as there are four ways to cope with physical irritations, there are four ways to cope with psychological, relational, and family irritations.

Quarantine the irritating family member—put ‘em in a time out.

Insulate yourself by leaving the room (better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome family member, Proverbs 21:9).

Let nature take its course and process your irritation with cleansing tears.

Re-frame the irritation by telling yourself a new story.

“Irritation is the price I pay for living under the same roof with my family.”

“Irritations motivate me to develop patience, kindness, and tolerance.”

“My irritability alerts me to the possibility that I may be irritating to others.”

“Relationship irritations are natural, unavoidable, and an irreversible part of the universe.”

Please do not retaliate by returning irritation for irritation. This only causes things to escalate. Unless of course you’d like to come in for family counseling. I do have openings.

Soft Start Ups

Peanuts.Harsh.PE4

Our old friend Charlie Brown nailed it–his soft answer turned away a whole flock of wrath. Marriage researcher John Gottman provides us with a list of questions to measure the level of softness in our relationships. How many of these statements are true for you and your partner?

  1. My partner is often very critical of me.
  2. I hate the way my partner raises an issue.
  3. Arguments often seem to come out of nowhere.
  4. Before I know it, we are in a fight.
  5. When my partner complains, I feel picked on.
  6. I seem always to get blamed for issues.
  7. My partner is negative all way out of proportion.
  8. I feel I have to ward off personal attacks.
  9. I often have to deny charges leveled against me.
  10. My partner’s feelings are too easily hurt.
  11. What goes wrong is often not my responsibility.
  12. My spouse criticizes me personally.
  13. Issues get raised in an insulting manner.
  14. My partner will at times complain in a smug or superior way.
  15. I have just about had it with all this negativity between us.
  16. I feel basically disrespected when my partner complains.
  17. I just want to leave the scene when complaints arise.
  18. Our calm is suddenly shattered.
  19. I find my partner’s negativity unnerving and unsettling.
  20. I think my partner can be totally irrational.

If you have five or less TRUE answers you and your partner know how to initiate difficult conversations gently without being critical or harsh. This increases your chance of resolving conflict. If you have six or more TRUE answers one or both of you tends to be harsh, contemptuous, critical, defensive, or withdrawing. This prevents issues from being resolved. If your spouse tends to raise issues harshly the best advice I can give is to make sure he/she feels known, respected, and loved by you and that you accept his/her influence often.

Try the Charlie Brown approach and see how it works!

Paradoxes of Control

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It takes two people to unite in a marriage. If you succeed at controlling your partner (imposing your will on them) unity is lost. Why? Because your partner no longer has a free will and is no longer an independent person; they’ve become an extension of you and your will.

Controlling a partner is bitter sweet. We may get our partner to do what we want (which feels sweet) but they’re not doing it willingly (which feels bitter).

Fear of unmet needs is usually behind the urge to control our partners. The more we try to control our spouse the more disinclined they are to want to meet our needs. It’s a vicious self fulfilling prophecy.

Expecting others to do what we say fuels our sense of power and power is a terrible glue to hold couples together. Kindness, love, respect, deference, freedom, and serving are much better at fostering connection.

Few people welcome a partner’s control without trying to control back. This then creates a power struggle and the relationship becomes a competition to see who is most powerful. This leads to escalation and in worst cases, violence.

If the thought of letting your spouse do whatever they want increases your anxiety it’s likely you’re controlling. If your spouse does what you want and your anxiety decreases it’s likely you’re controlling. Since anything that decreases anxiety is addicting, controlling your spouse can become addicting. This is a precarious place to be since your spouse eventually will resist your control, your anxiety will spike, the urge to control will increase, their resistance will increase, and now anxiety regulation rules the relationship, not love.

Since much unhappiness occurs when spouses fail to meet our expectation to do what we want we have two options: try harder to get them to do things our way (spouse control), or change our expectations (self control). Since one of the “fruits of the spirit” is self control, we believe fostering personal spirituality and thereby decreasing the urge to control others is good for marriages.