ARTICLES - marriage

previous article

Years ago, at a conference dealing with customer relations in business, I was startled to realize how much of the advice being given to the participants regarding how to run their professional lives applied equally well to their home lives with their partners or spouses. At the same time, it was apparent that most of the participants were so concerned with their professional interests that I doubt they even considered or applied the principles presented to their personal relationships.

Whether you were at that conference or not, I would like to paraphrase three particular sets of facts and principles presented by the primary speaker, which I believe can help you to revitalize your own relationships and/or marriage.

The first was that, in dealing with clients or customers, most businesses devote the majority of their energy or effort to sales, i.e.: getting new customers or soliciting new business. To that extent, they wine and dine prospects, call them and send information to them. They let the customers know that they’re interested in them and that they are important to them. They assure them that they will continue to be there for them and then set up times on their calendars to contact the customers or clients in the future. They strive to learn personal things about them ~ the names of their wives and children, their hobbies and their interests. Overall, they devote the time and energy they feel necessary to solicit and obtain their business.

Once the customers are on board, so to speak, the second greatest amount of energy is directed toward keeping them as customers. To that end, businessmen may send anniversary or birthday cards. They inform the clients about new offers, promotional items, and special events and keep them abreast of what is going on within their business. They tweak their clients’ interest in future products and try to make them feel that they are important members of their extended business family. They may even provide individualized benefits for their customers’ continued support, i.e.: give them gifts, send them on fishing, hunting, or vacation trips. In addition, meetings are set up over lunch, dinner, or on the golf course. All of these endeavors are their way of saying, “we value you and we want you to know it.” They may go one step further and indicate that that’s why they are expressing their interest and directing their energy and thoughts to how the company can service and please them, not only today, but in the future. It is sound business practice and, generally speaking, it works well.

The speaker went on to say that most businesses expend the least amount of effort toward getting back those customers who no longer use their services, or who have expressed dissatisfaction with their product. In those cases, the effort to retrieve their business is usually restricted to a form letter indicating a desire and an availability to serve the departed customer in the future, should the need arise, or a perfunctory call, which is frequently overdue in coming, i.e.: the customer has already found a substitute supplier. In either instance, it is a case of too little too late.

When I begin to think about the application of these observations to understanding the way individuals deal with one another in the course of establishing long-term, meaningful relationships and marriages, I get absolutely excited. It is astonishing but, after giving it some thought, really not surprising, that people behave so similarly in both situations. After all, the emotional dynamics are essentially the same. Initially, you meet someone with whom you connect. The electricity, chemistry and brain waves mesh. As a result, you’re attracted to them. The first step is to sell them on you. To that end, you put your best foot forward. You go to great lengths to speak and behave in accordance with what you believe to be acceptable, if not outstanding, dating or courting behavior. No different from the process that you would follow in business situations, you wine and dine them. You disclose your profit and loss statement you attempt to make dates and establish plans for the future. Your thoughts, your phone calls, your time and energy are directed toward them. You demonstrate an interest in their family and friends. You question them about their likes and dislikes, their preferences in food, activities and hobbies. The purpose, once again, is to establish a comfortable working relationship between the two of you.

Once that has occurred, you direct your efforts toward getting their confidence, establishing trust and creating an interest in you. You show them how thoughtful you can be. You remember how they like their coffee, what their favorite color is, and the type of food they prefer and their choice of drinks. You send flowers or candy to celebrate their birthday, holidays and the anniversary of your first meeting. If you are male, you open doors.  It is your way of saying “I’ve already established that we have a mutual interest in each other. Now I want to show you why you might want to keep me around for a prolonged length of time.”

But, when and/or if an ill wind should strike your relationship, you tend to do less to win them back than you ever did to establish the relationship in the first place. Why? Has too much water gone under the bridge? Is your ego so hurt that you’re reluctant to put yourself out and risk getting hurt again? Were you so little emotionally involved that the loss is negligible? Or did you put your wall up so high in order to protect you that you’re unable to climb out of the trap you created, out of false pride? These are a few of the introspective questions I would have you ask before you lose a relationship that, sometime in the future, you might regret not having fought to keep.

Once you have asked these questions and determined where you are coming from, you will be ready to ask yourself another set of questions. “Why did my partner want out of this relationship with me?” Your attempt to obtain an honest answer to that question, may teach you more about yourself than it does about your soon-to-be-estranged spouse. But, since you truly can’t change someone else, the real purpose for asking the question is to help you to see where you may have gone wrong, or at least how you contributed to creating the emotional situation you find yourself in. Too often, however, one or both spouses in a conflicted marriage assume the attitude of “I just happened to be in the neighborhood where a divorce is taking place, and it’s mine.” In these cases, neither party accepts responsibility for the event about to occur. As a result, neither learns anything from the experience. Instead, they engage in a power struggle designed to determine who the greater victim is.

That was certainly the case with Allen and Caroline. He acknowledged the fact that he had problems. He agreed that his abuse of alcohol, lack of sexual interest and frequent late nights out “entertaining clients” at various men clubs did little to enhance his wife’s sense of self-esteem, or her confidence in his devotion. At the same time, Caroline’s constant criticism and egocentric attitude did not entice him to change his ways. Each of them accurately perceived their partner as lacking in their role as a spouse. However, neither chose to look inward and judge their own behaviors. It was far easier to find fault with the way their partners treated them and to avoid seeing themselves. This attitude also enabled them to live emotionally distant lives while physically residing together.

In retrospect, Allen and Caroline would have agreed that it was difficult and painful to sustain their pattern of life. It required a great deal of energy to maintain the distance between them. Interestingly, it might have taken less effort on each of their parts to allow their marriage to succeed, but that was not to be. Although both of them, intellectually, desired a loving relationship with a lifetime partner, they were too emotionally frightened to trust that someone they loved would not hurt or reject them. Thus, they denied, and questioned their feelings of love for one another. It took six years of on-again, off-again behavior before they agreed to marry. Five years later, the same on-again, off-again pattern of behavior continued. Eventually, Caroline became emotionally involved with an associate at her office. When Allen discovered her secret, he instantly ran for the door, figuratively and literally. It was the excuse he needed to exit the relationship. Despite Caroline’s truthful denial of any physical involvement with her associate, or any desire for a long-term relationship with him, Allen was adamant. He went to an attorney and filed for divorce. He later agreed to come to therapy, but only in order to decide how they would deal with their two-year-old daughter during their separation and eventual divorce. Following the first two sessions, Caroline verbalized the desire to reconcile, but I felt her words were unconvincing and lacking in emotion. In reality, neither she nor Allen expended very much emotional energy in the direction of reconciliation. It was unfortunate, because there was little doubt in my mind that, should either of them attempt to marry someone else in the future, they would repeat the same mistakes and experience the same problems with their new spouses. Sadly, each of them really wanted a loving partner, but neither knew how to be one. They were far better at recruiting a partner than they were at being a spouse. It would be difficult to call Allen or Caroline victims. It would be more accurate to see them as volunteers who expended far more effort finding one another and staying together in an ineffectual relationship than they did to avoid divorce, or to deal with their individual problems.

Some very valuable insights into Allen and Caroline’s conflicted marriage and eventual divorce can be gleaned by considering another set of facts provided by the same speaker at the sales convention. He asked the audience, “Why do customers quit using your services?” After several people ventured guesses, he said, “You’re all partly right, but let me tell you what a survey of over 1,500 businesses revealed. People quit being your customer for the following reasons: One percent dies. Three percent move away - relocate their businesses elsewhere. Five percent develop new relationships with other companies who also provide your services. Nine percent succumb to superior competition. Fourteen percent indicate that they are dissatisfied with the product or the service you provide. Sixty-eight percent leave you because they sense your indifference.” Think about this for just one moment. If you add up those who die, move away, develop new relationships, succumb to competitors, or are dissatisfied with your services, it comes to thirty-two percent. But over twice that many, sixty-eight percent, of the losses you experience in business come about because you no longer show that you’re interested or appreciative. They leave because they sense indifference in you toward them.

Now, let’s apply these facts to marriage. Once again, the similarity in the behavior of disenchanted customers to that of disenchanted spouses is absolutely mind-boggling. One percent of spouses die prematurely. We’re not talking old age; we’re talking about auto accidents, plane crashes, or serious illnesses that are beyond control. Three percent move away. We might see that as analogous to a spouse getting a job that requires them to travel, or to move to another state. However, your profession, your family ties, your kids’ situation at school requires you to stay put. Over time, your relationship suffers because of the distance between you and the lack of emotional nurturing that you are there to give to one another. Another five percent of spouses discover that the physical distance between them causes their hearts to grow fonder for someone else. Nine percent of marriages succumb to superior competition. Purely and simply, someone else wants your spouse more than you do, or at least that’s what your behavior implies, or what your spouse perceives. That someone else goes after him with zeal and he/she succumbs. Fourteen percent of spouses are dissatisfied with their partner’s product or service. In those cases, you have to honestly look at your behavior and determine if, indeed, your services are lacking. If they are, you must alter the way you behave. Another possibility is that the problem isn’t yours at all. Instead, your dissatisfied, spouse may be reacting to his own inner feelings of failure, inadequacy, or depression. So much so that he or she feels unworthy of your love and attempts to medicate himself through the attention of others. If this is the case, you need to be aware of his condition, assure him of your love and acceptance and aid him to obtain any professional help he might require.

Of greater importance is the fact that sixty-eight percent of marriages end because a spouse senses your indifference, your malaise, your lack of involvement and devotion. Over the forty years I have been in practice, I have come to realize that the big things that occur in a marriage don’t destroy it. Sickness, business failures, tragedies, even infidelity, when dealt with positively, can serve not to break up a marriage, but to strengthen it. In contrast, more often than not, it is the persistent little things that erode a marriage. It has the same effect as dripping water on a rock over a long period of time. Eventually, there are major changes in the structure of the rock. The same result occurs in marriage. Over time, small grievances, minor upsets, constant criticism, emphasis on the negative, self-centeredness, excessive control, and a lack of a sympathetic, understanding attitude contribute to resentments that causes you to be indifferent to one another. You may argue that you use the right words and that you frequently say “I love you.” But is it possible that you don’t act on the words and that you only go through the motions, without the emotions? You may justify your behavior, or lack of it, by attributing it to the way your partner treats you. But that doesn’t excuse your behavior. It is only a way of saying “I’m guilty, but not to blame, because I am totally controlled and governed by my spouse, who is responsible for how I think, feel, and act towards him or her.”

If you can hear yourself using these words, I hope that, despite how painful the insight may be, you will come to see how pitiful they sound and how demeaning the thoughts are to you. Nor is it likely they will prove attractive to your partner. To continue along that line of thinking is only to drive more nails into the coffin in which you will eventually bury your marriage or relationship. You need to find another way to cope with your situation, or else you will behave similar to Nan after she discovered, and overreacted to, the e-mails between her husband, Ray, and a female member of his Harley motorcycle club. She jumped into the middle of their friendship with both feet. She e-mailed every member of the club and suggested that their activities consisted of far more than bike riding. She went on to say that they were all lacking in morality and that her husband and his “e-mail buddy” were prime examples of what the club stood for. She was overtly furious and no amount of explanation, apology or remorse could squelch her anger. He was to blame. She was the victim and she wanted everyone to know it. The result was that her behavior pushed everyone away when, in reality, what she desperately wanted and needed was reassurance that he cared and that he wasn’t going to trade her, his forty-six year old wife, in for two twenty-three year olds. Intellectually, she knew better. However, her fury had little to do with intelligence. It was a direct reflection of the insecurity and lack of sexual adequacy she felt as a result of the double mastectomy she had undergone six months prior. When she was finally able to discuss the problems in therapy, she indicated that she couldn’t understand what was going on. Ray had been there for her throughout her surgery and the recuperation period. He never left her side and his behavior was the single most important factor that helped her to make it through the ordeal. Now, when things were finally looking up, he went and upset the apple cart. Despite his repeated assurance that nothing had taken place, other than the e-mails, she clung to her feelings of anger, betrayal and rejection. To be sure, her behavior was understandable, justified and normal. Ray came to understand that and, in part, accepted the fact that he would have to periodically pay for his transgressions. I assured him that his remorse, his feelings of contrition, and time were the best medicines his wife could receive. At the same time, Nan had to realize that, despite his responsibility for his actions, she had to accept some responsibility for the situation she found herself in. During her illness, she had grown emotionally inward. She withdrew from any form of physical closeness because of her fears of rejection and contempt for her own body. Moreover, she was too embarrassed to express her feelings and/or to confide in Ray. Her behavior was certainly understand-able. At the same time, Ray was not the most sensitive of men, and he definitely wasn’t a mind reader. In addition, he was overwhelmed by her medical condition and terrified of the word “cancer”. These are not excuses for his behavior. But, they are explanations. In any case, it was essential for her to know that her unleashed rage and periodic emotional tirades were ultimately going to kill the marital relationship she desperately desired.

Fortunately, unlike Allen and Caroline, Ray and Nan were willing to work at their marriage. A wonderful example of their efforts occurred at a restaurant one evening. They had gone out to eat and, as they entered the establishment, Ray held the door open for Nan and “two strikingly attractive women” who were following close behind, walked in ahead of him. Nan said “it was obvious that he caught their attention. One of the young ladies, in particular, stopped, looked him in the eye, smiled and gave him a special ‘thank you’.  It wasn’t something I imagined. I saw him do that little wiggle of his backside that he’s done all through our marriage whenever he’s attracted to a female, but I let it go. You wouldn’t believe it but, as we were leaving, the two women appeared again. Then, as he paid the bill, they began a conversation with him about the meal and looked through me as if I was invisible. I lost it completely. There he was, wiggling his behind again and all I could think about was the e-mails. I was so furious that I thought I’d slap her up the side of her head and kick his behind. I also considered jerking him out to the car, but then decided I’d leave him there with the girls if that’s what he wanted, and drive the car home myself. Just as I started for the door, I thought “what would Dr. Ed think about this?”  Then I stopped in my tracks, turned around, kissed him on the forehead and said out loud “I’m really glad I have a loving husband like you.”  The women froze and he and I went out hand in hand. There it is; one wonderful example of the kind of behavior that you have to adopt to breathe life into your marriage, if you want.

Nan had come to realize that she was going to live, but her relationship was about to die. She was able to save it because she learned twelve rules essential to revitalizing a marriage. You must:

1. View Your Problems As Opportunities.

Do not look upon the problems and difficulties that occur in your marriage as an indictment that the marriage is failing, or unworthy of saving. Rather, view them as an opportunity to recognize that something was, and probably still is, wrong and that it needs to be tended to in order to make your marriage the union that you would like it to be.

2. Improve Your Communication Skills.

Recognize that most marital problems stem from a problem with communication. When problems occur, it is usually because the individuals involved are unable to adequately express what they feel. They are unable to openly relate their dissatisfactions, their desires, their hopes, their dreams and their feelings to one another. The ability to do so is a two-fold step. It requires, first, that you know the source of your behavior and second, that you have the courage to share what you think and feel with your partner, in a direct manner. Unfortunately, if there is one major error that most people commit in communicating, it is that they hold their thoughts and feelings back. They harbor them within themselves, or fail to express them in a timely manner. As a result, they fester inside and aid in building up resentment. Consequently, the individual either explodes inappropriately, or implodes; causing themselves increased pain and torment. Too often, they then attribute the pain they experience to their spouse or partner. There is only one solution. You need to know what is bothering you. Believe it or not, too often, you blind yourself to your own emotions. Lastly, once you discover what you feel, count to ten and then express it in a way that you feel you have the best chance for your partner to hear you out.

3. Look To Your Past To Understand The Way You Relate In The Present.

Without a doubt, problems occur because of a lack of communication. However, it is not quite as simple as step 2 suggests, because the way you communicate, the way you speak and interact, is not solely a function of who you are married to. Instead, it is a reflection of who you are. Long before you met your partner, you developed a way of loving, of sharing, of interacting and of getting the love you wanted, which you brought with you into your marriage. If it is inherently faulty, it needs to be changed. But you can’t change it without first objectively recognizing the pattern of loving and the language of love that you speak. Second, you must determine, intellectually, whether or not you wish these earlier learned patterns of acting and thinking to control your behavior today and whether you feel they need revamping. Fortunately, it can be done. Time and time again, I have seen individuals come to therapy, look at themselves, and learn that some of their behaviors did not contribute to a healthy, intimate relationship with their spouse. That awareness, above all else, served as a motivating force for them to institute change.

4. Recognize That Change Takes Place Three Steps Forward And Two Steps Back.

Change does not occur overnight. It is a slow, arduous process. Even when we desire it, we fight it, we fear it and we doubt out ability to achieve it. Think about it. If you’ve ever had a problem with drinking, smoking, overeating, any type of compulsion or addiction, how difficult was it to alter your behavior? No matter how much you abhorred your own actions, you found it almost impossible to curtail them. The process consists of three steps forward, two steps back. Emotional changes as the result of therapy follow the same pattern. Typically, these changes are depicted by a learning curve, a line that evenly slopes forward and upward, over time. But that does not tell the whole story. All learning, whether it is tennis, competitive swimming, learning a foreign language, or changing your own behavior, takes place erratically. More accurately, you take three steps forward, hit a plateau and take two steps back. This process occurs over and over and over again. Interestingly, if you draw a line defined by each three steps forward, you get a long, even, sloping curve upward and forward. If you draw the same line through the center of each plateau, you get the same curve. If you plot a line starting at the lowest point of your first two steps backward to the last two, that line also forms a long, sweeping, even curve. On the surface, you appear to be learning or changing in accordance with a gradual, steady growth pattern. When you look at the picture more closely, you will see that, figuratively and literally, learning and emotional change is an uneven process. When you experience this pattern, don="t" quit or become discouraged. If you persist, over time, you will reach the goals you set for yourself.

5. Never Forget That You Can’t Change Others, Only Yourself.

Remember that you can’t change someone else. You may influence change, but the only change that you can actualize is in yourself. As we noted earlier, even that is difficult. It takes time, commitment, and a resolve not to be discouraged each time you fall back two steps. Nevertheless, the majority of my patients come to therapy looking to change the behavior of their parents, friends, significant others or spouses. They are, however, looking in the wrong direction. It is not unusual, since all of our senses are directed outward. Our eyes, ears and noses all function to gather information from outside ourselves. Consequently, most of us direct our efforts toward interpreting the world around us and attempting to change it. The majority of us are oblivious, or at least insensitive, to ourselves and often feel trapped or controlled by others around us. As a result, we waste far too much of our energy trying to control and/or alter others and the world around us. It is, however, an exercise in futility that only serves to promote greater conflict in your interpersonal relationships, increases controversy and encourages feelings of anger in others and frustration in you. There is a far more constructive alternative. Utilize your emotional energy to look, listen and smell self with your third ear, eye and nostril.

6. Question The Motivation Underlying Your Behavior.

You have undoubtedly heard that “the truth shall set you free”. There is a great deal of credibility in that remark. For me, it says that you must learn where your behavior stems from. Look to your past. Determine where and how you learned to be you. Think of it as a course designed to help you get a Ph.D. in self. The knowledge you obtain will aid you in your endeavor to change and to grow. Once you have gained insight into yourself, you can then begin to behave in spite of what you learned as a child, instead of because of it. To do so, constantly look inward. Decide what it is you really want. Commit to it. Reach for it with all that you possess. If need be, before and after every behavior, thought and dream, ask yourself, “Will this get me what I want? Twenty four hours from now, will I be pleased with my behavior?” If your answer is “no”, curtail the behavior before it starts or learn from the behavior. Then next time around, try something new.

7. Take Responsibility For Your Actions.

Despite the temptation, never use your partner’s actions or treatment of you as justification for your behavior. Remember, you can only deal with you. If what you’re doing is something that won’t get you where you want to go, isn’t something you’re proud of, or requires change, don’t give yourself an excuse or an out. Recognize that you, alone, are responsible for your actions. If you see yourself at fault, profit from it and take the steps needed to be the person you want to be.

8. Fix Yourself First, If You Want To Fix Your Marriage.

In most instances, you cannot blame your marriage for the problems you experience. Too many people call it a faulty institution. After all, they might say, “fifty percent of marriages fail”. They’re right.  It’s a proven statistic. You could even go a step further and ask “of the fifty percent that do prevail, how many of them are happy?” That is a difficult question to answer. I cannot count how many times I have heard patients say, “I don’t know of one happily married couple.” That may say something about the couples they associate with, but, on the other hand, you probably know many married individuals whose relationships are so negative and/or destructive that you find it difficult to fathom why they stay together. The problem is not the institution of marriage, it is the people. If you are one of those persons and you are in a relationship that has a problem, you must look to yourself, to see where you’re coming from and what you’re doing that requires change, and then institute it.

9. Remember: You Don’t Have To Be Perfect.

You need to remember that everything is relative. Too often, people experiencing stress live in a black and white world. Events and words are perceived as being either good or bad and one sentence said in anger can be the difference between happiness and a date with the court of domestic relations. No relationships can be perfect one hundred percent of the time. There are ups and downs in relationships just as there are in business. That’s the reason for profit and loss statements. The same is needed in a marriage. You may have to consider establishing a form of marital economics that enables you to take periodic stock of how you are doing. It might allow for a write-off of about ten to twelve percent of the times that are bad, and direct your attention to profit areas that are falling behind and require additional attention. Hopefully, it will also serve to point out and reinforce the successes that are there.

10. Approach Your Marital Difficulties Positively. The Odds Are In Your Favor.

Attempting to reconcile a problem marriage or relationship is a win-win situation. There are three possibilities that can occur when you commit to improving the relationship you’re in. Only one is negative:

The first: you go to therapy with the resolve to improve you and to change those things about yourself that are counterproductive to establishing a positive relationship. You vow to behave positively, in a manner that will contribute to your personal growth and emotional health. As a result of your actions, your partner responds in an equally positive manner, and you both enjoy a relationship that far exceeds anything you have known or shared heretofore. That’s good.

The second possibility is that your partner is incapable, unwilling, or too frightened to change his or her behavior and continues to blame you for his or her problems. As a result, you leave, but without guilt and with the comfort of knowing that you tried. More importantly, you retain the knowledge you gained about yourself and it aids you in any relationship or marriage you choose to establish in the future. In the long run, that’s also positive.

There is a third alternative. You discontinue your commitment to change. You leave therapy, remain in your marriage, and continue to behave as you did prior to your attempt to grow. It is a negative possibility that occasionally occurs. When it does, you have no one to blame but yourself.

The essential fact you have to remember is that when you get better, your marriage improves, as well. The reason: it takes healthy people to make healthy marriages.

11. Be Committed To Positive Change.

There has to come a time when you recognize what you want, commit to it and go after it, despite the obstacles in your way. To do otherwise is to become a reactor to life, someone who initiates little, who feels their behavior is controlled by others and lives with resentment toward everyone. There is a problem, however. As you get better, you often hurt more, because the things you begin to see can prove to be painful. But, they can also cause you to take responsibility for yourself and to learn that you are not a victim and you are not trapped. In the process, you also come to see that the life you have been living and the behaviors you have justified by blaming others are really of your own choosing. This awareness is the impetus for initiating change. It is not easy. It is hurtful to really see yourself, depressing to admit your faults and tremendously difficult to institute change, but it can be done. Most importantly, the rewards are absolutely worth it.

12. Learn Emotional CPR.

Lastly, to save your marriage and breathe new life into it, you, must learn how to perform emotional CPR. Nan learned how to do it. You can as well.

It requires you to become clear-headed, that you see what is happening around you and react candidly, with care and concern for you partner. You must be charitable and comprehend that we are all unique individuals who behave differently from each other, but we can still live cooperatively with one another.

You need to learn to deal patiently and protectively with your partner. It is imperative that you keep in mind that maintaining a relationship is not a spectator sport. Thus, you need to commit to being a passionate participant, who is willing to be vulnerable and express feelings. In addition, you must behave as a paragon of those things you wish to receive. i.e.: you must serve as a role model for your partner, giving and expressing what you want in return.

It is essential that you be reliable, responsible and reassuring. You must plan for romance. Do not expect it to return to a relationship like a bolt of lightning, out of the blue. Constantly strive to extend yourself, to reach for new emotional highs. Be willing to reform old behaviors and thoughts that have proven, over time, to be destructive or negative. Most of all, you must be real. Say what you think and feel. Act with respect and kindness and your relationship will grow strong and be healthy for years to come, because you learned emotional CPR.

To receive new articles by email twice a month, sign up by entering your email address below