By Allen Fox, Ph.D. c 2011, all rights reserved.
I’m sitting in a cramped and uncomfortable seat on a U.S. Airways flight to Tampa, vowing to fly United next time. But my discomfort is made tolerable by my sweet wife, Nancy, sitting beside me. We’ve been married 30 years and went together for 6 years before that, so my pleasure doesn’t come from the flush of excitement intrinsic in a budding new relationship. We hold hands off and on, and I’ve told her I love her a half-dozen times since boarding the plane, and she’s responded in kind. I just appreciate being with her, and we can be as happy together in a cheap motel in Bakersfield as in a fancy suite in Hawaii. (almost) We take walks together every day, chatting the whole time, and enjoy spending quiet evenings together, munching popcorn (which Nancy makes fresh using healthy oil) and watching TV.
We virtually never fight, though we disagree occasionally on specific issues, usually involving our kids or big purchases. There is a huge difference between disagreeing and fighting. When we disagree it is never done aggressively or antagonistically. Our objective is always to work through and solve our problems quickly, painlessly, and get past them. We never try to hurt each other, and it never becomes personal or antagonistic. Both of us are concerned with our partner’s needs and feelings, and we try, as best we can, to be considerate of them. We are polite and extend to each other the same courtesies that we would to any important and valued stranger.
Please don’t take these comments as bragging, though they may sound like it. I’m just trying to describe our relationship so you can have better perspective on our strategies for achieving such a positive and happy one.
It starts with a few basic axioms. 1. We are married for the long haul. Essentially, we are in the boat together, and neither of us is going to leave it while we are upright. 2. We have married a basically decent person whom we respect. 3. We are partners, allies, and teammates. 4. This relationship is the most important one we have, and nothing or nobody comes before it. 5. One partner cannot be happy if the other isn’t. 6. You can’t “win” a fight, regardless of the outcome.
Although Nancy and I are soul-mates, we couldn’t be more different as people. Trained as a physicist and experimental psychologist, my brain is very analytic and linear. To solve problems, I want to collect data, chop things into manageable little pieces, and use these to understand why things are as they are. My first inclination is to develop a broad philosophy about any situation, and then work my way to the specific. Nancy, on the other hand, could care less about philosophies. She is the ultimate pragmatist, and approaches problems by instantly taking in the situation as a whole and popping out a solution. When I ask her what made her conclude so and so, she replies, “I don’t know, I’m not sure.” But over time I’ve learned, to my initial amazement, that she’s right extraordinarily often.
If you give me all the pertinent data and let me mull it over for awhile, I’m quite good, and I will come to a correct conclusion more often than Nancy. But if the situation is complex and many of the variables are hard to pin down, Nancy is much better than I am. At first I didn’t understand that there was a way of thinking and problem-solving that was totally different from mine but that was, nonetheless, awfully good. (In fact, when I was a young scientist I thought girls, though sexually alluring, were just like guys mentally except that they weren’t very smart. I’ve since found out differently.) And with time I’ve grown more and more in awe of Nancy’s mental capabilities. I’m very happy that she doesn’t think like I do, and between us we constitute a quite complete individual.
Enough of the background for the moment; let’s get to the “how to” of developing an excellent marriage relationship.
1. Use the “Bank Account Theory” whenever you and your spouse have conflicting desires. Here you start out with a certain amount of credit in your good-will bank account. Whenever you get your own way at the expense of your spouse, you withdraw a little good-will credit from your account. Conversely, whenever you do what your spouse wants at your own expense, you deposit a bit of credit. Your objective is to build up good-will in your account and avoid, at all costs, emptying it.
With this in mind, you should do whatever your spouse wants whenever you can, especially if the issue is not vital. For example, what movie you go to, what restaurant you eat at, or what television show you watch are not, let’s face it, crucial issues. When you do what your spouse wants you are making a small deposit in your bank account of good will. (When you get your own way, you are, of course, making a withdrawal.) And if you have built up a decent amount of equity in the account and need something badly, you are likely to get it. Moreover, all spouses feel more kindly and affectionate towards partners who have built up substantial equity in their “bank” accounts. (figuratively, and maybe even literally) And if you’ve emptied your account, your persistent selfishness will probably have produced a resentful, unhappy spouse.
When the two of you approach each junction in the road with this in mind, doing things for your spouse becomes a pleasure rather than an obligation or something you are forced to do. Remember that meeting your spouse’s needs also includes emotional ones and even ones that appear irrational. We are, after all, emotional creatures, even though we may think logic drives our actions.
This is would replace the oft-cited strategy of “negotiation” in such situations. With the “negotiation” strategy you are essentially saying that if you do this for me (which you don’t want to do), then I’ll then do that for you (which I don’t want to do). This is a negative and non-loving approach, and you both lose. With the bank account approach, you can actually enjoy doing things for your spouse that might otherwise have been unpleasant because you are building equity in your relationship.
For example, Nancy rarely asks me to do things for her, while at the same time she is constantly doing nice things for me. I appreciate this and realize how thoughtful and unselfish she is. I love her for it (and for many of her other qualities) and appreciate her basic goodness and kindness. This makes me want to do things for her. It makes me want to make her happy. I feel like I can’t just sit back and constantly “take.” Her behavior makes me want to pay her back.
So at times Nancy will make breakfast and then have to leave the house, and she’ll tell me, “Just leave the dishes, and I’ll do them when I get back.” Well, there’s no way I’m going to let her come back to a sink full of dirty dishes. So I wash them and clean up the kitchen while I’m at it. And all during the clean-up process I’m happy because I think about how pleased she’ll be when she comes home to a spotless kitchen. (She was probably dreading the job.) And she’ll welcome it as a show of my love for her and my appreciation for her constant goodness towards me. It shows her that I don’t take these things for granted.
This is a win-win approach as both parties are happy doing things they know will make their partner happy. They do them because they want to do them, not because they have to. The “negotiation” strategy is a lose-lose approach, since both partners do things for each other because they are forced to, not because they want to.
As an example of the force approach, I had an Aunt Tillie who was considerate but very pushy. She would call me up and tell me to do things, such as to send my brother a gift for his birthday or to call so and so. Just the fact that she told me to do it and that I felt pressure from her to comply took all the fun out of the act. It made me not want to do it. Had I thought of doing it myself, I would have felt good about it. (We all like the feeling of being a good person, and acts of benevolence give us this good feeling.) But aunt’s pushing made me do things because I had to rather than wanted to. It became an obligation rather than a kindly act originated by my own generosity. All the pleasurable, altruistic feelings were obliterated and replaced by feelings of resentment and obligation.
In a marriage the objective is to create a situation where each partner is made happy by tending to the needs of the other partner. This attitude stokes and feeds the warmth, love, and closeness that make a marriage happy. I absolutely love seeing Nancy enjoying herself. And her cheerful personality makes the weekend in Bakersfield a treat and the shopping expedition at Costco entertaining.
Of course for this to work, both partners must understand and be in on it. My lovely little wife is a naturally giving person. She is people-oriented and enjoys making others happy by doing nice things for them. But she, like all of us, does not like being taken advantage of. She doesn’t keep score, but if I were a total “taker” and accepted her benevolence as my due, without appreciating the effort and care she takes in the giving, even Nancy would eventually feel like a “sucker” and become resentful. Who wouldn’t?
But I get it. She deserves and gets heartfelt thanks for everything she does for me, and I try to give back as much as I can. When I thank her and tell her how wonderful I think she is and how much I appreciate her goodness, I enjoy it as much as she does. These words come from the bottom of my heart, and I am enveloped in feelings of warmth and well-being as I say them. It’s win-win!
But it’s not a 50-50 deal, nor does it need to be. Nancy does more for me than I do for her. And in most marriages the giving of both partners is unlikely to be totally equal. But I do what I can, and she knows I am making an effort. She is just more naturally thoughtful and energetic than I am, and the fact that we are not 50-50 does not worry her. So she makes a point of enthusiastically appreciating my good deeds, even though they occur less frequently than hers. (This, of course, makes me want to do more of them.)
2. Never say anything that will hurt your partner’s feelings, and only say things that will make him or her feel good. You want your partner to be happy to see you. You want your partner to want to be with you. And this will be the case if you continually make your partner feel good. One way to simplistically understand the situation is to consider how a dog might react to reward and punishment. If you constantly pet the dog and give him food, he will be eager and happy to see you. If you beat and abuse him, he will fear and avoid you. So of course it helps the relationship if you stroke your partner with kind, complimentary, and loving words, and never, ever use harsh, hurtful, or even mildly hurtful ones.
Your partner will feel good if you build his/her self-esteem by honestly appreciating his/her accomplishments and by ignoring or making light of his/her failures. If your partner has a conflict with a third party keep in mind that not only are you are allies, but your partner should always “feel” like you are allies. Thus you should side with your partner whenever it is reasonably possible, even when he/she is in the wrong. Turn you head around so that you can see your partner’s side of the issue. This is a particularly positive approach when the issue, whatever it was, is over and your analysis cannot affect the outcome. Most frequently, problems will involve some kind of personal interaction and conflict, and your partner should always feel free to share these with you and expect a sympathetic and supportive ear.
The exceptions, of course, might be when your partner is not only in the wrong but also when going forward would be harmful, immoral, illegal, expensive, or dangerous. Here you would simply be giving your partner valuable but kindly advice. In essence, you are not obliged to hold your tongue when your partner’s car is going over a cliff. (with you in it)
3. Ignore or forget about your partner’s weaknesses. He or she will have strengths too and you would be wise to focus on them. I’m sure your partner already knows his/her weaknesses, and you probably knew about them too before you were married. Since your partner will usually be unwilling, or unable to change them, you’d be wise to accept them as part of a package that is positive overall. Focusing on them and dwelling on them will only make you and your partner unhappy.
Dwell, rather, on your partner’s strengths. Think about them; appreciate them; tell your kids about them; tell other people about them; and tell your spouse about them. I’m assuming your partner is a basically good and reasonable person. (All of us are emotional and nobody is totally reasonable, so don’t expect perfection in reasoning.) This then is quite a good enough basis for a wonderful marriage. The key is appreciation. In appreciating and dwelling on your partner’s good points, you are the beneficiary. Such thoughts generate good emotions within you and will make you happy. Dwelling on your partner’s negatives will make you unhappy, and you will be the one to suffer. (along with your partner) Even worse, thinking about them and pushing your partner to change them will frustrate you as well as make you unhappy. So you have a choice. Play it smart, and be happy, since that’s the object of the game anyway. This is easy if you are clear-headed and understand the simple dynamics of the situation.
Impediments to a happy marriage are: lack of understanding, emotionalism, insecurity, and illogic. Sometimes it’s pathological or just plain meanness. If you fail to look at your partner as your beloved, valuable, delicate ally, but rather see him/her more coldly and distantly, some or all of the following relationship pathologies are likely to pop up. 1.) You will complain about your partner’s perceived deficiencies and in so doing, make yourself and your partner feel frustrated and miserable. 2.) Your feelings will be easily hurt and you will react by becoming angry and by retaliating. 3.) You will take it out on your partner when you have had a stressful or bad day outside the home or are in a bad mood for whatever reason. These are just a few examples, but these and their ilk are not only shortsighted and destructive of your relationship, but they are certainly selfish and even evil.
4. Wake up every day and tell your partner how lucky you are to be with him or her. And don’t just say it. Feel it. When my wife walks in the door from doing errands I greet her with an enthusiastic, “Hi Sweetheart. I’m so happy you are home! How about a kiss for the Old Man?” And I mean every word of it! Our home is a little like a sushi bar. (When customers come in they are greeted as if it’s Christmas and they are Santa Claus.) This should be easy because you should like and love your spouse. If it isn’t, you’d be wise to take to heart the ideas presented here and start changing your attitude. If you treat a valued stranger more politely and more considerately than you do your spouse, you definitely have a damaged or, at best a tolerable relationship. You need a new strategy. Work to build and strengthen it, and avoid pecking away at your partner. (When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.)
5. It’s important for the kids to see that their parents love each other, are considerate and polite, and that they have a happy home. They learn how they should treat their partners and what to expect in their own marriages. We have two boys, and we have discussed with them the relationship strategies described here. They understand it and see how well it works in their own home, and they are determined to have similarly happy relationships with their wives when the time comes.
6. In some marriages it is not possible to implement the suggestions made here. The disaster sometimes occurs before the marriage starts – in one’s choice of partner. Be very careful when choosing your spouse. A bad choice will put you in a position where a good marriage is impossible, and, no matter how hard you try, you and your spouse will be unhappy. Watch out for overly emotional, self-centered people. They are so unreasonable that you simply won’t be able to deal with them. Many of these people actually lack normal empathy and are unable or unwilling to see your side of situations. They are borderline narcissists and are more common than you might think. They may appear fine in the dating situation but they are damaged goods, and you will not be able to save them – or yourself either if you get in bed with them. (I’m speaking figuratively, of course. In the literal sense, they are often quite adept in that department, which, of course, makes it tempting to stay with them.) They tend to be extremely sensitive and emotional. (They are sensitive, I might add, to themselves and not to you). They see the world so unalterably from their own perspectives that you will not be able to deal reasonably with them. They always think they are right. Essentially, it will be “My way or the highway!” And if there are no children involved, I would opt for the highway. If there are children, you are in for a world of hurt.
In other cases, so much damage may already have been done that it is difficult or impossible to heal the wounds and fix the relationships. This is analogous to the nursery rhyme of Humpty-Dumpty falling off the wall. “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” In this case the breakage is so complex and the damage so widespread that a totally viable, happy relationship is no longer possible. But if there are children involved and the fighting is not too vicious, it may be the lesser of two evils to remain together until the children are grown and work repair the situation as much as possible.
7. Always keep in mind that one partner cannot be happy if the other one isn’t, so it is to your great benefit to make your partner happy. This is because you and your spouse are together in a small boat, and it will either sink or float with both of you in it. If, through ignorance, insensitivity, or selfishness, you create an angry, resentful partner, you will sink your boat, and you will sink with it.