Photo courtesy of Gregory Jordan, under Creative Commons License
Marriage research has come a long way in the last twenty years. Therapists used to try to save marriages by helping couples improve their communication and conflict resolution skills. Indeed, this is still what many therapists are doing to help marriages improve. The problem is, we now know that this is not effective.
While we know that couples in happy marriages usually communicate and resolve conflict well, it turns out that is not why their marriages are happy. Their marriages are happy because they enjoy the time they spend together. Likewise, you will not fix your marriage by going to therapy and working on communication and conflict resolution skills. You will fix your marriage by learning to have fun together.
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Photo courtesy of elycefeliz on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.
We have all made mistakes. Hopefully we learn from them. Here are what I currently believe to be my biggest mistakes and what others might learn from them.
Mistake #1. Getting married young
I love my wife but getting married as young as we did was a huge mistake. We have struggled so much more than we’d have had to if we had simply waited a few years. The vast majority of marriages between very young people do not last. And no, we are not “lucky.” We have worked our butts off to get where we are. Getting married young seems romantic and wild and free at the time, but you’ll have the rest of your life to regret it, and you likely will, even if you — like me — would still marry the same person all over again if you could go back and do it again. Lesson: Wait until you are an adult before making an adult decision.
Mistake #2. Not building more relationships when I was young
I have gotten to know so many of my classmates on Facebook and have realized how many really awesome people I went to school with every single day for years and just never bothered to get to know. I was, and still am, very shy when it comes to initiating new relationships and I can’t blame myself for struggling mightily with this in high school, but it cost me dearly. Lesson: Do whatever you have to do to endure 20 seconds of embarrassment and put yourself out there to meet people a little bit. People are the best part of life.
Mistake #3. Carrying a huge chip on my shoulder for so long
I have always had a rebel streak in me. I still do, but it took years for me to learn how to be who I am without looking down on others for not being the same way. Lesson: Listen more. Assume you’re probably wrong a lot. Grant more grace. Let others be who they are.
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This post is for people young or old who feel like they are still waiting for the life they want to arrive. While no one can unlock all doors and instantly give you that life, I have a few things to share, based on my experience, that might help you get closer.
1. Get clear about the life you don’t want
Early in my life I came to understand three things about myself very clearly. 1) I didn’t like math. 2) I didn’t like physical labor. 3) I didn’t like a lot of supervision. I knew I would never be happy in a career that required a great deal of any of these things. Most people spend a lot of time thinking about what they want to do, but it is critical to consider carefully what you don’t want. Otherwise you could easily find yourself just drifting into a life that could make you exceedingly unhappy.
2. Get clear about the life your strengths seem to point to
As I got into Jr. high and high school, I realized I was very good at some things that many others were not. I excelled at things involving language and ideas. My answers to questions in class seemed to be deeper and more creative than those of others. I somehow had an instinct for connections between people, and ended up spending a lot of time talking to my friends about problems they were having with relationships. I had an innate spirituality and was constantly reading books about different religions and asking questions it seemed most religious people around me were too afraid to ask (which means in some ways I have been provocative since I was in my early teens). I was deeply curious about why I, and people around me, did the things we did. I loved writing and literature. Those were my passions and strengths. If you listen to your life, your strengths will point themselves out to you. Your passions and things you are good at are the key to the kind of life you want. You want to spend your life doing what you love to do, feel that others appreciate your strengths and gifts, and find yourself financially rewarded for them if at all possible.
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Most couples are naive about how challenging and sometimes difficult marriage will turn out to be. This may sound cruel but studies show that it is important to burst some of these naive marriage bubbles in order to help ensure a happy marriage. Good premarital counseling, if it does nothing else well, must succeed at this.
That is why I spend time with couples teaching them about some popular marriage myths. Here are ten of them:
Naive marriage idea #1: Our romantic love will never fade.
Truth: It will fade a LOT, especially in the first couple of years. The good news is that if you stick it out, it can be replaced by a much deeper and more substantive kind of love.
Naive marriage idea #2: I love every single thing about my partner.
Truth: No you don’t! If you answer true to this question, you either aren’t being honest with yourself, or you don’t know your partner very well. The good news is that the best relationships are built on consistent doses of reality, so moving past this will only make you stronger. Of course it could also cause you to split up, but if your relationship can’t stand up to reality, the last thing you want to do is expose it to the reality-shock that is marriage.
Naive marriage idea #3: Living together will one day help our marriage be stronger.
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Most couples who seek counseling are not doing well at all. Need I say that? They are both struggling greatly. There is no safe ground, no neutral territory. They cannot build good memories together because they fight over everything, even things meant to be healthy and good. Options are very limited. In such a situation, sometimes a couple contract may be one of the few options left.
What the contract is
The couple contract is exactly what it sounds like. Spouses literally negotiate for what they need from each other and what they are willing to do for each other. This can almost never be done without a counselor or other skilled third party, because in spite of its potential, it is a disaster waiting to happen. The therapist will need to keep the couple on track and help them define their terms as clearly as possible. The couple is responsible for telling each other what they need, but it’s up to the therapist to make sure this is written down in terms that each party can actually follow. It must be clear and measurable. “I am willing to be more supportive” will not work, but “I am willing to ask you twice a day if I can help you with anything” will work just fine.
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