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Harshness vs. Loving Firmness

“There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”

 ~Terry Real

Why You Should Diversify Your Relationship Portfolio

You probably know about the importance of diversifying when it comes to your finances. You understand, for example, that it’s unwise to have all of your money invested in the stock of one company.

But diversification is also important to keep in mind for your marriage. I was reminded of this truth while listening to a recent NPR Hidden Brain segment with Shankar Vedantam. He spoke with Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, about how our rising expectations of marriage can create problems in our relationships.

Here’s how Finkel explains it. Before you got married, you likely turned to a wider circle of people to fill your different needs as a person. For example, you had fun nights out with your neighbors, you talked about your goals with your favorite colleagues, you kept fit with your yoga class and you confided in your best friend from college. If you still have that variety of people in your life, pat yourself on the back. What tends to happen when we marry, though, is that our circles shrink. The perception has built up in our culture that your spouse should be able to be everything to you since he’s your “soul mate.”

We haven’t always thought about marriage in such exalted terms. If you read my blog post about psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, Finkel’s ideas might remind you of hers. Perel writes:

We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.

We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

This all puts a lot of pressure on our marriages. And, sadly, it can even set you up for added heartbreak if you lose a spouse to divorce or death. Kristi Williams, an Ohio State University sociologist and editor of The Journal of Marriage and Family, believes that many of the problems divorced or widowed people suffer are because they over-relied on their spouse.

You will be happier and your marriage will be healthier if you can diversify your relationship portfolio. Here are a couple of ideas to try.

It’s easy to forget one of the most important relationships — the one you have with yourself. If you feel that you’ve lost some of who you are since you’ve been married, start making it a priority to be yourself and value yourself. Do your own thing sometimes. Take a class in something you’re interested in, even if it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want to join you. Revisit the dreams and interests you’ve been neglecting. You’ll feel more engaged and alive, which — bonus! — makes you more attractive to your husband.

You can also start rekindling some of the relationships you’ve let slide to the back burner. Elaine Cheung of Northwestern University has found that having a larger array of relationships to help you manage all the emotions of life makes you happier. And when you have additional emotional support sources besides your husband, you’re more likely to appreciate the unique role he does play in your life.

For more ideas like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It’s a comprehensive guide to caring for your marriage and yourself.

10 Essential Truths About Apologies in Marriage

In my last post, I talked about the importance of repair in your relationship. All couples go through conflicts, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings, and it’s very important to resolve them.

One of the tools you need in your relationship repair kit is the ability to give and accept an apology. Apologies are so important that renowned psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner devoted an entire book to the subject: Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. This book is required reading for strengthening your marriage, not to mention all the other relationships in your life.

Adapted from Lerner’s work, here are 10 essential things you should know about apologies:

  1. Apologizing well requires listening deeply to the person you hurt. Your apology should begin by fully understanding their feelings and experience, no matter how difficult they are for you to hear.
  2. A good apology also requires taking responsibility. A hurt person wants you to carry some of the pain of the situation with him. She also needs assurances that the same situation won’t happen again.
  3. A bad apology can make things worse than no apology at all.
  4. Common mistakes people make when apologizing include: making excuses, over-explaining, blaming the other person for your mistake, and bringing up things the other person did wrong in the past.
  5. A consistent failure to apologize harms a relationship, even if things are otherwise good. When both partners have the ability to apologize, the relationship is stronger and healthier.
  6. An apology doesn’t have to be the last word on a situation. Think of it as opening the door to future communication.
  7. In situations where the hurt runs very deep, an apology isn’t a one-time event. At these times, you must commit to ongoing listening and repair of your relationship.
  8. Apologizing when you’ve caused deep harm requires a strong sense of your own self-worth. Without it, you’re more likely to be defensive by doing things like minimizing, rationalizing and denying the pain you have caused.
  9. If your partner fails to apologize to you, that’s typically an indication of his low self-worth, not that he doesn’t love you.
  10. You don’t have to rush to forgiveness after an apology. In fact, doing so can cut short your healing process. Forgiveness also doesn’t have to be total for your relationship to move past the issue.

I encourage you to be quick to offer sincere apologies to your husband. Also, be receptive to his sincere efforts to make amends. If either partner’s failure to apologize is a trouble spot in your marriage, make it a priority to explore Lerner’s work together.

Why Your Marriage Needs Regular Repairs

All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.

That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.

Choose the Right Tools

You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).

Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”

A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:

  • Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
  • Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
  • Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
  • Using humor or trying to lighten things up.

The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.

Maintenance Is Important Too

Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.

It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.

To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.

  • Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
  • Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
  • Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
  • And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.

In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Terry Real: ‘I Side With the Woman’

In my last blog post, on emotional labor, I cited the work of renowned couple’s therapist, speaker and author Terry Real. Real’s work is important, and it has the potential to change your marriage, so I wanted to tell you more about him.

A great starting point is the post “The Awful Truth: Most Men Are Just Not Raised to be Intimate” on Real’s website. It’s a case study about his work with a couple during a two-day therapy session aimed at saving their marriage.

This is an intense read. The couple, Peter and Jenn, struggle with problems that affect many marriages. Their early passion for each other has fizzled. She’s tired of trying to build intimacy, while Peter seems incapable of it. He feels she’s undercutting his authority with their children, while she worries about his toxic temper, especially with their son. To top it all off, Peter has also been unfaithful.

Take a few moments to read and reflect on this case study. As you do, here are a few key points I especially want you to take to heart.

  1. In our culture, we still raise boys to be “hard, logical, independent and stoic,” as Real says. This creates men who are “emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.” Real points out something else important here: Men who were raised this way are the norm, not an aberration, especially when we look at older generations.
  2. It might be easy to interpret Real’s work as man-bashing, but that’s not accurate. He emphasizes that men struggle with intimacy not because they’re bad people, but because of the way they were raised and cultural messages. Real believes that, with hard work and bravery, men can change what they bring to relationships. He’s been through such a transformation himself.
  3. Real is not saying that women are perfect. In this case study, he’s clear that Jenn has her own issues to address, but that the most urgent need is for Peter to make changes.
  4. Real believes that what looks like men’s fear of intimacy is really the fear of subjugation. “Many men read emotional receptivity as an invitation to be run over,” Real says. This comes from raising men with an overemphasis on being strong and competitive.
  5. Nurturing and understanding, whether from their partners or through therapy, won’t change men like Peter. Instead, Real believes such men need to “feel proportionately ashamed for (their) bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto (their) essential worth as an imperfect human being.” Appropriate shame isn’t spending the rest of your days in obsessive self-loathing. It’s about realizing who you have hurt and doing your best to make amends.

Real breaks from the common practice of the therapist not taking sides. “I side with the woman,” Real says. Again, he’s not against the man. He just believes that “business as usual” in therapy doesn’t work. This is because the skills and expectations men and women bring to a relationship can be extremely different.

If you’d like to delve further into Real’s work, there’s a great archive of articles on his website. You may also want to check out recent media coverage of Real in Forbes and AlterNet. To further your understanding of how your relationship is affected by the way you were both raised, enjoy this complimentary chapter on gender expectations from Strong Women, Strong Love.