The personal development classic The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz might not be your idea of romantic reading before Valentine’s Day. But I’ve been revisiting this book lately and thinking about what each of the agreements can tell us about how to show up in marriage.
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Words matter, so choose them carefully. Words can tear down your relationship when you use them to criticize, complain and belittle. And they can build your bond when you express love and appreciation.
Be especially careful about contempt. Speaking in a mean and disrespectful way with your spouse is the behavior most linked to eventual divorce. Remember that being truthful when you speak is important, but don’t be brutally honest because your words can still hurt.
So as Ruiz says, “Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Ruiz writes: “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. Their own dream.” And that includes your husband. Like you, he is a separate person with his own perspective on life, shaped by his own experience. The more you believe that being married means you must see everything the same way, you more you will find yourself having conflict with your husband. Take time to consider the different ways the two of you approach life. The more you understand how your husband views the world and why, the less you will feel that what he does is directed at you.
Don’t Make Assumptions
“Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama,” Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements. This is a huge deal in marriage. Don’t assume that your husband knows what you need and want. He came into marriage with his own set of expectations and assumptions, and they may be very different from the ones you grew up with.
Likewise, don’t assume that you know what’s going on with him or why he engages in a certain behavior. It’s more courageous and effective to get curious about him and ask questions that can bring you closer together.
Always Do Your Best
“Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick,” Ruiz says “Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
These are wise words for the different seasons of marriage. To expand on Ruiz’s words, doing your best will look different for newlyweds than it will for new parents. Sometimes it means being there for your partner in a crisis; sometimes it means celebrating him when things are going well. And sometimes it means allowing him to give more when you can’t. It all comes down to staying in tune with each other and showing up to the best of your ability.
If it’s been a few years since you’ve thought about “The Four Agreements,” Valentine’s Day is a great time to reread your copy and consider its wisdom in the context of your marriage. And if you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend it. When you’re picking up a copy, consider adding my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love, to your purchase. In it, you’ll find many more insights on marriage like the ones in this article.
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:
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.
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.
A bad apology can make things worse than no apology at all.
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.
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.
An apology doesn’t have to be the last word on a situation. Think of it as opening the door to future communication.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you haven’t experienced Esther Perel’s work yourself yet, you’ve probably heard someone you know talk about it — and likely express some very strong feelings.
Perel is a psychotherapist and a bestselling author. Her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, touched off a flurry of discussions and debates about eroticism and desire in long-term relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is perhaps even more provocative. In it, she offers insights and advice about infidelity that challenge many of the assumptions of our culture.
So what’s all the fuss about? Here are a few of the key ideas that Perel promotes.
1. Affairs aren’t about What We Think
We tend to assume that extramarital affairs are all about lust — that the straying partner is driven by desire for another person. But Perel believes there’s often something deeper going on: An unfaithful spouse is actually sometimes seeking a lost part of herself or himself. As she said in a recent interview on NPR:
When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible person.
And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. … What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of something that had gotten lost.
When the desire for lost or forgotten parts of ourselves collides with social media, infidelity can be the result, Perel says. Facebook and other social networks mean we can stay in touch with people from different eras of our lives — people who remember those “lost selves” we yearn to rediscover.
2. Affairs are More Painful Than Ever
Infidelity has been around as long as marriage has, but it feels even more devastating today because of our contemporary views on relationships, Perel says.
In the past, we had different expectations about marriage, Perel believes. It was more of a pragmatic alliance. But Western couples today want more from their unions. She 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.
Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that our spouses should be our primary source of validation, community and companionship. We expect one person to provide everything we once got from our extended families, our communities, our houses of worship. As our worlds get smaller, infidelity feels like a larger betrayal.
3. Marriages Can Survive Infidelity
While she doesn’t downplay the pain of infidelity, Perel doesn’t believe that an affair should automatically lead to the end of a marriage. The crisis of infidelity can drive couples to talk more honestly about who they are and what they need from the relationship. Of course, though, it’s much easier and less painful to have these conversations before cheating happens in a relationship!
Whether you agree with Perel’s ideas or not, consider what you can learn from them. One valuable takeaway is to remember to cultivate yourself and your own interests, both for your own wellbeing and the health of your marriage.
I invite you to explore Perel’s work further through the videos and links I’ve shared in this article. You can also enjoy her TED talk: “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved”:
Is insecurity or withdrawal — by you, your husband or both of you — an issue in your marriage? Today, I’ll give you some insight into what might be going on. I’ll explore different attachment styles and how they play into your relationships.
Your family is actually the very first place you learn about relationships. The experiences you have with your caregivers have a strong influence over how you relate to other people in your life. Understanding your particular style of connecting helps you see what strengths and vulnerabilities you bring to your marriage.
What Is Your Attachment Style?
If you’re lucky, your early caregivers were loving, responsive, and reliable. If so, you learned that you can trust people and developed a secure attachment style. You’re probably comfortable with emotional intimacy and depending on others, which, as you can imagine, makes it easier to be in a relationship. About 60 percent of people have this attachment style.
But what if your parents or caregivers weren’t so consistent? Maybe they were there for you sometimes, but other times were physically or emotionally unavailable when you needed them. These experiences can lead to an ambivalent/anxious attachment style. It’s characterized by feeling unsure whether someone will actually love you and worried that they may leave. People who are clingy or very sensitive to rejection often have this style.
Children of parents who were regularly unavailable or unresponsive can develop an avoidant attachment style. They learn to take care of themselves at a very young age. This independence can cause them to have trouble seeking emotional closeness with others. A person with this style may seem like an aloof or uncaring partner.
Finally, there’s the disorganized attachment style. It can arise in children who suffer abuse or neglect, or whose parents frighten them because of their own unresolved trauma. These children grow up to become adults who struggle with trusting others, managing their emotions and even feeling safe at all.
In reading the descriptions of the different attachment styles, you probably have a sense now of what your own might be. This quiz can also help you pinpoint your attachment style.
Working With Your Attachment Style
If both you and your husband have a secure attachment style, that’s great news for your marriage. You have a sound foundation for weathering a relationship’s normal ups and downs.
But if one of you doesn’t have a secure attachment style now, that hardly means your marriage is doomed. It’s possible to shift your attachment style. If you happen to have found a secure partner, that may help you to eventually develop a secure connection too.
The most challenging situation is when both of you have insecure attachment styles. It’s common, for example, for ambivalent/anxious and avoidant people to couple up — and drive each other crazy. One will cling, and the other will try to get away. Just understanding where each of you is coming from can be helpful. But you may need to seek counseling to protect your marriage and to develop healthier ways of relating.
A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
What you need from your husband and
How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
Do you remember how upset you got the last time you felt your husband was ignoring you or didn’t seem to care about your needs? Did you calmly ask for what you needed? Or, did you scream at him or give him the cold shoulder?
When someone we love isn’t there for us, it can be very distressing. And when it’s the person we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, it can feel downright scary. Like it or not, we are all hardwired for connection. We literally cannot survive on our own. This means depending on each other is not a choice, even if our society incorrectly convinces us we’re weak if we need anyone.
I recently attended a fabulous conference about Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a type of marriage therapy developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Sue is one of the leading marriage researchers in the world and says we should accept our need for each other and learn how to get closer in our most important relationships. She uses the science on love and attachment to help people become warmer, more genuine, and present with their partner.
EFT draws on the large body of research on human attachment and recognizes that close relationship are essential to our well being. Think about some of these interesting facts research has already discovered about love:
We are hardwired to connect. We are bonding mammals, so we literally die without connection to others. Love is a force that keeps us close to each other, thereby supporting our very survival.
For our physical and mental health, we need to feel secure, not just know it. We know when we have emotional security because we feel it at a gut level.
Secure connections with our loved one are linked to lower rates of heart disease, increased immune system functioning, and decreased depression.
When we truly feel secure and safe in our relationship(s), we are also naturally calmer, clearer in our thinking, and much more empathetic, curious, and open.
The single largest threat to us emotionally is anything that jeopardizes our sense of belonging. We use each other to stay calm and steady, so when something significant goes wrong in an important relationship, we will go into a state of panic at a very deep level.
Being alone is the scariest and most dangerous thing that can happen to a person. Because we’re wired to keep others close to us, our bodies literally experience pain when are isolated, left out, or lose an important relationship. Heartbreak is a real thing.
Research shows that criticism and other hurtful words actually cause us physical harm. The same areas in the brain light up on a brain scan in response to physical or emotional pain.
Strategies for Connection
So what does all this have to do with you and your husband? In a society where people have fewer and fewer connections, a marriage becomes a very important part of your well being. How your husband responds when you need him carries a great deal of weight. When you reach out to your partner, sometimes he will respond, and sometimes he won’t. By reaching out, Sue Johnson says, what we’re really asking our partner is:
Can I count on you?
Are you here for me?
Will you respond when I need, when I call?
Do I matter to you?
Am I valued and accepted by you?
Do you need me, rely on me?
If you have a husband that is usually responsive, an occasional lapse may annoy you, but not much more. If, however, you’re truly afraid that the answer to these questions is “no,” you’ll feel insecure and will probably do one of the following:
1. Protest. You react to his disconnection by freaking out, demanding, or pushing. You may also complain, criticize or blame. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to push any person even further away.
2. Withdraw. You tell yourself that you don’t need him anyway. Inside, you’re not at all at peace or happy about this. In fact, you feel resigned and hopeless. You might find other ways of numbing or escaping these painful feelings, such as staying incredibly busy, spending all your time with the kids, surfing the net, eating or exercising too much, or using alcohol or drugs.
EFT has identified three common relationship patterns that couples get stuck in when they feel disconnected:
1. Protest Polka. I protest your disconnection, and you withdraw. (“I know you don’t care about me any more!”) Your withdrawal makes me more insecure, so I protest louder (“You’re never going to change!) and you withdraw further. This pattern is the most common one leading to divorce.
2. Find the Bad Guy. I protest your distance (“You don’t even kiss me when you get home!”), and you protest mine (“When was the last time you actually asked me how I’m doing?”). We try to pin the blame for the disconnection on each other and end up driving each other further away.
3. Freeze and Flea. We both give up on fighting for the connection and retreat because we think it’s safer. This is nothing but a recipe for tremendous loneliness.
The hard thing to see in these relationship dances is that couples are actually wanting emotional connection, but creating more distance. We all need our partner to see us, tune into how we’re really doing, and love us through hard times. We just may not be so great at asking for connection in ways that work very well.
So, what can you do to increase the odds of keeping your partner close? Here are a few tips out of the EFT approach to try:
• Be emotionally present. Emotional presence is the key to connection. Direct face-to-face contact without electronic devices, interruptions, or distractions is essential. You must show up in both body and mind. You don’t have to always make huge amounts of time for each other, but when you are interacting, make sure you’re really genuinely present and doing your best to connect. Otherwise, the connection with you will be no different from connection with a stranger. But since you’re not a stranger, being disconnected from you will probably upset your partner.
• Make your relationship a priority. You have to be very intentional and make your relationship a priority if you want to keep your marriage strong. Our society does little to support relationships, so you have to decide yours is important and work on staying connected emotionally.
• Move toward each other. When either of you are struggling, try to reach out, rather than being hurtful or pulling away. Talk about what’s really going on with you without casting blame. If you value your partner, he’s much more likely to listen to you.
• Be positive. Consistently acknowledge, support, and appreciate your partner, remembering how bad you feel when you’re not receiving these things yourself.