Marriage Improvement

It seems to me that marriage and family are probably the area in which different sub-cultures of our country have diverged most radically. Reading this New York Times feature about the author’s attempts to improve her marriage is in some ways a more alien experience than reading an anthropological study of some distant tribe. The instinct behind the exercise is laudable:

The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I’ve never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married — truly married — slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn’t applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly — some might say obsessively — at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?

So I decided to apply myself to my marriage, to work at improving ours now, while it felt strong. Our children, two girls who are now 4 and 7, were no longer desperately needy; our careers had stabilized; we had survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, you could say that I feared stasis; more positively, that I had energy for Dan once again. From the myriad psychology books that quickly stacked up on my desk, I learned that my concept was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappy six years before first attending therapy, at which point, according to “The Science of Clinical Psychology,” the marital therapist’s job is “less like an emergency-room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot and the infection that ensued.”

Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes.

Her husband’s fears turn out to be well founded. One root of these problems is, I think, that, as the author quickly realizes, they’re not really that sure what a marriage is, or at least, what a better one would look like:

But how to start? What would a better marriage look like? More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear. We all know what marriage is: a legal commitment between two people. But a good marriage?

They start with a series of relationship improving exercises, either from books or through taking seminars. Those who have taken marriage prep classes may recognize some of these such as fight avoiding conversational rules: Say “When you do X, it makes me feel like Y” rather than “Why do you always do X? Is it just because you think I’m Y?”

Then there are “bring back the romance” techniques such as:

Step 1: Complete this sentence in as many ways as possible: “I feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”

Step 2: Recall the romantic stage of your relationship. Complete this sentence: “I used to feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”

But as they work through these, the author immediately begins to feel like they’re in a tug-of-war over who will get to define the marriage.

And true enough, with “Getting the Love You Want” splayed on our bed, I began seeing Dan as my adversary, the person against whom I was negotiating the terms of our lives. I remembered well, but not fondly, this feeling from early in our marriage, when nearly everything was still up for grabs: Where would we live? How much money was enough? What algorithm would determine who would watch the baby and who would go to the gym? Recently those questions had settled, and our marriage felt better for it. But now the competitive mind-set came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan’s vision of marriage and away from mine or the other way around.

Thinking about this, it struck me that one of the issues here is seeing marriage as a compromise or truce between equal and distinct individuals. Looking at marriage this way, it seems to me almost inevitable that trying to improve your marriage will end up beating the bushes and driving out snakes, as the author’s husband put it. Each of the spouses will have somewhat different ideas of what the ideal marriage, seen strictly from his or her own point of view, would look like. And so improving the marriage will quickly turn into an exercise in “I want this, you want that, I’ll do this if you do that” bargaining.

There is, I think, a way out of this if one understands first and foremost that marriage has to be a giving relationship and secondly that it’s natural for two people to want different things.

On the surface, it wouldn’t be much different for each spouse to come up with lists of “three things I could do for my spouse” and “three things it would please my spouse if I stopped doing”, but that kind of exercise seems much less like a tug-of-war — especially if you don’t actually discuss it with your spouse, but chart your progress privately, or only announce your resolutions to your spouse after you’ve made them.

Selfishness, in its many forms, is the greatest threat to a marriage, it seems to me, and many of the exercises the couple go through in the article strike me as opening up new avenues to it. That’s not meant as an attack against them. The article is mostly a saga of seeking advice from “experts” and trying to implement it, but the experts all seem to be working in a very individualistic world.

And yet, giving seems like it would be a hard thing to put down in a self help book. I can think of ways to re-work some of the relationship exercises to focus on giving rather than getting as a relationship dynamic, but they would amount to nothing more than words if one didn’t come at things with the right mentality. And I don’t know how one gives someone a giving mentality — or at least a giving ideal. I certainly would not claim to be perfectly unselfish in regards to marriage. If asked to list out things I wished were different about my wife, I’m sure I could list plenty. But even if one is not capable of eradicating the desire to take someone you already love and re-mold them into exactly what you want, you can at least learn to turn away the desire rather than dwelling on it.

Perhaps what I find most maddening about thinking about this article is that I don’t want to hold the opinion that the only result of trying “work on” your marriage will be to cause problems. Indeed, I think working on your relationship with your spouse is something which is important and necessary. And yet everything tried here seems wrong-headed, and more likely to hurt a marriage than help it.

It all makes me feel like I should be able to write down a set of precepts on how to do it right. After all, if I’m so sure this is wrong, I must know what is right, mustn’t I? Yet the only things I can think of are so simple and so obvious that they hardly constitute a marriage improvement regimen. Still, in the hopes the exercise will at least start some interesting conversation, I’ll give it a try:

1) Marriage is necessarily a giving relationship, so think in terms of “What I can do differently” not “What can she do differently”. That doesn’t mean you have to “do all the work”. Such an approach will only work if you both do it. Nor does it have to be a formal program. But you should be routinely examining your marital conscience, as it were, and trying to see what you personally should start doing or stop doing.

2) You and your spouse are different — and that’s a good thing. (Unless you wish you’d married yourself, in which case, there’s not much help.) But that means your spouse is an independant creature, not the creature of your dreams. And there are probably a good many things about your spouse which, if considered purely selfishly, you would want to be different. That’s fine and normal, but you absolutely can’t devote your energies to trying to turn your spouse into the ideal fantasy spouse. And if you do devote a lot of thought to that, you’ll only make yourself unhappy. Which is to say, that you need to be clear in your mind which things in your marriage will not be improved away, and not bang your head against them.

Given these two, it seems to me that much of what’s required to achieve a happy marriage is for both spouses to consistently work on making the other more happy, yet at the same time both be realistic about what things are not going to change (and learning to love each other as they are.)

3 Responses to Marriage Improvement

  • Interesting thoughts. As Catholics, we believe that we were created to know, love and serve God. In serving each other, we serve God. So, in serving our spouse, we serve God. About five years ago, while intensely exploring my faith and trying to understand some things, I decided to stop thinking so much about my needs and try really serving my spouse so as to better serve Christ. Some of the things that were really bothering me, I decided to offer up to Christ for those who were suffering in bad marriages, which mine wasn’t. Somewhere along the way the dynamic of our marriage began to change. As my husband saw me cheerfully serving him, almost no matter what, his attitude changed about a lot of things, and he began serving me more too. Now, about five years later, we have a great marriage, in that we both seem to be able to let the little things go and are better able to communicate about the larger things. When you take the focus off of yourself and just try to serve Christ, amazing things happen. Also – in today’s society, we are so focused on the children that we are spoiling them and often neglecting our spouses. Our order of priorities for our commitments should be: God, spouse, children…when your priorities are straight, a lot of other things fall into place too…

  • Hear, hear. I had the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” playing on my mind as I read. I hope our intrepid authoress doesn’t end up “improving” her union into oblivion.

  • From JP Spear:

    “…if there is a marriage then there is NO maximum required level of commitment to saving the marriage. ALL effort is required because that is the only thing to be done when a real marriage is in trouble.”

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