A few years ago I was asked to officiate at a young couple’s wedding. One of my responsibilities was to give a homily–a short discourse intended primarily for spiritual edification. I felt honored to be asked to speak, so I gave myself time to reflect on how to be brief, practical, and meaningful. Also, I did not want to be trite or too sentimental. A challenging task!
After much thought, I arrived at the content of the speech, but could not settle on a title. I thought about “The Three Secrets of a Happy . . .” or, “The Three Keys to a Successful . . .” and so on, but nothing felt right. Then one morning the words came. How about “The Three Practices to a . . .?” I liked the word “practice,” which is defined as “the regular or repeated doing of something to become skilled.” The word practice implied desire and sustained effort to bring about a particular outcome– a much needed but often overlooked ingredient to make any relationship work. Like learning ballet, yoga, any athletic skill, money management, Scrabble, you have to practice to have a practice. Then the other word came, “vibrant.” Vibrant is defined as “powerful and exciting or bright and strong.” There was the title for my words of wisdom (hopefully) to the newly married couple, “The Three Practices for a Vibrant Marriage.”
I kept my notes from that marriage ceremony, and since then have realized the three practices are generic and apply to all relationships. Hence, this article.
Practice # 1–Cherish your differences
The saying that opposites attract is quite true. During my 30+ years of psychology practice, I saw many, many couples. I often used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator at the start, so I and the couple could see their basic temperaments. The Myers-Briggs measures four bipolar dimensions of temperament and is based on the work of Carl Jung. In many cases, the couples were exact opposites on at least 3 of the 4 dimensions. Of course, in the newness of a relationship, these differences are attractive and intriguing, but later on, they often become the main reasons for conflict. A good example is Thinking vs. Feeling. At first, the “thinker” likes the “feeler” because he/she is very expressive, enthusiastic, effusive, and dramatic. The “feeler” is drawn to the “thinker” because she/he is calm, steady, rational, and unexcitable. After a time, however, these same characteristics get relabeled. The thinker sees the feeler as hysterical, attention-getting, unpredictable, and out of control. The feeler sees the thinker as cold, indifferent, uncaring and distant. What happens next? Each party complains about the other, and each begins trying to change the other. Tension, friction, and conflict intensify until they can no longer live with each other. And the reason for the divorce–irreconcilable differences!
All of this can be avoided if you learn to appreciate complementarity. Every day, set your intention to cherish, honor, and nurture your differences. Certainly, at times, these differences can be annoying and frustrating, but remind yourself this is what you adored before and can still truly appreciate. The truth is, a partner who is different from you can be an asset to offset your more pronounced traits. Our strongest characteristics are double-edged swords–a strength at times and a weakness at other times. Sometimes it is very important to get a different perspective or to have someone to soften or refine your extremes. So often two different perspectives are better than one. When you are opposites, you have the opportunity to balance each other. When you are opposites you give yourselves a lifetime to learn some important skills like forgiveness, acceptance, and patience. Think about this–would you rather have a clone of yourself?
Practice # 2–Let go of your belief in attack
This sounds simple enough, but do not be fooled! You and your partner will manifest this belief soon enough, and you will stubbornly resist discarding it. Belief in attack is having the perception that your partner is deliberately trying to hurt, undermine, humiliate, demean, or embarrass you. These are only a few examples of perceiving attack. As soon as you perceive attack, you limit your responses to three: attacking back, defending, or retreating. At that point, unless your partner is an extraordinary communicator, communication will crash, because listening stops and/or conflict escalates. When you hear yourself speaking defensively or unkindly, know you have perceived attack, your ego feels wounded and must protect itself. Let that awareness be your cue to step back and try to see your partner’s behavior as a call. It could be a call for attention, recognition, understanding, support, clarification, or something similar. If you see a call instead of an attack, you are apt to get to the gist of what is happening with your partner, and you stay flexible in how to respond. I recommend you use a communication skill called constructive inquiry. It involves asking questions to get more information so you can make the best choice as to how to respond. For example, you and your wife are walking together, and she says, “Sometimes you are a terrible lover.” Rather than countering with, “You’re not so hot either!” you answer by asking, “Wow, that hurts, what do you mean by ‘terrible lover?'” She replies, “You’re always in such a hurry.” By asking this one question, you now have a much clearer idea of what is her concern. Your questions must be sincere (not sarcastic) and reflect a genuine desire to know more. Instead of perceiving attack, you perceive an opportunity to get to know your partner better and how to be a better partner. Remember, this person loves you and you love him/her, so why would you attack each other? All perceived attacks are really calls for attention in some form. Practice this every day, and I assure you your relationship will be bright, exciting, and strong.
Practice # 3–Stay interesting and interested
I believe an important part of being attracted to someone is whether he/she is interesting. At the beginning of a relationship, you are hungry to know more about each other. You ask each other a lot of questions. You seek opportunities and situations where you can learn more about each other. You make inquiries about the other person’s family, friends, life experiences, and work. However, after a while (maybe months or years), curiosity and wonder disappear. You and your partner allow yourselves to become completely predictable, and you conclude you know everything about each other. Sameness and boredom eventually set in.
Do not let this happen! Make it a practice to keep asking each other questions. Frequently show interest in what your partner is doing, encourage him/her to pursue new interests, activities, friends, hobbies, and so on. Keep yourself interesting by being in a learning mode, developing new skills, reading good books, staying informed on world affairs. Change your routines. Go on dates together. Take in cultural events, go to art and/or historical museums, visit your local library, do volunteer work, take classes separately and/or together. I just heard of a couple in their 60s who are taking a stained glass making class together. Do not underestimate the power of cultivating a dynamic, lively learning/teaching atmosphere.
Some years ago the social psychologist Judith Wallerstein did a study of what made for a happy marriage. She did in-depth interviews with 50 long-term, happily married couples who stepped forward for her study. You can read about her study in her book The Good Marriage. She identified nine qualities of a good marriage, and one near the top was that both partners continued to find each other interesting.
If someone asked your partner what he/she liked about you, what would you wish them to say? Would you like them to say you are intelligent, beautiful, a good cook, a good provider, funny, competent, stable, likable, friendly? What? In her study, Wallerstein interviewed a neurosurgeon and his wife of 30 years. When she asked the neurosurgeon what he liked about his wife after all these years together, he said, “Every day I can hardly wait to leave the hospital and get home to my wife, because she is still the most interesting person I know.” How much would you like to have that said about you? Practice, practice, practice. You will have that vibrant, dynamic relationship some 30+ years from now.