Saturday, December 29, 2007

Resolutions You Can Actually Keep

"Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right".
(Oprah Winfrey)

Although I'm a believer in self-improvement, I'm not always a big fan of New Year's resolutions. Like many people, I've tended to be overly ambitious in my resolutions, perhaps feeling that unless I set a big goal (e.g. , competing in a triathlon by summer) I would never be sufficiently motivated to do all the things needed to accomplish it (getting up at 4:45AM for an hour's run before work). But after a week of enduring January's icy sidewalks, my sleep and comfort start seeming much more important than a triathlon eight months from now.

Chances are, though, that if I had set a less grandiose goal (maybe a half-hour of hard exercise four days a week, followed by ten minutes of stretching), I would have stayed with the program, maybe even to the point where I could step up the training a bit and actually do a triathlon without killing myself.

With this in mind, I'd like to suggest that we make resolutions that are important but relatively easy to achieve, goals that, over time, will pave the way for achieving bigger goals. Since this blog is primarily about marital relationships, let me suggest a couple of modest resolutions that could make your marriage better in 2008.

If you're a man, probably the best resolution you can make is to start noticing your wife again. I can't tell you the number of times that women have told me that their husbands never notice that they've got a different hair style or hair color, or that they're wearing something new. Lack of notice is often interpreted as a lack of appreciation, which can lead to all sorts of problems, up to and including affairs and divorce.

The easiest way to start noticing your wife is to pretend that you're in a dating relationship rather than a marriage. Unless you're a self-possessed jerk, if you're dating a woman you want to make a good impression on her. You pay attention to her, you compliment her on how nice she looks, you do everything you can to make her feel special and to make her think of you as someone special. Because you've, presumably, done all this before, you don't even have to learn new skills. Just open your eyes, smile, and express your compliments and your appreciation.

Women tend to be better than men at noticing things, and are often more comfortable with giving compliments, but they're not always comfortable with receiving compliments. Too often, women react to compliments by brushing them off ("I like your haircut". "Oh God, she cut it way too short. It's going to take weeks to grow out...").

It's up to you if you want to talk like that to your girlfriends (I don't pretend to understand the "code" that seems to underlie woman-to-woman conversation), but I guarantee you it will turn your husband off and inhibit him from giving you more compliments in the future. A simple "thank you" is all that's needed, or expected.

And speaking of "thank you", maybe all of us---husbands and wives---can resolve in 2008 to express the little courtesies. "Please", "thank you", "may I...", and "would you like..." are expressions that somehow tend to disappear after the honeymoon is over. It's never too late, though, to start using them again. They're a symbol of respect for the other person, and respect, like appreciation, is one of the things that can hold a marriage together, in good times and bad.

Have a wonderful 2008!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Good Guy/ Bad Guy

"I've had bad luck with both my wives. The first one left me, and the second one didn't".
(Patrick Murray, British sitcom actor)

That's a funny line, but like all funny lines there's a lot of truth in it. In my book, I talk about men who have confessed that they wouldn't mind if their wives had an affair or simply walked out of the marriage. These men had clearly lost interest in their marriages, but were unwilling to be seen as the bad guy. So, instead of either putting more energy into the marriage or taking affirmative steps toward divorce, they just drift along, dying a little bit every day, hoping for some miracle to save them.

My guess is that there are a lot of people like that, people who hate being where they are but who lack the imagination or the courage to get to a different place. The saddest thing is that they're not only hurting themselves, they're hurting their spouses, too; people that unhappy are undoubtedly dragging down the people closest to them. (Maybe that's subconsciously part of their strategy: making things so miserable for their spouse that he or she will get fed up and leave).

And by not talking openly with their spouse about their marital issues or complaints, they deprive the spouse of a chance to try to improve the situation; or they deprive the spouse of a chance to get out while the getting's good, instead of wasting the best years of his or her life in a hopeless marriage.

None of us enjoys being the bad guy, but it's vital to recognize that if we're desperately unhappy in our marriage and refuse to do something about it, we're already being "bad" to ourself and to our spouse. It's never easy to have to tell our spouse that we're contemplating divorce, but the alternative is worse: year after year of lifeless communication, dreary arguments, diminishing sexual enjoyment, and mutual bitterness.

A comedian can get some laughs out of his (supposed) marital miseries, but most of us aren't so lucky. A marriage with no future---if that's truly the case---is anything but funny. If you're in that kind of marriage, don't wait for a miracle; create one. Sit down with your spouse and, for once, speak from your heart. Don't raise your voice, assign blame, or rehash old arguments, but at the same time, don't apologize for something that isn't your fault. Be gentle, but get to the point. But also listen to what your spouse has to say in response, especially if he or she is willing to try something new to address the problems. (By listening only to your own voice, you may have made your problems worse in your mind than they really are). You may also want to consider outside help, in the form of marriage counseling or couples' workshops.

Whatever you do, be brave, and honest, and respectful of your spouse. In other words, be the good guy.

Friday, December 7, 2007

When YOUR Kind of Love is not HIS Kind of Love

"The hardest lesson to accept is that people have only their kind of love to give, not our kind".
(Mignon McLaughlin, playwright and journalist)

Unless they're talking about genetically-determined skills like slam-dunking a basketball or throwing a baseball 100 miles an hour, I hate it when people say they "can't" do something. I hate it even more when they say they're too old or too set in their ways to change their attitudes or behaviors. I want to believe---I do believe---that people, if sufficiently aware and sufficiently motivated, can choose to become better communicators, better lovers, better spouses, better people.

And yet, I know that most people aren't particularly motivated to change. They are what they are, they say, and they're OK with that. Unfortunately, the people closest to them are not always OK with it. A wife is not likely to be happy when her husband has his eyes glued to the computer screen whenever she's talking to him; or if he never smiles, or initiates a pleasant conversation, or gives her little compliments; or when their sex life---such as it is---is always about his pleasure and convenience, not hers.

That kind of husband may honestly feel that he loves his his way. She understands that, doesn't she? Isn't marriage about accepting people for who they are, about accepting the kind of love they have to give?

Well, maybe that was the case in Mignon McLaughlin's day (she wrote the line I quoted in 1946), but these days people are less willing to accept laziness, selfishness, and bad behavior as the price of love. People have options. Divorce is one of them, as is having an affair or simply tuning out of the relationship. The sad thing is that, most of the time, people would rather not be exercising these kinds of options. They would much rather have attention, respect, gratitude, communication, and good sex within their marriage.

If you're tempted to look elsewhere or seek a divorce, you should first make sure that you've let your spouse know the extent of your frustrations, and given him a fair chance to do something about the problem. Of course, you shouldn't blame him for things that are truly out of his control, and you shouldn't expect miracles. Bad habits usually take a long time to develop and they rarely disappear overnight, so be satisfied with small-but-steady improvements

If he doesn't seem to care enough to even try to change, the next step is up to you. (Although you might want to hold off on taking a lover until you've read the "Thinking About Affairs" chapter in my book; affairs rarely deliver on their promise, and can be disastrous for all concerned). With any luck, though, his kind of love and your kind of love should eventually become more in sync, which, in the real world of marriage, is as good as most of us are going to get.