Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman's Example

"Sexiness wears thin after a while, and good looks fade. But to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day? Now that's a treat."
(Joanne Woodward)

A lot has been said these past few days about Paul Newman. He was indeed a rare and remarkable man: an exceptional actor, an amateur race car driver who held his own with professional racers half his age, a businessman who gave away every penny of profit----and there were billions of those pennies---to charity.

And he was also very much a husband and family man. Not only was there never a hint of scandal in the entire fifty years of his marriage to Joanne Woodward, but everything he ever said about her and his kids, to his dying day, reflected great love and pride. It was obvious to anyone listening that his family meant far more to him than his fame, his Oscar, and his financial success.

I don't pretend to know anything about what Paul Newman was like in private, but Joanne Newman's quote implies that he was always making her laugh. My guess is that he was not so much a joke-teller as a guy who simply saw the humor in everything: someone who would use humor to get other people (and maybe himself, too) out of a bad mood.

It is a treat, as Joanne Woodward put it, to be married to a person like that. Unfortunately, the reason it's a treat is that it's a relatively rare occurrence. Truth be told, most of us don't make enough of an effort to put smiles on the faces of our spouse or family members. We tend to be absorbed in our own thoughts and problems, and to see other people---even the people we love---as issues to deal with, items on the to-do list. We may be good at solving problems, but not so good at doing the little things (such as keeping things light and loose) that might prevent some of those problems from happening again.

Although there are people who seem to be natural comedians, you don't need advanced stand-up skills to make your spouse laugh (just as you don't need movie star looks to take his or her breath away). All you need is the right attitude. Your attitude should be that life is tough but we can still have fun; that there's a humorous side to nearly everything; that laughter is the best way to break the tension and bring people closer.

Maybe the way to start is to have a mental to-do list that says: 1. Don't take yourself or your problems so seriously. 2. Remember who's really important in your life. 3. Be aware of moods and situations that call for a little humor. 4. Look for something amusing to say, and say it (no matter how silly it may sound). 4. If all else fails, poke fun at yourself. 5. Repeat tomorrow.

Few of us will ever be as talented and accomplished as Paul Newman was, but there's no reason we can't have the kind of marriage that he and his wife had: a marriage notable not only for its long duration but for its laughter, fun, and genuine humanity.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Marriage by the Numbers

"Nearly 70% of the men surveyed said they 'never' think about leaving their wives, whereas nearly half of the women said they think about leaving their husbands occasionally---and sometimes daily."
(From Parade magazine's 9/21/08 Poll on American Marriage)

I'm not necessarily a big believer in polls and surveys. Many surveys are flawed from the start, by failing to get a statistically-significant sampling of different ages and demographic groups, or by asking "loaded" or poorly-worded questions. And even when everything is conducted properly, people don't always answer truthfully, especially when the questions are about love and sex.

But usually you can learn at least something from surveys. I found the Parade results interesting, because in one important respect they confirm and quantify what previous surveys have strongly suggested: that wives are considerably more likely to be unhappy in their marriages than husbands are.

Look at some of the findings:

  • When asked, "Do you ever think about leaving your spouse?", twice as many women as men answered "Often" or "Daily".
  • When asked, "Overall, which best describes how you feel about your marriage?", twice as many women as men answered "I'm miserable".
  • When asked, "If you had to do it again, would you marry the same person?", a much-higher percentage of women than men answered "I'd try to do better", or "Definitely not".
  • When asked, "Why don't you have sex with your spouse more often?", 17% of women (but only 12% of men) answered "I've lost sexual interest in my spouse".

I mentioned in a previous blog article that, nationwide, 75% of divorces are filed by women. Not every unhappily-married wife will seek a divorce, and those who do often put up with their frustrations for years before taking that step. But the women who eventually say "Enough is enough" are the ones who today are "Thinking about it often".

When you look at the Parade results from a different angle, it's clear that many husbands are clueless when it comes to their wives' dissatisfactions. For example, men were more likely than women to answer "Yes" to "We talk often and communicate well", and nearly 50% less likely to say "We don't talk to each other enough".

Men should pay more attention to survey results such as these, and realize that just because they're satisfied doesn't mean that there isn't a big problem developing. Too many men are living in a dream world, a fool's paradise, and when reality strikes some day it's not going to be pretty. They'll be like the thousands of men who said in a different survey (one conducted by AARP a couple of years ago) that they never saw the divorce coming. You can almost always see it coming, if you take your blinders off.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Are You SURE the Thrill is Gone?

"The length of our passions no more rests with us than the length of our lives".
(Francois de la Rochefoucauld, 1613-1680)

La Rochefoucauld was not only one of the great writers of his era, he was also an uncommonly perceptive observer of people and their behavior. I often turn to him for practical wisdom, but I have to differ with him, at least in part, about our inability to control the length of our passions.

Yes, it's true that our passions can ebb and flow over time. I'm sure everyone reading this can recall with embarrassment, or even horror, at least one former lover. Somehow, that person who was once the focus of our life now makes us shake our head and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking. And we can probably come up with a few others who were nice enough but who eventually drifted out of our lives without leaving much of a trace.

There's no question that passion can be stirred by illusion, and that illusions are plentiful and powerful when a relationship is new. But it's a mistake to think that passion is something that just happens to us, something we have no control over, rather than something that to a great degree we can sustain through our efforts.

This is a common, but dangerous, mistake in long-term marriages. A lot of people---particularly romantic and passionate people---have affairs or give up on their marriages simply because they don't feel the thrill they used to feel. When it's missing, they assume it's gone forever. I've had divorce clients tell me: "I love him, but I'm not in love with him". I wouldn't tell anyone that she has to live out her days with someone she's no longer in love with (although if that's her only reason for getting divorced, she's going to get heavy criticism from all quarters, including her own friends and family, especially if there are kids involved and he's a good father). But I would urge people in that situation to first ask themselves if they've made every reasonable effort to keep their passion alive.

I think what happens is that people neglect their passions and then call it fate. They get lazy about expressing affection and appreciation, or they expect the other person to express it first or to be just like them in the way they express it. They get bogged down---individually and as a couple---in the often-dreary details of making a living and managing a household. They have lifeless conversations and pointless arguments, and they stop associating their spouse with anything pleasurable or fun.

This is not a happy state to be in, but the choice doesn't have to be between dying a slow death and starting over with a new person. It's possible, in a sense, to start over with the same person. My guess is that in many ways your spouse is still the same person you fell in love with. He may have gained weight, he may get into bad moods more often, he may not be what he once was in bed, but his fundamental qualities---the things that made you passionate for him way back when---are probably intact, although they may be dormant. If he was intelligent then, he's still intelligent now (but maybe he needs some stimulation to bring it out). If he was funny then, he could still be funny now (but maybe he needs to know his humor is appreciated). If he was kind and thoughtful then, he probably hasn't become a self-absorbed narcissist (although he may exasperate you at times).

The goal is to remember how he once was---and how the relationship once was---and figure out how to get the feelings back. At first, you'll probably have to shoulder most of the burden; your spouse may not immediately understand or appreciate what you're trying to do. But stick with it for at least a few months. Be realistic: your marriage didn't go downhill overnight and it's not going to get back on track overnight. But if your passions were strong and not based totally on illusion, and if the two of you haven't done any irreparable harm to each other over the years, you should be able to get those passions back and keep them there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Defusing Election Year Tensions

"People look at us as if we're opposites. We're not. We're actually very similar people. We're both advocates. We're both passionate. We both like a good, fair fight. My opposite is someone who doesn't have a philosophy of life, who doesn't get fired up over anything".
(Mary Matalin, in

Because we live in a time when politics are increasingly polarized and no one listens to anyone with a differing opinion, we tend to be fascinated by those couples who seem to transcend ideology. For years now, high-profile Republican consultant, Mary Matalin, and her husband, high-profile Democratic consultant James Carville, have agreed to disagree on politics, without any apparent harm to their relationship. And Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, seem to be getting along fine despite his being a Republican and her being not only a Democrat but a member of the Kennedy family.

What is especially interesting about these two marriages is that all four people had fully-formed political views by the time they married. They weren't kids when they met. They didn't start out together as, say, young progressives or young conservatives, and then drift off in different directions over the years. They knew what they were getting into from the start.

My guess is that there are a lot more marriages of political opposites than we might imagine, or at least marriages where there is an issue or two on which the spouses disagree. Many people do, of course, evolve in unpredictable ways as they get older. And people are not always ideologically consistent. A couple might agree on abortion rights or charter school vouchers, but disagree on capital punishment or mortgage foreclosure relief. My own congresswoman is considered very liberal on almost every social issue, but she owns a Glock 9 mm. handgun and is a regular at the shooting ranges whenever she's back here in Arizona.

People who have an opposite opinion on a particular issue may actually have a similar underlying goal or philosophy about that issue; their difference may be only in how to achieve the goal. In the gun ownership example, people on both sides of the issue would say that their major concern is safety. Handgun owners believe that their safety---and often the safety of other innocent people---is enhanced by ready access to a loaded gun. Handgun opponents believe that guns injure or kill more innocent people than they protect, because of careless storage or improper use. The two groups may never agree on gun laws, but they would agree, if they thought about it, that they have a common concern for safety.

Finding that underlying philosophical agreement is crucial if you and your spouse don't see eye to eye. It's almost always there if you can put your prejudices aside and look hard enough. It's also crucial to communicate about the issue in a respectful way: no yelling, no sarcasm, no name-calling, no sulking. Explain your points clearly, but don't necessarily try to convert your spouse; it will only make you feel frustrated and angry if the conversion doesn't happen (I should say when it doesn't happen, because instantaneous political conversions are almost nonexistent). Learn to accept that reasonable people can differ. Inject humor into the discussion, if possible. And if all else fails, try saying: "We'll probably never agree, but I still love you".

But the best outcome of all is to recognize, as Mary Matalin does, that passionate people attract passionate people. They may not always agree, but they feed off each other's energy, and in the end they're closer to each other because of it. So feel free to disagree with your spouse, but do it the right way. And try not to lord it over your spouse when your candidate wins.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Making Life Easier, One Day at a Time

"What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?"
(George Eliot, English novelist, 1819-1880)

As you may know, "George Eliot" was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who began writing at a time when women writers were not taken seriously by the Victorian literary establishment. Today, she and her contemporaries, the Bronte sisters, are probably the most admired novelists of their era, praised by modern critics for their psychologically astute characterizations and their quietly powerful prose.

The line I quoted is a good example of that astuteness and quiet power. Like most profound statements, it seems so simple, so self-evident, once we hear it. Of course we're here to make life easier for each other. What could be more obvious? Well, if it's so obvious, why does making life easier seem like such a rare quality these days? Why do so many people---in marriages, families, workplaces, and just about everywhere else---seem determined to do just the opposite: to make life as difficult as possible for the people who should matter most to them?

We could speculate all day about the possible explanations---the narcissism and self-indulgence of celebrity culture; an economy that rewards individual achievement over communal betterment; the general breakdown of manners---but it's more important to implement a solution than to worry about the cause. You or I may not be able to stop others from acting like self-absorbed jerks, but we can start changing our own attitudes and behaviors, beginning right now.

If you're married or in a committed relationship, make it a habit to ask yourself every morning: "What can I do today to ease the burden for that special person in my life?" Chance are, the answer will be something that's right in front of your eyes; something that requires minimal planning, takes only a few minutes to do, and costs nothing. But chances are it will also be something whose value will far exceed the effort.

If you're a man, do one chore or errand---just one---that your wife normally does, and do it without being asked or making a big deal of it. It could be loading or unloading the dishwasher, or doing the laundry, or watering the plants. It could be letting your wife sleep a bit longer while you make breakfast. It could be filling up her car with gas so she won't have to get her hands dirty on the way to the office. Anything!

And after you've done that one thing, give your wife the gift of your undivided attention. Pour her a glass of wine after she gets home from work or before you go to bed, sit down with her, and listen to what she says and how she says it. Take a genuine interest in how her day went. Learn to be sympathetic but uncritical. Resist the temptation to tell her what she did wrong or how she should do it next time; just be there for her.

Women are usually better at doing things for others on a day-to-day basis, but they sometimes build up a lengthy list of projects and issues to discuss with their husband, and then dump it all on him at the worst possible time. Trust me when I say that if he's a big football fan, he's not going to want to rearrange furniture in the middle of the third quarter, or discuss plans for your daughter's wedding when the game is going into overtime. There's something about sports on TV that induces a trance-like state in men, and you break that trance at your own risk. If you're a sports fan yourself, by all means join him on the couch; the game can be a great form of husband-wife bonding. But, otherwise, make his life a little easier by refilling the chip bowl once in a while and letting him enjoy the game in peace.

Sometimes, though, men don't want to be left alone. If your husband is bothered by something and clearly needs to talk, don't make him wait until you've tended to everyone else's needs first. Unless your kids are very young or very sick, there's nothing wrong with telling them you need to talk to Daddy for a few minutes before you read to them or take them somewhere. It's not uncommon for men to feel that they're second class citizens in their own homes. They're not likely to verbalize those feelings---men don't like to verbalize any feelings that make them appear hurt or "needy"--- but those feelings can lead to all sorts of problems if they're habitually ignored or belittled.

Daily acts of thoughtfulness and attention may not guarantee a stress-free marriage, but when the stress does come you'll have a deep reservoir of gratitude, love, and mutual good will to draw from. With any luck, there'll still be plenty left over after the stress has been forgotten.