Shared Meanings

Goals

The third part of shared meanings that successful couples do well is to align their goals as a couple. In addition to this goal alignment, these couples also honor each other’s individual goals. Think of a goal as the END to which all your efforts are directed. This implies that you must be truly clear about what that end looks like. Unfortunately, this is a conversation that many couples do not have.

person writing bucket list on book

Let me ask, is your marriage the same today as it was five years ago?  The answer is no, of course.  Will your marriage to be the same five years from now as it is today?  And the answer is no, of course.  But will it be different as the result of conscious intent or as the result of just getting up every morning and going through your day and letting your marriages take whatever course it takes?  Successful couples do leave the future of their marriage up to chance.  They set specific goals for their life together.  It is a fact of life, that we move towards those things that we think about.  So, if you and your spouse share common goals, you will both automatically work towards the fulfillment of those goals.

What are your goals?

What are your hopes and your dreams for your life together, for your children, for your extended family?  What are your financial goals, your charitable goals, your community goals?

I would like to offer a few goals for your consideration.  The first goal would be to assist your spouse in getting to heaven. (I believe this is your primary duty as a spouse.)  The second goal would be to accept your spouse as a child of God with all of his or her defects. (Since it is inevitable that your spouse will have defects, you may as well learn to accept and even love them.)  And the third goal would be to respect the dignity of your spouse even in times of anger. (Often in anger you can say some pretty critical things that dehumanize your spouse.)  I think we can all agree that these are high ideals and good and just goals to for which to strive.

But beyond these universal goals, you will want to discuss whatever personal goals you have.

What are your dreams and desires for the next 5, 10, and 20 years?  

What personal goals do you have?  

What do you hope to achieve as a spouse, a parent, or in your professional career?  

What are your financial goals?

What type of house do you want to live in?

What kind of neighborhood do you want to live in?

Which schools do you want your children to attend?

Why do you have these goals?  From where do they originate?  Are they tied to childhood memories? Are they tied the people you look up to?  What is the history behind your goals?

The 1% Investment.

These questions provide great material for your date nights and for the 15-minute investment you make in each other each day, (the 1% investment we discussed in an earlier blog). If you have this conversation, my hunch is that you will be surprised by both what you agree on and by what you do not. But therein lies the conversation that leads to the alignment of goals that leads to deepening the bond in your marriage.

If you have ever played on a sports team, you can appreciate the thrill and the unity that comes from being united with other people around a common goal.  Marriage is no different.  Being aligned around common goals, around a common life vision, is a powerful cement that can help you weather the storms that come to every marriage.

Remember: alignment breeds unity.

Shared Meanings – Roles

A role is the job we do, the tasks we take on, the duties and responsibilities that we shoulder in the course of our life.   We all play various roles, spouse, parent, child, employee, boss, parishioner, carpool driver, cook, carpenter, plumber, maid, the list goes on and on. Some roles are thrust upon us, others we take on voluntarily. Our roles change as we go through life.

Successful couples work to understand how their partner views his or her various rolls, in family life.  They then work to achieve alignment in their roles in ways that complement each other.  This can only happen as the result of conscious intent, as the result of a deliberate conversation. This is why the recommended 15 minutes per night or 1% of your day investment is so critical in achieving a happy marriage.  This is the opportunity to have conversations about role alignment.

One couple that I know experienced a lot of conflict after their first child was born. The wife began to define herself more as a mother then as a breadwinner. Because of that, she wanted to stay home and quit her job. The husband however had always seen his wife’s role as one that would contribute financially to the family. He was not prepared for the financial sacrifices that would follow the reduced income.

Here a few questions you can discuss with your spouse to help achieve the role alignment:

              How do you define your role as a husband or wife?

              How do you define your role as a mother or father?

              How do you define your role as a worker?

              How do you define your role in our spiritual life?

              How else do you define yourself?

By carving out time to answer these questions and whatever other questions you might have about how your spouse sees himself or herself, you will avoid the potential for a lot of conflict down the road. Remember, alignment is the key to smooth sailing whether it be in the business world or in family life. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Shared meanings

Married life is more, far more, in just two people sharing the same mailing address.  Our faith teaches us that it is a union of two people that form a new “one”.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that marriage is a contract between one man and one woman that binds them into an indissoluble partnership. Successful couples do a good job of solidifying and cementing their oneness each day.

John Gottman refers to this as creating shared meaning.  He correctly observes that there is a spiritual dimension to marriage, a sacred aspect that creates an inner life of togetherness for the couple. Another way to look at this is, in successful couples, this “inner uniting” results in mutually fulfilling, enriching family culture. These couples share a unified philosophy of life, marriage, and family.

Dr. John Gottman discovered that couples create shared meaning through their use of rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. Each of the next four blogs will address one of these four components. Today, we will talk about rituals.

grayscale photo of family on table

Think of rituals is actions, habits, patterns, or practices of doing certain things at certain times in certain ways. You can have daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly rituals. Think perhaps of your family rituals around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Speaking of Christmas, what do you do with all the Christmas cards you receive once Christmas is over?  I know a family that places the cards in a basket on the dining room table. Then each day before dinner begins, they open the top card, read who it is from and say a prayer for that person or family. Now that is a great ritual that not only keeps Christmas alive but keeps their friends present in their mind throughout the year as well.

I know another family that has the weekly ritual they call free Friday nights. Most of the rules that govern family life are suspended on Friday nights. Kids can play computer games or watch TV all evening if they want to.  They are even allowed to eat dinner in front of the TV. The idea is that they have worked hard in their studies and their chores all week long and Friday night is their night to unwind and have fun.

Doctor Gottman strongly encourages couples to develop daily rituals of connection, especially when they leave each other in the morning and reconnect in the evening. Longer hugs, longer kisses, taking a few minutes to offer a word of encouragement as the day begins, work to bond the affection the couple shares. Compliments and gratitude when you reconnect at the end of the day are an excellent way to start the evening off on a positive note.  I know one couple that has the ritual of playing a game of cribbage each morning as they eat breakfast together before they go off to their respective jobs.

One ritual I would encourage you to embrace is to spend 15 minutes each night alone, without children, to reconnect at the level of affection and appreciation and thanksgiving. This is not the time to talk about logistics or bills or work to be done around the house. This is the time to reconnect the two people who love each other deeply. Perhaps to get this ritual going for the next few evenings you could use that time to discuss what the culture of your marriage and your family looks like now and how you would like it to look a year from now. Make specific and definite plans. Have fun. This 15-minute investment in your marriage equals 1% of your day.  Is your marriage worth a 1% investment – I think it is.  

Closing thought: Perhaps the most powerful family ritual you can put in place is the family dinner, every night.

Remember: Your spouse is enriched through your friendship.

Affection

In my last blog post I talked about how successful couples show appreciation for each other each day. John Gottman in a recent post stated that successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures and small acts. All of which qualify as acts of affection.  And I believe that that is very true. Little things can be really big things.

The two most important times of the day for a married couple are when they leave in the morning and come back together in the evening. But because of our current home confinement, if no one’s leaving then no one’s coming back together. So that would make the two most important times of the day when you first get up in the morning and then when you are getting ready for bed in the evening.  

shallow focus photo of man and woman holding hands

Mutual affection is a critical component in marital happiness.  Affection is shown in the gentleness and tenderness of those small words gestures and acts there are parts the fabric of everyday life.

Affectionate words:  Having pet names for each other is often a sign of a healthy marriage. Honey, darling and sweetheart all ways of expressing affection. Couples who are good it is showing affection also do a good job offering gentle praise and compliments about each other’s qualities and virtues. Virtues such as kindness, gentleness, tenderness, compassion, and caring for others are things that happy couples notice and express to each other often.

Small gestures:  True affection is not satisfied with mere words. True love is driven to show affection through touch and facial expression.  Holding hands, the soft caress on the cheek, or just brushing up against each other as you pass are ways to communicate affection. A smile, a wink, or saying I love you just through the look of your eyes are all powerful ways to show gentle affection.

Small acts: True love wants to be spent in service to the one who is loved. Small acts of kindness demonstrate affection in a big way. Making the bed, emptying the dishwasher, filling up your spouses coffee cup are powerful ways to demonstrate the depth of your love.

So, the question now is how you score yourself on the affection you show to your spouse. Perhaps the better question is how would your spouse grade you.  Certainly, you would have to admit you could do a better job in the small words, gestures, and acts that go to show affection each day. So how do you go about this?

I believe the answer is to keep score. Not to keep score of your spouse demonstrations of affection to you, but to keep score of how many times you show affection to your spouse. I believe it all starts in the morning with that old Christian tradition of the morning offering. We fall to our knees at the start of the day, and we offer our day to our Lord.  That is the time we ask His help so that we say and do things throughout the day that conveys our love to our spouse. As you start your day, identify things you can say, things you can do, and ways you can nonverbally show affection to your spouse. Be specific.  And then, keep track. 

Then, at the end of the day, when you practice that other ancient Christian tradition of the nightly examination of conscience, reflect on how well you did showing affection to your spouse.  Be grateful for your successes and then resolve to do even better the next day.  Making a daily investment in small words, gestures, and acts will pay huge dividends in the daily expression of affection that will make your marriage a terrific one.

Appreciation:

In addition to protecting their friendship and growing in fondness each day, successful couples maintain and grow a spirit of appreciation for each other. The dictionary defines appreciation as a recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.  In marriage, it’s synonymous with the word thanksgiving.  Think of it in terms of those qualities in your spouse that you cherish, admire, or value at a high level.

I’ve always found great truth in this quote by Christiane Northrup “Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life actually attracts more of the things that you appreciate and value into your life.” One of the great truths in life is that we find what we look for.  Did you ever buy a new car and suddenly you see them everywhere?  It’s not that there are more cars of that make and model on the road today than yesterday, it’s that today your eyes are open to seeing them. And so it is in marriage, the more you dwell on your spouses qualities, the more of those qualities you will see.

Once again, St. Paul got it right when he said in Phillippians, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” 

So, here’s how to use this his message in your marriage.  Take out a blank sheet of paper and make a list of everything you appreciate about or are thankful for in spouse.  It could be things such as how sensitive, thoughtful, caring, or adventurous your spouse is, or even how good her lasagna is or how much you appreciate that he fills your car up with gas. With a little thought you should be able to come up with 30 or even 40 different things and you are thankful about your spouse.

What to do with the list!

Two ideas: first, each day compliment your spouse by telling him or her one thing that is on your list. Second idea, buy a box of blank cards and write down one thing from your list on each of the cards. Then, a couple times a week leave one of the cards where your spouse will find it, by the bathroom mirror, in front of the coffee pot, on the driver seat of his or her car. You will be surprised at the positive emotions this elicits in your spouse.  And remember:  positive emotions in your spouse will move positive behaviors towards you. 

This can be a fun exercise for the two of you to do together, but it may be even more powerful if you do it without telling your spouse what you are up to.  You can then sit back and watch the positive charge in your spouse.  You both win and your marriage gets better.

Remember: WE are enriched through our spouse’s friendship.

Shared Fondness

Think of fondness has a tender affection, a warm feeling of attachment. It is a devotedness to your spouse that is comfortably powerful. It is that feeling you had the first time you realized you were in love. It is the feeling you get even now when your spouse does something awesome and you just look at him or her with eyes that say I cannot believe how wonderful you are. It is the way you felt when your love was young and fresh and pure.

John Gottman discovered that maintaining fondness is one of the most crucial elements in a rewarding and long-lasting marriage.

Successful couples continue to grow in their fondness for each other throughout their lives. But this is not an easy thing to do. The struggles of life, especially now when you are in this period of forced confinement, combine to make it easy to focus on your partners flaws more than his or her virtues. It takes work and effort to ignore the defects and focus on those attributes in your spouse of which you are so fond.

If you have never read the song of songs in the Old Testament, this would be a good time to do so. It is an incredible collection of love lyrics. It presents a passionate picture of human love.

Look at the beauty of the following from the 4th chapter:  You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace.  How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride, how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfumes than any spice! Your lips drip honey, my bride, honey and milk are under your tongue; and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.

Wow, talk about fondness. Wouldn’t it be great to feel like that every day?

John Gottman discovered that fondness often resides in your memory. Couples that are able to recall happy memories build up the reserve of fondness that can be tapped into during the difficult times. So, I would like to propose the following assignment. You can do this by yourself, but it would be much more powerful if you do it as a couple. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and answered the following: 

Fondness Questions

  1. What is the first memory you have of your spouse when you met?
  2. What do you remember about your first few dates?
  3. What do you remember about the moment when you first realized you were in love?
  4. What do you remember the first time you heard your spouse say that he or she loved you?
  5. What do you remember about the day you got engaged?
  6. What do you remember about your engagement period?
  7. What do you remember about your wedding?
  8. What do you remember about the wedding reception?
  9. What do you remember about the honeymoon?
  10. What remember about your first year together?

Feel free to add whatever other questions you would like. The idea is to resurrect as many happy memories about your spouse as you can. Reconnect with those feelings of fondness that were so positive, so all consuming, in the first period of your love. Reviewing these memories with your spouse during your 15 minutes together each evening (during your 1% commitment) is a phenomenal way to grow closer together and to rekindle the love that you had in the early days of your relationship. This exercise will produce rich dividends.

Remember: We are enriched through our spouse’s friendship.

Friendship

In the first 9 blogs I discussed conflicts within marriage, how they originate and how to resolve them. I explored the importance of patience and forgiveness, and how frustration arrives when you are blocked from achieving your goals.  You were introduced to the four horsemen of criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness and came to understand how destructive they are to your marriage. And then we looked at how behaviors trigger emotions and emotions drive behaviors and, finally, the innate need you have for safety and strong emotional attachments to your spouse.

Hopefully, by now, you have mastered the art of conflict management in your marriage. I say that somewhat with tongue in cheek because conflict management will be part of your marriage forever. The idea is to be able to resolve your conflicts without escalating into a fight. Should you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated by your inability to resolve conflicts in your marriage, this is the time to seriously consider getting some professional help from a qualified marriage therapist. I strongly recommend therapist who’s been trained in either the Gottman Method or Emotionally Focused Therapy (ideally someone who’s been trained in both methods).

However, it is important to appreciate that it takes more than the absence of conflict or the peaceful resolution of conflict to make a good marriage. Just because you do not fight every day doesn’t mean you’re happy. John Gottman’s research showed that successful couples find time every day to nurture friendship, fondness, appreciation, and affection. My next four blogs will address each of these positive habits that winning couples practice.

Friendship:

I love the quote by Woodrow Wilson “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”  I believe friendship is the cement that hold marriages together. Unfortunately, we often get so caught up in the business of daily living that we let our friendship with our spouse take a back seat. Couples that have wonderful marriages find ways to keep their friendship alive by continuing to invest in their shared interests and knowledge of each other’s world.

So, the question is how well you know your spouse’s world. What’s going on right now and his or her life that is important or scary or joyous? It’s been said, show me where you spend your time and I will tell you what’s important to you. Successful couples spend time each day investing in their friendship. How difficult would it be to set aside 15 minutes each evening to connect with your spouse one on one? Fifteen minutes equals 1% of your day.

If you are willing to invest 1% in your marriage, here are some ideas on how to maximize the return on your investment. Start by asking the following questions: What went well for you today? What brought you joy today? What didn’t go the way you would have liked it today? What will tomorrow be like? What are you currently worried about? How are your friends, family, coworkers? Friends take an active interest in each other all the time.

Another favorite quote of mine is from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood.”

After you’ve been married for a while, it is easy to succumb to the temptation of thinking that you know all there is to know about your spouse.  The reality is, you do not. Think about the first few dates you had and how exciting it was to learn more about this really interesting person you just met.  If you can bring that attitude each day into your 1% investment in your spouse, you will be surprised about how many wonderful things there still are to learn.  That sense of adventure will enrich your marriage and help you to grow closer each day. 

Remember: While you are perfected through your spouses imperfections, your spouse is enriched through your friendship.

Emotional Attachment and Safety

In my last blog I talked about the powerful need you and your spouse have to form secure attachment bonds with each other. This blog post will develop that idea even more fully.

During times like these of heightened fear and anxiety, your spouse may go to extremes to be assured that he or she is safe with you. However, the way he or she goes about being reassured the you are there for him or her can lead to heightened conflict in one of three ways. These are called negative attachment styles.  The first is an anxious style, characterized by needing to connect with you frequently throughout the day.  This is typified by frequent interruptions and your spouse clinging to you in ways you might find irritating.  Once you are irritated, you may resort to one of the Four Horsemen, criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling to gain some separation from your spouse.  This, of course, leaves your spouse feeling more anxious which then motivates your spouse to try even harder to be with you.

The second ineffective attachment style is an avoidant style. When avoidant spouses don’t feel safe, they withdraw and keep their distance. This is their way of protecting themselves.  The style of cow ourse leaves them feeling even more insecure and can also leave you feeling rejected or unimportant to your spouse.

Third ineffective attachment strategy is called fearful avoidant. In the strategy your spouse is confused about how to handle his or her insecurity.  He or she will pull you close and then push you away.  They need to feel safe with you but are afraid you will not be there when they really need you.  So, he or she will pull you close and then when you come close, he or she will become frightened and push you away. This, in turn, leaves you feeling confused and rejected as well.

If you find your spouse is anxiously, avoidantly or fearfully attempting to connect with you, the answer is not to jump on one of the four horsemen. The solution is to understand that your spouse is coming from a place of fear and needs the safety and security that only you can provide.  You can do this in the number of ways.  First, and most importantly, is to seek to understand.  Ask your spouse questions that show sincere empathy and a real desire to understand what emotions he or she is dealing with. Second is through physical touch. A hug, a kiss on the cheek, a reassuring smile can go a long way to help your spouse feel safe.

Realize, it is easier to be patient with your spouse when you understand where he or she is coming from.  Fear and insecurity often drive your spouses to act in ways that irritate you.  Understanding this and assuring your spouse that we will always be there for him or her, will go a long way to return his of her  behavior to normal.

Final thought: Few people know that Padre Pio contracted, and recovered from, the Spanish Flu in 1917. Shortly after his recovery he wrote “Have no fear at all about any future harm that could happen to you in this world, because perhaps it might not happen to you at all, but in any event if it were to come upon you, God would give you the strength to bear it.” When it is all said and done, our place of ultimate safety is our Father in Heaven.

Remember:  We are perfected by our spouse’s imperfections.

More on Emotions

In my last blog post I talked about how behaviors trigger emotions and emotions move behaviors. Now that you are spending so much time together with your spouse, behaviors that might not normally trigger negative emotions often do. So, I thought today I could explore the topic of emotions in a little more detail.

After World War II, English Psychiatrist John Bowlby was asked by the World Health Organization to study children who had been orphaned during the war. He found that children who have been separated from their parents, especially from their mother, suffered a great deal more anxiety and stress than their counterparts and that these emotional problems often carried into adulthood.  He concluded that children (from the first moments of birth) need to form secure attachment bonds with their parents if they are to achieve normal emotional development.

A couple decades later, Canadian Psychologist, Sue Johnson extended Bowlby’s findings to adults. Her research showed that all human beings need to form and maintain close attachment bonds with the significant others in their lives. This will not be a surprise to us Christians because we know we were created by Love for love and so this desire to be deeply loved, deeply attached, is innate. (Once again, social science research has discovered when we Christians have known all along.)

It is this need to form close attachment bonds that drives us to marriage. It is a motivating force. As human beings, we have an intrinsic need for the safety that only a close attachment bond can provide.

During uncertain times like these, your spouses need for safety can be significantly heightened. Fear of illness, unemployment, financial variability, and being forced to stay at home can trigger fear and anxiety. This uncertainty will heighten your spouses need for close attachment bonds with you.

When your spouse is feeling unsafe, it can motivate him or her to attempt to connect with you often during the day.  This increased frequency of contact can lead to you feeling overwhelmed and like you do not have any space for yourself.  This emotional frustration can lead you to say or do things that can hurt your spouse emotionally.  But the more you push your spouse away, the more he or she will seek to reattach with you.  And thus an endless cycle of pursue/withdraw results.  The more your spouse pursues you, the more you withdraw and the more you withdraw, the more your spouse will pursue you.

The solution is to reassure your spouse that you are a safe place and you always be there for him or her.  Negotiating with you spouse the time you will be together and the time you will need your own space can reassure him or her that you will be there when needed but that you also need time away.  Uncertainty is very uncomfortable.  Establishing a schedule for together time will be very comforting for you and your spouse.

Remember:  We are perfected through our spouse’s imperfections.

Emotions and Behaviors

Emotion is the primary driving force in every relationship.

The link between behaviors and emotions is unbreakable and very powerful. A behavior on the part of your spouse triggers an emotion in you. That emotion then drives a behavior in you (moves you to act). Your behavior than triggers an emotion on the part of your spouse and that emotion, in turn, moves a behavior on his/her part, which then triggers an emotion in you, which moves a behavior in you, which triggers an emotion in your spouse which moves a behavior in him or her and on and on we go. Understanding this pattern gives you a powerful insight into how conflicts can arise between the two of you.

And the pattern goes on forever.

 Behaviors trigger emotions and emotions drive behaviors.  Another way to say it is that emotions put you in motion.  It is important to understand that you have an emotional reaction to everything that anybody says or does to you and even to behaviors that you simply observe.  (Have you ever gotten upset simply watching how your spouse talks to your child?)

There are six core emotions – four are negative and two are positive.  Negative emotions are anger, sadness, shame, and fear.  Positive emotions are excitement and joy.  It is easy to understand how sometimes our negative emotions get the better of us, since they outnumber the positive emotions two to one.

One of the challenges in this time of forced confinement is that we are exposed to a far greater number of behaviors from our spouse than normal.  By way of example: Let’s say you notice your spouse checking his or her cell phone for a coronavirus update for the 20th time and it’s not even noon yet.  Each time you observe that behavior, a slight negative emotion gets triggered.   After 20 slight negative emotional impulses, you are moved to say something like, “Can you please stop looking at your phone every 10 minutes.  You are making me crazy.”  This behavior on your part will likely result in a negative emotion in your spouse.  If that negative emotion moves a negative behavior on his or her part, it will likely result in a negative emotion in your which will lead to…   Yep, you guessed it – a nice little argument.

Here is the important point to understand: there is a direct line between a behavior and emotion activation, but the reverse is not necessarily true. As human beings we can choose the behaviors that we will perform.  There is a space between emotion and behavior where we can think and choose. It is called free will and we human beings are the only ones on the planet who possess it.

In fact, our ability to not be controlled by our emotions is a measure of our mental health.  The degree to which you are the master of your emotions is a degree to which you are mentally healthy and is also the degree to which you will have a happy and fulfilling marriage.

This means you are not a helpless victim of the Four Horsemen.  You can choose to not criticize, not be contemptuous, or defensive or to stonewall.  The next time you are triggered by a negative emotion and tempted to say or do something negative, stop yourself, think about what virtue you can develop at that moment and choose that.

Remember:  We are perfected through our spouses imperfections.