Friday, August 3, 2012

Better or Worse: Part Two

Good evening, everyone! I'm currently visiting my family in my hometown, writing from my parents' couch. I had a wonderful time playing with my two nieces and then a great chat with my big brother earlier in the evening and then drove over to my parents' home for the night. As I was driving I was passing homes that belonged to my friends from elementary, middle and high school. I K-12'd like a pro. While I was remembering and thinking of those friends, I was hearing their voices in my head. It's amazing how a voice can etch itself into our memories. Just beautiful.
Anyway, I decided to postpone my second installment (part onepart 3) of Better or Worse because John is out of town and I wanted him to read it/weigh in before posting. Plus, I asked my friend, Christine, if she would share a tip or two and she wrote enough goodness to fill an entire blog! Holla! Christine is a witty, lovely, fun + slightly sassy blogger over at ZestySunshine by night and a fantastic couple + family therapist by day. You will love her. So without further ado, here she is!

Just for a quick intro, I got my master’s degree in couple and family therapy and I’m currently finishing out the last 9 months of my PhD. As a couple and family therapist, I see couples and families (of course!) but also a lot of individuals seeking help. The basic idea behind my field is that we are all interconnected; most problems we encounter (depression, anxiety, marital issues, just feeling “stuck”) do not happen in isolation, but are influenced by our families, friends, and relationships.
I think first and foremost, a lot of work needs to happen before the topic of marriage even comes up.  If you are getting into a relationship, it is your responsibility to make sure that you are a whole person. This seems silly, but the message in our society is “Oh, two halves make a whole, find your other half!” Unfortunately, while two halves might make one whole person, they don’t make a whole marriage.  By “being whole” I mean being able to soothe yourself in stressful times, understanding your own emotions, make peace with any baggage from the past, and find some sort of anchor (spirituality, religion, etc) – have a sense of purpose.  I think women especially have a need to fix everyone and help others, which is amazing, but if you enter a relationship with the intention of “saving” the other person, it will not work.  You wouldn’t build a bridge between two towers with a shaky foundation, in the same way you should not build a marriage between two people who aren’t whole. Do some soul searching, read some books (If the Buddha Dated by Charlotte Kasl is amazing, I think every single person should read it), go to therapy, journal, whatever you need to do, but this is absolutely the most important step to a successful marriage.  You must fully love yourself before you can fully love another.
The second piece of advice also comes before marriage. We often hear, “Marriage is hard work!” While I would agree that yes, marriage does take effort, it shouldn’t be that hard. If you are dating someone and it feels like everything you do together takes a lot of energy, it’s time to reevaluate the situation.  Four words: square peg, round hole. Sometimes things just aren’t meant to work, and that’s OKAY! Just be true to yourself about this one before you tie the knot.
Next up – competition! How often do couples talk about who “won” that argument? I think the truth is, when you’re labeling a winner and a loser to an argument, you’re both losing. In a marriage, you’re on the same team! If you’re cheering for yourself in a marriage, by default, you’re pinning yourself against your partner, wanting them to lose.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I think arguments are fantastic for relationships, but you need to have a common goal of resolving the issue so that you’re both satisfied. Win/win! (For the record, my husband and I are both very competitive, so this rule is lifted for things like board games and other recreational activities) 
Give your partner the benefit of the doubt! After being in a relationship for a while, it’s easy to slip into a thought pattern that your partner is out to get you. Despite what your internal monologue is telling you, I bet your wife did not purposely throw her dirty clothes next to the hamper (instead of inside) to drive you nuts, she was probably in a rush to get out the door that morning. Your husband probably didn’t forget to pick up the milk you asked him to get for the purpose of making you angry, he probably just forgot.  Let’s face it – it’s these mundane daily things that end up driving you the craziest after several years in a relationship; reminding yourself to stop, take a deep breath, and give your partner the benefit of the doubt might help take the edge off. After you’re calm, it’s probably worth it to talk about it in a non-judgmental way, “Hey honey, I know this is so silly of me to get upset with, and I know mornings are tough around here, but I tend to get frustrated when I see your clothes on the floor instead of the hamper. Is there a better place we can move it to make it easier in the mornings?” You get the point – give them the benefit of the doubt, then talk it out.
That, by the way, leads me to my next piece of advice – communicate! “Communication” is by far cited as the biggest reason why couples come to see me.  Now, I am admittedly an attention-lover. There are days that I might not feel I am getting the attention I need (and, of course, deserve). I have considered in the past stewing about it, huffing around, throwing about incredibly vague hints that I want my husband to give me more of his undivided attention. However, after many trials, I realized that my husband is not, in fact, a clairvoyant.  Instead of moping about hoping he would get the hint, I said to him, “I NEED ATTENTION.” Like magic, he knew just what I needed, and gave me all the attention in the world until I needed attention no more. Talk. To. Your. Spouse.  This, by the way, is not limited to “serious” topics – continually get to know your partner, as we all grow and change over the years and time together. Check in on their hopes, dreams, favorite foods, their daily life – just be open, curious, and have good conversations. I highly recommend John Gottman’s book, “ The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” – he breaks this and many other helpful concepts down in a simple, realistic, and interactive way. 
Next, have fun with your spouse!! We get so wrapped up in life, work, bills, kids, etc that fun gets sent to the bottom of the list. Uncool! Make having fun a priority. Life is not so serious that you can’t take time out of every day to do something silly and fun together. I know that in my own life, I feel so connected to my husband after something ridiculous happens and we share a few minutes of big belly laughing. There’s nothing better.
Finally, show gratitude. This applies to EVERY area of your life, but especially in your relationship you’re your partner made dinner, thank them! If they did a chore around the house (even if it’s just taking the garbage out), show your appreciation. It feels good to be thanked, and has a way of encouraging more of the same behavior. Get in the habit of appreciating your spouse and they will give you more reasons to be thankful.If things aren’t as you want them in your relationship, I urge you to seek professional advice. Going to a therapist or getting marriage counseling is NOT a sign of weakness; in fact, it’s a sign of strength and commitment to your relationship. If you had a minor illness that wasn’t responding to over the counter meds, you would go see your doctor before it got so bad they had to hospitalize you or amputate a limb. Pardon the graphic comparison, but marriage is the same – minor problems take small changes that provide big benefits and save you from a lot of unnecessary stress and heartache. If there is one reason I would say that couples don’t succeed in therapy it’s because they waited way too long to come in. Also, if you decide to see a therapist, I would suggest keeping an open mind and understanding that all therapists are not alike – you might have to try out one or two before you find a therapist that you really have chemistry with, or is a good fit for both you and your partner. I would suggest going to to do a search, and then call and “interview” the therapists to get an idea of what they’re like. Good luck!
- Isn't she great? Yes, yes she is. My giant, furry, bear dog is staring at me and begging me to play with him. Some day a photo of the beast will have to be shared on la vie. I begged and pleaded for this dog with my dad, we formed an alliance against my mom with the common goal of getting this stinking dog. Wouldn't you know that he totally bonded to her and couldn't care less about us?!? At least when I come home to visit he's enthusiastic about seeing me. I hope you have an awesome night! Stay tuned for part there. All the best and as always, thanks for reading! 
(see part one here)
(part three here)

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