newspaper column about Marriage and Family
A Few Thoughts on Marriage and Family, Prepared by Gerald Ford, MA, LPC, LMFT
From articles appearing in a copyrighted column in the Herald-Coaster newspaper in Ft. Bend County- Permission is granted for use in counseling, ministry, and other personal use, as long as they are reproduced and credited as written.
Let’s talk about attraction. Clients often ask about it. They say, “Why do I attract the people I attract?” Stories abound about destructive relationships that are part of a chain of such relationships. Why do we seem to repeat such patterns. This article may be for married people who are wondering about the status of their marriage, or it may be for the single person who is in despair about how relationships have gone. Let’s do it this way. Let’s turn the question around. The question may need to be, “Why do we repel (or reject) the people we don’t attract?” We may attract certain people because we have made some destructive decisions.
First, if we decide that we have to “settle” for whoever comes along, we rule out the opportunity to explore the relationship and wait for a better one if needed.
Second, if we think we are not “good enough” for someone who is “good enough” we won’t look far enough or long enough.
Third, if we think that we can take “raw material” and shape someone into the person we want them to be, we will soon find out that people-making is harder than we could have imagined.
For one reason or another, a person may turn down the very people they would actually be happy with. Perhaps they fear the difficult task of searching out their own personality and the deep development of a healthy self. Then, and only then , can they look out at others with informed eyes. Or, perhaps they decide that this healthy person they see from afar is too independent. Wanting someone they can control, they may turn down the healthier person whom they fear they could not control.
A single adult looking for a potential marriage must first develop themselves into someone who can appreciate life alone, seeing themselves as a complete person in their own right. If they will cherish their own growth and quality of personality, they may turn down some people they would have otherwise “settled” for. It takes courage and self-respect to turn down people who are “bad” for us, but the risk is really worth it.
Believing that we are not good enough for the good person we will attract people who agree with us. Then it is difficult to change our mind about ourselves and, in turn, change the mind of the people we attracted when we were not so good to ourselves. Remember, we feel hurt when others call us names, belittle us, or lie to us. Guess what- we hurt ourselves as much or maybe more when we do these things to ourselves.
We won’t find a finished product to marry, but we should at least look for someone who is well on their way to maturity. People-making is more than we can or should do. Parents have 18 or more years for their contributions to people-making and they do not do it all in that amount of time. Each of us must take responsibility for our own choices and growth. Here is the question. Why would a healthy person want to turn over the responsibility for their growth to you. If someone wants to do this, they are not healthy. We cannot live someone else’s life, shape their character, or make them healthy. Hopefully, we are busy with our own growth. Look for the person who is already good at doing their own “homework.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote years ago about a human experience we still have. He wrote of three silences, silences that we should “listen to” as warning signals in marriage. First, there is a silence of speech, then there is a silence of desire, and lastly, there is a silence of thought.
Beginning with a silence of speech, we are tempted to believe that something is better not being mentioned. That may be true, but in most cases it is not. Things that we bury find their way out, and they are often more painful when they emerge than they were at the beginning. One of the saddest things we see happening is when one person keeps things stuffed inside themselves, only to see them explode later, then they blame their spouse for not knowing those things that they have not spoken. Other things add to silence, like the assumption that we don’t have anything to say, or that we must protect our privacy. Truth is, marriage is not the place for isolation. Others have tried to avoid silence only to be met by ridicule and censure, so they, too, have become silent.
Desire fails next. The silence of desire affects compatibility, intimacy, creativity, sensitivity, and all those qualities of a pleasant relationship. When desire fails, some marriages move into a business-like relationship, others move into having a room-mate quality, still others become battle grounds of dominance, avoidance, or deceit. Rose Tynes, a colleague of mine, describes some of these marriages as having the motto, “It ain’t love, but it ain’t bad.” Others call it “settling.” But, is this what love and marriage is about?”
After desire fails, there comes the silence of thought. Longfellow was not a marriage counselor, but he did find the right target here. Without communication, and without desire, our thoughts soon go elsewhere. It’s easy to walk past the bank where you don’t have anything invested, and it’s easy to not think about the relationship where you don’t think you have enough invested. Our thoughts produce our feelings, and in their absence, our feelings also fade away.
How do we avoid these three silences? How shall we disturb this process? First, you discover the fact that communication is not about noise, or demanding, or about auditing each other. It is about communing. That’s why we call it communication.
Disturbing the silence, even with wonderful sounds, won’t guarantee the return of desire, but that’s where it starts. Desire returns if both people determine to love again, discover each other even more fully than at the beginning, and carefully rebuild the relationship without seeking revenge or one-up-man-ship.
When communication and desire return, thoughts will naturally follow. The important thing here is to be fully aware, and open in sharing thoughts with each other. Be fully aware of our own thoughts, attend to the thoughts of our spouse, and we can build intelligently. Awareness, not silence opens the door to relationship.
Henry, may I suggest three awarenesses? There is the awareness of our thoughts, of our feelings, and of our wants. And there are three suggestions about what to do with these in your marriage. Assume equality, listen for understanding, and communicate to be understood.
Gentlemen, Gentlemen, let’s talk for a moment. Since we get accused of being so logical and so unemotional let’s be careful about something that men are often heard to say. The saying goes something like this, “Of course we are partners in this marriage; I let her have her way plenty of times . . . .” This statement has plenty of problems. First, it isn’t logical. If you “let” some person have their way, then this person isn’t really an equal partner in the relationship. Who says it is yours to allow. If you are in charge of whether or not they “get their way”, then you are directing their life. A relationship is one of equality only if neither person is in charge of deciding who gets their way. Consider the right to vote. We didn’t give women the right to vote. We recognized it and made it legal. “Letting” an equal have their way ought to be a moot point to us.
Second, it seems quite inefficient to think in terms of who gets their way. (And gentlemen, we hear the bragging about how we are so efficient, don’t we?) It’s not efficient because two people end up discussing only two choices, or maybe only one. When two people look at the whole picture and at several possibilities, they keep issues open for lots of choices. They get to search and explore together without getting locked into the first idea that came into their mind. And, wonder of wonders, they get to make decisions at the conclusion of the discussion, not at the beginning of it.
Third, it is a dangerous statement. Life up on a pedestal means that you are a better target. You have to be right all the time. Gentlemen; being brave is one thing, but taking the risk of having to be always right is too big a risk, and a very lonely one. If you make the decision together, as equal partners in collaboration, you can share the credit when it is the right decision, and if it is wrong, you can share the resolution of the problem by correcting it together.
Speaking of pedestals, putting your wife on a pedestal doesn’t solve the problem either. Our society puts women “on a pedestal in the dark.” This kind of pedestal in name only; certainly not in practice. Not telling your wife “certain things” is just another kind of dishonest relationship.
Here are a few guidelines for equality in marriage.
1. If a decision will affect both of you, it should include both of you.
2. Respect your spouse as you want to be respected.
3. Listen to understand, and speak to be understood.
4. Don’t play power games to manipulate things.
5. Have dialog, not monolog.
6. Be willing to go back to the drawing board if necessary.
7. If you don’t have time to talk--- cancel something else.
8. Real power is power to solve problems, not power over people.
9. Always right and never wrong makes Jack a lonely boy.
10. People who build relationships don’t need to play roles.
Last Sunday night at dinner a friend gave my wife a wonderful compliment. She said that in all the conversations they have ever had, she had always had the sense that she was really engaging her as an individual person, a real person. Many couples speak in “we think”, which is a jargon used to keep up a family image, or sometimes, a facade. This was a compliment of Billie’s personal sense of identity, and her genuine respect for others. As we talked about the issue, we spoke of how easy it is to just be “somebody’s” wife or husband, or “someone’s” parent or child, or “some place’s” employee. Not that any of us meant that we were trying to be an all-important person who had to be the center of attention. But who are you? Back behind your eyes, where you are the only one looking out upon the world, who are you? That’s what is so good about the sense of talking with a person and really having a sense that they are there as themselves. May I share a few secondary thoughts?
There might be a temptation to use “we-think” to avoid the real work of developing our individual identity. It is hard work, sometimes, to think about our singularity in the world, and to know that there is not a ready made identity to slip into comfortably. Even the title “single adult” carries with it the connotation that this person is not a complete individual until they get married and have children. The single adult may be viewed as not having taken on the responsibilities of adult life. Far from the truth, there are as many immature people within marriages as there are outside of them. As Frank Pittman says, marriage will only make you married; it won’t make you grown up and happy. Developing one’s own identity will always be our job, in or out of marriage.
Some families discourage individuality. Out of a belief that the family members must all be the same, there is an official “family-speak.” A wise parent gives children choices, good ones, and helps the child learn how to make good selections. They encourage wise consideration and selection of personal values. Individuality is a good thing for each person in the family.
Maybe someone thinks they are being loyal by not having their own identity. A young couple may follow the idea that marriage makes them alike, and that individuality is a threat to the relationship. In truth, it is no threat at all. A healthy self is the best thing you can give to a relationship.
It could be that there is one of the people in a marriage who wants to be the only person with an identity. Remember the television series, Thirtysomething? A character (the bad guy) on the show was heard to say a very telling line. As I remember it went something like, “People marry the picture of perfection, but when the picture starts to move on its own, they get nervous.”
The friend said, “When I talk with you, I get the real sense that I’m talking with you.” No masks, no fraud, no role-playing; that’s an exciting way to live.
Some startling research about anger was published a while ago that has encouraged us to rethink some ideas about anger. Out there in Pop Psychology you hear the pundits say things like, “Anger is healthy, and we have a right to it.” In many cases this is true. So many people have stuffed their anger over the years, and their health and their relationships have suffered for it. Anger can be a good signal to us that our boundaries are being violated. The catch is that we must also be responsible for getting our boundaries right, and respect the boundaries of others as well. We do have a right to anger, but we do not have a right to any anger, nor the right do do anything we want with our anger.
The research that I refer to was done by N. S. Jacobson and J. M. Gottman for their book, When Men Batter Women. They studied the physiological changes people, couples with violent histories, undergo when they become angry. As most of us would expect, when most of the subjects became angry their heart rates increased, blood flow increased, and their galvanic skin response showed a defensive mode. But to the astonishment of Jacobson and Gottman, about 20% of the subjects (both men and women) demonstrated the opposite responses. Their physiology relaxed and became calm as their temper rose up. It looked as though they were enjoying the rise in anger and were soothed by it. Jacobson and Gottman called the first group “pit bulls,” and they called the group of people who relaxed when they became angry by the term “cobras.” The cobras were cool, calculating, and ready to strike. Outwardly, you may think they are about to have a stroke due to their angry responses, but inside they are cool and calculating. They tend to be more aggressive than others, and they tend to get angry more quickly than the “pit bulls.” They usually look for dates, and spouses, who become sad and fearful in the face of anger. Conversely, the “pit bull’ builds anger more slowly and experiences the expected anxiety as they attack. Neither is healthy anger, but it looks like the “cobra” is the most dangerous of the two.
Jacobson and Gottman further assert that education, therapy, and rehabilitation can help the majority of “pit bulls” to find more efficient tools for taking care of their own needs while learning to respect others at the same time. They state that “cobras” are not likely to benefit at all from any of the current treatments. The reason is that while our environment may influence us, and our genetic temperament may also have some effect on our reactions, in the end we discover that the main source of our behavior is our own private logic. The belief system of the “pit bull” is defensive and it can be changed through the personal growth of social responsibility, social interest, and their investment in wanting to join the useful side of life. The belief system of the “cobra” is offensive. The “cobra” enjoys anger for anger’s sake, rejects the notion of social interest, and wants to stay on the useless side of life. Rather than being useful to community, they insist that community be useful to them.
Daniel B. Wile is the author who says that, “people generate symptoms when they think they are unable to get their leading edge thoughts and feelings across.” He offers six of these symptoms that I’ll share with you.
Symptom # 1: Negative Feelings- Feelings of emptiness, discouragement, irritation and such like will serve to make us feel and act withdrawn. These feelings then become the next leading edge thought or feeling that we can’t seem to express.
Symptom #2: Compensation or Diversion of Attention- We may try to deal with an issue by surfing the channels on television, raiding the refrigerator, or doing odd jobs. If we are alone this is fine, but if we are with someone we exclude them. They may think we are sulking, or avoiding them.
Symptom #3: Self-Blame- You think to yourself that you must be the utter neurotic who can’t live life effectively, when actually the needs you have a right to express go untreated.
Symptom #4: Justifying or Accusing- Thinking that we are always right and being demanding of others is the twin of the other problem of thinking that we are always wrong. Both of these are the cousins to the problem of thinking that the other person is always right or always wrong. Mired in all of this is the mistaken idea that if someone loves us they will know what we are thinking.
Symptom #5: Substitution of efforts to get across a point or a feeling- Banging things, slamming things, or muttering things, are not good substitutes for putting our wants and needs into clear and gracious words. Why do we say, “It’s not going to be my fault if dinner turns out to be a catastrophe tonight!” We could say, “I feel all alone and I’d love it if you’d come in and join me, talk with me, and give me a hand.”
Symptom #6: Fantasizing- Pretending that a problem isn’t worth talking about when we are feeling pain about it, is a way to let problems grow worse. Reading the Romance Novel in order to pretend that you are married to someone else may provide some peace and quiet for the moment, but it only postpones the problem.
You know about symptoms. You can’t heal a body or a relationship if you treat only the symptoms. Many people try to manage these symptoms by keeping them under wraps. That’s another problem with symptoms; they will always find some way to get out. Staying non-symptomatic means staying healthy at the very core. Even if saying something the right way is not the way we normally talk or think, we may just have to go beyond the usual for the sake of the relationship. Is feeling awkward and alien too much to do to benefit the relationship?
One of the best things you may ever do for yourself and for your partner is to realize this simple fact, that people generate symptoms. It has to be all right to examine our selves and our motives. It has to be all right for our partner to express what is on their mind in a calm and accepting atmosphere. We are not going to not have symptoms, ever, ever, ever. The trick is to recognize them quickly and deal with them responsibly.
Take a minute and think about this-
One of the issues that continues to arise in marriage counseling is what I call the “Complaint Department” principle. I call it that for some reasons I hope I can make clear. Times of conflict often escalate into chaos, trying to cover every issue that each contender can think of. The words, “Oh yeah, well what about . . . “, will show up again and again. One person hopes to deflect blame for one thing by practicing one-upmanship. Then after a few rounds of this, both people are likely confused, exhausted, and angrier than when they started. There is a better way of doing this, however. Let’s take a trip to the complaint department of a major department store and see what we can learn.
Imagine what it would be like if the conversation at the counter in Customer Service if people handled those encounters like they handle conflict at home. You might hear things like, “Oh, so you don’t like this, huh (?) Well, what about the credit we gave you? Can’t you appreciate that? What about all the other products you have bought here? Why do you always have to concentrate on such little things?” Then, you might hear the customer answer, “All the other products, you say? I’ll have you know that all those other products have not been that good. I have only been pretending they were good. And that credit thing, I’ll have you know I deserved a lot more that what you gave me.” So on and so on . . . A major department would go out of business if it ran its complaint department that way. Most of us would not want to do business there. Yet many people try to do marriage in that very fashion. It’s a wonder that marriages survive. Can we see some good ideas here about how to conduct our marital complaint departments? Let’s try.
First, you treat the need to deal with problems as a basic part of good relationship. These things that trouble us are not an interruption, they are an opportunity to build and grow. That doesn’t mean we are good at conflict. It will, and should be harder work than other activities, yet to panic and avoid issues is to let the relationship become rigid and shallow. In retail, the customer who brings a product back to the table cares more about the relationship than the one who just walks away unhappy. The same is true in marriage.
Secondly, you deal only with the actual issue at hand. You listen to what the other person is saying and you let the other person know that you understand. By focusing on only the true issue at hand you keep the matter positive, solution oriented, and constructive. Getting off of the issue and onto other things makes at least one of the participants afraid, or too weary, to continue.
Thirdly, treat the relationship as more important than any issue. I am not saying that the customer is always right, but I am saying that the customer is always the customer. So, in marriage, respect is often one of the most important elements. Too often, it’s missing. It really does help to consider if the other person might be right. It really does help to assume the best of one another.
Next time you try to work something out with one of your customers, see how gracious you are. Shouldn’t our marriages get even better care?