by Michael D. Williams
February is the official month of love, romance and all things sappy. Frankly, I'm convinced that it is a plot against all males-a conspiracy between the DeBeers diamond monopoly and Hallmark cards. The month was actually created to guilt and pressure men into buying stuff we would never otherwise think of buying, and then we have to pay someone to write words for us that would never otherwise come out of our mouths.
That having been said-and the fact that I'm pretty sure my wife might actually see what I've written-I'd like to turn my attention to real romance. I mean the stuff that makes your toes wiggle. This May Ruth and I will have been married for twenty-five years, and I've been a Marriage & Family Therapist for just about that long, so I've learned a few things along the way.
In 1995 I participated in some advanced training in marriage counseling in Los Angeles. The presenter, Neil Jacobson, was internationally recognized for his research regarding conflict in marriage and had written the book-several of them, actually-on how to help couples get along better. But after reviewing his long list of professional accomplishments over a 50-year career, he flatly stated that most of what he had instructed people to do to have a happy marriage was "all boloney".
(Okay, he didn't actually use the word baloney, but I had to clean it up for print in Madison County.)
You don't have to be perfect to have a perfectly happy marriage. He went on to point out that they found some amazing things as they carefully researched both failing and successful marriages. The couples who are well on their way to divorce had, on average, ten areas of significant incompatibility-areas in which partners are irreconcilably different from one another in interests, habits, hobbies and tendencies. On the other hand, those couples who were happy and enjoyed their marriage had, on average, ten areas of significant incompatibility.
Let's stop for a moment to let that sink in: both those who were so unhappy that they planned to divorce-and those who thoroughly enjoyed their spouses-had the same number of significant differences or incompatibilities.
Then the presenter laid out the real shocker: What we think about our spouses is actually more important than what they do, when it comes to our own happiness in marriage. The people who thought about their partners as flawed, selfish, or just plain weird were much less happy than those who looked at those same qualities or differences as just...different. And those who complained on the inside were much more likely to let it slip out and turn into a fight.
I know, I know...your grandfather probably could have told me the same thing for a lot less money than I paid for this "professional training"; and I wouldn't have had to deal with L.A. traffic to hear it, either. The truth is, our grandparents and their parents probably were probably much better at making marriage work simply because they didn't waste as much time insisting that things had to be said in done in the perfect way in order to like one another.
What you think is what you get. I recently pointed out to students in a marriage class that caricatures-those drawings in which we recognize celebrities by exaggerating their features-are always unattractive. Even those drawings of someone you'd normally find quite attractive end up looking at least a little creepy. (Go google caricatures if you want to see some fun examples.)
Without great care we can end up doing the same to our wives or husbands. It can be easy to run through a laundry list of imperfections or mistakes they've made. Like a compact car rolling down the driveway (yes, I've had that experience), it picks up speed and becomes pretty tough stop or turn around.
Here's another important point: my brain believes everything I think, whether true or not. When I think things are bad, or that my partner is bad, I feel badly or unhappy. These unhappy feelings do not mean that my situation is bad, only that my thoughts are in that direction. If you don't believe me, remember the way you felt when you awoke from a bad dream; you felt just as if those things had occurred even if they were obviously not true.
People who are happy in marriage spend more time thinking of their partner's positive qualities. They think about how much they love and appreciate that person. Mistakes and imperfections are accepted or dismissed. In fact, truly happy spouses have often chosen to look at those imperfections as cute or endearing. They have learned that by doing so, they can enjoy their partners and find positive feelings every day.
Yes, we get to choose what we think. When we choose what we think, we are also choosing how we will feel toward that other person.
When I think about all of the great things that my wife has brought into my life, the ways in which she helps me to be a better person, the beauty of her smile, or the occasional snort when she laughs-I smile, too. When I recall the kindness and patience she has shown me, a terribly imperfect person, I feel grateful and even a little humbled. When I think of standing close to her and dancing without music in the kitchen my toes still wiggle, even after 25 years.
I often tell people that I am happily married and that I hope my wife is, too. I am not writing this only because I know Ruth is likely to read this, or because I think she might pressure me into buying jewelry. But I'll be darned if I have to spend three dollars to let Hallmark tell my wife how much I love her.
Michael D. Williams is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in practice in Rexburg. He also works as adjunct faculty in the Department of Home & Family. He currently teaches courses in Family Relations, Marriage Preparation and Marriage Skills.
He and his wife have 5 children and 2 grandchildren-with 2 more on the way!