You want to improve your marriage, or are at least considering it. How do I know? Well, I assume you are reading this article for a reason.
First, please know that you are not alone. Many people – both men and women – want to improve their marriage. The proliferation of marriage improvement programs, videos, books, and websites indicates a strong general need for help achieving marital improvement.
The important question is: how do you improve your marriage? Although this question may seem simple at face value, it isn’t. You likely have many other questions you need to answer before you are able to answer the most important one.
Develop A Plan To Improve Your Marriage
While common themes certainly exist in marital problems and dissatisfaction, I do not believe a one-size-fits-all magic bullet program does. If I did, I’d point you to it straight away. However, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Your marriage is comprised of two unique people with their own experiences, histories, likes/dislikes, dreams, expectations, tolerance levels…and triggers. Given that, how can the solution to your marital problems be precisely the same as the solution to others’ marital problems?
A good plan to improve your marriage avoids common mistakes while addressing the problems you and your spouse face in your unique marriage. Obviously, this begs the questions:
- What are the common mistakes to avoid?
- What are the problems that need to be addressed in your marriage?
- What steps can you take to address and resolve these problems?
Avoid These Common Mistakes
Below is a list of common mistakes I’ve seen people make – and I’ve personally made – in their marriages. I strongly advise you to avoid them in your quest to improve your marriage.
Failure to Take Personal Responsibility
I could also label this one “Blaming Your Spouse for Everything.” Marriage is a partnership, and an attitude of blaming your spouse for everything ignores the very nature of that partnership. Because of the close emotional and physical proximity of marriage, almost everything your spouse does affects you – and vice-versa. Just as many of your behaviors are in reaction to what your spouse does, many of your spouse’s behaviors are in reaction to what you do.
Take responsibility for what is on your side of the equation. I guarantee that you have areas for improvement. How can I make such a guarantee? Because no one is perfect. (And…if a perfect person really did exist, I think s/he would be insufferable due to that very perfection.)
“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” – John Wooden
If you have a pronounced tendency to blame your spouse for almost every problem in your relationship, I strongly advise you to retire your halo and be willing to take a look at yourself.
Clinging to Unrealistic Expectations
Unrealistic expectations can set you – and your marriage – on an obstacle course. One of the more common is the myth perpetuated by fairy tales and Hollywood: the myth of Happily Ever After. You know this myth; we all do. We’ve heard it since we were in nursery school. The lovely damsel in distress, the handsome, rich, and noble prince who rescues her. They ride off into the sunset and will live happily ever after for no other reason than they are in love.
If I could embed sound effects into this article, the sound of a record scratching would have played right after the last word of the previous paragraph. In other words: Wake up, Alice! This isn’t Wonderland.
Effortless happily-ever-after is a myth. Maintaining a relationship takes time, effort, and skill.
Examine Your Mental Models
Fairy tales are not the only source of unrealistic expectations, however. Preconceived notions and beliefs about marriage, gender roles, responsibilities, and requirements can also get in the way. These beliefs often originate in your family of origin (FOO) and were modeled by your parents and primary caregivers. Your spouse’s beliefs differ from your own, although the degree of difference varies from marriage to marriage.
Successful Relationships Take Time and Effort
Like anything else really worthwhile, relationships require time and effort. Love, attraction, and commitment are important foundations, but they don’t automatically guarantee success.
“Almost no one is foolish enough to imagine that he automatically deserves great success in any field of activity; yet almost everyone believes that he automatically deserves success in marriage.” – Sydney J. Harris
Combining the lives of two unique, separate individuals into a harmonious marriage is arguably one of the most difficult challenges you will undertake. Does any part of that sound easy? I hope not, because it isn’t.
Unrealistic Expectations Become Frustrations
Since unrealistic expectations, by definition, cannot be met, they become unmet expectations, which lead to frustration and – eventually – a loss of romantic love. The good news is that, if you cling to unrealistic expectations, releasing them can improve your marriage.
Dismissing or Undervaluing Your Spouse’s Perspective
This is closely related to beliefs in “right” and “wrong.” If you believe that your spouse’s view of something is “wrong” or that s/he “shouldn’t” view it that way, you are dismissing his/her perspective. This is invalidating to your spouse and becomes a source of pent-up resentment. Resentment is not good for your marriage.
A very common method of dismissal is to label your spouse’s complaints as “nagging.” When examined, nagging is someone repeatedly making a complaint about an issue bothering him/her. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a complaint is: expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction. In other words, your spouse is telling you about a problem, presumably because s/he would like to see it resolved. Labeling it “nagging” and dismissing it does not make the problem go away. It is festering in your relationship, along with the building resentment at being dismissed.
Treating Your Partner Like Your Enemy
Do you treat your partner as your ally in conquering problems…or as your enemy to be conquered? It’s difficult to cooperate with and love someone who treats you like his/her enemy. Do you want your spouse to view you as his/her enemy? If not, I suggest that you don’t declare war.
Remember: Marriage is a partnership. Your spouse’s perspective and problems are every bit as valid – and important – as your own. If your plan to improve your marriage addresses your spouse’s perspective with the expectation that s/he will adopt your perspective, and/or stop having problems, I wouldn’t bet money on your success.
Dishonesty takes many forms, from selective honesty which hides key facts without outright lies to, well, outright lies. Dishonesty destroys your credibility. Personally, I like Dr. Willard Harley‘s concept of Radical Honesty, which does not encourage the impolite methods of delivery that Dr. Brad Blanton‘s does and applies only to one’s spouse.
While I would consider this one to be self evident, many people apparently do not see it the same way. When you put your spouse down, attempt to read his/her mind, assign dishonorable motives to his/her behavior, call him/her derogatory names, subject him/her to the silent treatment, or become physically violent with him/her, you are undermining the marital connection and trust. Many of these behaviors fall clearly on the wrong side of the emotional, verbal, or physical abuse line.
“Problems of chronic resentment, anger, or emotional abuse are not about relationship issues and not much about personality. They are about failures of compassion and self-regulation… Self-regulation is the ability to hold onto self-value and value for loved ones when you don’t like their behavior.” – Steven Stosny, PhD, Compassion Power
One of the key characteristics of people we find most attractive is how we feel about ourselves when we are around them. Positive feelings encourage us to spend time around someone. Negative feelings cause an aversive reaction, which – simply put – means that we begin to avoid the stimulus associated with the negative feelings…or the source (in this case, a person). Over time, we are literally repelled by the stimulus and its source.
To make matters worse (if you believe that’s possible), nothing is more detrimental to transparent honesty in a relationship than aggressive or disrespectful bouts of anger. People are honest only when they are reasonably safe to be. If you react to your spouse’s honesty with negative outbursts, you are discouraging him/her from sharing with you in the future.
Engaging in outbursts of anger and disrespect literally repels your partner and encourages him/her to be dishonest, which does not improve your marriage in any way. Instead, it harms your marriage. Bottom line: Don’t engage in this behavior. If you are angry, walk away and cool down.
Focusing on Problems Instead of Solutions
Our emotional memory is quite good. When we remember a positive past event – such as going to the state fair as a child – we will likely smile, as we relive the feelings associated with the event. Try it now with one of your own positive memories.
Unfortunately, this also works with negative memories. Recalling a past negative event will recall the associated emotions and release adrenaline into your system as if it were happening in the present. Reliving negative events doesn’t help us when it becomes an obsession. We literally work ourselves into a negative emotional state, which feeds anger and resentment. This also increases our aversive response to the stimulus, as we are again experiencing the negative result.
Understanding that problems exist and why is helpful. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that you deny the existence of problems. However, dwelling obsessively on the problems increases negativity and wastes time and effort you could spend on solutions. Improving your marriage will require not just a list of grievances, but a list of solutions to at least try. Additionally, a negative person is no joy to be around, and I haven’t yet met a cooperative person in a negative mindset.
When you focus on your goal rather than the starting point or the obstacles, you have the greatest chance of success. Keep your eye on the prize.
Failure to Seek Professional Help
The most common reason given for not seeking professional help is the cost. I assure you that it is far cheaper than divorce. I firmly believe that our actions and investments tell the true story of our priorities. If your marriage is a priority, invest in it.
A word of caution: Choose the professional wisely. You want one focused on helping you improve your marriage, not one focused on telling you why it is emotionally unhealthy and you should divorce. You also do not want a professional who takes one partner’s side, even if it is yours. Even if for no other reason than your spouse will not commit to participating long enough to help, you should avoid a counselor or therapist who chooses a side. The professional should be on the side of your marriage and the mutual satisfaction of those in it.
Involving Outside Parties in Your Marriage
Obviously, I’m not talking about support groups, professionals, and friends/family as a source of emotional support and grounding. So long as they are supportive of your marriage and respectful of your spouse, these can be positive bonds. Outside parties who have a vote in your marriage or can negatively affect your attitude toward your marriage or spouse are problems.
Family, Friends, and Acquaintances
Whether the influence comes from friends, family, or others, the negative affect is not healthy for you or your marriage. When outside parties disrespect your partner, they are also disrespecting your choice to be with your partner. There are two people in your marriage: you and your spouse. If you are religious and want to say three, so long as the third is a deity, that’ll work, too. Your marriage does not include your drinking buddies, mom, dad, sisters, brother, or the coworker at the water cooler.
Infidelity is a particularly destructive form of outside involvement. I define infidelity as directing your romantic and/or sexual energy towards someone who is not your spouse. I’m not one for wiggle room on this issue. Emotional affair, physical affair…it is all directing your romantic/sexual energy towards someone who is not your spouse.
How one could expect to simultaneously improve a marriage and direct time and energy toward someone else is beyond me, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. The act of betrayal destroys one’s credibility. If your spouse no longer trusts you, it is because s/he shouldn’t until you regain trust. Infidelity causes feelings of devastating betrayal in your spouse, AND – if the affair was physical – exposes your spouse to diseases, including life-threatening ones.
Don’t do it, and if you are: Stop. Now.
Summary of Common Mistakes
A solid plan for improving your marriage avoids common mistakes that damage the marriage. You cannot successfully build while simultaneously demolishing. Like pouring water into a funnel or sieve, your efforts will leak out at varying rates directly proportional to the number and severity of the mistakes made.
- Take personal responsibility.
- Develop realistic expectations.
- Value your partner’s viewpoint equally to your own, and treat your partner as your ally in problem solving.
- Be honest.
- Treat your spouse with respect at all times. If you doubt your ability in a moment of anger, take some time to calm down.
- Focus on solutions rather than problems.
- If at all possible, seek qualified and effective professional help.
- Prevent negative or destructive outside forces from impacting your spouse and your marriage.
In the next article of this series, I’ll outline some steps for identifying the problems in your marriage. Before you develop solutions to improve your marriage, you must identify the problems. If you need help or have questions, comments, and/or concerns in the meantime, feel free to seek input on our Marriage Discussion Board.