Recently I reluctantly bought a how-to marriage book entitled Making Marriage Simple by husband and wife team Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt, PhD. I say “reluctantly” because the title seems a little off-putting. Its subtitle reads “10 relationship-saving truths” and I thought to myself, “How simplistic?” Is that all to it? 10 truths and presto! everything just come together like raindrops and lollypop?
It is also not a tomb of a book. It is in fact only 149 pages long. I thought to myself, “What can a short book like this teach me about the long-haul, and sometimes punishing, trials and challenges of marriage, and by extension, the growing pains of family life, the travails of rearing up children and the growing old, wise and in love together?” But I relented somehow and read it in one sitting and felt that it was relevant, practical and helpful.
Here are the 10 relationship-saving truths from the book and how I applied it to my marriage.
1) Romantic love is a trick. This is a kind of Bait-and-Switch thingy. Most marry young. That is where our hormones go wild. For most of us, it is our first foray into the marital amazon. The irrational exuberance and optimism are understandable. But when the shit hits the fan, the brochure romance and bubbling champagne gradually turn into something unruly, unpredictable and unexpected. Personalities start to clash, aspirations compromised, and the honeymoon period mutates into time-dragging routines like taking out the garbage, changing the bedsheets and cleaning up the toilet. This is a reality check for the newly wed where the romance bait switches into the roughness of living together. In the book, the authors describe marriage as an act of reliving our childhood. Somehow, we are drawn to our future partners who share the best and worst traits of our parents combined, that is, our primary caregivers whom we love. As a child, we are powerless to change our circumstances. We can’t choose our parents or our siblings. But as an adult, we can. We marry with our eyes open - so to speak. We choose our partner. We actively participate in the holy matrimony and strive to make a new life together. This is like a second childhood for us. The authors write, “Marriage gives you this chance to relive memories and feelings from your childhood, but with a different, happier outcome. As a child you were helpless. As an adult, you have power. You can work with your partner so that each of you gets your needs met.” The way I see it is that there should be no illusions when two people come together for a lifetime union. But this is no reason for the couple to be disillusioned or stay disillusioned. It is in fact an opportunity for the two joined lives to start the growth and healing process through meaningful engagement. As the openness, heartfelt sharing and intimacy grow, the healing hastens and love flourishes. To me, this first truth is all about proactivity, hope and mutual empowerment. It is actually the start of a beautifying process.
2) Incompatibility is Grounds for Marriage. This is expected, if not strange. We are taught to look for compatibility or similarities in the other half. That's the “click” factor for marital connection. But that is also wishful thinking. The differences and conflicts will come. It is just a matter of time. The book describes two kinds of people in a marriage: the turtle and the hailstorm. If you are the turtle, you are a loner. You need distance. You need your space. You are self-introspective. If you are the hailstorm, well, you thrive on contact. You are sociable, active and a party live-wire. There are of course many variations on the continuum between the turtle and the hailstorm, but I think you get the point. My wife is definitely the hailstorm in our marriage while I am the turtle. I like to be in my shell most of the time and she is…well, everywhere. I like structure and she is less an enthusiast of it (to put it mildly). Of course, there are other differences like how the couple manage stress and conflict. But the point is about taking this dance together and sharpening each other’s poise over time. The turtle in me must learn to open up and reach out to her. And the hailstorm in her must learn to be patient with me. This is what makes the marriage exciting and meaningful. It not only gives the couple something worthwhile to pursue, it also gives them the time to discover and learn about each other. And this is another great opportunity to create a great marriage.
3) Conflict is Growth Trying to Happen. You can’t escape conflicts. The two truths above bring this message home to us. This third truth belabors it a little more by urging the couple to view conflict as a source of growth rather than a cause of separation. If incompatibility is grounds for marriage, then conflict is grounds for growth. The authors encourage the couple to stretch their emotional muscles into new ways of being. They encourage the couple to work on their feelings. This is more than just a give-and-take. It is a sacrifice of one’s flaws at the altar of selfless devotion. It is putting the interests and passion of the other before yours. This is how the authors put it, “Real love is the harmonious intimacy you hoped for, the communion created from a relationship built on mutual caring and respect. Like anything worth having getting real love is a process.” The journey is no doubt long, and sometimes painstaking, but the rewards are incremental and substantial. Over the long run, the intimacy gained translates into greater trust, understanding and resiliency.
4) Being present for Each Other Heals the Past. I guess this passage from the book says it all about this 4th truth, “Today, a new kind of marriage is emerging: the Partnership Marriage. This marriage isn’t about you…or even your partner. The Partnership Marriage is about some-thing that is greater than either one of you. It is about the two of you helping each other grow into full adulthood. And the healing of each other’s childhood wounds is at the heart of this process.” The authors identify these 4-step dance for the couple to engage in: “You and your partner must: (1) help each other name your wounds; (2) clarify what you both need to heal; (3) grow yourselves into becoming each other’s healer; and (4) become stronger and more complete in the process.” This actually takes a lot of opening up and the safest environment for this to happen is to remove all emotional toxins like criticism, blame and shame. We have to create a safe space for our partner to share and to heal. This is the beauty of the Partnership Marriage. The couple are moving towards completeness together and by doing this, they grow stronger.
5) It’s not WHAT you Say; it’s HOW you Say It. This is one issue that is often overlooked. It is an issue that goes beyond being diplomatic or courteous. Our partner is not looking for a sounding board or an echo chamber. She or he is looking for an active listener and the authors suggest these 3 steps to a dialogue between spouses: Mirroring, Validating and Empathizing. Mirroring involves what is called “Sender Responsibility. That is, the Sender should send their message clearly and kindly. Doing so increases the chance their partner will hear it. The Receiver then Mirrors, that is, repeats back what they heard- using the Sender’s exact words. ” Then comes Validating, “the Receiver now Validates the Sender’s words. Validating means that you “get” your partner’s point of view. The Receiver does so by sincerely saying, “You make sense.”” Here is the part of the book that resonates with me, “This doesn’t mean you, as the Receiver, necessarily agree with what your partner said (though you might). Agreement is not the goal. Everyone makes sense from their own perspective. It’s just that everyone is coming from a different perspective! And when you take time to see things from your partner’s point of view, you will see that they do make sense.” The last step is Empathizing. In the authors’ words, “Now it’s time for the Receiver to Empathize with the Sender by suggesting a word or two that they think would describe the Sender’s emotional state. When doing this, remember that there are four core feelings: glad, mad, sad and scared. All other feelings are varieties of these, so you don’t have to get fancy and consult a thesaurus. Just suggest a simple feeling. Then ask your partner if you got the feelings right.” My takeaway from this is that we all come from different places or viewpoints. Our past experiences since birth had shaped us in a certain way. So, we bring to our marriage different emotional baggage and conflicting mindset. That is why the process of understanding, healing and reconciling between the couple is a long drawn but meaningful journey. There is no shortcuts or time-bending wormholes to truncate the process. Invest the time, plant the seeds, and you will be rewarded when harvest blooms.
6) Negativity is Invisible Abuse. How true. It is said that the greatest lover is not a well-groomed superstar on stage but someone who is able to love the same person for a lifetime. Now that takes the cake, the wedding cake! Negativity will come like dust to a neglected house. So, this 6th truth is about appreciating and encouraging our spouse’s strength. It is also about sharing what the couple have in common and creating a safe space to grow. The authors write, “Energy follows attention. The more you focus on the good, the more good there will be to focus on.” I know this intimately. I am a wound-pecker by marital default. I always want to change my wife and to make her better according to my ideas of what is right and wrong. This has been going on for years. But I am forgetting that I can only demand changes from her if I focus on her strength. And let her strengths do the self-convincing. Negative focus only creates a negative environment; a toxic one of blame and shame. The book forewarns about being too critical with your spouse. This usually leads to a competition of “I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong.” This attitude is a superiority-inferiority mindset. It is essentially divisive and confrontational. Once the prejudging and prejudice is set, mutual suspicion and distrust naturally arise. The authors also warn against giving constructive criticism. I know the word "constructive” is supposedly positive but the risk is that it is a cover up to force our idea and opinion on our spouse. Even when we think we are being helpful, and our intention appears justified (so we say), the perception often is otherwise as the damage is already done. Instead we should conscientiously do a focus-change and be an advocate for our spouse and not a critic – however “noble” our critical intention. This cheekily reminds me of this statement by CS Lewis in The Silver Chair, “But we all need to be very careful about our tempers, seeing all the hard times we shall have to go through together. Won’t do to quarrel, you know. At any rate, don’t begin it too soon. I know these expeditions usually end that way: knifing one another.”
7) Negativity is a Wish in Disguise. The authors state, “you need to recognize that behind every negative thought is an unmet desire…And what is an unmet desire if not a wish?” We wish for our spouse to change but they must want to change. And their wanting to change would depend on how our desire for them to change is communicated to them. This is where clear and sincere relating comes in. The book recommends the following strategic change of tact and disposition for maximum positive impact:-
“1) Use “I” statements (“I feel lonely”) not “you” statements (“You’re never home”). “You” statements feel like judgments – because they are! “I” statements, on the other hand, invite your partner into how you’re feeling.
2) Be brief and clear. Rambling on and on puts you in danger of flooding your partner with more words and emotion than they can handle. Using too many words is a problem for both Turtles and Hailstorms. Flooding your partner makes them feel attacked…
3) You want your partner to respond, so choose only one frustration at a time and state it briefly. If they need more information, trust me, they’ll ask. (Don’t exhume up past mistakes or grievances in the heated moment. It will screw up everything, big time. Trust me on this).
4) Approach your partner when you’re feeling calm. Ask any communication expert and they will tell you that over 90 percent of how someone receives what you say has to do with how you communicate it to them. So pay attention to any nonverbal cues you might be displaying, like your tone of voice, the look in your eye, tapping of your foot, rolling your eyes, sighing, etc. (that eye-rolling is my specialty).
5) Finally, never criticize, shame, blame, or analyze your partner.”
So, simple? It’s simple with practice and with practice, it becomes second-nature.
8) Your Brain Has a Mind of Its Own. This 8th truth is about brain rewiring. It is behavioral changes through controlling your thoughts and responses, words and actions. The author writes, “You have the power to rewire your brain. Building a Partnership Marriage actually changes your brain chemistry, creating new neural pathways to support the work you’re doing.” This is actually proven science on building good marital habits. The book talks about two levels of brain responses. The lower brain is called the Crocodile and the higher brain is called the Owl. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Crocodile is highly reactive and "responds spontaneously without stopping to analyze a situation.” Sounds familiar? It is the animal in us. And if you combine a Turtle (loner) with a Crocodile, you get a flight response. He or she would completely withdraw from a tense or inflammatory situation. If you combine a Hailstorm (party animal) with a Crocodile, you get a fight response. He or she would roar even louder in a confrontation. Let’s talk about the Owl, the higher part of your brain, which is “capable of more creative and more sophisticated thinking.” The Owl in us strives for win-win situation. It is the rational and calm side of us. The key is to consciously choose to control the Crocodile by focusing on the Owl. This is the crucial part of reinforcing the brain rewiring process. Of course, in a heated argument or a potentially explosive situation, the Crocodile is not going to give up without a fight because much more is at stake like our ego, pride, anger, envy, bitterness and frustration. These are emotions that can stir up a storm of fight or flight responses. So be circumspect please. For me, I have dealt with both the Crocodile and Owl in many domestic situations with my wife over the last 14 years. Sometimes I allowed the Crocodile to get the better of me. I hid in my shell after a quarrel. But of late, I realized that I can make a conscious and deliberate choice to allow the Owl in me to take full rein of my runaway emotions. I do this by distancing my Crocodile and all the explosive emotions that come with it. Then, I take a deep breath and pull myself away to reflect more about where all this is taking me (and trust me, it is without fail taking me into an abyss of unresolvedness and bitterness). Instantly, I realize the futility of the Crocodile side of me. With that, I manage to calm down, to take charge of my emotions. This is where it is safe for the Owl to descend and I do two things almost instinctively: I apologize for my conduct and I turn the focus to understanding my wife’s frustrations, grievances and anger. In other words, I convert myself into a sincere and earnest listener (because I treasure my relationship with her). Words then become scarce and my Crocodile gradually retreats. And as I do this often enough, I realized that I have a better grip and control over the Crocodile. That’s the rewiring brain part of behavioral changes.
9) Your Marriage is a Laughing Matter. I know this part well. One day, in a family dinner, my son asked my wife, “Daddy is not good looking, why you marry him?” She answered without a pause, “He makes me laugh.” (whoa…she didn’t even defend the “not good looking” part!) Well, at the risk of self-congratulatory praise, I can’t really deny that (I gave up on the looks long time ago). But most times, my wife and children know that I am a morose joker. Being a Turtle, I am often withdrawn and quiet (at home that is). Nevertheless, I value my family and my marriage and strive always to make it a joyous environment for them. The authors encourage couple to do fun things together, to share and care liberally, and to stop taking things so seriously. They write, “Connection and joy are two sides of the same coin. You can’t experience joy without being peacefully connected.” And connection requires the couple’s investment of time, effort and passion in making the marriage work because it is worth it. This brings me to the 10th and final truth about marital worth.
10) Your Marriage is the Best Life Insurance Plan. In a nutshell, the authors write, “Over the last fifty years, scientists have been documenting what has come to be called the “marriage advantage”. Why is it called this? Because married people, on average, are healthier, live longer, enjoy higher incomes, and raise healthier families.” Of course, one has to temper that with the saying, “Your greatest fortune, or misfortune, is your spouse.” I have done many divorces over the years. And trust me, it is not a happy camper’s ride should you be involved in a draggy and abusive relationship (whether in words or conduct, or worse both). Putting aside idealism, and for the time-defying incorrigible and impenitent, I will let you simmer on which of these two choices you should privately encourage: “Unhappy marriage” and “Happy divorce”. But I guess ultimately, it is your marriage and it is really up to you guys to make the difference. And this advice from the authors ends the book well, “Be the change you wish to see!” It therefore starts with us, with you and me, as this quote (by John & Stasi Eldredge “Love & War”) reaffirms it, “Learning to live with our opposite and all their little quirkinesses is part of learning to love. “Love it is a rock,” Shawn Mullins sings, “smoothed over by a stream.”” Cheerz.