I get this question a lot. Usually framed as "you can't do that, CAN you?" I hear a strong wish underneath the prohibition. "PLEASE tell me I am allowed to ask my partner to change!!" Many of us have absorbed the popular culture myth that we should not ask our partner to be different from who they are. Which sounds very loving, very accepting and very... unrealistic in my book. What if how are partner is acting is hurtful to us? What if it's damaging our relationship? How do you make the distinction between things you can ask to have changed and things that are supposed to be off limits? Is anything off limits?
PACT teaches that the real issue here is not changing your partner. It's changing how your partner is WITH YOU. How your partner treats you (and vice-versa). If my partner is a shy, introverted type, I am not going to change that. Introversion is one of the most stable personality traits researched. So even if I wanted to change that, even if my partner wanted to change that about him/herself, it's not likely to happen. But if part of how I get my emotional needs met is to have friends over every few weeks my introverted, shy partner may need to learn how to support that for me to some degree. This does not mean that s/he necessarily enjoys these social situations. But s/he does learn to support this need I have to connect with others by inviting them over every so often. Likewise if I am a strongly extroverted person my partner is not going to change that about me. But s/he can expect that I am going to not bowl him/her over with my need to have people at the house every day of the week. S/He can expect that I will allow him/her some "alone time" to recharge at the end of a day where s/he has had to talk to a lot of people. And that I won't take that personally or shame him/her about it.
In this scenario no one is actually changing. I am still an extrovert. He or she is still an introvert. But we respect each other's needs enough to BEHAVE in ways that take care of each other. And yes, you can "ask" for this. I would argue if you don't ask for it you may not get it. And if your partner is not acting in ways that support your deepest needs then they are not doing their job and you are not getting the benefit of being partnered. And over time, this lack of support for your deepest needs may begin to erode the positive feelings towards your partner. The relationship will no longer feel like a place where you can get important needs met.
Where many of us go wrong is in confusing how we want our partner to ACT and who they ARE. We feel disappointed that our partner is not a certain way and forget that we can ask for behaviors that feel good to us, and that our partner can behave in those ways even if it's not their personal default. Of course we need to learn to ask in ways that are respectful and kind and still honor our partner's own needs and wiring.
For an excellent in-depth explanation of how your partner is wired and what is likely to come naturally to them (or not!) see Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program Your Brain on Love or his book Wired for Love. Or for those of you who are not yet partnered see Dr. Tatkin's book Wired for Dating. Learning how your partner's brain is set up will help you appreciate why they do what they do (and don't do), how to ask for what you want and need and how to take excellent care of them in return.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
Ever wish when you were staring down a big decision that you could consult with thousands of people who have successfully navigated those waters before? Well one smart fellow did just that when preparing to pledge himself to another person for the rest of his life. Mark Manson has a website and used it to crowd source his very own guide to a happy marriage. He solicited people who had been happily married for at least 10 years to give their best perspective on what made their marriages work so well. Below are some of the things people said. You can view the full list at MarkManson.net.
"By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship." I tell this to my clients ALL THE TIME. And believe me, as a hopeless romantic, I am not crazy about having to admit it. But it's true. Love is not enough. There must also be trust, respect, compassion, compromise, humility, tenacity and sometimes a bit of insanity to just keep trying even when things are looking pretty bleak. I will admit that I don't recommend marriage (or a long-term committed partnership) without love, but I hope you have a lot more than that going for you when you take the plunge.
Mr. Manson's readers also agreed that it was important to "Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance." This follows love not being enough in my opinion. A reader named Paula went on to say that " You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this 'happily ever after' [stuff] is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t 'gaga' anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, 'Ugh, you’re still here….' That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce."
Paula's comments remind me of a friend in graduate school whose mom told her "there will be days...weeks...months....well, sometimes years....where you really don't like the person that you married. But then it gets better!". I recall hearing this and not knowing whether to feel relieved since marriage sounded so much more do-able given this caveat or whether I should go join a convent and just give up. Now that I have been married for 19 years (and counting) I think it is very sage advice. Setting the expectation that you may not really enjoy the person you are with all of the time and that in and of itself is not a problem leaves you free to continue to enjoy the rest of your life (your work, your friends, your kids, your hobbies) while you wait things and and eventually start liking your spouse again. This is NOT a reason to be mean to your spouse or give up on the marriage. Just to realize that sometimes our partners go through things that we don't fully understand and that sometimes this requires us to give them a wide berth. I am thankful that in my own marriage I have never gone more than weeks not enjoying my husband's company, but I am prepared for longer stints if necessary.
Manson echoed the work of Helen Fisher in saying that "Love is [like a drug, it]... makes us highly irrational... It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it...Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky. True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them."
Manson elaborates "That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs."
His reader Tara writes "Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world."
Another thing that Manson's readers agreed upon was that "The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect." His reader Laurie said "What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back."
Now, as a couples therapist I can say that I don't believe that it's always as black-and-white as Laurie reports. I have seen couples lose respect for each other, such as during the throws of an addiction or affair. And I have seen those same couples rebuild respect. I think what makes the difference is if the respect was there in the first place and how hard the partner who has lost the respect is willing to work to get it back.
Manson noticed another interesting trend. He said that "People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts...But..people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked... most [about]respect." He goes on to say that he feels that these long-termers "through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt." I could not agree more. Research has shown us that all couples, happy and unhappy, fight. And that the amount of fighting is not predictive of marital satisfaction or divorce. The ability to recover from a fight is predictive. Another astonishing thing is that about 2/3 of your conflicts will have no permanent resolution. My husband hates that I clutter up the house with piles of stuff-- work papers, laundry that has not been folded yet, magazines I plan to read. He is a neat freak. He has lived, begrudgingly on some level I am sure, with my piles for 19 years. I have tried to reform myself (really I have!) but I am just as messy now as I was as a teenager. This is not going to be resolved unless we agree to live in separate houses (which neither of us are interested in). Does this mean we can't be happy? I certainly hope not.
Manson's readers went on to tell him that "the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got. Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear."
His reader Nicole offered "My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is 'respect.' Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other."
Manson also offered that "Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined." One of his readers, Olov, stated, “Respect yourself and your [partner]. Never talk badly to or about [him/] her. If you don’t respect your [partner], you don’t respect yourself. You chose [him/] her—live up to that choice.” This sounds a lot like what Stan Tatkin teaches about having your partner's back and never throwing them under the bus, in public or in private. Manson says " NEVER talk [badly] about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better. Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse. Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding."
Echoing the work of Stan Tatkin again Manson also cautions "No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits." Partners need to tell each other everything and be the go-to people for each other.
Manson elaborates "Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind." Your relationship, I tell my couples, should be where you go home and "plug-in" at the end of your day to get charged up and refueled. Where you heal the wounds from slaying dragons all day. If you can't trust your partner, and feel the need to keep things from them, then how can you let down you guard and really fall into their arms for comfort?
Of course this will require that, as Manson's readers advise, you "Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts." One of his readers Ronnie says that he and his beloved "always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.
Manson says that he has always advised his readers that "If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger."
Manson points out that trust in the context of a decades long relationship can get into some very deep and possibly life-or-death places. "If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?" He makes a great point that "Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy." We don't know the other person yet and so don't have much to lose. We haven't invested years of our life, created children with this person, come to rely on them when we are sick or infirm.
He says that "the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence."
Manson's readers told him that "The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable: If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide. Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them. Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them."
Another great point offered by Manson's readers was that the person you marry is not going to be the same person you are with 20, 30, 50 years from now. Humans have an interesting habit of changing and evolving. One of his readers "commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, 'One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.'" That reminds me of a friend whose father told him "Your mother has changed many times over the course of our marriage and I have fallen in love with each new version of her". What a lovely way to go through life, having numerous love affairs with numerous versions of the same person you committed yourself to all those years ago.
A man named Michael wrote to Manson " When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away."
Another one of his readers, Kevin, offered "Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place." So again, even if our partner does not change we may go through periods where our feelings do. Don't jump to conclusions and call the divorce attorney. Ride it out and assume that they are still lovable you are just having a hard time finding the connection.
Manson's readers also agreed on the idea of fighting productively and fairly. As Ryan Saplan stated "The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage." Personally I would love to do without the arguments but in my opinion they are just inevitable. You have two totally separate brains, nervous systems, histories, preferences, triggers, personalities, temperaments and all of that. How on earth would you never disagree, even passionately so? So whether you feel like the arguments increase the depth and strength of the marriage or you regard them as an unavoidable part of being human you still have to figure out how to get through them as gracefully as possible.
Manson goes on to talk about some of John Gottman's research. He summarizes that Gottman "spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up....Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously. [Gottman] has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are
Manson said that many of the 1500 respondents to his invitation to opine on marriage agreed with Gottman that these 4 habits were very destructive to relationships. They cautioned "Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner." Manson went on to make the point that" Gottman’s research found that 'contempt'—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce." He added "Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?" I assure you this both harder and more important than it sounds. I work very hard with couples to learn to fight clean, resolve fully and then leave the past in the past. Too often, however, fights are done dirty and not fully resolved, and then the past cannot help but to intrude in a very ugly way into the current conversation.
Manson suggested that "If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit." This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone." I agree but would also add that if you are going to walk away from your partner in the midst of a fight you still need to let them know that 1) you still love them and 2) that you are going to go calm down and come back in ___ minutes (and make sure you keep track of time and come back when you said you would). This helps to reduce feelings of abandonment in case your partner is sensitive to that.
Manson also offers to "Remember that being 'right' is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner." Or as some people say, it's better to be close than to be right.
Of course if you are being honest, telling each other everything and not avoiding fights, then there will be some forgiving that might have to happen. Manson's readers covered this as well. A fellow named Brian wrote that "When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a battle sword." That one is going up on my refrigerator. Seriously. And then there was Bill, who concisely reminded us that " In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument." Agreed.
Manson opined "When an argument is over, it’s over... When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years. There’s no scoreboard...When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself."
A reader named Fred wrote that he has "Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?" I often ask my couples-- in 10 years, will this matter? What about in 20?
Readers also wrote that it is important to stay connected through every day things. Brian advised that partners "meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity....Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your...parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left?...You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the [drama] started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.
Mason added that "This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture. The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first." One of his readers, Susan, said that "Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority." Dr. Stan Tatkin teaches the same. Dr. Tatkin advises that partners keep each other in a "couple bubble" and that all other entities, whether they are kids, careers, hobbies, parents, etc., be lower status than the relationship with your spouse. I have seen this advice save many marriages that were strained nearly beyond repair by kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, ailing parents and demanding careers. Keeping each other as the first priority is essential to a happy partnership.
Manson's readers also agreed that "Sex matters… a LOT". Readers said that when the relationship was ailing the sex lagged. And that it was important to make time for it, even if there are kids, jobs, chores and whatnot imposing on your time. His readers echoed what Helen Fisher cites in her research, that sex bonds people. "That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.
A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again."
And again Manson and Stan Tatkin agree that creating rules or agreements in the relationship is essential. One of Manson's readers, Liz, stated that "There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the [stuff] that has to get done in life."
Manson talks about "The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways...The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties. It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t [care]. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you." I often tell couples that their differences are a net strength for the relationship. One person is great with finances, the other can work a crowd and schmooze the new neighbors. Together they can benefit from the things the other person is better at.
And finally Mason offered the advice of a sage reader named Margo "You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily."
Thanks, Margo, I think I will. Because even couple's therapists need reminders from time to time.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
And remember if you liked this blog help share it with others by "tweeting" it, "liking" it on Facebook or sharing it on other social media. You can also subscribe to my blog and have it emailed directly to you by filling out the form below.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.