In our previous articles we’ve focused on the specific issues that can affect marriages. Here we looked at marriage from a broader perspective. There are general ways of thinking that can enhance our relationship and others that prevent us from living as well as we can.
Understanding the Process of Change
When people try to change, they usually keep track of their progress by monitoring the behavior or emotions they want to change, and will often expect steady and continuous improvement. If that behavior or emotion pops up again, they will think they’ve relapsed. Their conclusion is that they have made no progress at all, or worse, that they’ve failed.
That progress is steady and continuous is an unrealistic view of how change takes place, and can work against achieving our goal of improvement. We might think that we’ve failed, and that may lead us to give up trying. We can also come away with a sense of powerlessness, thinking that change isn’t possible, and we’re destined to live with our problems forever.
It’s more realistic to think about improvement in your relationship as an up and down process. That is, there will be some movement upward, then downward, then upward, etc., and there will always be some sliding back. When we accept the reality as to how change progresses, we take some of the pressure off of ourselves and our partner when we’re not as far along as we want to be, and we’re less likely to give up trying.
Don’t Believe in Magic
When you realize that change can be slow, you stop believing in magic. Magic is best described as action without work. We watch a magician place a blanket over a person, he or she then says a few words and that person disappears. The magician has not expended any effort to make the person disappear, it just happened. To expect that change will be instantaneous or easy is tantamount to believing in magic.
This may sound silly, but sometimes we can’t help think, or at least hope, that magic is real. As proof, go to any book store, and check out the books on losing weight, quitting smoking, having a better sex life, and the like. You will notice that the titles suggest changing these patterns is easy. You might come across a title such as, “Eat All You Want Eat and Still Lose All the Weight You Want to Lose”. Books like these become best sellers because we want to believe the claims they make.
Unfortunately, changing habits takes planning, thinking, a lot of effort, and most importantly, perseverance. Habits have staying power, and to combat their persistence, we need to come up with a plan and stick with it through all of the ups and downs. Even though we may acknowledge that change won’t happen overnight, we may still be unrealistic as to how long it can actually take. So we have to keep reminding ourselves to be patient, that change comes slowly, and don’t expect magic.
Acceptance is Fundamental to Improvement
If we have problems in our marriage, we can’t do much about them until we accept the fact that they exist. Acceptance does not mean that we approve, desire, or have any positive feeling toward what we are accepting. It’s simply an acknowledgement that something exists. Lack of acceptance, on the other hand, is very often the denial of reality. As its most damaging feature, it leaves people unprepared to deal with problems, and unattended problems usually don’t get better by themselves; they usually get worse.
Acceptance is an active process, not a passive one. Sometimes we might not acknowledge that a problem exists because we’re just not aware of it. We might notice that periodically there is tension or uneasiness in our relationship, but we think that it just happens and it’s nothing to worry about. Well, sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s not. This points to the need for constant monitoring and the value of self-reflection so that we stay in touch with the state of our union.
Acceptance also includes taking responsibility for our emotions and behaviors. Responsibility is the recognition of the connection between what we do and what happens as a result of what we do. There is nothing inherently good or bad about responsibility. We can have good or bad outcomes from our choices, but responsibility in and of itself is simply a rational thinking process in which we admit to ourselves that what we say and do produces outcomes.
A key point regarding responsibility is acknowledging that both partners have a role in how their relationship functions at any given point in time. As we’ve mentioned in other articles, many problems in relationships result from reciprocity. We do or say something to our partner, or vice versa, and there is a response in kind. When we run into a conflict or a conflict escalates, it often results from how partners react to each other rather than the issue that started the conflict. Once we acknowledge reciprocity, we can realize that we own problems together with our partner.
When partners recognize ownership is shared, they’re more likely to work as a team to solve them, so they’re likely to have an easier time coming to solutions. Partners are also less likely to blame each other for problems. After all, it’s hard to blame someone else if you realize you’re just as much at fault.
We should point out that, while responsibility is a positive thing, blame is not. When we blame ourselves or our partner, we imply the need for punishment and retribution. In that way blame produces negative emotions, and these interfere with rational thinking and make it hard to fix a problem.
Blame also produces guilt in most people. Guilt, like physical pain, can have a positive function. It warns us that there is something that needs our attention. If we’ve said or done something that’s wrong, guilt makes us think twice about doing the same thing again. It’s also a sign of a well-developed conscience. However, at its extreme, guilt can be debilitating. When we feel guilty, we focus all of our attention on ourselves, but not in a good way. The emphasis is on how terrible we feel and how awful we are, and on how we should be punished and treated with disdain.
Such thoughts lead to a good deal of needless suffering, but they’re also counter-productive. Just as with blame, guilt inhibits rational thinking and makes it more difficult to focus on making changes that would eliminate the source of our guilt. When we stop blaming, we stop the guilt, and we and our partner have an easier time focusing on the problem at hand rather than how we feel about it.
The link to our book on marriage:
Our book on thinking and human emotions: