A friend told me that of everything I’ve written on this blog, this post was his favorite. So I decided to re-post it today, updated and expanded.
When I reflected about the changes I wanted to make, I realized I had five particular problem areas in my marriage. Here they are, along with the strategies I try to use to address them, though they remain challenging:
1. Demanding gold stars. Oh, how I crave appreciation and recognition! I always want that gold star stuck to my homework. But my husband just isn’t very good at handing out gold stars, and that makes me feel angry and unappreciated. “Words of affirmation” are definitely my love language.
In response, I now think more about doing things for myself. I used to tell myself I was doing nice things for him — “He’ll be so happy to see that I put all the books away,” “He’ll be so pleased that I finally got the schedule figure out” etc. — then I’d be mad when he wasn’t appreciative. Now I tell myself that I’m doing these things because I want to do them. “Wow, the kitchen cabinets look great!” “I’m so organized to have bought all the supplies in advance!” Because I do things for myself, I don’t expect him to respond in any particular way.
2. Using a snappish tone. I have a very short fuse and become irritable extremely easily — but my husband really doesn’t like it when I snap at him. He’s funny that way. Many of my resolutions are meant to help me keep my temper in check. I don’t let myself get too hungry or too cold (I fall into these states very easily); I try to keep our apartment in reasonable order, because a mess makes me crabby; I try to control my voice to keep it light and cheery instead of accusatory and impatient. Confession: I’ve worked on this issue relentlessly for years, and I flew into a ten-second rage just last night.
3. Not showing enough consideration. Studies show that married people treat each other with less civility than they show to other people — and I do this with my husband, I know. I’m working hard on basic consideration, such as not reading my emails while talking to him on the phone, emailing photos of our daughters etc. Very basic, I know.
4. Score-keeping. I’m a score-keeper, always calculating who has done what. “I cleaned up the kitchen, so you have to run to the store” — that sort of thing. I’ve found two ways to try to deal with this tendency.
First, I remind myself of the phenomenon of unconscious over-claiming; i.e., we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. This makes sense, because of course we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. According to Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, “when husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent.” I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our our car.
Second, I remind myself of the words of my spiritual master, St. Therese of Lisieux: “When one loves, one does not calculate.”
5. Taking my husband for granted. Just as I find it easy to overlook the chores done by my husband (see #4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws. For example, although I find it hard to resist using an irritable tone, my husband almost never speaks harshly, and that’s really a wonderful trait. I’m trying to stay alert to all the things I love about him, and let go of my petty annoyances. This is easier said than done.
I have Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness, and the Sixth Truth is: “The only person I can change is myself.” I can’t assign resolutions for my husband to follow (as tempting as that sounds; it wouldn’t work). Nevertheless, I’ve found that when I change, a relationship changes, and the atmosphere of my home changes.
What are some mistakes you make in your marriage or long-term relationship? Have you found any useful strategies for addressing them?
I loved this thoughtful three-way post by Margaret Roach on A Way To Garden, Pam Kueber's RetroRenovation, and Katrina Kenison's blog about their responses to Happier at Home. It's thrilling to hear that my work resonates with people--especially people who have done so much thinking about home and happiness.
When I was writing Happier at Home, I was very careful to make sure that it would feel fresh, interesting, and helpful even to a person who had just finished The Happiness Project the day before. And I do believe I managed to do that. I've been surprised, however, since Happier at Home has come out, to hear that many people like Happier at Home better. My sister, for example. I love both books equally (though I always have a special place in my heart for my current book), but am intrigued that other people have responded that way.