Marriage

Get Married! Become a Better Person

Re-thinking marriage.

Posted Jul 05, 2020

My husband, Joe, and I celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary on June 10, 2020. Over the past several years, we have come to realize that we are both better people because of having been married to each other.  Here are a few of the things we figured out—hope they will be helpful to you.

Have Individual Life Plans You Work on Together

Be sure each of you has individual life plans, things that are important to you as individuals to flourish. How you go about carrying out these plans together is how you get to be better people. Two basic ideas we found helpful in making this happen are keeping a simultaneous perspective on being both individuals and a couple and learning how to negotiate with each other collaboratively.

Keeping a Simultaneous Perspective

If you emphasize being an individual in your marriage, you will be less willing to negotiate win-win outcomes so each of you can flourish. You will want what you want to win. If you emphasize being a couple, you will neglect your own life plans in favor of your partner’s plans, perhaps creating a co-dependent relationship.

Negotiating Individual Life Plans

The negotiation that takes place in marriage is not the kind that one sees in business, where each party is trying to maximize his/her own gain at the expense of the other. Nor is it a quid pro quo (tit for tat, you do this for me, and I will do that for you) kind of negotiation. Negotiating collaboratively has the following characteristics:

  • Each one of you understands that your spouse is a valuable person in the same way that you are.
  • Each one of you can identify your individual wants and desires.
  • Each one of you can explain (not justify) what is important about those wants and desires.
  • Neither of you seeks to “privilege” what you want over the other’s because of your status, e.g. your gender or how much money you earn.
  • You make the effort to learn how to negotiate effectively.

Being able to negotiate collaboratively is basic. Here are some thoughts about maintaining a collaborative attitude for the long haul:

  • Collaborators are equal. True collaboration requires the sharing of authority.
  • Collaboration is not capitulation.  As equals, your autonomy is protected. Most of us have a (possibly subconscious) fear being overwhelmed by our spouse and may overemphasize autonomy.
  • Collaboration is a process. Collaboration is about the process of working together, while cooperation is about the result of working together. For example, I can cooperate with you by stepping aside while you do what you want to do.
  • Negotiating collaboratively builds trust. As you organize your marriage around negotiating collaboratively, you figure out you can rely on this process to be heard, to be understood, to be valued, and to accomplish your life plans together.

Taking Care of Your Own Insecurities

If you want to work together to see that you both flourish in life, you must do some personal growth. Here are two major areas of personal growth that we have found will help you become a better person while enhancing your marriage: self-reflection and knowing your personal insecurities. 

Self-Reflection

The simplest way to think about self-reflection is being willing to pause and sort through your experiences. While psychologists like us do it regularly, you will have to develop a "taste" for it. One way to begin is when there is a "hitch" between the two of you.

We always know when there is a "hitch" because one of us is feeling irritated, miffed, teed off, scared, edgy, jittery, worried, insecure, uptight, etc. You may recognize these as the typical ways to camouflage one’s anger and fear. When you are angry or frightened, you are ready for fight or flight—neither of which is good for your relationship.

Psychologist Daniel Goldman warns us that these emotions are a quick response system that will get you into relationship trouble if you act without appropriate self-reflection. Read on.

Knowing Your Personal Insecurities

All of us bring our personal histories (painful and joyful) with us into our marriage. When your personal history affects how you are seeing things, you will be “taking things personally.” Since you are becoming more self-aware, you can recognize that your “quick response system” is operating when you are “taking things personally.”        

Another important part of taking things personally is to know that you will characterize your spouse’s action rather than describing it objectively. And, let me warn you, your spouse will never cop to how you characterize him/her. Here is an example of how this all works to create conflict between you.  

You come home from work one evening, ready to fix dinner with your wife. You find out that she has not gone grocery shopping on the way home as she had agreed to do. She wants to go out to eat! Your quick response system goes into action, and you say, “I am so angry that you are not doing your fair share of the work.” You may even add something like—“You are such a shirker!”  

First, recognize that feeling automatically angry is your quick response system. This is connected to how you experience her action (in this case, inaction) as unfair.  The sense of unfairness is your personal experience of the event. 

Characterizing an action is not the same thing as describing it. Characterizing is never about the event—her/him not going to the store—it’s about some bad feeling, perhaps, of not being a high priority, for example. And, characterizing your partner’s action will surely provoke her/his counter-reaction and counter-characterization (“You are such a bully!”). Now, it is a full-fledged conflict! After all, from her point of view, she simply changed her mind! You are not happy about that, but it is not her being unfair. 

You both must work on recognizing the difference between characterizing each other’s action and describing what about the action may be a problem to discuss and negotiate. Pay attention to the fight-and-flight emotion.

New Views of Old Tropes

We had to come to grips with two major ideas about marriage to co-create (yes, co-create) a marriage in which both of us have become better people. The first is not having our marriage driven by stale ideas about gender. The second is to challenge the terribly toxic idea that the marriage relationship is an exchange of needs, i.e. a transaction.

Stale Ideas About Gender

Even though old ideas about gender are being challenged in our public lives, these ideas still flourish in marriage. One sociologist coined the term, “gender factory,” to describe old ideas about marriage. In the “gender factory” of marriage, men and women are “acting out” their masculinity and femininity in the way they interact around everyday household activities, childcare, and the very way they show affection to each other.

You will have to work hard to acknowledge the “gender factory” that may be working in your marriage. There are tremendous pulls toward a gender-driven relationship—being resistant to change, feeling like your masculinity is being challenged, being too nice, gendered views about sexual desire, having children, etc.

A Very Toxic Idea: Marriage Is About Needs

When you think about the things that are important to you to live well, think "want," not "need." This is not semantics. Saying to your spouse, “I want to have sex with you” is not the same as saying, “I need to have sex with you.”

The concept of need is based on the common view that we are motivated primarily by our self-interest. The idea of having a need expresses a sense of entitlement — I am entitled to have sex with you. If you do not fulfill my sexual need, I have the right to feel deprived and resentful. Enough resentments justify bad behavior and/or divorce.

The notion of want implies I have an interest in sex with you and am open to what you want. We can negotiate when and how sex can happen. Wants are expressions of what you value in life and are willing to negotiate about, in good faith, with your spouse.

A Marriage of Better People

My husband and I have tried to live by these ideas and principles throughout our long, long, long marriage—not always easy, not always well done. By doing the things described in this post we have come to respect each other greatly over and above the love we share. Our trust in each other grew from being willing to listen attentively to each other’s views, actively seeking out each other’s views, and being willing to negotiate collaboratively to accomplish the things in life that are important to each of us.   

Through this lifetime of working together on our life plans, negotiating the things that make this happen, taking care of our own personal insecurities through self-reflection, and challenging old ideas about how our marriage should be organized, we are both better people.