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Marriage — Is it about you, me, or we?

An article from the New York Times recently got Bruce and me talking about “who” a good marriage benefits. Do you think a happy, sustainable marriage is good for you? How about for your spouse? Does it do you both good? Gather your initial thoughts then read the original article on marriage research. Then you and your mate might want to each take the Sustainable Marriage Quiz and see how you evaluate your own partnership.

Keeping Marriage Good for Your Health

A New York Times article titled “Is marriage good for your health?” recently caught my attention. It detailed the history of research into the effects of marriage on personal health as well as some of the most recent findings, such as:

  • couples who were more negative and hostile when they argued or discussed contentious topics had the weakest immune-systems during the research period
  • the most hostile couples (during arguments) had wounds (skin wounds inflicted for the study) that took two days longer to heal than those of “couples who had showed less animosity while fighting”
  • divorced or widowed people had worse health than people who had been always been single

How to Keep Your Marriage Healthy

So the question is, how do you create and maintain a marriage that benefits your health? Here are a few tips that we’ve seen work over the years.

  1. Prepare for a healthy marriage. While it may sound obvious, many couples don’t build a strong foundation of love, support, and partnership before they tie the knot. Using tools like the Marriage Vow Workbook can help you put your relationship on strong footing before you head down the aisle.
  2. Learn to communicate effectively. Again this seems like common sense to most people, yet few take the time to actually do it. Whether you see a counselor, take communication classes, or use books like Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, find tools to help you and your partner communicate with compassion and honesty.
  3. Take time to heal wounds you inflict on each other. No matter how good our intentions or developed our skills, we will do things that are unloving and harmful to each other. Practice forgiveness and other ways of healing old hurts rather than letting them fester. Based on the research it seems this will be good for your physical health and well as the future success of your marriage.

Do you have specific ways you keep your marriage healthy? If so, we’d love to have your comments. Let’s learn from each other and make all our relationships even better.

“If you learn to how to manage disagreement early, then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”

~ Linda J. Waite, University of Chicago sociologist and an
author of one of the studies cited in the NYT article

Create quality time with you partner

This morning I had the greatest fortune to remember that each moment I breathe the breath of life is a spectacular gift that can never be replicated. No two seconds are identical. No two hours the same. No two days with everything in common. I can never go back and live a minute that has gone by, nor redo a moment in my past. Second chances don’t exist, only new opportunities in unknown times.

My realization came when I discovered that I had been resenting my husband, Bruce. I was begrudging him for a host of “infractions,” from leaving his dirty coffee spoon on the counter in a puddle of spilled java, to not complimenting me as often as I thought he “should,” or for spending “too much time” on the computer. By holding on to these resentments, I was squandering each new moment I had with Bruce. Fortified by my resentments, I stayed stuck in past emotions and memories where I held onto hurt feelings and unloving thoughts. Consumed with such resentment I didn’t truly have much of me left over to experience the present moment. In fact, it was at this point that I understood that I had treated time like some trinket that I thought I could simply replace.

But time isn’t a good we can recycle. A minute of time today may have an equivalent 60-second span tomorrow, but it doesn’t have an exact replacement. So every minute we live is one we can never truly retrieve. The time I had thrown away to holding a grudge against Bruce represented life moments I could never recapture. Each second spent was lost to me forever. I was desolate and grief stricken. Thank god I was also reawakened. I knew that I did not want to give up my minutes, days, months, and years to such pointless activity. I wanted to live my life, savoring each and every breath as a once in a lifetime, unreplicatable, unreplayable, unrepeatable event I am blessed to experience.

So I dismounted from my artificial high horse of self-righteousness and self-pity and planted myself firmly back on solid ground. I owned up to my unloving behavior and sought forgiveness from Bruce. I also forgave him for any slights—real or perceived. In that moment, with my forgiveness offered to him and his extended to me, I saw him with new eyes. The mask through which my resentful self had viewed him disappeared and I was once more connected to this most amazing man. No longer was resentment filtering my life experience. No more was I clear cutting the minutes, hours and days from my life. I was back in the present moment, taking in each moment with reverence and appreciation for its uniqueness.

This spirit lingers with me today as I write this. At 7:57.08, I type these words and look out my window seeing a tree that will be somehow altered at 7:57.50 as I continue hitting the keys. While I may not have the discernment to notice all that is different in just 42 seconds of elapsed time, I have the awareness to know that change has occurred. Knowing that I won’t have another chance to see this minute again, I’m more conscious of how I’m spending my time. It’s far too precious for me to take for granted, its opportunities too wonderful to throw away where they won’t ever be found in the same way again.

Is your love encouraging?

Recently we happened upon the television broadcast of a sermon from a local church. The preacher was a skilled orator with a compelling message about love. One of the comments he made particularly caught my attention as it relates to our love relationships. He spoke of loving someone so deeply–as he said God loves us–that we fully encourage them to achieve their vision for their lives. Do you love your spouse that much?

I got to test my love back in late July when a special opportunity came Bruce’s way. He was offered a job working with Barack Obama’s campaign as a field organizer. In principle I supported him 100% in saying “yes” to the offer. In practice, getting to 100% encouragment was more difficult because saying “yes” for him meant sacrifices for us and me. But get there I did and he left for his assignment in early August.

Below are some of my learnings about offering my love and support at 100%. I hope they’ll be helpful to you as you seek to be the most loving and supportive mate you can be.

Lessons about offering your love and support at 100%

  • “Giving up” something (time with a loved one, for instance) helps you have a fuller appreciation of the gift that the thing is in your life. For me, pondering our 3-month separation left me feeling incredibly sad. In anticipation of the time apart, we made great efforts to savor each present moment and enjoy the time we did have together.
  • It’s enlivening to know that your gift of 100% encouragement can give another person “permission” to go after their big dreams. It seems that many of us defer our dreams and even put off seemingly minor adventures because we don’t want our partner to sacrifice for us. By saying “yes” to Bruce’s leaving, he wasn’t weighted down with any guilt or sense of obligation.
  • When you give 100%, the return is always with interest (very few other “investments” can produce this return). While it might seem long in coming, or it might even come in some unexpected form, the rewards for selfless giving are more than you can ever fully anticipate. My experience is that even during our separation (which isn’t easy emotionally) I’m being “paid back” with wisdom, adventures, and gifts I didn’t know would be headed my way.
  • Imagined fear is usually what stops us from offering 100% love. While there are challenges to overcome when we sacrifice or do without, there generally are more fears in our imaginations than what we actually experience. There are downsides for both of us with being apart for 3 months, but the gifts actually outweigh the trials and many of my imagined hardships simply weren’t even close to reality.

Though your spouse may not be lining up to work for a presidential campaign or planning to jet off on some foreign medical mission, chances are the two of you have everyday occasions to give your 100% love and encouragement to one another. If you’ve been giving at less than your full potential, take the opportunity to go full out the next chance you get. It might feel scary and it may even seem a bit crazy…but I’m confident that you’ll be a great giver and the results will be better than you think they will be.

Here’s a song that eloquently speaks to the blessings of giving your love at 100%. It’s called When You Come Back Down and is sung by the band, Nickel Creek.

Being present adds to the love in your relationship

“It is only possible to live happily-ever-after on a day-to-day basis.”

~Margaret Bonnano

Recently Bruce and I have been very busy with things to do, places to be, deadlines to meet, goals to accomplish. Many of these activities have also meant time apart. I think that most of you know this experience in your relationships–so many calls for our time and attention and only 24 hours a day to give. So what’s a modern couple to do? How do we find time for the important things to do without sacrificing our relationship (or our other irreplaceable treasures like health, self and other significant relationships with family and friends)?

I was reminded of one possible answer when reading the newsletter of Randy Siegel, our good friend and communication expert. He described two types of people. First was one who, “When you’re with him, he makes you feel like talking to you is the single, most important thing in the world. You feel seen, heard, understood, and, yes, loved.” With the other person Randy described, you’re experience is more like this: “You’re talking, and they’re looking around, have that glazed look on their face, or nodding their heads impatiently waiting for you to pause so they can interject a point.”

Being present is essential to maintaining your connection

To strengthen your connection with your spouse, practice being fully present when you’re with each other. Broadly, “being present” means to be undistracted, focused on your partner, being attentive to and aware of only that which is occurring in that given moment. Below are some suggestions on how you can bring greater presence into your relationship.

  • Intend to be present. You increase the likelihood of being present simply by committing yourself to be 100% attentive to the here and now.
  • Take your time. While we can be present at high speed, slowing down often helps us fully absorb all that happens in a moment of time.
  • Use all your senses. Like slowing down, tuning in with our ears, eyes, nose, heart, mind, and intuition help us pick up on the richness of now.
  • Minimize distractions. Even with our best intentions, ringing phones, chiming PDAs, buzzing doorbells, and other interruptions can pull us out of our present connection. Eliminate anything that’s likely to snatch you away from your focus on your partner and your relationship.
  • Build “being present” time into your routine. We do this through our gratitude ritual at the evening meal where we focus solely on holding hands, sharing our gratitude, and listening attentively as our partner shares (We do this before meals with friends as well.). Presence is as valuable in the everyday setting as it is at a romantic dinner or special getaway, so practice it regularly.

Do you have other ideas on how to be present with your partner? We’d be delighted to hear your suggestions and learn about the practices you and your beloved use to stay intimately connected amid the hustle and bustle of daily life.

“If you have one eye on yesterday, and one eye on tomorrow, you’re going to be cockeyed today.”

~Author Unknown

Surviving, and thriving, through dips in a relationship

I recently wrote about how many of our visions of marriage are tainted by the often obscene promise of fairy tale romances or the numbing, heart-hardening lies we’re told about failed relationships (Love lives between fairy tales and apathy). Today, I found some related and extremely valuable thoughts on a fantastic relationship and intimacy blog, Making Love Sustainable, by Wendy Strgar. She writes about a new book by Seth Godin called The Dip, which refers to “the hard place where days can go by before any satisfying results come in.” I encourage you to read Wendy’s entire post. In the meantime, here’s a brief excerpt:

“The Dip though points to a bigger and more rampant problem–the willingness to quit on the hard stuff because we believe ourselves to be mediocre or not up to it. We are afraid to feel the strain, so we quit–and most easily on relationships that are challenging. The problem with this kind of quitting which can become serial. . .as soon as the relationship demands more that we think we have, we bail. That place becomes so familiar, it is the jumping off spot, time after time. The real shame is that often the breakthrough place, where things start to work in a new way is just past that jump.”

What really struck me in this quote is the statement, “we believe ourselves to be mediocre or not up to it.” I think that kind of self-doubt and belief that neither partner is capable of navigating challenging waters is one of the biggest barriers to long-term happiness. If you hit a bump and your mind automatically assaults you with “you’re not smart enough to get through this,” or, “he doesn’t have what it takes to weather this kind of storm,” or, “this relationship isn’t strong enough to last,” you’ll likely not even be inspired to attempt to work through the challenge.

So, if you want to be able to make it through dips in your relationship, start building your confidence in yourself and your partner. Start strengthening your beliefs about the dedication, tenacity, capability you and your partner both possess. Work the muscles of belief and lose those flabby, flat-out-false thoughts that get you nowhere good, replacing them with toned, truths that will become the foundation for a strong, sustainable, and deeply satisfying relationship, whether you’re in a dip or on top of the world.

Resolve to create a better marriage in 2008

Most people I know make New Year’s Resolutions an individual thing. If you want your marriage to be better, however, it’s best if you both resolve to make changes instead of making this a solo act. That doesn’t mean you both have to make the same resolutions. It simply means that you’re both committing to doing your part for the health of your marriage. Based on my experience, here are suggestions about two areas to consider for improvement — changes in these areas can profoundly alter your relationship for the better.

Past = resentment and grudges. 2008 = forgiveness and growth. Resolve to forgive each other for those hurtful things that we all sometimes do in our relationships. Let go of hurt feelings, talk about the pain, offer and accept apologies, then choose a new path forward.

Past = busyness and lots of “priorities.” 2008 = slowing down and reserving time for the relationship. Resolve to hold your marriage as sacred and give it the time and attention that it needs to thrive. Instead of waiting for special moments to say “I love you” or to give a gift, do things to show that any moment is a special moment in your relationship.

“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”

~ Wayne Dyer

May 2008 be a truly magical year for you and your beloved. May all that did not serve you in the past be gently left behind. May those dreams which you deferred now blossom and grow in the light of a new year. May you find more joy, love, and peace in the journey to come than that which you already have known. Happy New Year!

Gratitude strengthens our relationships

Gratitude is something Bruce and I consciously bring into our lives on a daily basis. At the evening meal we each express gratitude for one or more things that happened or simply were during the day. It might be something “small” or “big” for which we’re grateful. We might give thanks for something that is “positive,” or we may even notice gratitude for something we perceived as “negative.” Some days our words of thanks flow easily from hearts filled to the brim with appreciation. Other days we might really have to think about what we actually feel grateful for. Regardless of how easy or hard it is for us to identify that for which we are thankful, we have maintained this practice for over 5 years. I believe that gratitude has made our relationship even stronger than it would be without this thankfulness ritual.

Meister Eckhart quote about gratitude

How gratitude enhances our relationship (and can enhance yours too)

  • Gratitude infuses a relationship with positive energy. When we feel grateful for our lives, we tend to be more loving, thoughtful, compassionate, and supportive. Gratitude is a spark that lights many other warm and soothing fires.
  • Gratitude makes the “bad” times less troubling. Even when we do hit rough patches in our relationship, our commitment to find things for which we are thankful helps to pull us out of the blues.
  • Gratitude helps our love grow deeper. Along with our practice of giving thanks each evening, we verbally acknowledge each other (and then ourselves personally). Though we do have grievances with one another, our focus on what is working and what we’re truly grateful for helps strengthen our connection.
  • Gratitude becomes a positive foundation for the rest of our lives. Since we focus our relationship on gratitude and what’s already working, we tend to carry that same outlook with us into our work, our play, and our other important relationships. Having a gratitude practice as a couple means that we both have the practice as individuals.
  • Gratitude helps us keep the peace. It’s easy to get caught up in the ravenous energy of modern American culture and find ourselves yearning for more and better things. By noticing that which we are already so blessed to have, our cravings subside and we realize how happy, satisfied, and fulfilled we already are.

I would be grateful to know about your experience with gratitude, especially in the context of relationship. How has it changed your connection with your partner? With yourself? What roadblocks to gratitude do you find? What most profoundly evokes your gratitude? Please use the “comments” area to share or trackback to this post from your site.

Gratitude Quotes

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion to clarity. . . . Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

~ Melody Beattie

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.”

~ Albert Einstein

“We can spend a whole lifetime enjoying various benefits and not appreciate their value until we are deprived of them. How many lovers boldly contemplate separation, fondly imagining that they have had enough of the beloved. And yet as soon as they actually experience separation, they burn up with longing.”

~ Jami

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.”

~ Mary Jean Iron

Verbal communication — It’s what you say and how you say it

“The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.”

~ Edward R. Murrow

One of the greatest challenges all couples face centers around communication, because nearly every interaction involves communication of one sort or another. As one of my college professors in speech communication used to say, “you cannot not communicate.” So if we’re always communicating–verbally and non-verbally, intentionally and unintentionally–it’s important to be mindful of how our communication is being received. Let’s start by considering the messages you send verbally, through your words, tone of voice, and other qualities of speech.

Evaluate your verbal communication

While words only account for approximately 7% of the meaning people ascribe to your communication, tone of voice accounts for 38% of the meaning. So, it’s obvious that to be a successful communicator, you need to be aware of your verbal cues and clues (e.g., everything from words to sighs, moans, grunts).

  • Inflection refers to ups and downs in talking. Inflection helps you signal to your partner what’s important and may even indicate your emotional state (especially combined with volume and pitch).
  • Volume indicates the degree of loudness to your voice. Again, volume can indicate your energetic involvement with a topic and gives your spouse clues about your temperament and mood.
  • Pacing deals with your rate of speech or the speed of your talking. Matching your rate of speech and your intensity to that of your partner creates rapport and connection.
  • Word choice of course means what words you use to convey your message. Though words may have specific definitions, our lifetime of experience with a word means that our meaning for the word and someone else’s meaning might be quite different.
  • Silence refers to those gaps in our conversations. (Though silence is “non-verbal” it’s the absence of verbal communication, that’s why I’ve included it in this list.) Allow room for your partner to absorb what you’ve said and give yourself the space to take in what he/she is communicating to you.

As you engage in the next conversation with you partner, bring these aspects of verbal communication into your awareness. Are your choices enhancing communication or bringing about a disconnection? See what subtle changes you can make to connect with your partner and communicate in a productive, honoring, and meaningful way.

“Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.”

~ Rollo May

Essential skills for a fantastic, long-lasting relationship (part 1)

What qualities do you need to possess to be capable of creating and maintaining a great romantic relationship? While I don’t think that relationships can be boiled down to a formula (whether it’s the “right” or “wrong” mix), I do believe that there are qualities and skills that are highly useful in the pursuit of a wonderful partnership. Below are eight of the most critical attributes from my (Shonnie’s) perspective. Bruce will be writing on this same question in another post.

  • Communication – though there are many details included in this one word, generally I would emphasize the importance of being able to listen openly and fully, speak clearly, honestly, and compassionately, and read other non-verbal communication accurately
  • Unequivocal support – by this I mean being 100% for the good of your partner, wanting and supporting their success, growth, achievement, and highest good every step of the way even when it seems to be at cross-purposes with your own desires
  • Self-awareness and self-love — to be an excellent partner to another person, we must first be an excellent partner to ourselves; taking care of your own needs (spiritual, emotional, physical, mental) and being the best human being you know how to be
  • Forgiveness – no matter the depth of our love for our partner, we will sometimes be angry, hurt, or resentful about something they did/did not do; being able and willing to readily and regularly offer your forgiveness is essential to long-term happiness and stability of the relationship
  • Loving truthfulness — honesty is one of the foundations of a strong relationship, yet so is the ability to be truthful in a loving, compassionate, and helpful way
  • Equality – sharing in an equitable way all that happens in your relationship (blessings, challenges, responsibility, praise); being partners that co-create your lives together, offering your gifts, perspective, and experience and making room for your mate to offer his/her own contributions
  • Intentioned flexibility — time and circumstances will change us so it’s important to be flexible enough to adapt or evolve; it’s essential, however, to know what you won’t change (values, commitments) or give up regardless of the paths you travel together
  • Commitment – especially in today’s world of multiple priorities and responsibilities, it’s easy for a relationship to get moved to the back burner (or off the stove completely); keeping your relationship a priority in your life requires a commitment of yourself in time, energy/spirit, and heart