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A great deal has been written about what goes into making a healthy marriage. This is a topic that most of us have opinions about, opinions based on our own marital experiences as well as the values and biases we hold about relationships.
A significant portion of relationship advice literature focuses on how couples can communicate more effectively and create new, more positive interactional patterns. I’ve written a great deal about this on my Strengthen Your Relationship blog.
Another way to strengthen your marriage/relationship is to focus on yourself. While we’re biologically wired to need intimate relationships, the need for others doesn’t automatically translate into a skill set that is going to bode well for our marriage/relationship.
Certain skills (self-skills as well as interpersonal skills) are clearly beneficial to long-term relationships.
Today we’re going to focus on three areas of psychological self-improvement that can positively impact your marriage/relationship. For each of these there are practical steps you can take to make them a reality.
3 Areas of Self-Improvement for a Better Marriage
1) Learn to deal with frustration
Our spouse/partner can bring us great joy and add richness and meaning to our lives. And as with so many things in life, a polarity exists: what can bring joy can also bring considerable frustration. You’re not always going to see eye-to-eye; you are not always going to get your way; you may experience your spouse as totally unreasonable at times. Domesticity can be a real challenge…
So what does this mean for you and your marriage?
Patience. The virtue of patience is essential to a successful marriage. And practicing patience is something that should be a part of every marriage. Your ability to delay gratification (and curb the expectation that you should never be frustrated in your marriage) is an important skill that requires cultivation. In this fast-paced, consumer-driven, you-can-have-whatever-you-want-without-waiting environment, patience may feel like an antiquated idea.
In this context, the question, “Who says all of your needs should be met whenever you want?” can feel hostile rather than one that piques our curiosity.
This doesn’t bode well for intimate relationships. Whether we like it or not, intimate relationships challenge us. There are occasions when our spouse’s needs will conflict with our own. S/he may struggle in ways that confuse us. We may see each other as unsupportive, too demanding. When these challenges arise, we must learn to navigate them. Here humility is needed in abundance. The ability to empathize with and understand the other’s perspective should be part of the picture.
It’s the little things that can make patience a part of your marriage. Setting the daily intention to practice patience each day; making the choice to take a few breaths to quiet the emotional storm stirring within us rather than speak from anger. And mostly, reminding ourselves that frustration is part of the landscape; remembering that frustration is an acceptable and expected part of any loving union.
2) Take responsibility (and stop deflecting)
“You do the same thing!” is a common refrain we lob at our spouse/partner when s/he is pointing out one of our less-than-flattering habits. This is defensiveness in action. And we all get defensive from time-to-time. During these moments, we close ourselves off to feedback and to being influenced by the other. And one very effective way we achieve this is by finger-pointing, projecting blame onto our partner, rather than taking responsibility for our own actions.
It is very easy to see ourselves as helpless victims when things go awry in our marriage.
The way messages are communicated clearly matters in relationships. It’s difficult to remain open when we’re feeling berated and attacked by our partner. In addition to the influence of how messages are communicated, we each have a certain set-point — a leaning toward or away from — taking responsibility (and remaining open versus quickly getting defensive).
Some of us rapidly disavow responsibility when challenged by another person. Our default position is indignation and other-blame. This can be so automatic that we shut down any potential for self-reflection and self-growth (growth based upon feedback from our spouse/partner).
On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your ability to remain open and take responsibility for your own foibles and missteps? (1 = no openness; 10 = complete openness)
Do you see this as an important area for self-growth and marital/relationship growth?
3) Create a rich life outside your marriage
Emotional intimacy centers upon a mutual sharing — we bring ourselves to our partner and we ask our partner to bring him/herself to us. At the beginning of our relationship, we often ramp up these efforts, putting forth the best version of who we are in order to impress the other. And as our relationship matures and we settle into familiar patterns, we get comfortable (and maybe more than a little complacent) about the efforts we put into engaging our spouse.
Another reason our engagement may dwindle is because we feel like we know everything there is to know about each other. While this mutual knowledge gives us comfort, it can also shutdown communication. (If you already know how I feel about X, why should I talk about it anymore?)
But for couples who create rewarding lives outside their marriages (through work, creative pursuits, hobbies, volunteer work, friendships, etc.), there are more opportunities to bring this richness back into the marriage. This sharing deepens emotional connection. It allows you to support and celebrate one another.
So the life you are creating outside of your marriage has direct implications for what happens inside it. Don’t forget to enrich your marriage even if you have to make the conscious decision to share more about yourself and what is going on for you.
No matter how close you and your spouse feel to each other, your marriage is made up of two individuals. And what you do as individuals impacts the general fabric of your relationship. This gives you two pathways to strengthen your marriage: the direct route of relationship-improvement and the indirect route of self-improvement.
Let’s look at the example of physical self-care. If you live an unhealthy lifestyle (for instance, not taking care of yourself when you’re sick; over-working and not getting enough sleep; consuming too much alcohol; abusing drugs; remaining very sedentary), these behaviors are going to impact how you feel in general, how you feel about yourself and how engaged you can be as a spouse.
And the same holds true for how we take care of ourselves psychologically/emotionally. When we value self-reflection for the purposes of self-growth, how could our marriage not benefit?
Until next time,
Richard Nicastro, PhD
Dr. Nicastro is a psychologist in Georgetown, TX where he sees individuals, couples and runs men’s groups.
(Top image courtesy of Tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)