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December 2009

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Marital Satisfaction is Largely a Choice


One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Irving Becker: “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind” (Reader’s Digest, 1975, p. 19).

What Becker’s words suggest to me is that we all make choices to be furious or forgiving. If we choose to be furious, we find plenty of reasons to justify our judgments. After all, we all have human partners just crammed with frailties—including funny ways of holding their spoons.

In contrast, if we choose to be forgiving, we find a wealth of reasons to be pleased with our partners and happy in our relationships. A plate of food in the lab is transformed into a golden memory by loving partners. As two marriage scholars have observed: “The focus in marriage education programs on problem-solving skills is woefully inadequate because we now know that the emotional climate of marriage matters. . . . If spouses have a reservoir of good will and they show their affection regularly, they are far more likely to be able to work through their differences, to warm to each other’s point of view, and to cope effectively with stress” (p. 955, Huston & Melz, 2004).

Communication and problem-solving are not enough. But how do we develop that “reservoir of good will” that carries us past the challenges? That’s the key question. Gottman (1994) gives the answer: “In a stable marriage…the partners tend to view each other through “rose-colored” glasses. They assume that each other’s positive, admirable characteristics are an intrinsic part of their personality rather than occasional flukes. The good things about their relationship are considered stable and far-reaching while the bad patches or areas of tension are considered to be fleeting and situational. Over time, [unhappy] couples pay ever more attention to their spouse’s actions that confirm their negative assumptions. Over time you [can] become conditioned to look for and react to negatives in your spouse and your marriage. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: the more you expect and search for negatives, the more likely you are to find them, and to highlight their significance in your mind” (pp. 118-120).

In other words, we find what we look for. If we look for the limits, faults, and flaws, we get dissatisfaction. If we look for the qualities, strengths, and nobility, we get admiration. Psychologists uniformly recognize that this is a bias. We do not see our spouses objectively. We filter our perceptions through our chosen lenses—either loving or judging.

All this is boiled down by God to a simple recommendation: Have charity. See as He sees. Serve as He serves. Love as He loves.

Just a footnote: I have known a handful of married persons who were so extreme in their narcissism that a fully cooperative relationship with them was not possible. For the vast majority of us, however, this is not the problem. Our judging and scorekeeping prevent us from seeing what God sees: One of His cherished children. The mortal shell does not have to prevent us from seeing the divine when we wear the glasses of charity.

References:Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail and how you can make yours last. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Huston, T. L., & Melz, H. (2004). The case for (promoting) marriage: The devil is in the details. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 943-958.

Reader’s Digest (1975). Pocket treasury of great quotations. Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest.