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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.

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10 Comments

  • Reply Always Faithful December 3, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    If we can just get the irritation out of the way by seeing as Christ sees it will be all the better. I’m striving everyday to do what Christ would do. Hard, but with God all things are possible.

  • Reply Charmaine December 3, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    This is wonderfully profound. I used to feel irritated that my husband wasn’t religious enough even though he went to church regularly. When I just started accepting him where he was, stopped nagging, and realized that my valiancy had nothing to do with him, then our relationship improved and now he even tries harder. Recently he started writing me these little notes weekly about the things he admires about me. My regular temple worship and scripture study are on the list.

    • Reply Cheri December 4, 2009 at 4:29 am

      Charmaine, that sounds great!

  • Reply Gemini (Gem) Jarvis December 4, 2009 at 1:40 am

    This article brought back fond memories of my use of Gottman and your book Drawing Heaven into your marriage in a marriage communications class I took at BYU-ID.

  • Reply Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE December 9, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Hi, Wally. Good advice as usual. “Rose colored glasses” are definitely the eyewear one needs in marriage. But regardless of the science, the eyewear we can’t help viewing marriage through is our own anecdotal lenses.

    I’ve seen two marriages up close–mine, and my parents. My parents should have never married. They held it together officially, but I have paid dearly for it my entire life. I sound like a monster, but they are both gone now and it’s a relief.

    My marriage is going on 25 years next September. I was determined to marry someone 180 degrees opposite of my violent father, and I got a guy who never raises his voice. I could back over him with my car, and all he would say is “you could use a new exhaust system.”

    I’m afraid no number of retreats with Dr. and Mrs. Wally would’ve helped my parents. In fact, as you allude to in your final paragraph, there are some marriages that are pathological and can’t be fixed. I see you are having an event on a cruiseship. I guarantee, if my parents could go with you, you would have to fight the urge to throw them overboard.

    In January, George and I begin empty-nesting as our college student son moves into a dorm for the first time. It’s just wonderful having so many years of shared history with one person. We’ve survived parenthood, a house fire, grad school, three major surgeries, chronic illness, a lay off and 25 Minnesota winters.

    I appreciate all the work you and Nancy do to help couples. Keep up the great blogging! Nancy

    • Reply admin January 4, 2010 at 12:51 pm

      Good insight, Nancy! Maybe you would share your story about the socks. It’s a great story.

      -Wally

  • Reply Mark Matheson December 14, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Continuing on the “rose-colored glasses” theme,I heard someone in a talk recently (sorry no citation in my memory)suggest that we all needed to have “Christ-colored glasses” to see things from his viewpoint.

  • Reply Doug January 4, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    Just a comment as I search and try to find answers. Nancy wrote about “… so many years of shared history with one person.”

    My wife died suddenly 12-1/2 years ago. (We had been married 28 years.) I married again two years after that. This blended family business is not real easy and I would not necessarily recommend it. The word “blended” seems to indicate that it is all put back together. But it is not like a first marriage where you have so many years of shared history. The word “blending” seems more appropriate since metaphorically, the blender is turned on full speed (as life is full speed) and many times the lid comes off (because it doesn’t fit on the new blender)causing a mess. If it was only a mess it would not be too bad, but many days it feels like just “holding it together officially.” Without the long background of “so many years of shared history,” what do you do? What do you hold on to?

    It doesn’t seem like very many people know about blending families. For example, in High Priest’s Group, I looked around the room of 20+ (about 20 to 25 attend every Sunday) wonderful, dedicated, knowledgeable, experienced in leadership, prosperous, kind, talented men. I truly admire them and appreciate their brotherhood. All of them, seasoned in the church, have their first wife of many years. In lessons like #39 last year on Relief Society, the discussion turned to their wifes. Nothing was mentioned about second marriages.

    When a young couple gets married, they work out differences early in their marriage and create a family. Once family traditions, methods of doing things, and details are established (not talking about right and wrong), it is later hard to “blend” those traditions and methods with another spouse. If it were only hard it would not be too bad, but sometimes it can be painful.

    I am always looking for help and advice in blending families. The only thing I can conclude is that you just hold on with pure grit. And I know that the only thing to do is turn to Christ and apply the principles of the Gospel. Yesterday was Sunday and I noticed that just attending the block of meetings felt like applying a salve to the pain.

    So what do you hold on to? Only the Savior is what I have come to conclude.
    Doug

    • Reply admin January 5, 2010 at 10:19 am

      Doug,

      Your voice is vital. Those of us in long-term, happy marriages cannot comprehend the challenges of blending different lives and traditions. We need to listen to you and be humbled by your message.

      I think you are right that holding onto the Savior is the key. Determination is essential. I think it may also help to stir in some insight from research. The gold standard among step family books is Visher and Visher: How to Win as a Step Family. There is also a biblical book: Lauer and Lauer: Becoming Family.

      I hope you will teach all of us what you learn about turning the added challenges into blessings.

      -Wally

      • Reply Doug January 8, 2010 at 11:56 am

        Thanks so much for your reply and for your acknowledgement. It can be easy to slip into feelings of doubt but your comment of turning added challenges into blessings is a good suggestion and it actually hit me as a profound reminder of what I should be trying to do. Also, I will look up the books you mentioned and try to get helpful ideas from them.
        Thanks, Doug

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