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Gloria Steinem or Whoever was Wrong: Two Lessons From 50 Years of Marriage

“Look, you want to know what marriage is really like? Fine. You wake up, she's there. You come back from work, she's there. You fall asleep, she's there. You eat dinner, she's there. You know? I mean, I know that sounds like a bad thing, but it's not." —Ray Romano as Ray Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond

Our children have asked my husband and me what we are most proud of.  We both answer, “Our marriage.”

If this quote and parts of this article sound familiar to you, it might be that you remember it from articles I have written before, particularly one I wrote almost four years ago.  I dug it out again because several of you have told me it made an impression on you.  You have made copies of the article and sent it to young friends and family members who are about to marry. Well and here we are at the big 50. Time to re-visit the lessons learned.

Before we begin, remember that this story is told from my perspective. Here goes. When people ask my husband the story of our love and courtship, it goes something like…“We met in Germany, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.”

That’s far different from the story I tell which is more like, “I met this man in Germany.  He was my dentist.  My heart went pitter-patter.  We argued over this and that. Got married. Continued to argue with more intensity over this and that and also nothing. I packed my bags to leave several times. He assured me that he loved me. I had a hard time believing it. Now, fifty years later, on most days, we have it pretty well together as a couple.

Flash back. My childhood friends and many of my family members were surprised that I ever got married. I had a t-shirt that was possibly inspired by Gloria Steinem. It read, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”  

It’s difficult to start a good relationship with that sort of attitude. I had to learn things the hard way which included a LOT of reading.  I spent several useless years reading books that would help me figure out what was wrong with the institution of marriage, several equally futile years reading books to figure what was wrong with my husband. Then I spent many more years reading books to figure out what was wrong with me.

For the sake of the greater good, I share two biggies I learned from reading and listening to top marriage researchers. The application is wider than marriage by the way.

Eventually I learned a few lessons. I stopped being so mean. At least I stopped being so mean when my husband first walked in the door.  My recommendation is...if you must be mean, work up to it. Start off with a little small talk. Get to know the person you plan to harass.

This may sound funny but researcher power-houses like Dr. John Gottman will back me up. Start up any complaint session gently. Also, it’s extremely helpful to have a large reservoir of positivity going for you. Gottman claims the better marriages have at least a ratio of 3 positives to every 1 negative interaction.

In general women enjoy expressing their emotions including their negative emotions. Men not so much.  Men also get emotionally flooded, over-aroused (heart rates are often hitting over a hundred according to monitors researchers attach to them) when women are having what feels like “a good talk.”

What do people do when they get emotionally flooded?  Fight, freeze, or flight. Couples have these typical fights.  Marriage therapists call them “dances.”  The most recognizable ones are the attack-attack step and the attack-withdraw (put my hands over my ears, mentally sing la-la-la) or read the newspaper.

John and I mostly did the attack-withdraw step.  I finally got more savvy (after reading Gottman) and stopped thinking I needed to be mean to get his attention.

So, hang on to that first big idea all those little subplots.  If you want to have a good marriage (and relationships), don’t be so mean - have a reservoir of positivity, start the complaint session up gently. Watch out for the dance you may get caught up in and be aware that men and women are different when it comes to expressing emotions.

Here’s idea number 2. Be there. Make sure your partner (friend) knows you have their back.

This idea mostly comes from the work of Dr. Sue Johnson who learned from John Bowlby. Bowlby is the one who put the concept of “secure attachment” on the psychological map. The basic idea is that kids who know their parents are there for them are more well-adjusted and happier.

Some have had lovely childhoods. We gave our hearts to our mothers and fathers. They could be trusted to care for them, for us. We became securely attached. And we carry that helpful secure attachment styles into other close relationships.

Others of us had early childhoods in which our hearts were not handled with care. We were not securely attached to our parents.  Over the years, we developed ways of dealing with our sad situations by becoming more clingy or acting like we don’t give a darn. Neither of those are sound strategies for having good relationships later. 

And think about this. Dr. Johnson says that many of the fights we have are not about what we think they are about.  They are not about me wanting to go fishing on your birthday. Not about you leaving a mess.  Rather the fights are, at their deepest level, about this basic question in its various permutations… Are you there for me – can I trust you, do you honestly care about me? Can I give my heart to you, can I securely attach? Can I count on you to have my back? (Same goes here for employees and their bosses.)

We are socially bonding mammals.  Forget that stuff about needing each other like a fish needs a bike. We DO need each other …desperately. We need to know we can count on each other. We ARE proud of our 50 years of marriage. We continue to step on each others’ toes. But there’s much less of those nasty tangos.

Good relationships make life worth living AND they aren’t easy. Some things can’t be worked out. But the research available today is helping many.

How might we journey together to The Good Life by learning more about how to handle each others’ hearts with care, become people who can be trusted, and move up to The Good Life together?


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