So tempting, when we’re disappointed or frustrated with our relationship, to turn into the play-by-play commentator. “I did the cleaning and the shopping,” we say on an overscheduled weekend. “You just did one errand.” Or “I initiated sex three times this month and you only did twice.” Or “We’re way over budget this month but you splurged on those pricey new boots so I’m booking my weekend in Vail.” Who wins? It’s a race to the bottom.
Researchers for Cornell’s Legacy Project asked 1500 older people “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?” They conducted extensive interviews on a variety of topics, including the secrets of a successful marriage.
These elders were emphatic that marriage is not a 50-50 proposition. One man said both partners need to be giving 100 percent all the time. (Tall order.) Kay, a seventy-something married 54 years, described it as 90-10. “Sometimes you’re on the 90,” she observed, “and sometimes you’re on the 10.” One partner is ill for a while, or just has a tough day, and that one is on the receiving end. Hours or days or months later, the tables turn.
It’s a give and take. That’s why turning into a Super Bowl announcer is not a good way to make a championship marriage. As soon as we start counting who’s done what, we have pulled away from a mutual relationship with our partner and begun instead to criticize and judge him. Usually at that point our partner puts on an emotional helmet. Whether he gets defensive or drops into stony silence, he stops listening.
We get better results if we stay on the field, building and nurturing our relationship. Often we need to call a time-out to calm ourselves down when we’re upset. When we’re ready to talk, instead of tearing each other down, we huddle. We’re open to each other’s ideas. And we let each other know we appreciate the effort.
Does this mean holding back on situations that concern or anger us? Certainly not. But instead of calling penalties on our partner, we talk in a gentle, nonthreatening way. “I’m exhausted on the weekends. I’d like us to build some relaxation into my schedule and I need your help.” Or “When you initiate sex, I feel desired and loved.” Or “Let’s sit down and sort out our finances so we can plan some big purchases.” When we talk clearly and honestly, without blaming, the game changes. Before long, we start to feel like a team.
That way everybody wins.