Well Done: Creating a Win-Win Marriage
Well Done: Creating a Win-Win Marriage
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Eric Scalise, Ph.D.
An oft quoted verse of Scripture related to marriage is, “The two shall become one” (Eph. 5:31). Unfortunately for many couples, once the marriage ceremony is over, the adventure begins when a husband and wife start arguing about, “Which one?” Outside of an individual’s decision to follow Christ, marriage is one of the most significant relational investments anyone will ever make. With a divorce rate that has sadly increased almost every decade since 1890 in this country, the commitment to a balanced, healthy and lifelong covenant between two people is confronted by numerous challenges that often plumb the very depths of a person’s character and resolve. Marriages may be blessed in heaven, but they are forged in day-to-day living here on this side of eternity.
After working with couples over the last 35 years, I have a much better understanding of both the positive and the potentially destructive elements that can be found in a marriage. However, most spouses can learn how to use a roadmap and a compass, as well as what it means to be pointed in the right direction. With the right tools, husbands and wives are better able to stay motivated and finish well—creating the gold-medal world class relationship they are hoping for. The following is a set of “ground rules” two people can use to address important issues, make mutually satisfactory decisions and successfully resolve conflict. While the focus is on married couples, the principles are applicable to relationships in general.
Rule #1 – I will communicate my expectations and not take it for granted that my spouse understands what I need or want.
This is the beginning of the process. An expectation should never be communicated as a demand, but as an expression of something that is desired or potentially needed. Every couple will have expectations in a number of important areas (finances, parenting and family life, job/career issues, social/leisure activities, extended family members, household responsibilities, physical intimacy, spiritual life, etc.). Another way to write the rule is this way: Don’t force your spouse to be a mind reader. If you have an expectation, then it is your responsibility to communicate it to your spouse and to accept the notion that this is only the starting point. Typically, the communication between a couple is only going to be as wise and effective as the information sitting in front of them that will be used to formulate their decisions.
Rule #2 – I will verify my assumptions so that I have accurate information and feedback.
An assumption is different than an expectation and has more to do with how a person interprets or attaches meaning to an action or a statement. Communication is a complex process and we usually “listen” with our eyes more than our ears. In fact, only about 7% of all communication is based on words and the meanings of those words. Nonverbal body language covers 55% and your tone of voice, the other 38%. This means that “how” you express yourself is five to eight times louder than “what” you have to say. It can be very easy to misread and misinterpret someone, thereby creating additional tension and conflict that derails the process.
Rule #3 – I will strive toward understanding my spouse’s feelings and thoughts on a matter first and without criticism, before attempting to negotiate or compromise.
If Rule #1 is the beginning of the process, than Rule #3, reaching a point of decision, is an end point. People will rarely come to a place of compromise and/or accommodation if they cannot negotiate something and in its most basic form, negotiation is simply balanced talking. However, the negotiation process will stumble out of the gate if a person does not feel understood. This is why discussions escalate into arguments and shouting matches. Someone has to be willing to put their agenda on hold long enough for the other person to express him/herself and “be heard.” This does not invalidate either point of view, it just works better one at a time. Having said this, I also understand that not everything is up for vote and subject to compromise. Certain values and biblical principles do not have to be discarded for the sake of cooperation. I tell couples that if it is a matter of deep moral or spiritual principle, than feel free to stand your ground. Then again, if it is a matter of personal preference, then there should be a willingness to work together to find common ground. In my experience, the majority of marital conflict is over preferences and not principles. A good axiom for a marriage is this: I accept the reality that I do not always get everything I want, when I want and how I want…and that’s really OK.
Rule #4 – I will focus on resolving the issues and not attempt to make my spouse or our relationship the problem.
It is important to keep the focus issue-centered and not attack the person or the relationship. When spouses start confessing that their marriage at its core is the actual problem, then the only out too easily becomes a separation or divorce. Defensiveness is a good indicator that a couple has gotten off track somewhere in the process and that one or both spouses are feeling blamed. Attacking the problem tears down the problem. Attacking the person tears down the person and attacking the relationship tears down the marriage.
Rule #5 – I will give myself and my spouse permission to take a “time out” from the discussion whenever it is requested or needed, as long as I give a specific timeframe when we will resume problem solving.
One of the most common problems that occurs when a spouse asks for time and/or space, is that there is no healthy closure or commitment to reengage in the process after an agreed upon timeframe. This usually results in someone only storming away angry and upset. There is much to be said about the simple principle of counting to ten because it is rarely productive when one or both people are too hurt and too emotional to listen objectively. Calling the “time in” is equally important.
Rule #6 – I will accept a neutral place and time to discuss problems that are mutually satisfactory and does not give one partner any advantage over the other.
When a person feels as though the odds are stacked against him/her, a normal response is to go into a defensive posture and look for ways to even things out. This means that problem solving ceases because the real focus has shifted away from the topic at hand and is now more on the sense of unfairness and feeling unbalanced. Children, who because of their size, lack of resources, etc., often feel disempowered and will sometimes challenge authority because of this principle. We do the same thing as adults, but are more sophisticated about how we go about it. Triangulating in family members, friends, past mistakes, etc., only serve to steer the process off course.
Rule #7 – I will take ownership of and be completely accountable for my own feelings, thoughts, attitudes and behaviors first, without blame-shifting things toward my spouse.
The crux of personal responsibility and accountability is ownership. It is always much easier and at times, desirable, to point the finger away from ourselves as a means of avoidance. This is human nature. Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed both Eve and God. When Jesus offered Peter the opportunity to reaffirm his love after the resurrection and then spoke with him about how he would be martyred, Peter’s response was to look over at John and ask, “What about him?” Jesus in essence said, “What’s that to you Peter? Right now, we’re talking about you, so let’s stick with that. You follow Me” (Jn.21). Undoubtedly, God also requires us to follow Him in matters pertaining to our marriage, especially when it is far easier to point at our spouse. The blame game is rarely productive.
Rule #8 – I will be responsive and not reactive when discussing issues or receiving feedback about my behavior from my spouse.
Reactiveness is the explosive knee-jerk. In times of stress and tension, our bodies are trying to tell us the emotional train is barreling down the tracks directly into our path. The ability to manage adrenaline and raw emotion often makes the difference between success and failure. Responsiveness on the other hand, is a slower, more thought out process. It anticipates problems and situations and plans accordingly.
Rule #9 – I will not attempt to control my spouse with sarcasm, rage, threats, manipulation, shame, jealousy or silence.
Excessive control is usually a survival tool the person has learned and an indication of past trauma, fear-based insecurity and/or attachment problems. The capacity and willingness of a husband and wife to mutually abandon control, not because it was it was demanded of them or taken by force, results in a true sense of intimacy. Only within the relative safety of trust and honesty, will a couple allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to submit one to the other in love.
Rule #10 – I will actively seek the forgiveness of my spouse when I am aware of any wrongdoing on my part and I will extend forgiveness when it is asked for.
In our humanity, sooner or later, we will disappoint and hurt those we profess to love. Sometimes it will be intentional, other times inadvertent. The important thing to remember is to keep a short laundry list of offenses and to not scroll them out in front of our spouse during times of conflict or disagreement. Left unattended, these kinds of emotional and spiritual wounds will become infected, spread into the fabric of any marriage and cause further damage.
Creating a win-win marriage is not impossible and it is not something reserved only for those individuals who grew up in stable and secure homes. It is available to anyone who is willing to assume the role of a servant leader. Couples who approach life in this sacrificial manner will enjoy the fruit of their labor. Having a marriage “to die for,” means having a marriage “two die for.”
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., is the former Vice President for Professional Development with the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as a current consultant and their Senior Editor. He is also the President of LIV Enterprises & Consulting, LLC, and a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 36 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, leadership development, addictions, and lay counselor training. He is an author, a national and international conference speaker, and frequently consults with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.