My husband taught me a simple, yet powerful tool to build safety and security in marriage as well as in the entire family. It’s kind of humbling, considering the fact that I’m the one with two advanced university degrees in marriage and family therapy. Here’s the story behind it:
Several years ago, I was tidying up a room in my house and picked up some random papers upon which my children had been sketching various pictures. One paper immediately caught my attention because my son had printed in crayon the words, “How mom found her love,” at the top of the page. Under the words was an amusing hand-sketched version of me with bad hair, wide-eyed and open-mouthed (and a little crazy looking), with the words, “gasp,” spelled out in a speech bubble flowing from my mouth.
This one-dimensional version of me was apparently meant to be a portrayal of the first time I met my husband, who was pictured inches away on the same page, with Hulk-like tattered shorts and an impressive four-pack on his abdomen. I laughed out loud and decided this picture was a keeper.
When I asked him about it later, he told me that he drew it because, “Dad is always saying you’re his dream girl, and you’re in LOOOVE.” He was right, and I suddenly felt a little bit sad, because I realized that he drew the picture based on how his father treated me instead of the reverse. My husband had a ritualistic habit of asking my children various rhetorical questions to which they had learned to shout specific replies.
Question: Do you know who my best friend is?
Question: Guess who I love the most?
Question: Guess what? (This question usually elicited several guesses based on his past responses)
Answer: You love mommy! Mom’s your dream girl! You think mom’s gorgeous! Mom’s your best friend!
He would smile and answer, “That’s right,” while winking at me from across the room. He was always coming up with new questions to let them (and me) know that I mattered to him.
The embarrassing thing to me was that he was so good at it, and I was the marriage therapist. He was always beating me at my own game.
When I found my son’s picture, I actually got a little teary, because I didn’t play the part of the adoring wife nearly as well as he had played the adoring husband. I made a resolve to do a better job of following his example, and I started asking my younger children the same types of questions he asked all the time, like, “Do you know what I love about daddy?” I was surprised at the immediate effects.
Asking your children if they know what you love about your spouse is a simple strategy which provides a variety of benefits, such as:
- It can increase authentic positive feelings about your spouse. When I verbalized to my children what I loved and appreciated about their dad, I actually generated those positive feelings within. The process of thinking of things to say, and remembering scenes from our past to share with my children was associated with real feelings of love. Recent brain research verifies this process.
- It helps children feel more secure. When children are reminded consistently that their parents love each other in an authentic way, they enjoy protective mental health benefits, also supported by research. Children gain what theorists and researchers call a “felt sense of security,” from displays of a high quality marriage.
- It puts money in the relationship bank. This is an easy way of building the positive to negative interactions ratio John Gottman promotes, which can buffer a relationship from the inevitable conflicts and struggles of life.
- It provides modeling for children later in their own marriages. Children learn how to be spouses in large part by watching marital process in the home–also research-documented.
I have sometimes presented this strategy as an idea at marriage workshops, and have on several occasions had couples report back to me how powerful it was for them in maintaining positive feelings in the marriage. For many individuals, it helps them remember why they married their spouses in the first place.
So, if you are feeling a little less than sparkly in your own marriage, think of some questions to ask your children to affirm your feelings of love for your partner. You might just think back to those days when he or she was rocking that amazing four-pack! Remember – you are your children’s marital superheroes!