Couples, Love, marriage

How do I Know if I’m Marrying the Right Person?

proposalAnyone considering marriage is trying to find the “right person.”  Choosing a marriage partner is always a risk of probabilities, and marriage is experiential.  You never know quite how it’s going to play out.  I asked my husband the other day if he knew how much trouble I was going to be, would he want to marry me again?  His answer was, “Lori, my worst day with you is better than any day I can imagine without you in it.”  Even though about this time 30 years ago I decided he would be someone I could count on long-term to be an adoring husband and father, I still feel more lucky than strategic about how things turned out.  I experienced a lot of turmoil about the decision three decades ago.

People can and do change in unpredictable ways.  Sometimes, when I have clients highly distressed or getting divorced, they are deeply confused about why they felt good about marrying people who turned out to be so difficult or disloyal.  The short answer is that predicting future human behavior is impossible.

Despite uncertainty, there are some empirically-based premarital correlates with future marital happiness and stability.  Here are some points of discussion and questions to ask yourself to guide your big decision.  I want to emphasize that these are not entirely predictive but are worthy of consideration.

  1. Is this person adaptable?  I once heard a speaker suggest taking a possible future partner on a hike after agreeing to bring the water, purposely forgetting the water at the end of the hike, and watching their reaction.  Someone who is very angry about the lapse is someone more likely to be rigid and unaccepting.  There is a positive correlation between more flexible, less neurotic personality types, and marital happiness. 
  1. Do we both have high levels of self-esteem? People with poor self-concepts struggle more in relationships.  Do not marry someone to be the hero therapist.
  1. Do this person’s parents have a stable and happy marriage? While having divorced or unhappy parents doesn’t necessarily mean someone can’t have a great marriage, it’s an important point of discussion, because I can verify that these experiences shape people’s reactions in marriage.  For example, people whose parents divorced or had aggressive conflict can be sensitive to normal levels of marital conflict.  Beliefs in marital longevity are molded by parental models.
  1. Are your family and friends supportive of the union? This matters for obvious reasons.  They can become antagonistic and affect the marriage later if unsupportive.
  1. Are you feeling any kind of pressure to get married? I have had numerous couples report that they didn’t want to get married weeks before the wedding, but the invitations were out and their parents told them they had to go through with it.  Don’t EVER get married to avoid disappointing someone.  Don’t get married because of religious pressure.  Get married because you want to and feel good about it.  Two nights before I got married, my father called me into his office and said, “I want you to know  that I want you to be happy, and if you have any reservations about getting married, you do not have to go through with it.  It doesn’t matter that the invitations are out.” He was worried about my age.  Even though this admittedly freaked me out a little bit, I know my father was trying to relieve any felt pressure.  My decision to marry was entirely my own.
  1. Is there a history of mental or physical illness? Anything can develop after the wedding, but because these are known stressors, if they are pre-existing conditions, there should be numerous conversations about how to handle peripheral effects.
  1. Do we have similar family backgrounds? There is some evidence that similar cultural, religious, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds can reduce some future conflict.  If you’re different, you’re not doomed, but you will want to acknowledge the differences and keep conversation open.
  1. Do we agree about gender roles? It’s important to have conversations about what you both want for yourselves in the future.  For example, some women want to stay home to raise their children and there can be conflict if the husband wants his wife to work. Conversely, some women want to work and it’s a source of conflict if the husband wants a wife who stays home.  Some men want to be home with their children, and their wives are unhappy if they feel responsible to financially support their families.  Couples in agreement before marriage will have smoother adjustments to gender roles.
  1. Do we have similar attitudes, values and beliefs? Similarity especially helps in areas directly impacting the marriage relationship and raising children together.
  1. How well do you know this person? This is where time helps.  Although time isn’t always correlated with future marital quality, I would be nervous for my children to marry someone they met a few months earlier.
  1. Do we agree about how many children we want and does my partner like children? Don’t ever marry someone thinking you are going to change his/her mind about having children if you aren’t in agreement.  Don’t ever try to force someone to have more children than they really want.  Make sure you see how that person acts around children.  My siblings used to call my husband “The Pied Piper,” because when we visited, he would play with my nieces and nephews and they followed him around.  I knew that because he liked interacting with children, he would be a great father.
  1. Can we steam up the car windows?  I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, which I will address below.  I’m adding this from clinical experience with highly religious couples, because sometimes, couples marry with little to no previous physical affection, and struggle because they just don’t experience physical “chemistry.”  Couples who started like this sometimes report later that they just aren’t physically attracted to each other.  Sometimes in religious unions physical affection can be underestimated, which can have future implications for marital quality.
  1. What have we done to educate ourselves about marriage? Premarital education is associated with future happiness and stability.  It’s easy with the internet to find online courses and books.

Myths about marrying the right person

There are some enduring myths about what is needed for finding the right long-term partner.  Most people operate from societal assumptions rather than empirical findings.  Here are common misperceptions:

  1.  Age at marriage.  Yes, age matters.  An 18-year-old has a higher chance of divorce than a 23-year-old.  However, people often treat age like a straight linear correlation—the older you marry, the better.  That’s not true.  Marrying in your 20’s comes with a level of flexibility that makes the divorce rate for this group of people lower than those who wait until they are in their 30’s.
  1. Amount of premarital sex. Another faulty assumption is that lots of premarital sex will make a couple more “sexually compatible,” and less likely to divorce.  The research doesn’t bear this out, and high levels of premarital sex CAN be predictive of extramarital sex.  As far as timing of premarital sex, there is also research demonstrating that the longer people wait to have sex, the higher marital quality they will have later.
  1. Cohabitation.  There is a myth that living together to “try out marriage,” should make the union more solid.  In short, people who cohabitate have a higher divorce rate than those who set up a joint household after marriage.  Researchers think it’s because people who cohabitate don’t proactively decide to be together, but tend to fall into it without the same levels of commitment as people who really want to set up a long-term joint household.

Does premarital counseling work? 

I’m not going to say it doesn’t, because any education or guidance can probably help, but I will say that premarital counseling can be somewhat limited in helpfulness.  The reason is that people in love and wanting to marry are often people in a brain-altered state because of the chemicals produced in the brain during the early phase of a relationship.  They tend to idealize their romantic partners.  I know from experience teaching premarital university courses that these couples tend to explain away any identified relationship weaknesses or areas of concern.  For example, I had my engaged students take the relationship assessment mentioned below and write me papers describing how their weaknesses might impact their marriages.  In almost every case, they wrote about why it might be a weakness for other couples, but not for them.  They saw themselves as exceptional.  They weren’t exceptional, but they were under the influences of the brain in love, so they thought they were exceptional.  They genuinely had difficulty imagining future conflict.

What to do if you are considering marriage:

  1. Take a relationship assessment to help identify your relationship strengths and weaknesses.  The Relate Institute has one  you can take very inexpensively. The tool can be found here.  You and your partner both fill out a relationship assessment with questions about yourself and your relationship.  You will both get a printout of your strengths and weaknesses to address in a discussion.  The instrument isn’t a compatibility test or predictive, but is meant to inspire communication to reduce surprises in marriage.  I don’t see any good reason to not take this type of assessment.
  1. Take a premarital education course in person or online.  With the internet, it’s easier than ever to access education.

Take comfort in the reality that people who are committed to a high-quality marriage can be intentional about making it happen.  As I have previously mentioned, soul mates are more crafted than discovered.  There is not just one “right,” person.  We are born with the potential to attract and set up a long-term relationship with a variety of possibilities.

Lastly, there is wisdom in the saying that marriage is more about being the right person than finding the right person.  In short, be the kind of person you want to attract.  It works much better than trying to find someone who meets your checklist.

References:

Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability (1994) by Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman in Family Relations,43(2), 228-237

https://ifstudies.org/blog/slow-but-sure-does-the-timing-of-sex-during-dating-matter/

photo credit:

Copyright: antonioguillem / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Romance

Flourishing in Blah Blah Land

24640009 - couple walking holding hands with sunset and palmsOccasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients.  So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film.  Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing.  People like it or hate it.  I hated it.  As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety.  My husband liked it.  He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why?  Because I didn’t let the girl get away.”  I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading.  Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry.  It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection.  The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.

Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar.  She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths.  And guess what?  Everything looked perfect.  Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else.  Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.

Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence).  For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.

I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships.  They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out.  In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.”  This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.

As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children.  Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues.  When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.

There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative) is worth pursuing.  People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits.  They are likely to have better sex lives.  Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement.  Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship.  Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.

Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.

  1. Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really?  This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed.  It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
  2. Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist.  I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh.  Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people.  The internet is full of ideas.  Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options.  Be spontaneous.  Be unpredictable.
  3. Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself.  I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
  4. Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
  5. Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I.  I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school.  I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet.  A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me.  FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
  6. Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection.  If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority.  Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
  7. Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
  8. Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above).  It only takes 12 things.  You can do it!
  9. Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit.  “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No.  I like the way you think.”  If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me.  Thinking about it brings me joy.
  10. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow.  This isn’t always automatic.  It takes effort.
  11. Different person, different problems.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems.  Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
  12. Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism.  In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.”  I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way.  John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.”  I believe that.

I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood.  He said, “Uh oh.  Mom’s in a bad mood.  OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.”  Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song.  I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.”  “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect.  I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.

In the game of long-term love, effort matters.  Refuse to be boring.  You will up your happiness quotient.

I Predict.  (A little something for my Sparks fans)

Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs.  Time Magazine Special Edition.  Published by Time, Inc., New York.

Photo credit: Copyright: gllphotography / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom.  I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag.  This is me surrendering.  You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.”  He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before.  Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore.  “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas?  You win.  I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh.  Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already.  We’ve done everything in there.”

“What? No we haven’t!”  I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’”  “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.

“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.”  My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real.  Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”

Oh.  He was right.  I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure.  I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?”  The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us.  I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list.  I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else.  In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.

I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something.  This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships.  They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected.  I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.

Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability.  In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships.  The dates don’t need to be complex.  It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.

This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out.  I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband.  I think it has made a big difference for us.

Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness.  I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things.  One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant.  As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie.  We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.”  When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist.  Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date.  Novel.  Check.  Experience.  Check.  Memories.  Check.  Happiness.  Check.

So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead.  If necessary, both.  Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.

Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy.  Or a divorce.

*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.

**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Improving Marriage by Building a House of Memories

40809334 - girl holding instant photo of young happy coupleSince many popular songs address romantic relationships, I often recognize common themes that show up in couples therapy.  Earlier this year, I began listening to House of Memories by Panic! At The Disco because it was congruent with my general preference for minor scales and chords, or as my husband calls it, my “brooding dark side.”

The opening lyrics immediately caught my attention.  Lead singer Brendon Urie croons, “If you’re a lover you should know, the lonely moments just get lonelier, the longer you’re in love, than if you were alone.”  Consistently, couples report that being with a partner and feeling alone is lonelier than actually being alone.

I view this lonely feeling as a huge risk factor in marriage, because it is these moments, just as House of Memories, suggests, when people float back in their minds to previous relationships which they imagine as more satisfying than the present lonely relationships. Because it’s so easy to connect with past relationship partners through technology, the risk factor of loneliness in marriage is likely more threatening to relationship stability than in the past.

As the song progresses, the chorus repeats, “Baby, we built this house on memories, take my picture now, shake it ‘til you see it, and when your fantasies become your legacy, promise me a place in your house of memories.”  I believe the song is suggesting that an individual wants to be remembered with fondness by a past lover, and is somehow hinting that the memories are associated with a more powerful connection than a present relationship.

Unfortunately, many people experience life by living in the past instead of intentionally generating ongoing memories in the present.  Memories in relationships matter because they are related to perceptions of the present relationship and to future happiness and stability.  Memories of the past are also shaped by the present emotional environment in a relationship.

We can influence our emotions and hope for the future by strategically accessing specific memories and generating new ones.  Here are some ways to maximize the power of marital memories to influence future happiness and stability.

  1. Recall and revisit the moment you fell in love. I like to tell my husband that I fell in love with him because I fell in love with his father (but not in a creepy way).  My husband had invited me skiing with him, his father and a bunch of male friends over President’s Day weekend.  As the day progressed, my husband was trying to coax me down a black diamond hill of moguls which I knew exceeded my skill level.  His father volunteered, “You go with your friends and I will stay with her.”  He accompanied me down the slopes, skiing to the bottom of a hill and waiting for me at various points while I skied down at my pace.  This was the first time I met him, and I was embarrassed that he had to wait for me.  Eventually, I said, “I’m really sorry you got stuck with me,” and he warmly replied, “Oh, it’s ok.  I prefer taking a slower pace down the mountain anyway.”  I knew my father-in-law, who highly identifies with his Norwegian ski roots, was just trying to make me feel better, but he was an incredibly safe and warm person.  I thought to myself, “If Steve is anything like his father, he will be a great husband.”  This event was a tipping point in our relationship, and I remember it every February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a ski date.
  1. Identify a past struggle you have overcome together.  Speaking of my father-in-law, a difficult event for my husband and me occurred when he suffered a head injury in a cycling accident.  While my father-in-law was in a coma for weeks, I think I cried more than I ever had previously in my life, because he had always been so kind to me.  My husband considered his father his best friend and was understandably devastated.  When he finally came out of his coma, he recognized that he had a relationship with my husband, but when my husband asked if he knew who I was, he smiled and said, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s really really cute.” I was so happy to have my father-in-law back.  We recall how we counted on each other emotionally and spiritually during this time, and we are so glad that he’s still around.
  1. Look at photos of key happy moments.  Our present feelings can be influenced by the recollection of memories.  Sometimes viewing photos of key moments, like a child’s birth or a favorite vacation can elicit positive hopeful feelings.  Looking at one of my children’s scrapbooks is a powerful source of happiness for me.
  1. Spend money on experiences instead of things. Recent happiness research suggests that people get more bang for their buck in happy memories from experiences rather than things.  I can elicit immediate happy feelings from remembering a time when I was overwhelmed with 5 small children and my husband surprised me by driving me to the airport for a spontaneous trip to Monterey, Carmel and Bug Sur in California. He knew I loved the California coast from my childhood experiences and wanted to recreate that for me.

As the song House of Memories suggests, our fantasies do become our legacies, but we can continually shape those fantasies by focusing on positive memories in our core relationships.

References:

How a couple views their past predicts the future: Predicting divorce from an oral history interview by Buehlman, K.T., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.F. (1991) Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318. 

Revision in memories of relationship development: Do biases persist over time? by Frye, N.E. and Karney, B.R. (2004). Personal Relationships, 11, 79-97.

Photo credit: Copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Love, marriage

Back to the Future Marriage Edition: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself as a New Year Begins

couple futureI am not a New Year’s resolutions kind of gal.  I am more of a “lifestyle,” approach person, attempting to maintain preferred habits and patterns with consistent evaluation and correction throughout the year.  There is nothing magical about January 1st for me, and the word “resolution,” is too loaded, as it often sets people up for failure.  The grandiosity is what bothers me.  People often set themselves up with grand expectations.  When they can’t meet those self-imposed expectations, they get discouraged and give up.

I know that the start of a new year is when many people are aware of life changes they want to make for the future, and as a marriage therapist, of course, I wonder how this motivation may be used to enhance relationships.

When I meet with people who are contemplating what to do about their marriages, I ask them to ponder, “What will my marriage look like in five years if nothing changes?”  I follow this query up with specific considerations, such as the impact on children as they developmentally advance during that time period, or how the individual will feel being five years older in the same situation.  When people carefully consider the future, this often impacts their present opinions and behaviors.

There is a common saying in therapy that, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”  This concept plays out repetitively when people are mired down in destructive patterns.  My reason for asking the aforementioned question is to help people understand that if they want things to be different, they must start changing something NOW in order to avoid feel stuck in the future.

Certainly, there are environmental changes that can peripherally impact people passively, even if they aren’t taking proactive measures to change their situations.  Economies shift, children grow older, financial pressures change, etc.  In some cases, it is true that marital situations can just improve on their own if the couple just waits until the kids get a little older, or if other current stressors dissipate over time.

More often than not, it seems, couples set themselves on a passive course toward marital drift.  While they are stuck, or waiting for something to change, their disconnection can increase, resentment can build, and hopelessness can set in, keeping couples from ever repairing the relationship.

If the patterns you currently perpetuate in your marriage are leading you toward the course you want in five years, congratulations!  That’s great!  Your children will thank you for it, and you will likely transition into new life cycle stages with grace.

However, if when you ask yourself the above question, the scenario appears bleak and burdensome, ask yourself what small changes you can make today in order to shift your life to what you want.  For some people, that might mean changing an attitude or apologizing.  For some, it might mean altering expectations or finding small ways to show appreciation for a spouse.  It could be as simple as going back and looking at wedding photos to remember why your partner is the one you chose.  If you want to feel closer physically, find a small way to demonstrate physical affection.

If you are in an abusive situation, it might mean making a call to a domestic violence shelter to get information about how to leave an abusive relationship.  If you are addicted to a substance, it might mean googling addictions recovery information, or asking a friend for support.

If you know you want the marriage to be different, but feel overwhelmed about where to start, google, “How to improve my marriage,” and resources galore will be at your fingertips.  Simply reading about marital improvement is a legitimate small change.

I have heard it said that the hardest part about going running is putting on your running shoes.  I can relate to this as a runner.  I often dread the thought of experiencing physical pain for an hour, and delay putting on my shoes, but once they are on and I am dressed for running, it is easy to take those few steps out the door and continue on until I am finished.  Sometimes I have even said to myself, “Just put on your shoes and then see how you feel,” with no firm commitment to the entire process, recognizing that once they are on, I still have the prerogative to take them off without running if I choose.

I think this principle applies to marriages.  Sometimes the first step toward changing the trajectory is the largest hurdle, and yet waiting for things to happen is a very risky proposition when it comes to relationships.

If you want your marriage to look differently in five years, write down the small things that are within your power to change things and choose one.  I also tell people that if they are making changes and nothing is changing in their marriage, then that is important feedback information for evaluating the next step.  Unfortunately, sometimes that might mean ending a destructive relationship, but even the painful process of ending a relationship is preferable to feeling powerless and victimized by others, for most people.

Remember, if you feel so overwhelmed that the suggestions in this post seem like too much work, just ask yourself the question and write down the answer.  That’s all.  Odds are that it will at least promote thinking about changing current behaviors, and that is just the start of potentially huge change.