Couples, marriage

Go Team Us! Marriage as the Original Team Sport

4554234 - man and woman fists isolated on white backgroundI’m always amused by watching IKEA ads featuring couples assembling furniture.  Observing this process provides cues for how well they work together as a team.  It’s also one of the few times I can feel smug, since assembling furniture is one of the things my husband and I do well together—my tolerance for reading instructions combined with his patience and ability to focus usually combine for construction success.  There are other times, however, when we can’t seem to align our actions for effective teamwork and end up disconnected.

When we had two very young children, we went on a Caribbean cruise.  After locating our cabin, we reviewed the schedule of activities and decided we would enter a doubles ping pong tournament, since we both liked to play and were sort of okay at it.

When it was time to play, we noticed that we were the only husband/wife team that signed up together.  The other teams were represented exclusively by the husbands from the other couples.  All the wives were in the cheering section.  I felt intimidated and suggested that we drop out if no other wives were going to play.  I wasn’t excited to play against all males.

My husband insisted that we were just there to have fun and told me to stop worrying about it and that I didn’t need brute strength to play against men.  Surprisingly, after several games, we found ourselves in the final round for the chance to be tournament champions.  I was worried that I wouldn’t play up to par and my husband would be disappointed, because when it comes to sports he can be a little competitive.  The last thing I wanted was to lose the tournament for us.

A few minutes into the game, we were ahead by 8 points and within only a few points of winning the entire tournament.  I was confident that if I just played the same way I had been playing, we would win.  The other team served and I returned the ball.  When it came back to my husband, he slammed it so hard it hit the wall behind the other team, missing the table, awarding the point to our competitors.  I looked at him like, “What just happened?”

We were still ahead by 7, so I wasn’t too worried.  However, as the ball went into play, we repeated the exact same playing sequence and lost the point again.  This happened four times in a row when I whispered to my husband, “OK Hulk, we’re ahead.  All we have to do is return the ball consistently every time until they mess up.  You don’t need to hit that hard to finish them off!  Can Bruce Banner come back for the rest of the game?”

Apparently, my husband was under some kind of alpha-male posturing spell, and just couldn’t help himself.  He continued his aggressive display until the score was tied.  For several minutes, we alternated points until the other team beat us by two after my clearly possessed spouse once again slammed the ball off the table.

My husband is a far better ping pong player than I am on any day of the week.  I can hold my own against him, but ultimately he always wins.  In this case, however, he admitted (shockingly) that he lost the tournament for us that day.

I was annoyed with him, but I let it go because it was just a ping pong match.  However, I felt some distress that we had devolved from a team working together to two separate individuals with different agendas.  He had gone rogue on me and I couldn’t get him back.  He was unreachable.

A silly ping pong tournament is trivial, but for many couples, this pattern develops over time in marriage.  A couple may start out together with unified goals but after having children and facing other life transitions and external stressors which threaten to divide them, they may find themselves living like roommates without a common cause.  Rather than using the potential energy from a marital team, they resort to individual strategies which can sabotage the team’s unity, and they stop consulting with one another entirely.

A marital relationship is greater than the sum of its parts.  If a couple works together, they can accomplish more than they could individually.  Couples who have a strong sense of “we-ness,” identify themselves in relationship to their partners and display higher marital commitment.  In short, these marital systems are generally more efficient and feel safer and more predictable for the children in the family.

If you have lost your sense of “we-ness,” here are some tips for getting back on track; I’ll use the acronym GO TEAM US just for fun:

  1. G – is for Goal-setting. What specific things do you want to accomplish together this year?  In 5 years?  In 20 years?  Dream together.
  2. O – is for Optimism. I purposely chose this word because couples lose optimism so quickly if they feel negative emotion.  Negative emotion is absorbing!  It can take great intentionality to step out of it.  How would an optimist think about your situation?
  3. T – is for Traits.  What traits do each of you bring to the team that can complement each other?  I can be impatient but efficient, and my husband is generally more patient and process-oriented.  Our differences can drive us crazy or work to our benefit, depending on how we use them.
  4. E – is for Encouragement. Good teammates encourage each other.  I know if I’m ever worried about something my husband will be my best cheerleader.
  5. A – is for Adaptation. As a couple moves toward conjoint goals in life, perhaps the most important skill is adaptation, or being flexible in problem-solving.  Unfortunately, couples in distress tend to get discouraged and more rigid, limiting rather than expanding their options.  Rigidity suffocates creativity.
  6. M – is for Maintenance. Couples can drift from cooperation because they aren’t maintaining or managing their joint relationship goals.  Intentionally create check-ins for where you’re at and where you want to be in your co-created journey through life.
  7. U – is for Understanding. Perhaps the most underutilized of couple strategies for teamwork.  Ask your partner what he/she thinks you may not understand about him/her or his/her desires.  Repeat it back in your own words to make sure you’re really on track.
  8. S – is for Sacrifice. Being part of a team means making some individual sacrifices.  Think of small sacrifices you can make right now to help you achieve your team goals.

While this seems overly simplistic, regrouping as a team really can be that simple.

One thing I love hearing as a therapist when I am meeting a couple is when they tell me that they “work well together as a team,” because I know their odds for therapy success are higher if that’s their perception.

Marriage is absolutely the original team sport….but you have to decide to get in the game.

Copyright: violin / 123RF Stock Photo

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Couples, Family

March Madness and my Mom’s Magnanimous Matrimonial Model

basketballMarch Madness is an annual holiday at my house.  My son sent out a family text reminder yesterday to everyone to set up their brackets.  My husband has trained all 7 of his children to care about basketball (or die).  It has been a source of fun and frustration in my home for years.

When my oldest son was 13, my husband quietly hung a poster-sized photo in his room.  The photo was one his own father had taken of him making a shot at a state championship basketball game a few decades earlier.  He waited.  After several days with no response from my son, my husband asked, “Did I see a picture hanging in your room of an amazing athlete shooting a basket?”  My son, unimpressed and teenagery, replied, “I don’t know about that, but there’s a picture of some weirdo wearing basketball shorts that are too short.”

The culture permeates every aspect of family life.  In a recent family charades game, my husband picked out a slip of paper and started gesturing wildly, jumping with a hip-contorting sideways motion, arms over his head.  Everyone in the room looked confused, except my youngest son, who yelled out, “Larry Bird!”  “What the heck?  How did you get Larry Bird from that?” I asked.  My husband looked surprised that I wouldn’t know.  “That’s his shot…he’s famous for it,” he explained, sparing me the word, “OBVIOUSLY!”  “Oh….Yeah,” I said, rolling my eyes at my future daughter-in-law, “How did I miss that?”

Until my husband tore a ligament in his foot about a decade ago, and was completely grounded for over a year, basketball was his main escape.  He was either playing, coaching or watching.  I think he had more fun coaching his son’s championship team than winning anything himself, even though I have accused him of trying to relive his glory days’ state championship game through his children.  It’s one of the few things he gets intense about.

My son of the championship team walked in the door from a game his father coached, tattling, “Mom, dad  got kicked out of the game.”  “Really?” I was shocked.  My calm husband is not someone who typically gets riled up…unless it involves basketball…and he’s “had it up to here with the horrible calls.”    He’s completely okay and understanding with anything his kids do…unless any of them have “an ugly shot,” which is unforgivable.  He will say I’m exaggerating.  I say, ask his children.   Once, when the kids wanted to go see a movie with a Disney actor playing the part of a basketball player, my husband refused, because, “There’s nothing more painful than having to sit and watch an actor who doesn’t know how to play basketball pretend to be a basketball player.”

I should have known.  I had a foreshadowing the first time I told him I loved him, 6 months after we met.  From a few weeks after we met until March Madness 1987, he was at least weekly declaring his love and intent to marry me, but I had no interest in getting serious.  Finally, after a lot of internal struggle, because I liked him but didn’t want a long-term relationship, but couldn’t stand the thought of losing him either, I sat down next to him on the couch in his apartment and haltingly said, “I’ve been thinking a lot…and we have a lot in common….and we want the same things for our future and family…and I guess what I’m trying to say is….I think I love you.”  He sat staring straight ahead at the television set, which was broadcasting a very important basketball game.  I said, “Hello?  Did you hear what I just said?”  He glanced at me and gestured toward the TV, “Did you see that dunk?!!” He asked.

“OK, see you later,” I said, standing up to leave.  He grabbed my arm, laughing.  “Wait.  It’s just taking a minute to sink in.  You’ve been rejecting me for months.  I’m not sure I believe you.”  Over the years, “Did you see that dunk?” has become a tagline for one of us to recite if we feel ignored.

I know from marriage therapy experience that I’m not the only wife who is a basketball widow, at least during March.  My mother is gone now, but she set a great example for me that I have not taken to heart.  When my husband says, “Why can’t you be more like your mother?” he is referring to my mother’s ability to talk sports with him every time we visited.  She always knew what was happening in the sports world, and it was rather impressive, especially considering her age.  My husband used to sit and talk sports with her like she was one of his buddies.

Except I’m not her.

My mother told me that if she wanted to have a conversation with my father, she needed to be able to sports speak.  She read everything she could and paid attention.  My father had season tickets to the Dodgers, and it dominated a large part of my childhood.  I remember being at the 1977 World Series, heart-broken when Mr. October led the Yankees to victory in our home stadium.  Despite the exposure and my mother’s consistent chatter about various players in the news, I never quite adopted her authentic enthusiasm and motivation to be sports literate.

However, I think my mom’s attitude was a great example for marriage.  Instead of whining that my father cared more about sports than her, she tried to speak his language.  My father loved my mother.  He was devastated when she died.  He did so many things for her to make her life better, and I’m certain that her willingness to take part in his interests motivated him to meet her more than half way.

In a culture of individualism, I don’t think my mother’s philosophy is very popular.  I can imagine a rebuttal, accusing my mother of “losing herself,” for someone else, or the more egregious “forfeiting her identity completely.”  However, my mother didn’t lose anything.  She gained a trustworthy companion whose joy was her own and vice-versa.  She secured an enduring connection with her romantic life-partner.

Maybe this will be the year that I follow my mother’s example and really learn basketball speak.  I made a deal with my husband that I will…but only if he brings back the short basketball shorts…along with the Larry Bird move…and a slam dunk.

It’s a small price to pay to see that winning combination…and the look on my son’s face.

Photo credit: Copyright: antoniodiaz / 123RF Stock Photo