When I thank someone here in the Cook Islands for excellence, whether in music, dance, cleaning or cuisine, people often say “Still learning.” I’m still learning after 36 years of a (mostly) happy marriage. Dan and I celebrated our anniversary this week, and I said to him, “It’s a miracle.” Meaning, we’re still together — happy, in love, and closer than ever, after decades of sickness and health, richer and poorer times. We’re pretty much opposites, and have tested each other mightily. Thank goodness for the fact that opposites attract!
I believe that marriage is God’s laboratory, where we get to do some of our most important soul work. What other relationship wears down the rough edges of character? Where else can we develop so much love, patience, self-control, forgiveness and every other virtue?
Why are we touched by seeing an elderly couple laughing together, holding hands? Long-lasting love gives us hope. On the other hand, some couples exist for years tossed in the “Troubled C’s” of control, criticism, contempt, and contention. I remember being in a hotel steam room when an elderly gentleman walked in. My first thought was that I was grateful for the bathing suit rule! We started chatting, and I found him to be a gentle, interesting, humorous person. Suddenly, a blast of cold air hit us as the door opened and a woman growled in a disgusted tone, “Why are you still here? You always keep me waiting! Get out here now!” He sighed and said, “I’m just an old fool. I’m always too slow for my wife.” I thought “Nothing is worth the loss of dignity, respect and love between two people.” This woman had several choices. She could have gone shopping without him, allowing him his own pace, or made a simple, positive request: “Darling would you be willing to get ready now, so we can go shopping?” There are three virtues that apply in intimate relationships to keep us from sinking under the troubled C’s of relationship. To replace these negative habits of thought and communication, apply the virtues of Acceptance, Appreciation, and Assertiveness.
Acceptance: Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han says, “Each person has his or her own suchness. If we want to live in peace and happiness, we have to see the suchness of that person…understand him or her, and there will be no trouble. We can live peacefully and happily together.” I asked a loving couple, “What’s your secret?”
The wife answered, “We’ve been happy for more than fifty years. I don’t know if it’s a secret, but I never tell him how to drive.” She was accepting rather than controlling.
It’s essential to accept your partner’s feelings rather than ridiculing, arguing or ignoring them. When a problem arises, don’t get furious, get curious. “What bothers you about what I’m doing?” Listen well, not defensively but with openness, detachment and humility. Listening to understand their point of view helps your spouse get to the heart of the matter rather than escalating emotionally. Companioning is magic, and can bring peaceful solutions.
Appreciation: Expressing appreciation, especially using Virtues Language, meets a deep need everyone has to be loved and valued. “That was kind of you, Sweetheart.” “I appreciate your wise advice.” “You’re gentle with our kids.” Look, appreciate, smile, touch (LAST) is a simple way to replace habits of negativity. Simple, but they can bring a powerful transformation.
Assertiveness: Develop clear boundaries based on justice, deciding what you will do about a disappointment, rather than repeatedly experiencing the needless pain and frustration of attempting to control your spouse. Alcoholics Anonymous has a great saying, “Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” Discern what you need, then assertively and tactfully ask. If your partner cannot deliver, find another way to meet that need, through friendship or by taking care of yourself.
Never make demands. Your partner is likely to resist. Make simple, positive requests. Tell your partner what you do want, rather than criticizing them for what they’re not giving you or what they’re doing wrong. Set a boundary about what you will do if an essential problem continues unresolved.
Lastly, it’s wise to remember words on a pink sweatshirt Dan bought for me: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. Another is “Happy wife, happy life.” If truth be told, our happiness is our own responsibility, and it sheds joy and positivity on everyone around us.