How Can You Love Your Spouse? Ask That Important Question!

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Having been a marriage and family therapist for a number of years, people often ask me what needs to happen in order to experience a good marriage. I’m really not a fan of that question because marriages vary between being good and being bad all the time. There are days, months, and years where marriages aren’t “good” and there are days, months, and years where marriages are great. Being happy in a marriage is transitory, it comes and goes and changes based on millions of situations, conditions, and variables. There are no perfect marriages and people who claim to have them are living a grand illusion. Whenever you ask two people to commit to one another for the rest of their lives it’s going to lead to problems because people aren’t perfect. Simple math reminds us that adding 1 imperfect person to another imperfect person only doubles the imperfections in the relationship.

There are a number of great researchers who have provided “best practices” for good marriages. Dr. John Gottman is one of my favorite marriage researchers and a great resource to help people develop solid practices and habits for experiencing a better marriage. However, even if you learn all the techniques, habits, and practices he shares with his readers, there’s no guarantee you’ll have a happy marriage. Happiness tends to be a fleeting experience that comes and goes with the changing seasons. It certainly isn’t a guaranteed state of existence.

I have found the best question to ask yourself in order to improve your marriage is very simple. The best thing to ask yourself is “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs to be loved?” Call it what you will, but the forces of the universe have led you to build a shared life with another person and that means life becomes about more than what you want. It means you have to think about what someone else needs from that shared experience the two of you are building. It’s also important to remember people change so to assume you have things figured out within the first two or three years of marriage is misguided. That’s why you need to ask that all-important question again and again while you’re married. You need to ask yourself, “How does my spouse need me to love them? What can I be doing now to give them the love they need?”

There are some general guidelines on how a man and a woman need to be loved. Some of the work I like the most has been provided by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn. They have two books, one called “For Women Only” and the other called “For Men Only.” The book called “For Women Only” provides research-backed information on how a man needs to be loved and likewise, the other book helps men know how women need to be loved. For example, when it comes to sex the book “For Women Only” reminds the ladies sex is more than a biological urge for a man. It reminds him that he is loved and desired and it gives him confidence. Sex is very important to men because deep within their psychology, it is an affirming act that words can’t replace. Likewise in the book “For Men Only” the guys are taught that listening is exceptionally important for the ladies. When men listen to their ladies they communicate that you are important and what you have to say matters. Women aren’t looking for men to fix their problems (and often men aren’t very good at fixing things anyway!) A women sharing her problems from the day isn’t asking her husband to fix her situation. Her emotional turmoil isn’t just another item you check off your to-do list. She wants you to focus on how she is feeling, not the problem. When a man realizes a woman feels loved when he is interested and invested in her emotions then things work out well. Men and women need to be loved in different ways.

While all of this is good and interesting, my main point still overrides these very good ideas. In the end, you aren’t just loving “some” man or “some” woman, you’re loving the person who has decided you’re the individual they want to be with until they take their last breath! That’s pretty powerful. So, while all of this general advice is good, what matters most is whether or not you are sincere when you ask yourself “How can I love my spouse in a way he or she needs loved and not in a way I think is best?” In the end that’s what matters. I’m not advocating for abuse or doing things that make you exceptionally uncomfortable, but an honest answer to that question will go a long way in building a relationship grounded in selfless love rather than self-interested speculation.


Extending Compassion to Your Enemy – The Crucial Part of Forgiveness

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In the discussions we’ve been having about forgiveness, I proposed the first two steps in this process involve 1) deciding to forgive the other person and 2) transforming your view of the individual from being a powerful monster to be a simple, broken, human being.  Both seem simple, but as you now know, these are difficult steps that require time, patience, and the willingness to be uncomfortable.  Deciding to forgive someone takes courage.  It’s like deciding to get surgery.  If you broke your arm when you were young and never had it correctly cared for you may have problems with it, but you learn to live with those problems.  As you get older that injury may start impacting your mobility and you may decide to get the arm fixed.  When you speak with the doctor she says, “I’ll have to break your arm again and reset it to correct your problems.”  If you’re like me, you start to think living with that crooked immobile arm might be okay!  Who wants to undergo so much voluntary pain when you’ve learned to live with the limitations of your injury?  When you decide to forgo the forgiveness process and live with the emotional limitations and deficits unforgiving people live with, you’re saying “No!” to the emotional equivalence of fixing a broken arm.  Sure, you don’t have to relive the pain of being hurt or try and see your offender in a more compassionate way, but you will live with limitations and pain.  Your health will suffer, your emotional life will suffer, and most importantly your future relationships will suffer.

Okay, so you need to decide to forgive someone and you need to start seeing them in a more compassionate way.  What’s the best way to do that? You start by making a commitment to stop ruminating on the hurt the individual caused you.  Plenty of evidence indicates a continued focus on how you’ve been hurt only perpetuates your anger and keeps you in a cycle of pain.  You have to say to yourself, “I will no longer focus on my hurt feelings, I will attempt to understand the person who hurt me in a more compassionate way.”  You’re not agreeing with what was done to you by being more compassionate nor are you trying to reconcile or befriend your offender.  You’re committing to the fact that you will no longer ruminate repeatedly about the pain you feel.  You’re committing to the fact that you will not be triggered into a painful cycle of hurt every time something reminds you of your offender or what happened to you.  You must commit to this process otherwise your subconscious will draw you into that negative cycle or rumination over and over again.

Once you commit yourself to the process you need to make a habit of extending compassion to yourself and the offender.  Give yourself time each day to reflect compassionately on your situation.  First, have compassion for yourself.  Know that your pain is real and it’s okay to be hurt by what was done.  There is no shame in it, you’re not weak, and it doesn’t mean you’re less of a person for struggling with being hurt.  Give yourself a healthy dose of compassion.  Then, recall the individual and the incident that caused you pain.  If there are multiple instances where this person hurt you the process needs repeating for each instance.  However, start with the first one that comes to mind.  Rate the amount of pain you feel with a number from 1 to 10.  Does the pain feel like an 8 or a 6?  Try and gauge the pain you feel as a result of what was done as best as you can.  Keep that number handy, it will be a good measure for determining if things are getting better later in the process.  It may go up at some point in the future, that’s not uncommon, or it may go down as you walk through the process.  The goal is that after a significant amount of time of practicing forgiveness you’ll feel less pain when you recall what was done.

Now the hard part.  Ask yourself why the person who hurt you did what they did.  Sure, your first responses are going to be that the individual is a monster with superpowers intent on inflicting pain on everyone they know, but you’ll get past that pretty quickly.  Now think about what causes people to be hurtful.  Think about how you’ve hurt other people and why you might have done that.  Did you feel pain from something and unintentionally strike out at others because of it?  Do people hurt others because deep down they’re insecure about something and maybe you unintentionally raised those insecurities to a new level of consciousness in them?  Were they abused as children, treated poorly in a bad marriage, or stepped on and mowed over by arrogant individuals at work?  Have they been made to feel powerless?  Spend time looking at the brokenness this individual might be experiencing.  You need the time to develop a compassionate view of the individual that doesn’t excuse their behavior but allows you to see them as they truly are, another broken person.

I want you to spend some time with this part of the process.  We haven’t forgiven them yet, but we have started to move in that direction when we reduce our negative rumination about our pain and see the offender as nothing more than a broken person.  You will slowly start to see the burden lift from your shoulders as you get closer to this view of them.  Give it time because you will probably slide back into that negative rumination over your own pain.  Your desire for justice is deeply rooted in who you are and will always be there.  The goal is to find a way to temper it with mercy.  No one says this is easy, but it is the key to the freedom you deserve.

We’ll look at the next steps in the following posts that allow you to complete the forgiveness process.  However, my experience finds this is the most difficult part of the process and the one that challenges people the most.  Think of it as climbing the summit of what might be the psychological mountain of Mount Everest.  If you can get here, you can finish strong.  Let me help you get there.