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.

The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process

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If you’ve decided you want to be more forgiving you need to be patient with yourself.  forgiveness is a process and one that requires several steps, stages, and tasks to complete.  It’s important to remember forgiveness does not come naturally, it’s something we grow into.  We struggle to be forgiving because of that deep sense of justice I described in my previous post.  However, like other virtues, you can practice numerous behaviors and thought processes that help you become more forgiving.  Forgiveness is like love, it’s not just a feeling we have, it’s a decision we make.  Love is a choice and sometimes we choose to love difficult people.  Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes we choose to forgive someone who seems unforgivable for treating us in an unforgivable way.

If you look at the numerous studies and theories published on forgiveness in psychology journals you find most identify three primary components as part of the process.  These components are 1) changing your perspective of the offending party to be more balanced and realistic, 2) decreasing the negative feelings toward the offending party and attempting to increase some level of empathy/compassion for them, and 3) letting go of the idea the person who hurt you should pay you back for what was done or receive the justice they deserve.  I’m going to address all three of these components at some point, but in this post, I want to start with the fact you need to decide if you’re ready to exercise forgiveness in the first place.  I’ve said forgiveness is a choice, and you need to really ask yourself if you’re ready to make that choice.  One way to come to that conclusion is by assessing how not being a forgiving person is impacting your life.  Simply put, how is your unwillingness to forgive a particular hurt and pain you experienced keeping you from being the loving person you could be?

The basic consequence of not forgiving someone who hurt you is living with anger.  Anger is a natural response to being treated unjustly and when someone hurts you anger emerges as a response to that unjust act.  Maybe you were treated as if you didn’t matter, you were never listened to in your family, or you were treated as the family servant and everyone walked all over you.  These actions are unjust and when you realize how you’ve been treated, you get angry.  However, recognizing anger in ourselves is often a very painful experience.  So, instead of acknowledging we’re angry because we’re hurt (Some people don’t like to do this because they believe it makes them weak or a “bad” person) we find other ways to express that anger.  No one likes pain.  Emotional pain, like physical pain, is something we will do almost anything to avoid.  Robert Enright writes in his book, “Forgiveness is a Choice” the following regarding acknowledging anger:

“Realizing that you are angry can be very painful, but forgiveness is not about pretending that nothing happened or hiding from the pain.  You have suffered and need to be honest with yourself about that suffering.”

So, before you go through any of those three previously mentioned components in the forgiving process, ask yourself if you’re ready to acknowledge your anger and experience the pain it has produced in its most raw form.  Instead of shoving it deep down inside, ignoring it, transferring it to other people, and letting it destroy your relationships, ask yourself if you’re brave enough to acknowledge how avoiding anger has negatively impacted your life?  If you are ready, ask yourself these questions to assess how much anger has spread into the physical, emotional, mental, relational, and transcendent aspects of your life.  Enright lists these questions as tools to explore your anger:

  • How have you avoided dealing with anger?
  • Have you faced your anger?
  • Are you afraid to expose your shame or guilt about a situation?
  • Has your anger affected your health?
  • Have you been obsessed about the injury or with thoughts about the person who hurt you?
  • Do you compare your situation with that of the offender?
  • Has the injury caused a permanent change in your life?
  • Has the injury changed how you view the world?

This is where I want you to start.  Take a week or so and think about these questions, journal about them, meditate on them, and ponder them.  Do whatever works for you but assess as best as you can how anger, caused by your unwillingness to forgive a past hurt in your life, has spread through your world like cancer and negatively impacted your potential to live well.  Once you do that, you may feel more motivated to start the forgiveness process.