In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott talks about an argument she had with her then teenaged son. His behavior infuriated her and she wanted to punish him. She managed to take a few deep breaths and then shared the above thought and it has helped me so much in my marriage.
I always feel like I’m right in an argument. Always. (Um, who doesn’t?) If I share my woes with my friends and other family members, they always agree with me too. But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because I don’t live with them. I live with my husband and I’ve learned that I’d rather be kind than right. It just feels better.
Again, it always takes me implementing my #1 ground rule in an argument (leave it) before I can access any kindness, but I have so much practice at it now that it’s gotten a lot easier to do (not easy, mind you, but easier).
Ask “What Can I Do to Help?”
I give good advice. People even pay me to give it to them! But you know who doesn’t think I give good advice? My husband. He hates it. He also doesn’t like when I “share a story of what I did in a similar situation that worked for me.”
Of course, I’ve never met anyone who likes receiving unsolicited advice. Solicited advice is different, of course. But my husband never solicits it. You know what my husband does like? If he is having a hard time, all I have to do is ask, “What can I do to help?” in a thoughtful, nonjudgmental way, and he acts like I’m the most wonderful, helpful person on the planet.
Make a positive request.
I know this is a shocker, but complaining, whining, making threats and demands doesn’t go over very well with my husband. I used to say things like, “You never…and I always…and just this once would you…just do it!” with shocking regularity.
The threats and demands may have gotten him to do the thing I wanted him to do, but not once did it feel good. I’ve learned to ask, “Would you be willing to…?” and I believe that simple question has magical powers.
There is a caveat: You ask the question with a positive tone, like “Hey, I got two tickets to the ball game, would you be willing to go?” If I ask with even a hint of a stern or complaining tone, my husband gives me a look that means that I might as well have just made a threat or a demand.
Of course, it’s taken me a lot practice to get to a place where I can achieve the tone and mean it. I still even make threats and demands. This is an area where I will always be making progress and never reach perfection. But I’m glad that I found something that works and allows us both to feel good, and that’s enough for me to keep trying.
Whatever you think is being withheld…give that thing.
Another guideline that I feel is indispensible in any relationship, I learned from one of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle. In his fabulous and (for me) life-changing book, A New Earth, he writes, “Whatever you think people are withholding from you – praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on – give it to them.”
This guideline really goes for everything with everyone at every time. It’s also one that requires a lot of practice on my part to achieve anything approximating proficiency.
Conflict with my husband often revolves around the feeling that we don’t appreciate each other enough. As parents of a young, highly spirited child, it usually takes the form of arguing for more “me” time because “if you appreciated my contribution, you’d understand my need for more time alone and find a way to meet it.”
I argued for it because I cared for needy patients all day. He argued for it because he cared for a needy toddler all day. We used to act resentful of the time the other got “off.”
Finally we stopped looking at what was being “withheld” and simply focused on finding creative solutions to “give that thing” that would meet our needs – first, appreciation for the valuable contribution each of us was making, and second, for time alone.
Finding creative solutions to meet everyone’s needs is one of the most powerful tools you can bring to any relationship, and it’s really is an essay unto itself (and Ruthie wrote about it here).
Make time for sex.
Don’t stop reading if you’re not having sex: in my opinion (note: this isn’t my husband’s opinion), one of the greatest benefits from sex comes from the release of oxytocin.
And as I mentioned in a former article, oxytocin is a wonder drug available to everybody. It’s a chemical dispensed from your own brain when you do stuff that involves caring touch – like holding hands, getting a massage, or petting an animal.
It’s called the bonding hormone because it increases our feelings of happy connection with others. So it doesn’t just make us feel good (which my husband thinks is the greatest benefit), it truly makes us better in a relationship.
As a woman who has a very full life with a very full to-do list every day, I know I wouldn’t have sex if I didn’t schedule it. The days of making love all night are o-v-e-r. My son is a night owl and it’s rare that I have enough energy after he goes to sleep to get it on spontaneously. But I believe in the many benefits of sex and I commit to it just like anything else that’s important to me, like eating well and getting cardio.
You know what? I just realized that all of these guidelines could be distilled into one sentence that not only works well for all relationships, but in all of life too: Have fun, be kind and just be light about all of it!
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