What’s the Secret?

I bought flowers and a card for my long-suffering wife (LSW) at the farmer’s market recently. The woman who made and sold me the anniversary card asked, “So how many years?” My mind went totally blank and so I just threw out a ballpark number, “twenty-six.” Since it was our twenty-third, I should have added “give or take three years.”

Then she asked, “What’s the secret?”

Many of my family members, friends, and acquaintances would probably be surprised to learn just how much of a roller coaster LSW’s and my journey has been and how fiery we can get when arguing. Our relationship has been more like a John Daly scorecard than a Corey Pavin one, a constantly changing mix of birdies, pars, bogeys, and the dreaded “other”.

Since I don’t have the LSW’s permission to write in any more detail (damn, have I gone too far already, did I just make another bogey without realizing it?) about our roller coaster ride, allow me to segue into reflecting on what can and often does go wrong in committed relationships whether marriage or variations of it. Also, I’d rather ride the Tour de France on a single speed with flatted tires than read 99% of  the “self-help” books in print, but this one by Gottman is a rare exception that’s influencing my thinking a lot.

Despite the twenty-three years, I really don’t feel like I’m in any position to offer relationship advice. I’ve been humbled by how challenging the long haul intimate relationship can be. So what I cautiously offer are two closely related “observations” or “thoughts” or “pitfalls best to avoid” and one “suggestion”.

Observation/thought/pitfall to avoid one A. Typical scenario. Each person gets busy with separate activities (work, child rearing, athletics, gardening, church, etc., etc.) and before you know it, even if most of the activities are socially redeeming, each person loses touch with the specifics of the other person’s activities. Put differently, intimacy is inevitably compromised when partners have too few mutual interests, too few mutual friends, too few dinners together alone.

Observation/thought/pitfall to avoid one B. My assumption. Everyone in a committed intimate relationship annoys their partner in differing ways to differing degrees. Annoyance is a natural, common thread, so the all important question is whether the partners communicate consistently enough about what’s annoying each of them to avoid having run-of-the-mill irritations build into serious, relationship threatening resentment?

I’m guilty of not communicating consistently enough and for letting small things build into medium-sized and larger impediments. I’m sure I’m the only male for whom that’s true though.

Gottman says partners don’t have to have that many shared activities, but they do have to be intentional about inquiring into one another’s. He also says partners don’t have to practice active listening and get along all the time. He even asserts it’s okay to complain to one another which he contrasts with criticizing. A complaint refers to a specific, one-off type of issue that’s relatively easy to resolve where criticism involves disparaging the other person’s character usually as result of built up resentment.

The suggestion is my personal “secret” to holding it together through thick and thin. Take the ultimate solution, the complete severing and ending of the relationship, off the table. In effect, what I’ve said to the LSW during the most distressing of our rollercoaster dips is, “I’m not going anywhere.” The message being, “I’m not sure how right now, but somehow we have to resolve this.”

That’s what I should have told the card maker, but I’m guessing that would have been TMI.

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