The 3 Non-Negotiable Baselines of Marriage (#3:Charity)

Charity-There is a particular truth that we teach at our Couples Retreats that always creates a significant stir in our couples: Research shows that at any given time in a reasonably happy marriage you will like or admire about 85% of everything about your partner. That means that generally speaking there will be around 15% that you might find irritating or frustrating about their actions, habits, practices, words, etc. Those percentages might be higher for some, lower for others; the important thing is that you will never live with a marriage partner who is perfect. There will always be something that, if you had a magic wand, you might wave it at your partner to change the way they squeeze the toothpaste tube or how they are always late for appointments.

Upon reflection it is a good thing we don’t have that magic wand. Marriage is meant to be the great classroom, the finishing school in the development of our character–and character is developed most thoroughly as we grow in patience and forgiveness of those around us. Could we shape our spouse to fit our particular version of perfection we would grow flaccid, jaded, and even bored. Worst of all, we would never develop the key principle of Charity in our lives.

Charity is utterly indispensable in a marriage. It allows us to let go of harsh feelings. When charity has been abandoned, when the principle of forgiveness is traded for retaliation, the light of hope in a relationship becomes ever dimmer.

Without charity and accompanying forgiveness, the weight of real and imagined offenses grows ever greater, eventually crushing both partners and the relationship. It’s something like a house that is never cleaned. Eventually the dirty dishes, laundry, messy housegarbage, and junk overwhelm the home and whoever has the misfortune to live there. If we don’t have a way to remove the refuse that might build up in our marriages, represented by hurt, bitterness, and mistakes, the relationship will eventually cease to function.

Charity will be the great challenge in most marriages, but it also brings with it the sweetest rewards of peace, growing love, and mutual respect. These are gifts beyond compare.

The Three Baselines- A couple has the responsibility to work out many issues in their marriage. Finances, children, careers, in-laws, and a hundred other things will demand our problem solving skills. But we have seen many successful marriages in which partners did not quite see eye-to-eye on money or how to discipline their children. But we have never seen what we would define as a happy marriage that existed outside the boundaries of basic Civility, Fidelity, and Charity.

If you find yourself in a relationship where one or more of these areas is showing signs of decay, don’t panic. The good news is that awareness is half the battle and experience has shown that committed couples can quickly make real progress in turning things around in these baselines, and as they do they always experience an enormous upturn in happiness and fulfillment in the relationship.

The 3 Non-Negotiable Baselines of Marriage (#2:Fidelity)


In last weeks post I stated that there are three areas of a relationship that are not open to negotiation in terms of best-efforts always being put forth by both partners. Certainly we are all human and make mistakes, and forgiveness (which will be introduced in the part 3 post of this series) is a strengthening and enobling principle. We certainly get to cut each other some slack.

But as I stated last week, no one should have to long endure a lack of  basic civility in their marriage. And certainly a pattern of infidelity to relationship vows will always tear at its very heart.Wedding Rings

This weeks baseline, Fidelity, would probably show up #1 on most couples list of marriage taboos and be among the hardest betrayals of trust to forgive.

In the music world fidelity means a trueness to real sound, the ability to capture the sound on a recording that we hear in the music hall. In marriage fidelity refers to remaining true to our marriage vows, not only those of physical fidelity, but also those other promises to love and honor, to put no one or no thing above our partner. And that creates beautiful music, indeed.

Fidelity represents the desire to be together and remain loyal to one another.

In our work at LIFE Marriage Retreats we see many couples who have experienced physical or emotional infidelity in their relationship. In virtually every case there is real remorse and regret for the betrayal and a deep desire to seek forgiveness and to forgive, and to strengthen the marriage as they deal with the issue then put it behind them. Time after time we see couples weather the storm and move to higher and happier ground.

If, on the other hand, the commitment to the marriage vows has become so weak that a pattern of infidelities arises and a partner has no intention to be or remain faithful, much of the point of the marriage has been abandoned.

The Tiger Woods situation has raised many questions regarding marriage fidelity and its place in any marriage, whether high profile celebrity or factory worker and homemaker.

I don’t know where Woods is in his attempts to heal himself and his marriage after years of abusing his vows. Perhaps a part of him is still upset at getting caught and just wishing he had been more careful. But if he is in recovery at all, he will eventually come to the day when he says, “Thank God I got caught. Because at that time, I and my character were in free-fall. When I had to admit the problem is when I stopped falling and began the long climb back to being a true man.” We wish him well in that recovery, because indeed, he has been, and taken his family to, a very dark and unhappy place.

It would be difficult to find a better measure for a man or woman than their willingness and ability to stay true to one another and their promises and vows. It is indeed, a baseline.

Stay true. Please stay true.

The 3 Non-Negotiable Baselines of Marriage (#1:Civility)

At our Couples Retreats one of our favorite topics of discussion revolves around the fact that, at least in this lifetime, none of us will ever live with a perfect partner who does and is everything we think they should do and be.

This leads to the inescapable conclusion that if we are to remain sane and happy in our marriages there are certain things that we will get to learn to live with and to forgive in one another. We have great fun with this subject at our Marriage Retreats and in every case our couples discover that, indeed, they can happily cut one another some slack regarding certain irritations and foibles, especially when they know that their partner is doing their best to build a better self and relationship. But the patience represented by such relationship generosity is not the topic of this and other upcoming posts.

Our intent here is to identify several areas that we refer to as Baselines of Marriage.  A baseline is defined as “an imaginary line or standard by which things are measured or compared.” In this case we will point to three components of a relationship that must be maintained above a certain line or standard, and cannot forever be simply shrugged off or patiently endured if behavior sags.

Should one or both partners be engaged in behavior that consistently violates one or more of these baselines, they must work through appropriate means to improve the situation or will face the weakening and eventual collapse of their relationship foundation.

Today we will consider the first of these baseline relationship requirements:

Civility– To go out into the world and exercise common courtesies and graciousness then return home and treat our loved ones with indifference or meanness is unconscionable. While we all have a bad day occasionally and might, in a moment of frustration, say or do something hurtful or insulting to another, it must be the rare exception. No one should have to long live with emotional or verbal abuse. “Please” and “Thank You” should never go out of style. We all have the ability to modulate our tone of voice away from shouting, accusing, or belittling.

We need not label one another in derogatory ways; biting sarcasm has no place in a loving family. Constant reminders of perceived weaknesses and failures are a form of aggression that damages everyone involved.

There never has been and never will be an excuse for treating others with anything but respect and dignity, even when we think our loved ones might not have “earned” it. We will find that as we treat others with that respect and dignity, their behavior will almost always improve and they will reflect the same back to us.

A lack of civility is a learned behavior. Sometimes those who are stunted in their kindness and civility have grown up in an environment where graciousness and politeness were unknown and bring that void into their relationships. In other cases feelings of frustration and hurt in the relationship can be translated into hard words and unkind behavior.

Do not despair if you see that your relationship has strayed out of bounds in this area. Becoming aware of the problem is often half the battle, and we have seen many couples turn the tide just through a little effort and practice.

The practice of civility in a home and relationship can, for a time, be led through the effort by just one of the partners, and even those unilateral efforts can make a big difference in thawing some of the ice from the relationship and bringing back some of the warmth of civility.

Yes, the underlying issues of trust, communication, accountability and others must be dealt with, but those issues will become much more manageable in an atmosphere of patience and civility.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy Marriage (change yourself first)

Change yourself first:

Tolerance is a good temporary tool to have in our relationship toolbox, but it is not one we want to constantly depend on over the long haul. White knuckled, teeth gritting tolerance eventually saps our energy and we will likely ultimately collapse under its weight. And even as we are simply tolerating another person or a part of their behavior, the relationship will not really grow or prosper. Settling just for tolerance can lead to the booby prize depicted in this picture and caption of “I’m right and you’re wrong, but I’ll try to put up with you.”

It has been said that a flaw in many marriages is the so-called “good” partner who is really only tolerant, who only endures. Polite neutrality softens no heart, invites no mighty change. A dull and lifeless commitment wonders, “How long must I wait for this person to change?” An active loyal commitment asks, “What can I do to touch the heart of my companion?”

Asking myself such a loving question will lead to seeing things from a new perspective. I often find as I seek a better understanding of others and their behaviors that it is me that is out of alignment rather than the other person. I can then take accountability for my own feelings and build a better relationship through my unilateral changes and actions.

But sometimes our partners are, indeed, out of alignment. What then? The long-term answers are to learn how to influence our loved ones appropriately without controlling; and to develop charity in our relationship that leads to the ability to love and delight in our partners just the way they are. Those discussions will be left for our Couples Retreats.For now we can focus simply on changing the ONLY thing that is within our power to change: Ourselves.

This is a powerfully liberating principle. As we end the ceaseless examination and judgment of others; as we realize that our attempts to control or force change in others is doomed to failure and will simply erode the trust of the relationship, we are freed up to put down the magnifying glass and instead pick up the mirror.

The truth is that relationships are reflective and we will find that if we want our partner to treat us with greater respect and tenderness, we get to treat them in that fashion. If we want our loved ones to be more enthusiastic about the relationship, we get to exhibit our own heartfelt enthusiasm. In almost every case we will find that our attitudes and actions will be reflected back to us by our relationships (whether negative or positive).

When I made the decision many years ago to cease in my attempts to manipulate, control, and change others it was as if chains had been unlocked and lifted from me. Focusing on my own self-improvement and then bringing that better self into my marriage every day has been the key to building a great relationship with Margo. Margo then reflects back to me (while adding her own light and service) what I offer to her and it creates an ever ascending and joyful spiral as opposed to the death spiral experienced by many relationships where the partners are simply pridefully waiting for the other to change.

Free yourself from such misery and direct your time and energy to where it can actually do some good. Get off the “Spouse Improvement Plan” and focus on the “Self Improvement Commitment.”

Couples Retreat: Lessons Learned in San Diego

Report from San Diego Couples Retreat: 2/10-13/2010

One thing I have learned about our Couples Retreats is that I can expect to be both a teacher and learner in every situation. As Margo and I work with the couples I can anticipate learning one of the principles or skills of successful relationships a little better. I can look forward to being inspired by a couple or individual powerfully taking on a new way of being in their relationship. I can always find a deeper desire to commit to being a better man and husband as I feel the energy of other committed people doing the same thing.

We hosted three couples in Oceanside this past week, and as always, I am indeed a better man for it.

In our final private sessions with each couple we asked them to describe their most important or exciting discovery during our time together; a principle or skill they felt would have lasting impact on their lives and relationships. I will share a few of their responses (names have been changed):

Martin- “Perspective. It really opened my eyes that it was OK for my partner to have a Man Holding Sundifferent perspective or opinion from mine. It was exciting to understand that such a different viewpoint did not have to be a point of contention or a battle to prove myself right, but could be the starting point in finding a better solution than I could find on my own. Even when my partner and I don’t agree on something, as we acknowledge one another we show respect for each other and grow stronger.”

Brenda- “It was such a relief to see that I did not have to use anger and yelling in some aggressive attack to get results. I had become so exhausted in trying to control other people and damaging everyone’s trust in the process; it was a relief to lay that down and learn of positive and loving ways to influence others.”

John- “I felt so lost before the Retreat. I had forgotten what really mattered in my life and relationships, and it seemed like I could only be happy if others were making me happy. I had no internal compass that could consistently lead me to peace and happiness. Now I see that happiness is my choice. While that accountability can seem a bit daunting, it is also liberating.”

Dianne- “I realize now that I had become a bundle of resentments. I could not let go of the past and found that it colored everything about the present and made me feel there Merry-go-Roundwas no hope for the future. Even when my husband really seemed to be doing his best to change or showed me special kindness I could not get past the old pain to trust him again. That in turn made it hard for him to trust me. It was such a vicious cycle and I could not figure out how to get off the painful merry-go-round! It has been such a relief to break that destructive cycle and open myself to love and to feel trust growing for one another again.”

As these couples shared their experience of the Retreat I found myself internally nodding my head and remembering anew what it had felt like as I truly learned and internalized these principles years ago. I am grateful for the regular opportunity I have to renew my commitment to the principles and skills that define all successful relationships.

When the time is right for you and your relationship, when you are ready, the right teachers and opportunities will appear. We at LIFE Marriage Retreats hope we can be part of that for you and your relationship.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy marriage (Needs & Service)

#5- Needs and Service: Filling one-another’s buckets

My wife, Margo, taught me a great and simple lesson once. I was in charge of tending Dustin, our eighteen month old son,  one afternoon while Margo worked on a project in another part of the house. I was becoming frustrated as Dustin was fussy and crying and I couldn’t “make” him stop. All my empty platitudes of “It’s all right, don’t cry,” and demands that he stop fussing were leading to higher levels of frustration for both of us.

Margo heard my rising voice and came to investigate. It is often the wisest thing for me to shut up and observe an expert at work. Margo carefully evaluated Dustin from a standpoint of needs. Was his diaper wet? Was he hungry or thirsty? Was something hurting him? With that information she quickly helped him fulfill his needs and left him happy and playing and returned to her project as I scratched my head and wondered at the miracle of mothers.

It has been said that all behavior that we might perceive as negative flows from deep and unmet needs. Don’t skip over this truth too quickly. Roll it around in your mouth a little and see if it “tastes right,” as truth usually does. Dustin crying because his diaper was wet had nothing to do with being bad and everything to do with asking for some help in meeting his needs.

We grownups will also sometimes irritate one another as we clumsily try to get our needs met, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. We usually don’t even recognize our unmet needs, but feel the emptiness that it represents. Rather than patiently trying to discover our partner’s needs we instead often label them as bad, selfish, thoughtless, mean, and a hundred other negative labels.

We certainly need not condone or excuse negative behavior from our loved ones, but if we use that behavior as a signal of opportunity to lovingly explore and serve, we will turn what could be just another family fight or frustration into a growing and bonding experience.

You see, if the behavior that leads me to feel irritated or hurt is a manifestation of legitimate needs that are not being met, then just maybe I can help that person to behave in a more healthy way if I assist them to meet their needs,  and we will both be happier.

Families have the wonderful responsibility and opportunity to be like a bunch of clay pots, filling one another with the life-giving waters of service and care as we assist our loved ones to fulfill their legitimate needs in honorable ways. Too often we humans can be blind and instead of filling, we carelessly suck the water out of our “fellow pots” through judging, belittling, and simply not caring enough to give of our time and selves.

The miracle is that as we seek to fill another through our service and sacrifice, we find ourselves being filled, not only by others, but by a loving Universe that tends to reward those who discover this great truth of service.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Acknowledgment)

#4- Tears of Acknowledgment

At our LIFE Couples Retreats we have lots of fun, plenty of excitement, and just the right dose of healthy relaxation.

We also experience a few tears. As a couple strives to break loose from the self-imposed prisons that have walled them off from one another, visiting honesty and feelings again can bring a tear of regret and remembered pain even as hope begins to swell in their hearts.

Such tears have their place in the healing process. Tears of Joy

There are other tears we often see from couples who have committed themselves to a new way of being in their relationship–I refer to them as “Tears of Acknowledgment.” They represent, for me, the best moments of a Retreat.

We all share a deep and human need to be Understood; to be Valued; to be Validated; to be Acknowledged.

Have you ever had a disagreement with a loved one and heard, “What is it you can’t understand? It’s so simple! Why can’t you see that?” Frequently we might be thinking the same thing about them, “How dense can you be that you can’t see what I see?”

Our perception is our reality and as open to other views and possibilities as we might believe ourselves to be, for most of us it is hard to really see (or want to see) very far beyond our own beliefs, experiences, and perceptions.

Do you see a duck in the picture? Or a rabbit? Feathers or Fur, should we belittle or mistrust someone whose perception differs from ours?

When two people with different perceptions are brought together, the potential for frustrations, irritations, and misunderstandings is overwhelming. Welcome to marriage.

In our experience even as a couple is learning new communication skills and techniques they are easily pulled back into former habits of defensiveness and the almost overwhelming need to be right. They are lost in their own vantage point and cannot imagine another.

Thus while some would focus on teaching a couple how to better state their view or belief (which is, indeed, important), it is even more crucial that each partner become adept at empathy, at “seeing through their partner’s eyes” to better understand their beliefs and behaviors. This takes a humility that is wonderful in its power and effectiveness to heal and reopen a relationship and hearts.

Do you have what it takes to acknowledge your partner and their point of view, even when you do not agree with it? Can you honestly say to another person, “I am anxious to understand your point of view, and for you to understand mine. Can you help me to see what you see?”

Can you acknowledge and validate your loved ones? If you can, you too will see relief come into their eyes and feel their tears of gratitude and loving connection. And you will also get a big bonus: As you open yourself to other points of view, you will find better solutions to problems and challenges.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Accountability)

3. Accountability is Liberating

During a break on the first day of one of our Marriage Trainings I heard the following exchange between a couple (I have edited out the details):

Her: “I don’t know why you always do that, you know it makes me angry!”

Him: “Well, it’s not like you give me any choice! What else am I supposed to do?”

Her: “When are you ever going to change? Why do we have to go through this time after time?!”

I remember thinking, “Hey, these guys are speaking a language I used to know!”

Indeed, I did know the language of Co-Dependence and blame. Many years ago through a painful personal evaluation of my life I was brought to the  realization that many of my most important relationships had become entangled in co-dependence. Loved ones were demanding that I change even as I tried to control the relationship. We were tied to one another’s emotions and feelings in unhealthy ways, basing our day on how others felt or how we were treated.

My first baby step out of co-dependence involved embracing the principle of Accountability which, at first, seemed like a very hard doctrine indeed. Broken Chain

Many can empathize with the self-imposed chains I had to break:

For someone who felt that life was a series of circumstances to which I could only react, it was a big step to declare that I am accountable for what I attract into my life and how I deal with it. Whoops! There goes a favorite pastime, blame. Now I am squarely in charge of my own direction and progress.

As someone who had spent so long wearing masks and striving to hide from my relationship failures, it was not easy to embrace that I am accountable for what I bring into my relationships, negative or positive. Whoops! No more co-dependence in trying to get people to change to accommodate me; now my focus is on changing myself.

 For someone who had become comfortable in his role of victim it was a stretch to realize that, in one sense, there are no victims, only students and lessons to learn, and that nobody can “make me” feel anything, or force me from  my chosen path. I had to learn how to reject being the victim of of someone else’s bad day or poor manners.

Hard doctrine? No. Accountability is the most LIBERATING choice you will ever make. Disentangle yourself from the toxic controlling and co-dependent parts of your relationships and feel instead the fresh air of acceptance of others and accountability for yourself.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Humility)

2. Humility makes all things possible

You might be wondering, “What the heck is Neil Diamond doing on a LIFE Marriage Retreat blog?? The guy has two failed marriages to his credit!”

Maybe it was his painful failures in marriage that inspired him to pen some of the truest words ever sung for his song, “Husbands and Wives.” Listen Here

Neil Diamond

Two broken hearts lonely looking houses
Where nobody lives
Two people each having so much pride inside
Neither side forgives

Angry words spoken in haste
Such a waste of two lives

Its my belief
Pride is the chief cause in the decline
In the number of husbands and wives

Pride is one of the absolute indispensable elements in any unhappy relationship. Certainly there can be many circumstances surrounding the erosion of a marriage, but we have yet to work with a couple in distress where pride was not a component in their unhappiness.

Think of the many places that pride can raise its ugly head in a relationship. To name just a few:

  • The need to be right. We humans seem to come equipped with this need already installed and just as powerful as our need to eat and sleep. (I can hear a lot of you saying right now, “But I AM right!” My point exactly.)
  • The inability to forgive. Somebody once said that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
  • Narrow perspective. Our perspective is our reality. When we forget that there are other perspectives we try to force our reality on everyone else.
  • Not admitting our own legitimate needs; or not recognizing the needs of others. (or selfishly focusing only on our own needs)

The opposite of pride is Humility. Please don’t mistake humility for ‘humiliation’ or groveling. Humility is possessed only by those who are secure enough in themselves to be open to possibilities; open to other points of views, open to the reality that none of us have all the answers.

People who are appropriately humble in their relationships validate their partner and acknowledge them and their point of view, even when they don’t necessarily agree with them. They do their best to forgive when they have been offended, certainly not inviting abuse, but recognizing that we are all human and we all appreciate it when others cut us some slack.

Allow me to give you a very valuable tool. But first I must define a very broad word: Enmity. Enmity is described by many feelings and emotions such as hate, irritation, anger, feelings of superiority, bitterness, frustration, etc. The tool is this: Whenever you feel enmity toward another person you have stepped outside of humility and into pride.

This is crucial because all problems can be solved from a position of humility–and no problem can be well-solved from a space of pride.

Truly, Humility is real Power in a relationship.

Lessons Learned: The Secrets of a Happy Marriage (Authenticity)

Rule #1- Be Authentic Remember the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which a vain and gullible King is tricked into parading in front of his loyal subjects in his birthday suit, believing he isEmperors New really wearing the latest in high fashion that only the most refined eyes will be able to see? As everyone does their best to pretend that they see him dressed in a gorgeous royal costume (because how traumatic would it be to admit they are less perceptive than their neighbors and see only a naked fat man?) it is left to a young boy to finally shout out incredulously, “Hey, that guy doesn’t have any clothes on!” and bring the facade to an embarrassing end.

Marriage and other close relationships can feel like that. Sometimes I’ve done my best to wear just the right mask or project a particular image that I hope will fool the important people in my life. This has been about as successful as if I had poked a geranium into my hatband and tried to pass as a potted plant. My attempts to “control my own spin” are even less successful than that of the latest Hollywood hottie who pays thousands of dollars for the right press and photo ops, and wonders why they keep getting lampooned in comedic Top 10 lists.

At our Marriage Retreats we often see people who have exhausted themselves and those they love by attempting to hide and keep others at arms length. The truth is that any attempts to fake out those who love and care about us are, thankfully, doomed to failure. They might play along with us for a while, but they know us too well and our costumes never fit quite as well as we might want to believe. Plus, since it is impossible to truly love an illusion, they will sooner or later tire of being in relationship with a wisp of smoke or a desert mirage and will demand something more substantial to hold on to, even if that substance includes some warts and weaknesses.

In my moments of foolish belief that I have my loved ones fooled, the inevitable collapse of my stage set has been perhaps momentarily painful, but also enormously liberating. I call these times my “Lucy Moments.” Remember the great “I Love Lucy” episodes where Lucy tried desperately to be something she wasn’t whether cabaret singer, chocolate maker, or pitch-woman for Vitameatavegamin  She never could quite pull off the deception, and after embarrassing herself was soon back to being the authentic Lucy that Ricky and her friends could truly love.

In my attempts to pretend and hide behind my perfect and self-sufficient John Wayne facade I too hit bad notes, make a mess of the bon-bons and call the health drink migaveetametaman, and soon discover that the walls I have built and the masks I have worn have effectively only kept me from experiencing the exquisitely nuanced feelings and emotions of a healthy relationship.

The good news is that being “found out” isn’t nearly as bad or painful as an emperor suddenly feeling the chill in his nether regions and hearing his kingdom laughing at him. Instead, it is  liberation from self-imposed chains and a new opportunity to connect with what really matters. In my experience, those who care about me only love me more when they know the real and vulnerable me. From that safe and firm foundation I can then move on to building a better me and a better relationship.

It is easiest to be our authentic selves when we feel safe in our relationships, knowing that we are not being judged or being offered only conditional love. We will talk about creating that safety in later postings.