While there are many potential joys in marriage there are always some marauding predators lurking about prepared to take a bite out of the happiness, trust, and security of our relationship. One of the most common is Negativity.
Our relationships tend to start with very positive views and opinions of one another, almost as if we were wearing rose colored glasses. Most experts agree that those rose colored glasses are not a bad thing in marriages and we should work to keep them on. That does not mean that we overlook significant negative behavior by our partner, but that we do work to maintain an overall optimism about our marriage, and a positive view of our partner. If we pull out our magnifying glass we can certainly find any number of of flaws in one another, and if we dwell on those flaws, eventually our relationship will turn into a dried husk with little of the vibrant juices that fed it in earlier times.
Additionally, if we allow pessimism and negativity to dominate, we are likely to define all of our partner’s behaviors in that light; even positive attitudes and behaviors will be judged in a harsh and cynical way. The marauding lions will have been set loose in your marriage.
Make the commitment now to shift from a negative space to one of greater positivity and optimism. That might seem like a “Pollyanna” unrealistic response to marital challenges, but it is our experience that the more positive viewpoint will almost always be the more accurate picture of your partner and the relationship. And certainly such an attitude will be appreciated by your partner, leading to feelings of safety and a greater commitment to deal with the real relationship issues in a healthy way.
Start this shift by perhaps making a list of some of your partner’s qualities, talents and attributes. Remember back to your days of courtship and early marriage and some of the early attractions you felt. Think again about why you wanted to spend your life with this person.
We have said it before and it remains one of the brightest truths of happy marriages: Focus on your partner’s positive attributes and your own areas that need change. This will invite positive change from your partner and bring immediate light into the darkness.
Some time ago Margo and I were working with Sarah and Jeremy at a LIFE Couples Retreat. Their perspectives of one another had, through their years of struggle, shrunk ever narrower until they saw only the negatives in their partner. To help them begin the process of broadening perspective we asked Sarah to name two or three of her husband’s good qualities or attributes. She reflected for a moment, then with tears in her eyes and in a voice of painful wonder she said, “I can’t see any.”
Please note that she did not say, “He doesn’t have any.” She was wise enough to know that if she went to her husband’s friends, associates, other family members, or even simply asked Margo and I, she would be able to compile a substantial list of talents and attributes. So her breaking heart in that moment was one of confession of self-centeredness and missed opportunities, rather than the blame and acrimony that both had been practicing. And the healing process began.
While there are many wise sayings and homilies that give us hints of simple things to help us build our relationships, there is one that, in my mind, rises above all the others in building a consistently “heavenly” relationship:
“Focus on Your Partner’s Virtues, and Your Own Faults.”
I hope it is obvious that as you focus on those things that are positive in your partner you are not blind to the fact that they are human and fallible. But as you accentuate their virtues, at least two miracles begin to occur. First, your perception of their faults and your associated frustration with them will soften, losing the sharp edges that lead to blame and contention rather than reconciliation. Second, experience and research show that the only real way we can influence others to positive and lasting change is through appropriate acceptance of them and acknowledgment of those things that are best about them. From this firm foundation you can begin to deal far more effectively with things that might not be working in your relationship. If fact, most couples, including Sarah and Jeremy, discover that their list of complaints about one another and the relationship shrinks dramatically just by focusing on the virtues of their partner.
Regarding placing our attention on our own faults, I am not suggesting dragging yourself into discouragement and blindness to your qualities and strengths. Rather I am proposing that as you open yourself in an accountable way to better see your own shortcomings and mistakes you will be finally prepared to place your energy and effort where they can truly make a difference in changing your relationships: by changing yourself. You will never be able to force positive and lasting change in your partner; but as you change yourself in positive ways, you will invite healthy change in your partner and relationship.
Try this simple principle today of focusing on your partner’s qualities and your own areas where exciting and positive change deserves to happen, and I promise you will begin to see immediate results. Oh, it might take a while in being consistent at it for your partner to begin to trust and lower their walls. But in the meantime, you will feel better as a person, less stressed and anxious, more open and loving. And there’s no vice in any of that.
Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness,” describes Hedonics as the study of how we feel from moment to moment. Those called hedonists go to extremes actively seeking to experience as many “good” or pleasurable moments as possible while keeping “bad” or painful moments to a minimum. By definition the quality of a hedonistic life can be determined by the simple equation of the quantity of good moments minus the quantity of bad moments.
Dr. Seligman reminds us that one need not be a self-proclaimed hedonist to seek after this goal; most of us are sometimes apt to keep some sort of running total in our heads that informs us of the relative “goodness” or “badness” of our lives at any given moment.
As we grow toward wisdom we finally discover that hedonism and its supposed connection to happiness is a fallacy. Not only does it direct our attention downward to transitory experience, away from the horizon of possibility and joy, in many it creates an insatiable hunger for one isolated pleasurable incident after another, as well as a deep abhorrence for the requisite, and often uncomfortable, stretching and refining process of meaningful growth and learning, especially that associated with marriage.
Please do not misunderstand. My primary goal in life as I began my second journey and quest for relationship growth years ago was the achievement of happiness and joy, and so it remains. I have no desire to pursue the path of the monk or a life defined by some supposed ennobling misery.
As I worked to bring true principles to my center something became abundantly clear to me. True joy and happiness can be felt even in the midst of disappointment and grief. When I live my life according to true principles it’s as if there is a beautiful rainbow that arches overhead; if I keep my eyes on that rainbow of hope and truth, my joy and fulfillment remain firm even as I deal with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments that life brings.
This is a far greater path than hedonism and its rollercoaster of pleasure and pain. This is a gift beyond any calculation. Think of it! To always feel a sense of security; to always know that life and joy-giving light is available to us. To understand that while we will certainly shed tears on this path of life, nothing need ever deny of us of the legacy of true joy that is rightfully ours.
Since true happiness and joy require a level of sacrifice and refining of our hearts and souls, the hedonist will often become lost in seeking pleasure which can be engineered on the physical level by simply stimulating the brain’s pleasure center.Inevitably their self-centered search will lead them to substances and behaviors that will create distance in their relationships and often bring them into direct conflict with their spouse. What they fail to realize is the eternal truth that Happiness is greater than Pleasure and Joy is greater than Happiness.
I’ll take joy every time.