Confidence over Comfort

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When I talk with engaged couples or couples that have only been married for a few years I hear a common desire. They want to be comfortable with their spouse. They describe an environment where they can be relaxed and not have to worry about every little thing that they say and do. I’ve heard it said, “My spouse should be the one person that I don’t have to put on an act around. I can be completely myself around them without any worries.” There’s a lot of truth in that.

Contrast that with couples that I speak with that have children and have been married for several years. In these cases I hear a very different theme. Often times with the pressures of life and raising kids they begin to complain about their relationships. “It’s as if we’ve become roommates, living independently in the same house and occasionally crossing paths.” They’ve become so comfortable in their lifestyles and routines that they’ve begun to take each other for granted.

The problem with comfort is that it tends to be very “self-focused”.  My comfort is about how I personally feel. When this becomes our focus, we tend to shift our attention and our efforts away from our spouse and place them primarily on ourselves. Once each partner makes this shift, they begin to drift apart without realizing it. Over time, they reach the roommate scenario described above. While we want to be comfortable around our spouse, it’s important to realize that it is a fine line between comfort and complacency. Complacency is a state where neither partner is concerned enough about the relationship to intentionally change anything. “Things are okay, they could be worse I guess…”

The other day I met with a couple that was older when they married. I asked them to give some words that described their ideal marital state. The husband surprised me when he listed the word “confident”. I asked him to unpack that for me and he did. “I want to know that I am in a committed relationship for the long-run and that my wife feels the same way. I don’t want to worry about doing or saying something inadvertently that can do undue harm to our marriage.”

I thought about that for a moment and it occurred to me that having this confidence is very comforting. Contrast this with being personally comfortable and you can see that investing in the relationship over time will serve to increase confidence as he described. I’m going to use his word moving forward and encourage couples to seek confidence over comfort.

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Look past the words…

 

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Every couple argues periodically. Two different people can’t agree on everything all the time, that’s just not natural. But not every couple fights in the same manner. Couples seem to fall into one of two categories when it comes to conflict.

The first group find themselves being 100% in the moment, focused on the conflict itself. Every word that is uttered becomes evaluated and responses are automatically generated. Tensions and anger mount as words grow increasingly harsher. This group is subconsciously keeping score and the primary goal is to win the argument at whatever cost.

The odd thing about this group is they often find themselves stumbling into conflict without intention of doing so. A husband makes a comment that is perceived as being offensive by his wife and it is game on. While his intent was never to incite his wife, he suddenly finds himself defending his words and evening the score by pointing out her shortcomings. These are the types of fights that race from “zero to sixty” in only a few seconds.

For the sake of conflict avoidance, couples that find themselves in this situation become gun-shy. “I’d rather not say anything at all than say something that will set them off…”, becomes the attitude. While not starting an argument with your spouse may be a good thing, the deterioration of communication quickly becomes a new issue that just further erodes the overall relationship.

The second group, is less focused on the moment at hand and more focused on a longer-term vision and commitment that they have made with their spouse. In this case the husband may still make an insensitive remark, but instead of jumping to conclusions about his motivations, the wife may pause and ask, “That came off as really hurtful, what are you trying to say?” This approach shifts from accusation to clarification. It gives the husband the opportunity to rephrase his question or comment in a less offensive manner. Communication lines remain open in this case, plus he has been given constructive feedback in terms of his word (or tone) choice.

So how does this second group work? It takes a commitment toward long-term growth and success. It takes the ability to look past specific words and look at the heart of the person who is saying them. In my own marriage, my wife knows I love her unconditionally. I share this with her regularly. But (more often that I’d like to admit) I am guilty of saying stupid things, or saying okay things in a stupid way. There was a time early in our relationship where my words would act like a match near a powder keg. But today my wife knows that there’s no part of me that would ever want to intentionally hurt her. So, when my words sting, she gives me the opportunity to back up and try again. That attitude works both ways (though she says far fewer stupid things than I do).

The next time your spouse says something to you that gets you fired up, take a deep breath and ask yourself “Do they really want to hurt me with this?” If the answer is “yes”, then you are in a caustic relationship and need to seek professional help before it’s too late. This will not get better on its own.

But, if the answer is “no”, offer them a chance to restate their point, letting them know of the potential offense. They will typically welcome the chance for a do-over. This habit becomes easier and easier over time, until it is just second nature. This approach will not eliminate conflict from your marriage, but it will prevent long term damage from occurring.

Look beyond the words spoken, to the heart of the person saying them. Focus not on the moment, but on the long term goals of the marriage. You’ll be amazed at the difference this simple change of perspective can make.

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The Golden Rule of Marriage

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I remember as a kid in Sunday School having Matthew 7:12 drilled into my head – “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you…”. It was called the Golden Rule.  This scripture falls in the midst of a longer passage where Jesus was instructing his followers on how to deal with other people as well as with God Himself.

Clearly this is sound teaching. Far be it from me to contradict Jesus’ own words! But I do think this instruction applies more to relationships with others that we might not be super close with – think coworkers, casual friends or new acquaintances.

This literal thinking can cause some irritation in a marriage setting. I see it in couples all the time. A wife brings up a problem – the husband rushes to fix it. After all, if a guy brings up a problem to another guy, he is typically asking for assistance. For example: “I’ve got to change a tire on my riding mower. I really need a jack and some jack stands…”. When this is said to a group of guys, someone will surely volunteer “I’ve got those, swing by and pick them up after work.” Problem stated, problem solved. Both guys in this situation acted according to the Golden Rule.

But as we all know, there are times when a wife expresses a problem, but is not looking for a solution. She may just be wanting to be heard and understood in terms of her frustration. When the guy acts in a way that he wants to be treated, he finds that he is in fact frustrating his wife. It’s not intentional. It could be he had the Golden Rule drilled into his head as a child as well.

In my mind then, there is a slight revision to the Golden Rule that applies to marriage. It goes like this “Do unto others (your spouse) as they want to be done unto”. In other words, develop a level of understanding for your spouse where you can meet their needs as they need them to be met. Gary Chapman essentially proposes this in his now-classic book “The 5 Love Languages”. In this he explains that we all show and prefer to receive love in different ways. Understanding our own love language is important, but even more important is to understand the love language of our spouse. Your love language may be Acts of Service, and you find yourself forever doing things for your spouse as an expression of love. If their love language is Physical Touch, they probably appreciate the things you’re doing for them, but they may not feel the love that is intended as much as they would if you sat on the couch and held them close.

I don’t think this thinking contradicts the original teachings of Jesus. If anything, it expands upon them in the specific situation of marriage. This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes awareness and practice. But in time, if you come to treat your spouse as they want to be treated (as opposed to how you would want to be treated) you will find that you can take your marriage to the next level. Maybe even a shocking one!

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Do Men Hate Marriage?

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I’ve come to notice something interesting. When I bring up the subject of marriage to most guys, I get a look like I’m their sophomore history teacher from Hell. It’s as if they would rather discuss dental procedures than the most important relationship in their life. Why has the topic of marriage been lumped into the same categories as chick flicks and scrapbooking for most guys?

It’s funny. Guys like to talk about sex. There should be no better place to have great sex than in a thriving marriage. They like to talk about business. Marriage is like an (un)limited partnership that has to manage budgets, personnel (kids), competition (for time) and value. Guys like to talk about sports. A marriage can work toward becoming a high-performance team where as a couple, each spouses strengths and weaknesses are either bolstered or shielded by their partner. When working properly, a couple should be able to out-achieve any of their single friends.

Most guys seem to see the topic as an obligatory scolding session. If it’s discussed, it’s for the purpose of showing them where they fall short and what they are doing wrong. They’re waiting to hear that they are bad communicators, insufficiently affectionate or too distracted with work. It’s as if the mere mention of marriage forces them to consider their shortcomings rather than their strengths.

I wonder if it’s because marriage is an outcome of dating, a period of time where guys have to step out of their comfort zone to woo a potential mate. A time when they buy her presents, go to movies of her choice and totally mind their manners. In their minds, they have paid their dues and earned their trophy. It’s sort of like the guy that trains for a half-marathon, completes it then decides he never wants to run again. He’s very proud to add that to his achievements, but he quickly falls out of shape, begins to gain weight and revert to old lifestyles.

Women on the other hand, don’t seem to mind talking about marriage. I think most women are wired to think about relationships and feelings more than men are, and that is their primary focus in conversations about marriage.

I think we’re missing the point. Marriage is neither a masculine or a feminine concept. It is absolutely both at the same time. Our spouse is supposed to be our most important human relationship. If we truly view them as such, why wouldn’t we want to learn everything we could about making our relationships better? Men and women may never talk about it the same way, and that’s okay. but it certainly should not be a topic to be avoided.

Let me put it this way to the guys. You invested time, money and effort in dating with the goal of gaining a wife. Now you have her, it’s not time to stop investing, but rather to take it up a notch. The more you put into a marriage, the more you will receive in return. Why not talk with your buddies about how you’re doing and how they’re doing? You might have some best practices (another great business term) to share and vice versa. Don’t shut down when the topic comes up. Embrace it. As the Apostle Paul said, “run the race to win it”.

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Don’t Settle for Mediocrity

 

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I know guys that only want the best in life. They drive luxury cars, wear the most stylish of clothes, drink the best wines and eat at the highest rated restaurants. When it comes to their hobbies, they settle for nothing but premium equipment. But get into a conversation about their marriage and they’ll typically say something like, “It’s okay, I guess”.

It’s not just about wealth. I know other guys who are perfectionists in all that they do. They may not have the most expensive possessions, but whatever task they undertake is not complete until it is nearly flawless. They will invest hours into a project beyond a point where most others would consider it complete. They work long hours ensuring that every report or email they write (and rewrite) is perfect. Ask these guys the same question about their marriage and you’ll typically hear the same response.

This makes no sense to me. When it comes to “things” or “efforts”, only the best will do. But when it comes to the most important relationship they can have with another person they settle for “okay”; two adults living in the same house, focused on kids or other things, crossing paths occasionally. Time together consists of sitting on separate couches and immersing into their smart phones. It’s not that they’re arguing all the time, that would require more interaction than they allow. They’ve simply become “Okay, I guess”.

If you find that I’m describing you here, let’s be honest, it’s about control. While you are in control of your possessions, your spending or your time, your marriage requires another person that can’t be controlled. You may have tried for awhile, but in time  you gave that up as a futile effort. Without control you can’t perfect it by yourself, so you quit trying. You’ve settled for mediocrity.

So, how can this be avoided? First, it’s not a solo effort. Both you and your wife have to be committed to striving for excellence (or at least continuous improvement). This requires communication, setting some goals, tracking progress, making course corrections and celebrating success. It’s a process that takes time and attention. Life’s distractions will pull you away, but you have to commit to return to the effort to sustain it.

If you want the best or are a perfectionist at work or in your hobbies, it’s time to apply that same effort and thinking to your relationship. Take the time and effort into moving to the next level. Your marriage is far more important than any work report, or home project. Give it the priority it deserves. You’ll see the lasting benefits are much greater!

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Don’t Fear the Ups & Downs

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My 36th wedding anniversary is just a few days away, and that has caused me to contemplate some of the things I’ve learned over the course of my marriage. While I can say that my marriage has definitely gotten better over time, I’d be a liar to say that every single day was better than the one before it. Every marriage has its ups and downs, ebbs and flows, high and low seasons or (insert your favorite analogy here). I suppose this is because we’re human. As individuals we go through these emotional fluctuations over time, it only makes sense that when two individuals come together in a one-flesh relationship, the same variation will take place.

Problems occur when we overreact to these natural changes. It’s easy to get paranoid in a low season of marriage and begin to wonder if you’re growing apart, or if the love is fading, or the romance is gone. Pursuing such a thought pattern can actually exacerbate the problem, causing the negative feelings to grow in intensity.

I’ve been a businessman for most of my career, I see these same characteristics happen in the corporate world. A company has a down quarter, so they cut spending, enact travel restrictions and freeze hiring. A second down quarter and they start laying off employees and downsizing in an effort to right the ship. While sometimes these actions can turn things around, other times they spell the beginning of the end. They enter a downward spiral they just can’t recover from.

Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world and an expert on investing, is credited as saying that the very best time to invest in the future is in a downturn. In other words, if the economy goes into a recession, don’t cut expenditures to the bone, but rather invest heavily in the company. His rationale is that when the economy turns back around, companies that do this will have a huge advantage over companies that merely tightened their belts. These companies are not living day by day but rather investing in a profitable future. A given company cannot control the economy, but they can prepare for health in a brighter future.

I believe this same concept can apply to marriage as well. When you find yourself in a relational downturn, turn up the investment. What does this look like?

  • Plan a date night or a get away weekend
  • Begin planning a spouse only vacation (just the act of dreaming and planning can bring you closer together)
  • Create some goals that you would like to achieve as a couple in the next 6 months, 1 year, 3 years
  • Write your spouse a letter recalling all the reasons you originally fell in love with them

This is not an exhaustive list. But the one thing each of the items has in common is that they get you out of the moment (where you’re feeling isolated) and either look forward or backward to a better time. Unlike companies, a couple can intentionally move out of a low season to a high season with the proper focus and investment. It is important to do these things even when you may not “feel” like it.

When you invest in your marriage (and in your spouse), you are acknowledging that tough times exist, but you are committed to a brighter future together. Take the fears out of highs and lows. Live with the expectation of an ever improving marriage.

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My Wife said it was 55… So did the Officer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo… we’re driving down the interstate on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Posted speed limit is typically 70 MPH, occasionally drops to 65. Like many drivers, I try to limit my speed to 9 mph over the posted limit – an infraction that I’ve been told by many police associates is typically “safe” from ticketing. So, as I cruise at 79 MPH down the road, I notice the signs that show it has dropped to 65. So I do the right thing – I drop my speed down to 74. I also noticed the Sheriff pull onto the road right in front of me. So far, my observational skills are not to be challenged. But somehow, I did not notice the sign indicating the further reduction of speed in a construction zone to 55.

As a quick aside, let’s define construction zones for a moment. In my mind, they include workers, machinery, flashing lights and traffic cones. They certainly involve more than a simple sign indicating a lane shift for a few hundred feet. I think any reasonable American would agree to that…

So… As we enter the lane shift area I find myself passing the Sheriff, legally in the left lane as it’s supposed to happen. In my mind, Sheriffs don’t cruise interstates, so I figured he was off duty heading to visit his mother or some other Sunday activity. Tara clearly tells me that we’re in a 55 zone, but I assure her I had slowed down when I saw the 65 MPH sign.

Within a quarter of a mile (once we’re out of the terrifying “construction zone”) I see flashing lights in my rear view mirror. I slow down and pull over, sure the Sheriff will speed past me in pursuit of a hardened criminal, but he pulls over behind me. Before he can even get out of the car, I feel the intense gaze emanating from the passenger seat. As i slowly look over, I get the look. We’ve been married long enough now, that Tara never has to verbalize the words “I told you so”, but trust me, she can communicate it with no chance of misunderstanding.

The officer comes to my window and says, “Hey, you just passed me in a construction zone going about 65. You know that was a 55 zone don’t you?” I looked him straight in the eye and said “My wife told me that, but I assured her it was 65, as that was the last sign I had seen”.  He went  back to his car and spent the mandatory 10 minutes clacking on his keyboard looking up my past tax returns, any filed complaints from roommates in college and an overdue library fine from 1983. When he came back to the car he started to scold me. Then he saw “the look” still glaring from my beloved passenger. “How much longer of a drive do you have?”, he asked me. I told him about 3 hours. “Ooohhh”, he moaned, “I think that’s punishment enough! Good luck pal”, he commented as he headed back to his car.

For the remainder of the trip, I never complained. That look saved me a $65 fine plus increased insurance coverage. Of course it will cost me a nice dinner and a bottle of wine tonight. But as I see it, that’s not an expense, that’s an investment. I want to thank that Sheriff for his service to the community, but also for his empathy for a fellow married man.

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