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Relationships

Get good at friendship first…and other secrets of a successful marriage

By Frank Pittman, M.D.

Adapted from the author’s book “Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult” (St. Martin’s Press)

Researchers have consistently found that married people feel happier and more secure than unmarried people–whether or not they are particularly crazy about their marriage partner. But believe it or not, marriage isn’t really supposed to make you “happy.” It’s supposed to make you married. Then, once you are safely and totally married, you have the security and support from which you are free to make yourself happy. (Click to read the entire article)

Come to think of it, marriage isn’t really about “love” either. It’s about the agreement to love each other. And while it’s always nice when married people are in love with each other, it’s even more important for them to be loving to each other.

Marriage is the promise–not the emotions, not even the relationship–but the commitment a married couple makes to each other. To be worth anything more than a vacation together, a boarding arrangement or a temporary job, a marital promise must be made to withstand and weather all human emotions, and some inhuman ones too.

Before you get married…

Think about friendship and get good at it–before you think about falling in love. Friendship is an infinitely more stabilizing basis for marriage than romance.

Find someone who likes you. Someone who has friends of your gender and is friends with his or her own parents–particularly with the parent of your gender.

Know what you’re getting into. Make sure you fully understand the history of your prospective spouse’s previous marriage or marriages–and of her or his parents’ marriage too. History is habit. It’s hard to make a marriage with someone who didn’t learn about marriage growing up as a child and doesn’t get it now.

Forget everything you thought you knew. About the opposite sex, that is. People who are trying to base the rules and roles of marriage on old-fashioned ideas of gender are just avoiding getting to know each other. The marriage begins when the gender dance ends, so don’t marry someone who is rigid about gender roles.

Be a little afraid. If you are not afraid of marriage, or at least in awe of it, you’re not paying attention.

Talk to people. If you didn’t know marriages that worked when you were growing up, ask people who are happy and married how they do it. You’ll probably find that they don’t know how, but they take pride in the effort.

Don’t expect perfection. Once people get past having to appear ideal to each other, once they’ve overcome their blindness to each other’s weaknesses, reality can be noticed, negotiated and faced together. A relationship that has been completely idealized cannot permit much honesty–and even less reality.

Once you’re married…

Go for the gusto. Marriage, like a submarine, is only safe if you get all the way inside it.

Be kind. A marital partnership presents many rights and privileges, but bad manners is not one of them. Intimacy need not be rude. Kindness seems to be the heart of a happy marriage. There is little in life that ever needs to be said, from “you need a bath” to “I feel like killing you if you ever do that again,” that cannot be said politely, even lovingly.

Put a lid on it. Fighting a lot, spewing emotions on each other and “expressing” every foolish thing you feel as if it were pus in an abscess does not make marriages happier. As John Gottman says in his book “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail,” contempt, criticism, complaining and withdrawing forebode gloom for a marriage.

Talk about your hurt. If your mate hurts you, talk about your hurt rather than acting out your anger. Discuss your anger calmly, as your problem, not as something your mate has done wrong. The purpose of marital conflict should be to understand the issues and the emotions rather than determine who is the winner. The true winner of a marital conflict should be the one who understands the other person’s point of view first.

Never consider divorce. Don’t talk about it. Don’t scream about it. For the marriage to work, divorce is not an option. Separation definitely, murder perhaps, but not divorce.

How to make it all work

Get along with your in-laws. You have all the responsibilities with in-laws that you have with your own relatives, but none of the expectations. You have no special rights and privileges with your in-laws. Just appreciate the good things they do for you and cheerfully overlook the bad. Try not to criticize them either–to their faces or behind their backs.

Find a work-life balance. Never sacrifice your marriage for your career. If your \ focus is on your success, recognize that as an imposition on your family and remember to apologize daily.

Get real. You’re not going to be “in love” all of the time. If you want to recapture that magic from when you were in love, be loving. One of my favorite James Thurber cartoons shows a battling couple kicking over the furniture and shouting, “Well, who made the magic go out of our relationship, you or me?”

Be fully there. Do more than your share of the working and loving. What you get out of your marriage is in proportion to your investment in it. You don’t have to be perfect. Your partner doesn’t have to be perfect. But you have to be fully there.

Dr. Pittman on parenting

Get the gender out. Men can be as nurturing as women if they practice. If both men and women nurture, this will set things right for family relationships.

Nothing in life can make a man happier, more emotionally whole or more adult than hands-on childraising.

Love your kids too much. It won’t hurt them. But it will hurt them if you expect them to love you too much in return.

You’ll never really know your beloved until the two of you work together during a crisis with an adolescent child. In fact, you’ll never know yourself until then.

Stepparents exert influence through friendship and loving involvement. They have to be at least as loving–and a lot more accepting and generous–than biological parents are. Stepparenting is a humbling yet rewarding investment. But it’s not a position of power and authority.

The product of childraising is not only the child but the parents, who get to go through each stage of human development from the other side–to relive the experiences that shaped them and to rethink everything their parents taught them. In effect, they get to re-raise themselves and become their own person.

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