To my beautiful niece,
By now you've been married for almost two weeks and I thought I'd drop a line to offer you the kind of marriage advice that no one offered me. If you follow it, you'll have a good shot at doing what your parents and mine couldn't, and what your uncle and I work at daily: succeeding in your marriage. We've learned some priceless lessons by trial and error.
Lesson 1: Place a strong boundary around your relationship. I noticed that you tuned out of Facebook during your honeymoon. Way to go! That was your time with your husband; you did not need to share it with friends and family. Just as you protected that experience from outside interference, so you will need to protect your relationship from the tentacles of your families and friends. Everyone on both sides will have opinions and specific marriage advice about who should be doing what. We love you both, but our opinions are not your golden truths. So take them with a grain of salt. Set a firm boundary around your marriage, and let no one outside that boundary dictate your actions within it. From inside your relationship boundary, work as a team to tackle every challenge.
Lesson 2: Let a strong intention motivate your actions. It's as important as rolling on deodorant. We use deodorant so we don't take unpleasant odors into our interactions with people. In the same way, intention guides our actions so we avoid unintended consequences that are truly harmful. Once I intended to be respectful to your uncle on the very day he exploded in anger over what seemed like something trivial to me. Remembering my intention, I decided to stay calm and not tell him where to stuff his rage. My intention was about controlling me — not him. But he later told me that my respectful response gave him space to process his anger and calm down. Had this not happened, I would have left his presence and maintained a respectful distance until he regained self-control. Either way, my intention would produce action that didn't harm the relationship. When he intended and acted to control his anger, birds started singing!
Lesson 3: Make empathy the chief component of your daily communication. Understanding is the foundation of empathy, and empathy is the secret sauce of effective communication and fulfilling relationships. It's all about trying to put yourself in your spouse's shoes in order to understand their feelings and experience. You can do this even if you don't agree with your spouse. Cutting in, ignoring and dismissing each other is a sure fire way to cool your love. Beauty unfolds when you create a safe haven or a protected environment in which you each disclose what you're feeling and the other listens without judgment and with understanding. Just imagine how a little empathy could change the flow of an argument! Too many couples ignore the tremendous power of empathy.
Lesson 4: Use communication to cultivate, not dominate. Communication is a wonderful tool, but too many couples use it in a way that decimates their love. If used properly, communication will cultivate change in your relationship. For starters, when you're ready to discuss something, reveal your purpose and topic. Do you need to vent, understand something or be understood by your spouse? Next run your purpose through an intention filter. Are you armed for battle or clothed in genuine empathy? Make sure you check to see if the timing is right for your spouse. Is he really prepared for that big thing you want to discuss? I've learned that timing is super important. Also, practice using I-statements and avoid judgmental openings like, "You make me feel ____." Work daily to develop a communication style that cultivates —not dominates — each other, and you'll be one step closer to marital bliss.
Lesson 5: Don't fear your differences. Differences are not the enemy in your relationship. But your response to the differences will make or break the happy ending of each day. Some people hate differences and go to great to great lengths to avoid the conflicts that involve them. Other people fight like crazy to dissolve their differences. When two people who avoid problems marry, problems expand because no one addresses what bothers them. When two fighters marry, they fight like cats and dogs over any disagreement. When an avoider marries a fighter, they run in circles while frustration mounts. The truth is that avoiders need to stop avoiding and fighters need to stop fighting. I encourage you to look curiously at your differences, and imagine how to accommodate them without fear. Believe it or not, relationship differences can hold you together.
Lesson 6: Protect your individuality, but be fiercely devoted to the commitment you made. Learn to tolerate your different perspectives and tastes. But be willing to tweak whatever grossly offends the other. Don't expect to mold each other into your own perfect image. Differences are your friends, remember? But for all your glorious individuality, guard your relationship as a precious treasure. Too many couples walk into my office, dragging their relationship in like a poor starving orphan. They forgot to nurture their love, to make a daily commitment to fan its tender flame. Remember the way the pastor described the Unity Candle at your wedding? The smaller candles represented you and your husband. The individual flames joined to ignite the Unity Candle. But all candles kept their flames. As you make decisions individually and as a team, interact in a way that keeps your marriage flame burning bright.
A Final Lesson: Get help when you need it. Laugh together, early and often. I've found that humor can help smooth many rough marriage moments. But a day may come when you have a relationship glitch you can't fix. That's really normal because we're all fallible. You each may talk to family and friends for support. That's normal, too, but be careful. Let healthy boundaries apply to the information you disclose. Suppose you disclose too much, but eventually make up and move into the next phase of Happily Ever-After? Your family and friends may still be in Problem Land and might never let either one of you forget it. Sometimes marital tension grows when family and friends have long memories and big mouths.
When you and your spouse are at odds, I think it's best to talk with someone who has no dog in your fight. A relationship coach or counselor can help you sort out your problems and start functioning again as an effective team. Should the need arise, find one in your neck of the woods. And for anyone in Northern VA — if you're not a relative — contact me. I've learned by trial and error, and I'm here to help.
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