A Successful Marriage is a Series of Unnatural Acts


Natural tendencies in communication are ...natural. Effective communication can be quite unnatural.

I recently completed my 64th weekend workshop for couples. Once again I was impressed by a group of intrepid couples who were willing to leave their emotional comfort zone to create something better for themselves.

One of the exercises of the workshop is brainstorming a list of effective communication behaviors and attitudes. Then I ask the group how many saw their families exercise these behaviors 50% or more of the time when things got tense. I never have had more than 15% of the couples raise their hands.

What this means is that under stress, effective communication is statistically exceptional.

This is just one reason I legitimately claim that the couples I see both in my practice and my workshops are normal couples striving to become exceptional.

But exceptional means unnatural.

Natural is being defensive when your partner is critical.

Natural is becoming emotionally protective when you feel hurt. Natural is avoiding emotional pain that reminds you of similar distressing experiences. Natural is feeling painfully alone when your partner goes into a protective withdrawal.

Unnatural is being curious, patient, understanding or open when your partner is going on “tilt.” It is also recognizing that you communicate ineffectively when you are “under attack.” When you let your partner know that your actions were ineffective while “under attack” you are really being exceptional.

But the courageous couples attempted the unnatural throughout the weekend. When you put yourself on the line, there are no failures. You risk and risk again. You practice new skills to stay in alignment with your higher values and goals. This is the process that makes for winners.

When your partner goes on tilt, when you go on tilt, can one of you avoid overreacting?

A good marriage is nearly impossible if you both overreact at the same time.

The formula is simple. Listen, be honest with compassion, be curious about your partner’s stress, goals, values, insecurities, hopes, joys, and fears. Strive to stay in alignment with how you aspire to be as an effective partner. Take the initiative. Accept what you are given.

The rest is practice, and more practice of these unnatural acts. These exercises develop the muscles to build a flourishing relationship.

Ellyn’s and my book “Tell Me No Lies” follows two different couples as they face difficulties in their relationship. One couple takes the easy way out while the other couple practices the “unnatural acts” required to achieve a level of honesty and closeness otherwise impossible. For more information or to order a copy, visit Tell Me No Lies.


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The Couples Institute

This article was originally published at The Couples Institute . Reprinted with permission from the author.