The whole point of love is to build someone up — not tear them down.
[This is the text — as prepared — of the first of three talks I gave on how to have a happy marriage.]
My goal in these three talks is to change the way you think about marriage.
I needed to think differently about marriage.
I had thought, growing up, marriage was a simple matter of finding the right person and then living happily ever after.
It didn’t take me long to realize — after our wedding day — marriage was not going to be so easy.
Over the coming three weeks, I will share with you three “light bulb” moments — moments that helped me see marriage in a whole new light.
The theme of this first talk is: “love is creative — not critical.”
Early struggles in our marriage
I will be open with you. My wife & I struggled early in our marriage.
I am messy. My wife is neat.
Before our wedding day, my wife told me she always wanted to marry someone with a sense of humor. She made me feel like I was a prize in her eyes.
But then — in the very first week of our marriage — my wife realized she might have to live with my mess for the rest of her life. Buyer’s remorse kicked in.
My wife began to nag me almost every day. She would tell me, “You have a college degree, you can’t find the hamper?!”
I remember being frustrated with myself: If only I could be perfect, my wife would have nothing to complain about and we could get along.
Then I realized, even if I somehow found a way to be perfect, there was still the problem my wife wasn’t perfect either.
I was frustrated with her. She is not as social as I am. When I would suggest having friends over she would often say “no,” preferring a quiet evening instead.
I remember asking myself: how can we have a happy marriage when we each annoy and disappoint the other?
How can we have a happy marriage?
The late, great Pope John Paul II was, among many other things, a playwright. In The Jeweler’s Shop he provided me with my first “light bulb” moment. I came to see marriage in a whole new light.
In the play, the Pope profiles a young couple. Monica shares with Christopher her fear of love because her parents had an unhappy marriage.
One does not love a person because it is easy.
Why does one love at all?
[In the end] one question is important:
Is it creative?
Love is not supposed to be easy! Marriage is not a simple matter of meeting “the right person” and gliding through life together. We all bring failings — even baggage — to our marriages.
Love is creative! To love someone means to build them up — not tear them down.
To be successful in love, we need to make a choice.
We need to make a decision to focus on the positive and the potential in each other, not on our shortcomings.
“A creative loving restlessness”
Pope John Paul II writes, in his Theology of the Body:
The bridegroom examines his bride attentively, as though in a creative loving restlessness, to find all that is good and beautiful in her and that he desires for her.
Restlessly! We should be restlessly looking for the good and beautiful in each other!
I remember reading this passage the first time and thinking, “I should be restlessly looking for the good and beautiful in my wife? I don’t think I’m doing that!”
John Paul II is describing a marriage more beautiful — filled with more positive energy — than any marriage I ever imagined.
All too often in marriage, we do the exact opposite of what we should be doing. We end up — restlessly — focusing on the negative in the other.
“We forgot we loved each other”
Some years ago, I met with a couple married three years. Both had great jobs. They had called me on a Monday asking for help with their marriage. I met with them two days later, on a Wednesday evening.
When they walked in, the first thing I noticed was how well matched they were. Both were stylishly dressed.
They surprised me by telling me they had decided they did not need marriage counseling.
They had come the conclusion they did not have a relationship problem. Their problem, they told me, was they were two bad people. “You can’t make a good relationship out of two bad people.”
I was shocked. I told them I read about bad people every day in the New York Post. They were not bad people!
They insisted, “we are bad people.” They told me they were getting ready to “throw the towel in” on their marriage.
I did my best to convince them they were good people, even reminding them they had met volunteering at a soup kitchen.
I then asked them what the problem was. The wife immediately grew animated and exclaimed, “I’ve told him a hundred times to put the toothpaste cap back on, and he just won’t do it!”
Before I could recover, he responded with a complaint — equally petty — of his own.
I sat there in shock. These two great people had so relentlessly nagged each other they had managed to convince each other they were two bad persons.
I sent them home with an order to take a one-night vacation from bickering. They were each to spend ten minutes in quiet reflection thinking of the other’s positive qualities — and then they had to verbally thank each other out loud.
The next morning they emailed to tell me, “thank you so much, we forgot we loved each other.”
Their story is not unique. For too many of us, love turns critical. Petty bickering is the leading cause of divorce for couples married seven years or less.
How to build each other up in marriage
In this talk, I am going to urge you to do three things:
- Every day: build each other up in small ways.
- Every now and then: build each other up in bigger ways.
- If you feel the need to criticize the other, do so in a way that encourages your partner to become a better person.
I will share concrete examples how to do so.
Every day — build each other up in small ways
Helping couples with their marriages is my life’s work, so I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage. I have a one-hour train ride home from work. I spent six months of these train rides reflecting on a single question: what do I truly need from my wife?
I appreciate many things wife does for me — among her many fine qualities, she is a great cook — but in the end I came to the conclusion I truly needed only one thing from her: I needed her to smile at me when I walked in the door.
When my wife smiles at me, she sends me a message: the love of my life is happy I am alive. I feel welcome in my own home. What a beautiful thing to feel.
It’s such a simple thing, to show someone you are happy to see them. Yet so many of us fail to do this simple thing.
“I just don’t feel like you love me anymore.”
To share just one story, a man called me up complaining his church was requiring him to take a pre-marriage program. He explained he & his wife had been civilly married for five years. They had a two-year old daughter, and with a second baby on the way — she was seven-months pregnant — they were finally have a church wedding.
I took pity on him. I told him I couldn’t wave the requirement, but I would make it easy for them. I offered to come to their place and meet with them after they had a chance to put their daughter to sleep.
He was a successful hedge fund executive, and I met with them in their sprawling apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. In the course of our conversation, this very man — who complained about having to take a marriage preparation program — turned to his wife and said, “I just don’t feel like you love me anymore.”
Her response: “Of course I love you, I’m just too tired to show you.”
To which I responded, “You’re too tired because you have a two-year-old daughter. You’re about to have a second child! You’re not going to get any less tired for the next twenty years!”
To which she responded, “Got it, Peter, if I would just get off the couch when he walked in the door, that would make a big difference.”
It’s deflating to come home to someone who is not excited to see you. The simplest thing you can do to build each other up — in the day-to-day of your married life together — is to show you are happy to see each other.
It’s also important to say thank you — a lot. We are often quick to criticize, but slow to say thank you.
My wife criticized me for leaving my dirty clothes around the house — and she was certainly justified to be frustrated with me — but she had forgotten to thank me for working hard that day. That’s unfair.
Nurturing a “culture of appreciation” is essential in marriage — but it is not enough.
If, at the end of your life, all you have done is appreciate each other, your marriage was a wasted opportunity.
Encourage each other to grow
We should actively seek in the day-to-day of our married lives to do small things to encourage each other to grow.
I was changing careers early in our marriage — and my prospects were uncertain. Early on my wife would put extra pressure on me. She would ask, “when are you getting home?” I felt unsupported in my work and that I was constantly disappointing her.
That’s when we made the decision to be creative in our love. She learned to tell me such things as: “I admire your passion for your work”… “I admire your dedication”… “You’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
What a difference! All it took was a simple shift on her part. With my wife’s daily encouragement, I went on to thrive in my new career.
The great achievement — build each other up in bigger ways every now and then
In addition to building each other up in small ways every day, couples should — from time to time — take a deeper look at how they can bring out the best in each other.
John Paul II, in a letter to one of his former students:
The great achievement is always to see values that others don’t see and to affirm them. The even greater achievement is to bring out of people the values that would perish without us.
Are we looking beneath the surface to see the potential in our spouses? Are we challenging our spouses — in a constructive way — to move outside their comfort zones and grow and broaden their experiences?
These are important questions to ask, as The New York Times reported on a study:
It may not be feelings of love or loyalty that keeps couples together. Instead, scientists speculate that your level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons….
To measure this quality, couples are asked a series of questions: How much does your partner provide a source of exciting experiences? How much has knowing your partner made you a better person? How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?
Creating a shared vision in marriage
To help couples take a deeper look at their lives and their dreams for each other and their future together, I encourage couples to complete an exercise, Creating a Shared Vision in Marriage.
This exercise led my wife & I to adopt goals in our marriage that have challenged us to step outside our comfort zone:
- We made a commitment to go to theater once every two months. The numerous performances we’ve taken in over the years have enriched our lives immensely — and broadened our cultural horizons.
- We moved to a new town, so we decided to invite people over for dinner once every month — and each month they had to be guests we had never had over before. We intentionally grew our circle of friends in this manner.
- To keep our marriage interesting, we made a commitment to do one new thing every month we’ve never done before. This goal has challenged us, over the years, to dig deeper and discover activities and destinations we had never even heard of before.
- I like to do things, and I’m often guilty of over-scheduling. My wife challenged me to slow down and carve out time for “carefree timelessness.” Thanks to my wife, I have come to have a richer appreciation of life.
My wife & I make it a point to update our goals every year. Marriage is long, and we want to make sure we continue to grow as individuals and as a couple.
“I am convinced life is a constant development toward that which is better”
John Paul II, in that same letter to his student:
I am convinced that life is a constant development toward that which is better, more perfect — if there is no stagnation within us.
For couples married longer than seven years, boredom is the leading cause of divorce.
I prefer to say the failure to grow is the leading cause of divorce.
If you are creative in your love for each other — encouraging and challenging each other to grow — you will have a marriage you want to be in for the rest of your life.
Marriage is long — there is a very real need to keep it interesting.
What to do when you are tempted to criticize?
Focusing on the positive and the potential in each other is the key to a long-lasting, happy marriage, but what should you do if there is something negative about your spouse you really don’t like?
Here is some of the most important practical advice on marriage I’ve learned…
Before reading the research on marriage, I thought I had two options if I was upset at my wife: I could criticize her, or I could keep quiet.
Dr. John Gottman, who has spent decades observing couples argue in his famous “love lab,” taught us there is always a third option: you can find a constructive, positive way to make your point.
There is always a constructive, positive way to make your point — always.
You can actually talk about your problems in a way that lifts each other up.
After reading the research on communication in marriage, my wife & I adopted the rule “zero criticism” in our marriage.
My wife told me sometimes she doesn’t even realize she is nagging me, so she gave me permission to stop her if she ever starts.
I jumped at this opportunity!
I pretend to be a football referee when my wife slips into nagging, whistling at her and exclaiming, “illegal nagging, five-yard penalty!”
We both laugh, but here’s the key point: we don’t ignore the issue. We agree to talk later when we have something constructive to say.
To be clear, if you feel the need to say something, you should say something. You just need to wait until you have something constructive to say.
“My hard working husband”
To take the matter of my mess as an example. My wife stopped nagging me about it, but she didn’t give up either. One night, she approached me with great affection and enthusiasm, and said to me:
“My hard working husband, I figured it out! You’re tired when you get home. Asking you to put away everything perfectly is too much to ask for….
“But I’ve been observing you these past two weeks to see just how you annoy me, and I made a discovery. I used to think your mess was random because it’s everywhere. But there’s a pattern. You undress while walking! You leave a trail behind you! There’s your shoes, there’s your socks, there’s your shirt on the back of a chair at our kitchen table, there’s your dirty pants on our couch….
“You make 80% of your mess in just three minutes! I know you like to relax, so I am giving you permission to relax for 23 hours and 57 minutes a day. I just want you to pay attention during these three minutes when you come home….
“Here’s what I propose: Don’t do anything while walking. Stop here and undress while standing still. Go to Home Depot and buy a hook. Put all your dirty clothes on the hook. Your shoes and socks go down here. I can take care of everything from there.”
My wife also pointed out I read the mail while walking around, so she asked me to read that while standing still. She got me a three-slot system: mail to save, bills to pay, and mail to throw away. No more letters and envelopes everywhere!
Last, but not least, she got me a cute bowl to put my wallet and keys in. She even helpfully told me I would know where they were in the morning!
Thanks to my mess, we had descended into nearly daily bickering early in our marriage. My wife kept quiet for two weeks — long enough to allow her to think of a constructive solution — and she has never had to nag me about my mess ever since.
My wife didn’t ignore my failing. She found a way to talk about it that built me up. I had struggled with messiness for most of my life. I am actually quite proud now — thanks to my wife’s constructive advice — I am a more organized (and less annoying!) person.
A marriage you will want to be in every day for the rest of our lives!
I’d like to end this talk by sharing a dream with you…
Imagine you are in a marriage where you lift each other up every day.
Imagine you are in a marriage where you encouraging each other to grow and you are embracing each other’s dreams.
Imagine you are not living in fear of being criticized for your inevitable failings.
This is a marriage you can have. All it takes is a decision on both your parts.
If you can make this decision, you will have a marriage you will want to be in every day for the rest of your lives!