My husband and I were driving down the road on a particularly gorgeous Texas winter evening. I guess I’d gone quiet—I didn’t notice—so my husband gently queried, “Whatcha’ thinking?”
I didn’t waste any time with context… I dove right in: “You know what I think frustrates me more than anything about people trying to fix their marriages,” I asked rhetorically, “Half the folks I talk to are trying to restore something that was never there to begin with! You can’t fix a broken vase if what you had to begin with wasn’t a vase…
You can’t really be a better husband, if you were never really a husband to begin with. You can’t really be a better wife, if you were never really a wife to begin with. That’s like looking at the remains of a house that’s been burnt down and saying to the contractor, “I think we’ll start by putting on a better roof.”
Nouns State the Obvious. Verbs Take Action.
The terms husband, wife, spouse, and partner are not just terms used for social status and updating your “life events” on social media or filing your tax returns. These terms connote a certain set of actions. Simply stated, the words husband and wife in healthy relationships are verbs rather than nouns.
With this in mind, I want you to think about your marriage and ask yourself:
Do you husband? Do you wife? Do you partner?
It even extends into other family roles as well—
Do you mother? Do you father? Do you parent?
Recently, a dear friend of mine flew from Florida to our home State of New Jersey just in time for the Polar Vortex and some serious snowfall. His children joyfully requested that he make a snowman.
Now as my Northern friends will clearly agree—there are different types of snow—for simplicity sake I will divide them into 2 categories:
1) Those that are great for building snowmen
2) Those that are not.
The snow there was of the “not” variety. And yet, several hours later, this was on facebook with the caption:
You try telling a 3-year-old Florida girl who’s never seen snow in her life that it’s too light and powdery to build a snowman. Daddy can — and does — do anything.
The whole thing is just too flippin’ precious isn’t it? However the warm fuzzies alone are not the reason his statement stuck out to me. It stuck out to me because of the last line… “Daddy can—and does—do anything.” Daddy can. Daddy does.
For my friend… “Daddy” is an active word.
And from what I can see from him and his wife, so are the words “husband” and “partner”.
Defining Your Verbs
Perhaps one could argue – and rightly so—that the definition of “husband”, “wife”, “partner” is going to change depending on the person.
And to that I say, “Absolutely! It should.”
It needs to be different because every relationship and personality in that relationship is unique. Create your own definition of what that verb means to you. And while you’re at it, ask you spouse what “your verb” means to them. It’s a very simple way of learning what your spouse values in a partner, and it’s also a lot healthier to answer than the poisonous, “What the [censored] do you want from me?!”
Doing Makes a Healthy Marriage… er… Doable.
So where and when to start?
Honestly, start now. Start today—this minute even!
Often, I think we (and believe me, therapists are guilty of this too sometimes!) think the ‘end goal’ of our efforts is a distant point further down the line in our marriage. Tell me, have you ever thought or heard someone else speak this way:
“Our marriage is in an awful spot right now, but if I/we do all this work—at some point—maybe two, three, six months down the road we’ll be better. “
Instead of thinking about it that way, I’ll invite you to consider this: What if the process a couple goes through of co-creating a healthy marriage IS the result. What if the creative process IS the goal?
I think its important to view healthy marriage in this manner, rather than as a fixed point, because the alternative has you chasing a moving target. A healthy, happy marriage is not something a couple arrives at—it’s a constant process.
Decoding the Process: Questions
I think by now we all know that I’m not going to close an article with out leaving you to ponder some difficult questions. And from the comments I get every month, I know you’re doing the work. So here it goes:
1) Ask yourself this question: “If I were married to me, would I be happy?”
Be honest. This isn’t time to be narcissist, or a martyr. Just answer the question. What do you think you would appreciate? What would you have a problem with?
2) Only you know your true potential as a mate. Are you really giving your role in your marriage 100% or are you doing enough to get by? The idea that marriage is 50/50 is a lie. Marriage is 100/100. Each person needs to give it his/her best shot. This is supposed to be for life.
If you’re not entirely sure about your percentage, look at other areas of your life—your spiritual life, your work life, your fitness routine. Are you dedicated to the fullest extent or do you do just enough to stay out of trouble? Do you value comfort over success?
3) Do your actions add value to your relationship, or do they simply perpetuate the status quo?
Because let me tell you, friends, “neutral” is a death sentence for relationships. In fact, according to some research by the Gottman Institute, those marriages that had more active arguing actually lasted longer than those who had silent, disengaged partners. To get angry with someone means, on some level, you’re still plugged in. (Unless of course the only time you get angry with someone is when they’re not leaving you alone).
So I’ll leave it there for now. I look forward, as always to hearing your thoughts and listening to your feedback.
A quick note on comments: A lot of the comments I’ve gotten recently focus on a person who is actively trying to save the marriage while their spouse is otherwise disengaged. I hate to be the bearer of bad (albeit obvious) news, but your marriage is a covenant between TWO people. Two. You didn’t get into this marriage by yourself, and you’re not going to save it by yourself either.
Now before you reach for your favorite copy of the Love Dare to tell me I’m wrong, please realize that the “happy ending” of that movie was contingent on the
Mike Seaver’s Kirk Cameron’s character’s wife getting on board.
All you can do is give it your best shot, right? Actually no. You could choose to not give it your best shot. You have choices and power over what you ultimately do or do not do for the sake or your marriage. And the truth is, so does your spouse.
While I will NEVER dissuade someone from taking ownership for their part of the pie, I have to caution you from trying to own more than your part. As a dear mentor used to say, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Own your part, and give your partner the respect of owning theirs– good, bad or indifferent.
Image courtesy of stockphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net.