Are We Having Fun Still?

Quick, think of something you can start and then ignore and expect it to thrive. Okay, maybe a pet rock, but I’m having difficulty thinking of anything else. The reason I bring up this pop quiz is that it seems many folks have put their marriage on auto-pilot and now wonder why it is not flourishing. Most of us get married with the greatest of dreams and hopes and expectations. And in the early days, weeks and months we do indeed invest much into the relationship. But somehow we get to a point where the glow begins to wear off. We begin to see flaws in our partner that were likely always there but were obscured in our state of infatuation and new love.

We begin to question whether or not we’re getting out of the marriage benefits equal to what we’re putting in. And slowly, but surely, we begin to drift apart from each other. If such a couple fails to recognize their situation and take appropriate remedial steps, they are bound to join the thousands of others who have endured the pain of divorce.  The very good news is that this does not have to be the case. Marriage can thrive and be all you hoped it would be when you first said: “I do.”

If this sounds familiar to you (or someone you know) one important step in rejuvenating a marriage is to remember what attracted you to each other in the first place. Think back to those early days when you first met and began to get acquainted. Remember the positive qualities you saw in the other and why you wanted to be with him or her. Chances are that he or she is still that same admirable person.

Remember the little tokens of affection you gave to each other in those early days – the silly cards or notes, the innocent pranks you played on each other, the time you took to really listen to each other and discover each other’s personality and heart. Especially remember the fun times you had together going on walks or picnics or to the movies, etc. Now ask yourself a question: “when was the last time we did any of those things we used to do?”

Michelle Weiner-Davis is a superstar in the field of marriage enrichment and restoration. According to her website www.divorcebusting.com “Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW is an internationally renowned relationship expert, best-selling author, marriage therapist, and professional speaker who specializes in helping people change their lives and improve important relationships.” I personally know her to be a dynamic speaker and trainer. I love her self-chosen nickname as a “Guerilla Divorce Buster.” Michelle is shameless in her approach to encourage folks that divorce need not be the only option for a troubled marriage. I so agree with her that it is rarely even the best option, let alone the only one.

One of Michelle’s key concepts in turning around a marriage which has gotten off track is for the couple to resume doing the fun things they did when they first fell in love. Her premise is that they will find the love still there. Now that is, of course, assuming those things were legal then and still are now. But seriously, in the early days spending fun time together is no challenge at all. It’s what we live for and almost all we can think about. We have so much fun together that we decide to do it forever, and we solidify that decision with a wedding.

And the fun times do continue, but over time with the addition of children, mortgages, jobs, etc. we find the time for fun to be less and less automatic. I’ve met numerous couples over the years in my practice as a divorce mediator who admit they decided to put the children first and stopped paying attention to each other or to the marriage. Well, here’s a hint: if you really want to put your children first, pay extra attention to your marriage.

The importance of fun in maintaining a healthy marriage cannot be overstated. So let me share with you two ideas for how to improve if this is lacking in your marriage. The first comes from researchers at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. It’s called the “Deck of 10”. Each spouse gets ten index cards, and on each card, they write down something they would like to do together as a couple – and only as a couple. It’s important to write just one activity per card. These opportunities for fun can be as small as exchanging back rubs or as large as going on a cruise. You can list activities you know your mate might not really enjoy, but please keep those to a minimum and don’t ask him or her to go any further out of their comfort zone than you are willing to go out of your own.

Once each has their deck completed one spouse goes to the other’s deck and pulls out a card. It is then that spouse’s responsibility to make the event or activity happen – typically within the next 14 days. It is then the other spouse’s turn to go to the other’s deck and pull out a card and make sure that it happens. The neat part of this exercise is that you know you’re doing something your mate would like to do because it was his or her idea in the first place. The fact that you are making it happen is bound to get you at least a point or two. If you happen to draw a card such as go on a cruise simply break it up into manageable pieces. You could schedule a time to visit a local travel agent or cruise specialist and begin to do research on where you might want to go and develop a plan for how you might begin to save up to pay for it, etc.

For the second tip, you’ll need to visit www.marriagebuilders.com. This is the website for Dr. Willard Harley, author of (among many other books) His Needs, Her Needs, a mega-bestseller on how to do marriage well. Once at the site do a search for his Recreational Enjoyment Inventory. You’ll need to print out a copy for each of you and begin to fill it in separately. After you have each completed the inventory, you’ll combine your answers to hopefully discover activities you both would enjoy doing together.

Am I suggesting that all marital problems can be fixed by having fun together? Absolutely not. Am I suggesting that fun is crucial to maintaining a healthy marriage and to repairing one that is somewhat broken? Absolutely yes! Why not give it a try and find out for yourself?

Could this give couples a “fighting chance?”

Couples in marital distress often do not feel safe discussing their relationship with each other. This week’s column can add a measure of safety to the conversation – see what you think. 

Four Ground Rules to Help Resolve Marital Disputes

For Several years I attended a Smart Marriage conference somewhere in the United States. My first was in 2001 in Orlando, but other conferences I attended were held in Washington DC, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, and Reno. This annual conference always featured 13 or so keynote presentations along with 160 workshops from which I could select 8.  It was always torture to choose the 8, but since most all were quality presentations from quality presenters it was really a no- lose proposition.
One workshop presenter who made a lasting impression on me was Tom Strohl who had a private practice he called Marriage Works. Whenever he worked with a couple, Tom placed a premium on each party feeling safe in the session. He knew that when couples come for marriage help they are already in a state of distress and he sought to help them feel as comfortable as possible with him, and with his approach to helping them improve their marriage.
So early on in his sessions with a couple Tom would suggest they abide by four ground rules which he felt would increase their chances of reaching a successful outcome. I believe these four ground rules could also be beneficial for your marriage, and your neighbors and their neighbors, etc.
The first ground rule is “No Zingers.” By this he meant that it was off limits for either party to lob verbal grenades at the other. Certainly we all get frustrated with our spouses at times and it’s so easy at those times to let them know how frustrated we are. The problem is that while eventually you will calm down, the damage caused by your hurtful words can take a long time to dissipate. It is far better to avoid causing the damage than it is to try to fix it later. You can’t un-ring a bell and you can’t take back hurtful words – at least not easily or quickly.
Tom knew that while adopting the rule of “No Zingers” was helpful, it might not always be practical in the heat of a battle. This realization led him to Rule Number Two: Time-out. By adopting this rule the couple agreed that if they ever got to a place where they were so upset, so hurt or so angry that they really wanted to hurt the other, they would first call a time-out. I have found time-out to be a hugely effective tool for resolving disputes as it can mitigate further damage to an already troubled relationship.
We tend to think primarily with one part of our brain (the frontal lobe) and we feel mostly with another (the limbic system). There are times when we can get so into our feeling brain that we literally stop thinking. That helps to explain (but not excuse) road rage. It also helps to explain relationship rage and it simply must not be allowed to occur. I can’t encourage you enough to come up with a time-out signal which is clearly understood by every member of the family that the discussion must abruptly stop and be rescheduled at a later time.
This rescheduling is also a vital piece of the rule. We’re talking time-out, not cop-out. Therefore whoever calls for the time-out is obligated to call the time-in, a time when he or she will be back in their thinking brain and willing to discuss the issue that caused the upheaval in the first place. Time-outs typically should be no less than 30 minutes to give your body a chance to calm down, and no longer than 24 hours so the other party knows that his or her concerns will be addressed. You could call for a short time-out and discuss using the LUV talk, but that’s a topic for another column.
Tom’s 3rd rule for couples in counseling is “No Punishment.” It’s one thing to be upset with your spouse; it’s something entirely different to want him or her to have to pay for what they did, or did not do. Trust me, it’s way difficult to keep a happy marriage and want retribution at the same time. You really must decide which is more important to you.
And, lastly, Rule Number 4 is “Talk by Agreement.” You can look back over your marriage and recognize times when you wanted to talk, but your spouse didn’t. The reverse is also true that there have been times when your spouse wanted to talk, but you didn’t. That’s why rule 4 is so important that you agree that you will only discuss sensitive issues when you both agree you are in a proper frame of mind and heart to do so.
Are these four ground rules guaranteed to fix any and all marital problems? Of course not! But what they can do is help each person feel safe in the relationship and to be more willing to fix what’s broken if they know they will not be attacked, that they can escape the conflict with a time-out, that they will not be punished and that they will only talk when both parties are prepared to do so. I can attest that these ground rules are helpful in a marriage coaching session. I invite you to consider how valuable they may be in your home.