Commitment – A Matter of Life or Death?

I admit it – I have the author bug. I enjoyed so much writing PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work that I decided to keep going. What you are about to read is Chapter Seven of my soon-to-be-released book PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Home. I hope you find it worthwhile and helpful.

 Chapter 7: Commitment – A Matter of Life or Death?

“Commitment is making a choice to give up all other choices.”

Dr. Scott Stanley

 

A husband and wife were having an argument when the husband blurted out “I was a fool when I married you.” The wife maintained her composure and calmly replied: “I suppose you were, dear, but at the time I was so much in love I didn’t even notice.” At the risk of sounding like a broken record, married couples will experience times in their marriage when they don’t especially like each other. This shouldn’t come as a great surprise as there are times in most our lives that we don’t like ourselves all that much. We let ourselves or others down and beat ourselves up for it. If that is true, that we are not always comfortable with our own behavior, what chance is there that we will always be totally comfortable with someone else? And therein lays the great need for commitment if your marriage is to be all that you hoped when you first said: “I do.”

Commitment appears to be a vanishing quality in our society. When something isn’t working just right, we replace it with a newer, more up-to-date version. This is fine if you’re talking about a mattress or television set. It’s not so good if you’re talking about a marriage partner. My fear is that we have not prepared folks for the reality that any marriage will have challenging moments. Anyone who has been married more than five years and tells you the thought of divorce has never entered their minds will likely lie to you about other things as well. Or if not divorce, they have at least entertained thoughts that maybe they married the wrong person or that getting married was a mistake. That is normal, and those thoughts need to be taken to the recycle bin in your mind and quickly deleted.

Another problem I see is that many folks have a lowered ideal of what marriage can be and therefore settle for less. They also hesitate to fully invest in the marriage for fear the payout will not be worth the investment. Dr. Scott Stanley is a longtime researcher in the area of marriage and family at the University of Denver, and co-founder of PREP, Inc. He has authored or co-authored numerous books and journal articles and has participated in several studies designed to find out why marriages fail and how to help them succeed. In his book, The Heart of Commitment, Dr. Stanley writes that “only in the context of a total commitment are you free to develop greater levels of intimacy and connection – the things that are perhaps the very essence of oneness.”  What a paradox- we want true and lasting commitment, but we’re afraid to give it ourselves for fear it will not be reciprocated.

Dr. Stanley describes two forms of commitment, each of which is vital to a lasting, satisfying marriage. One is dedication commitment which “implies an internal state of devotion to a person or project.” This is the fun part of commitment. It’s the part where you want to be with your spouse because you are being fulfilled and feel like you are adding value to his or her life as well. Every marriage needs a healthy dose of dedication commitment to be successful and highly functioning.

The second form of commitment Dr. Stanley calls constraint commitment which “brings out the sense of obligation.” You may not be very happy with the state of your marriage, but the cost of divorce, the impact on the children, the grief you will cause family and friends serves as a deterrent to ending the marriage. As with dedication commitment, every couple needs constraint commitment from time to time. When things get rough, as they will, you need to buckle down and fix what’s broken. Cutting and running should rarely be an option at all and certainly never the first option. When divorce is a readily available option folks are more likely to choose it than to do what’s necessary to make things better.

I’m reminded of the Biosphere, a failed experiment of controlled living in a glass bubble in Arizona. There were a few reasons why the experiment failed. One was they underestimated the dynamics and tension that could exist between men and women living in such close quarters “24/7/365” as they say.

Another reason the experiment failed is they could not regulate the oxygen properly. The designers had planned on the trees they planted to be a part of the oxygen system. But the trees died. The reason they died was they did not put down deep roots. In nature, trees face challenges from winds and the elements. This causes them to put down roots to solidify their standing. In the Biosphere, no such challenges were present, so the trees had no motivation to root deeply. When your marriage faces storms, it can and should be an incentive to you and your spouse to deepen your commitment to each other and to your marriage. Each weathered storm makes the next one that much easier, or should I say, less difficult to face.

Marriage is and should be, a serious matter. People should neither begin nor end their marriage without careful forethought. Unfortunately, we as a society have made marriage too easy to get into and far too easy to get out of. Though it is also so much more, marriage is a form of contract between two consenting adults. Can you name any other contract which either party can unilaterally end without consequence?

So, let me challenge you to focus on your marriage in the coming weeks, months and years. Determine now that you are going to do your part to make it successful and healthy. Don’t worry about what your mate will or won’t do. Just subtly leave this book in a conspicuous place in the house and hope they come to the same conclusion that you will. Or, be brave and let your spouse know you are committed to him or her and to doing your part to increase the harmony and intimacy in the relationship.

Many of you can do this on your own. Buy the book 10 Great Dates by Dave and Claudia Arp and just do what it says. Others of you will need help in one form or another. There’s no shame in that. If your tooth hurts, you are very willing to go to a dentist. So if your marriage is hurting there should be nothing keeping you from going to a counselor or relationship coach to get things to a better state. The investment will be minuscule in comparison to the payoff.

Chapter Challenge: Look for an opportunity this week to thank your mate for putting up with you and assure him or her that you plan to be with them for the long haul. If you haven’t already done so, find your wedding vows and have someone write them out in calligraphy suitable for framing. Surprise your mate by hanging them in your house and let them serve as a daily reminder of your commitment to each other.

What’s Your Love Bank Balance?

I must be on a spelling kick of some sort. Last week I wrote that for many of us love is spelled TIME. I saw an e-mail that listed some amazing anagrams. Anagrams, as you may know, are the rearranging of letters to spell different words. For example, if you take the word “dormitory” and rearrange the letters you get “dirty room.” Sounds about right to me.  Or how about “slot machines” which can be rearranged to spell “cash lost in ‘em.” Then there is “mother-in-law” which I may or may not explain later.

I find these anagrams interesting and amusing. It’s incredible how meanings can change with slight alterations in spelling. The same can be said for a marriage. It’s incredible how a marriage can be improved with a few targeted and purposeful changes.

I’ve learned to think of a marriage relationship as being a love bank. This concept comes from DR Willard Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs; Love Busters and several other books. When a couple first meets they are attracted to each other and begin the process of getting better acquainted. They soon find themselves looking for ways to please the other. Little cards, silly pranks, surprises of various sorts show the other that you are interested and that you care about him or her. These may be thought of as deposits in the other’s love bank.

When the couple’s love bank balance becomes sufficiently high, they typically decide to make the relationship permanent and they get married.  Over the ensuing months and years, they continue to make deposits into their account. But over time, with the pressures and demands of life, they also begin to make withdrawals. Harley would call these “love busters.” So long as these love busters are not too severe, and they are offset by continuing deposits, their damage need not be too destructive. If the withdrawals routinely outweigh the deposits, however, the bank balance can get dangerously low. Unless this situation is addressed productively divorce is typically right around the corner.

So there are two ways to improve a marriage or increase the value in the love bank. One is to make more deposits, and the other is to avoid making withdrawals. Here’s a hint for you if you choose to make more deposits they must be deposits according to the receiver’s definition -not the givers. If I were to give my wife two season passes to my favorite sports team, I should not be surprised at her less than thrilled reaction. Unless of course, it was also truly something she would value. To better understand this concept you might want to get a copy of DR Gary Chapman’s bestselling book “The Five Love Languages.” This book will give you excellent direction and help to identify what your spouse would consider to be a genuine deposit. You can also take a short online survey at www.fivelovelanguages.com to gain insight into yours, and your mate’s love language.

To help identify withdrawals, you might want to read Love Busters by DR Harley. It will give you some ideas of specific things you are doing, or perhaps not doing that you should, which are draining the love and joy from your marriage. It will also help to open the dialogue with your spouse to get his/her input into what he or she considers to be love busters from you. As in deposits, withdrawals are to be defined by the receiver, not the giver.

Now here’s a trick question for you. If you wanted to improve your marriage and you could either make more deposits of fewer withdrawals which would you do? Congratulations to those of you who answered more deposits. You gave the most popular answer. There’s just one thing wrong with it – it’s not correct. It is far better to identify and reduce/eliminate the withdrawals than it is to increase the deposits. Here’s why. According to DR John Gottman and others, it takes between 5-15 deposits to offset the damage done by one withdrawal. In other words, if you commit a withdrawal you cannot undo the damage you caused with just one deposit. The damage is too great for that kind of one-for-one equalization. It takes multiple deposits just to get back to where you were before you made the withdrawal. That’s why it’s best to minimize the withdrawals and have all your deposits automatically go into positive territory.

So let me suggest you schedule some time this week to discuss with your spouse deposits and withdrawals you are each making that you want to increase or eliminate. Please make sure the timing is right for this conversation. The middle of a heated argument would likely not be the best choice. If you both approach the conversation with an openness and desire to have a great marriage, I think you’ll be happy with the outcome. Also, don’t try to make major changes all at once. Just choose one or two items to focus on and save the others for later.

My hope and prayer for you is that your love bank balance will rise and stay in positive territory through the coming years. Oh, by the way, the anagram for mother-in-law is “woman hitler.” I’m so glad that’s not at all true in my case. And if you’ll permit me one last word of caution: letting your spouse or his or her mother know that anagram could be a serious withdrawal.

If you have a marriage question or comment please send it to me at ronp@FCCMF.org. FCCMF stands for Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501-c-3 organization I co-founded in 2003 and which I presently serve as executive director. You can also call me at 505 327-7870.

Love is spelled TIME?

My friend Doug Thomas told me a story that I want to share with you. It’s about a young child who asks her father how much money he earns per hour. The father is startled and annoyed by the request and refuses to answer. The little girl persists in her questioning, and the father grows increasingly upset. Finally, the exasperated father yells to the girl that he earns $20.00 per hour, and now she better go to her room and get out of his sight. Before leaving, the girl asks her father for $5.00. Bewildered the father asks “why do you want $5.00?” to which the girl replies “I have $15.00 saved up. With $5.00 more I was hoping I could buy an hour of your time.” Ouch!

That reminds me of another story I heard many years ago about a father who asked his son which he wanted more from him – quality time or quantity time. The son thought for a moment and responded “dad, I want quality time – and lots of it!

Time is one of the great equalizers among us. We all have 24 hours each day to spend just about however we please. A good number of those hours I suggest should be spent in sleep. It’s not selfish to spend some of those 24 hours just on yourself. But if you are a spouse and/or parent, the remainder of those hours do not belong to you alone. I heard a statistic that fathers speak to their children, I believe it was an average of just 15-20 minutes per day. Or was that per week? Either way, it was a dismal statistic and a telling one when you look at the many poor decisions our youth are making today.

Please don’t get the idea that I am on a man-bashing tirade here. I am not. I fully realize and appreciate the significant role that a man plays in the overall wellness of his wife and children. I also realize, however, that many men have abandoned that role and are just not fulfilling it as they should. Again, I’m not saying that men are to blame for our depressing divorce rate or the myriad problems facing our youth. Research is pretty clear, however, that when fathers are actively involved in their marriage and parenting, they and their loved ones benefit tremendously.

In fairness, I must point out that men and women are dramatically different in so many ways. These differences become apparent early on in life. Typical little girls spend much of their play time imagining growing up to be wives and mothers. Little boys, on the other hand, see themselves as doctors or truck drivers or however they will one day earn a living to support their family. Notice I said “typical, ” and I certainly am not implying that women can’t or shouldn’t work or that men can’t be nurturers. It is true, however, that most men are programmed to some extent to be breadwinners. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as I can tell unless the emphasis on making a living gets out of balance and becomes the end-all and be-all. And, therein, lies much of the problem within marriages and families today.

Brian G. Dyson, then President and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, in a 1991 commencement address at Georgia Tech University challenged the students to: “Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them work, family, health, friends and spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit- are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand this and strive for balance in your life.”

Wow, that sounds like sage advice to me.  And I can’t think of a better time than right now to do a realistic appraisal of how you are spending your time. Are you giving of yourself to those who are most deserving? Has work and hobbies, activities, interests taken time away from your loved ones? It really does come down to where your priorities are. And this is not a challenge solely made to men. All of us run the risk of getting so caught up in the hectic pace of life that we can’t see the many time and relationship thieves that have crept into our lives.

So let me close with a poem by Natasha Josefowitz called Priorities. At least for marriage, it says what I’m trying to say far better than I can:

We’re working too hard accomplishing a lot but . . . the time to play is passing us by.

We’re in our separate worlds of creative concentration. It’s wonderful but. . . the time to be us is passing us by.

We meet for meals and speak of work. It’s helpful but . . . the time to know is passing us by.

We meet in bed and go to sleep. It’s restful but. . . the time to love is passing us by.”

 

Should you have a marriage question or comment please send it to me at ronp@FCCMF.org. FCCMF stands for Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501-c-3 organization I co-founded in 2003 and which I presently serve as executive director. You can also call me at 505 327-7870.

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.