Editor’s note: Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW, and Daniel Arthur Bush, PhD, are co-authors of 75 Habits for a Happy Marriage. Their continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Helping Couples Connect When Life Is Pulling Them Apart, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on September 13. The event is good for 1.5 CE credits and is available at no cost to GoodTherapy.org members. For details, or to register, please click here.
“Melissa” and “George” have been married for 19 years. Nine years ago, George’s excessive drinking had led to a separation. George admitted to his addiction and checked himself into a rehabilitation center. They reunited after six months, and George has been sober ever since.
They were in my office now because Melissa was feeling unfulfilled in their marriage. George had reluctantly agreed to come. “It’s not like I’m drinking anymore” he said, “so really, we’re fine.”
That’s when I heard the first damaging assumption: “Things are OK as long as there aren’t any BIG problems, such as addiction, adultery, or abuse.” WRONG. Certainly, those issues are significant, but marriages fall apart on far less. Bad habits such as under-appreciation, frequent exits, chronic complaining, and gradual distancing are the more frequent causes of death for a marriage. The four horsemen of John Gottman’s book, 7 Principles for Making Your Marriage Work, speak directly to this assumption.
In the course of the intake, I asked George if he loved Melissa. Melissa looked up expectantly, waiting for his answer. He replied, “Well, sure, she knows that I do. It’s not like I need to tell her every day.” Melissa sat back, deflated.
That’s when I heard the second damaging assumption: “My spouse knows that I love him/her. I don’t need to say it regularly.” WRONG. An important part of being in a romantic relationship is making sure that your partner knows, every single day, that you love him or her. Some people want to know this in words; others prefer that the message is communicated by actions or touch. Know how your partner wishes to receive your love message. This assumption is the topic of Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages.
Melissa and George had arrived at a place in their marriage where they simply didn’t understand where the other was coming from. They both felt stuck and unappreciated.
They were also holding on to the third relationship-eroding assumption: “My partner must have the same emotional needs and communication style as I do.” We all have unique neurological, biological, and social differences. And there are some dramatic differences between men and women in how they cope with stress, communicate their feelings, and get their intimacy needs met. Acknowledging and accepting the ways in which your partner is different from you is a crucial step in making your relationship work. John Gray has helped millions drop this assumption through his book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
It was the collapse of the fourth and fifth assumptions that finally brought this couple to counseling. But other couples need to be on guard. The fourth common damaging assumption is: “I know how my partner is feeling about our relationship.” MAYBE, but you need to find out for sure. Just because he or she isn’t complaining all the time doesn’t mean he/she is satisfied. Take up the habit of asking your partner: “Are you happy in our marriage?” “Is there anything that I can do to be a better partner?” Don’t wait until your partner drags you to marriage counseling to discover that he or she is unsatisfied. Conscious Loving, by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, is an example of a book dedicated to communication antidotes to this crippling assumption.
The fifth relationship-damaging assumption is: “We will never get divorced.” WRONG. A high percentage of people in divorce courts never thought they’d be getting divorced. Believing that it can’t happen to you can lead to your becoming apathetic, complacent, and lazy. You begin to take your partner for granted. Instead, knowing that time is finite (either because divorce or death might be looming), you begin to treat the relationship with TLC. George and Melissa already knew that their relationship was subject to separation.
However, once they realized that their assumptions had led to unhealthy and hurtful habits in their relationship, they began to turn things around. George, upon hearing that Melissa wasn’t feeling loved, became open to new ways of communicating to her. Melissa responded to his attention so positively that it was easy for them to embrace each other’s differences and develop new habits that eventually evolved into a whole new way of being with each other.
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