Empty Nest & Retirement Years as Invitations to Re-Create Shared Meaning

The apex of Dr. John Gottman’s “Sound Relationship House” – the metaphorical distillation of his decades of scientific research on marital success—is Shared Meaning. 

A couple’s Shared Meaning is established and reinforced by intentional habits and patterns of interaction that create and reinforce a couple’s friendship. Friendship is what Dr. Gottman’s research has shown to be the bedrock of a close, passionate, and enduring relationship or marriage. Friendship is comprised of the principles Gottman has named: Love Maps, Turning Toward One Another (connecting), and Nurturing Fondness and Admiration. More could be written on these, but suffice to say that Love Maps is partners having a detailed “map” in their head of their partner’s world; they are familiar with each other’s internal and external world, such that they know how to “be there for” each other.  Turning Toward One Another is the habit that satisfied and long-lasting couples have of connecting often in ways that keep the friendship alive. These are dates, regularized stress-reducing-conversations, weekly checkins, daily rituals around partings and reunions, purposeful celebrations, thoughtful considerations, etc. Nurturing Fondness and Admiration is the mental and verbal rehearsing of what we like, love, respect, admire, and are grateful for, concerning our spouse.  It is feeding a positive sentiment toward our husband or wife; it is spinning in a positive direction what could be spun negatively, but for our refusal to do so. It’s being thankful for who we have rather than making comparisons to the facade we see in others’ spouses. 

The friendship that is formed in dating is unlike the friendship that is re-formed in empty nest and retirement years. And that reformation is different still from the friendship that was honed in the fires of educational pursuits and career development, challenged and defended amid the chaos of raising children, or creatively protected in the lean years of our offspring’s education and career pursuits. At each stage, connection was (ideally) given the priority it deserved, afforded the creativity and resources due something of high priority, and enjoyed by both partners like a refreshing drink enjoyed by a parched traveler. The ways and means of connection was different at each stage, but hopefully valued, prioritized and defended the same. 

The empty nest and retirement years are not parched ground devoid of nutrients now that child-rearing and career-building have been accomplished; quite the opposite. They are another opportunity to redecorate the living space that is our marriage, like we’ve done before. It’s time to pick out new curtains (okay… window coverings), decide where we’ll sit and on what in our new environment, re-purpose the kids’ rooms in a way that makes sense for our life and lifestyle, and replace academic, league, and career-oriented calendar items with mutual and separate passions for which there had not been time, before. 

In short, the empty nest and retirement years are an opportunity to—indeed, a requirement to—redefine our shared meaning. What rituals, roles, goals, symbols, practices, routines, celebrations, and pursuits will define our lives together and individually as supported by one another?  This can even include anticipation of and preparation for medical decline and mutual care-giving. No need for ill health to come upon us as a surprise or morose experience. How can it be part of our “us” just as were the plans made during more active years?  

Before that time comes, are these the years we can finally go dancing, hold hands while walking in beautiful settings, go out to those restaurants that the kids never liked, play cards again if we can find anyone who knows how, invest in the lives of others, serve in altruistic ways once precluded by work and parenting?  

My wife and I have re-written our shared meaning to now include Saturday morning breakfast out. The waitress knows our name and our usual shared order.  Travel is always west… to the homes of one of our three children, where Nana and Poppy take on the cherished role of weekend playmates and caregivers, including giving our kids a night out with their spouses.  It’s one of the things we enjoy most. Also high on the list is leading marriage seminars every few months, whether in our own city or elsewhere, and leading or co-leading a topical or Bible study with a group of friends. We’re invested in the  ministries of our church and strive to correct on our block the cultural tragedy of neighbors not knowing neighbors. These are years in which I can finally write with more regularity and my wife supports me alongside as she pursues her own interest in shared space made warm, comfortable, nurturing, and life-giving to our marriage.  It’s a stage of oneness-building like every stage of marriage affords, but now with new ways to understand, prioritize, value and depend on each other. This time, with less hair. 

Finally, as with any stage of marriage, the measure of the above meaning re-creation and its practice is how we’re making each other feel in the process. The Gottman Institute’s identification of extremely high ratios of positive to negative interactions between Master Couples tells us that satisfying marriages are built in the intangible process more than on the tangible product. Whether it’s sipping coffee together over laptops, navigating cross-country or across-town travel, or managing a messy lunchtime with grandchildren, the invitation is always the same… to be for the other the safest place on earth; the greatest teammate; the most encouraging and affirming friend who is there for our spouse, as he or she is for us. That is both the product and process of shared meaning—at any stage—and the measure of any marriage. 

BE NICE

Dr. John Gottman’s off-quoted four decades of research on marriage, from which he has compiled reliable predictors of divorce and trustworthy principles for marital success, can be summarized in this advice: “Be nice.” Amazing. Decades of scientific research has discovered that people prefer to be married to someone who is nice to them. Whodathunk?  In fact, his data from observing 4,000 couples shows that satisfied couples make each other feel good twenty times more than they make each other feel bad. Even during conflict, they maintain a ratio of 5:1, making each other feel good five times more than they make each other feel bad during disagreements. Such a mathematical approach invites the simple self-check of identifying one’s planned actions and verbiage as a plus or minus on the “feel good“ scale. That is, is it going to make our partner feel good? If not, then how is unkind look, comment, or act worth it, if the goal is a happy marriage? 

Marriage counselors are often faced with the initial task of getting partners to quit blaming each other for marital problems, and to begin focusing instead on their interactive patterns that have pit them against one another. These uncaring patterns fraught with misunderstanding have not “felt nice,“ and thus have served as a rationalization to each “victim” to not be nice in return. That is, rudeness, inconsideration, and failure  on the part of one’s spouse to “be there“ in a supportive way leaves a person defensive, or self – protective, thus justifying behavior that is not protective of the other. The relationship is thus  cannibalized. As a result, “communication” becomes a toxic swirl of harshness, criticism, blame, and defensiveness. In this toxic swirl, one or both partners is more interested in communicating how they feel than in protecting the other’s feelings by how they communicate.

What need happen is the recognition that instead of being torn asunder by in-fighting, the two can instead be drawn together by mutual protection in pursuit of a mutual mission (“Shared Meaning” in Gottman terminology). This Recognition results in a shift from “me” to “we.” Partners switch from protection of self to protection of other, and protection of “us.”Marriage is a union; the two are one. To wound one’s partner is to wound “us.’  Not worth it. To defend the other with the same level of interest as protecting oneself is vulnerable; it comes without guarantee that the other half of the union will be equally protective. The apostle Paul – ironically a bachelor – summed it up well in Romans 12:18 when he admonished, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with others.“ This removes the rationalization for self-protective, self–centered behavior… “Well s/he was mean, first.” That justification might have worked on the playground, but it will destroy a marriage. Adults go first.

This is not easy, of course; no easier than when warring countries call a cease-fire and sit together together at table to work out a peace accord. Nothing about restoring peace can be easy after so many wounds have been inflicted. But it is done. Peace and reconciliation are worth it. Trust between former enemies is thereafter built, safe interaction by safe interaction. One comes to experience a former enemy as one’s present and future friend through now kind, protective words and deeds. 

If a person cannot be nice to the person they profess to love—even with the help of a counselor trained in couples therapy—then there are a couple of things potentially going on. One possibility is that this person has no reason to think that past injuries won’t continue. Perhaps there has been no meaningful conversation where the hurt partner has felt understood, and their wounded emotions validated. Perhaps there has been no apology (one without excuses or rationalizations). Or perhaps that partner needs individual counseling. for, if one can’t love and protect others, then there is a need help and healing. If one can’t stop blaming their partner for all of the marital problems, then intervention is needed. Ideally, the partner will recognize this for themselves. All relationships have interactive patterns that exist on a spectrum of health. Most could be healthier; that means changes on both sides of the patterned equation. Best to begin with oneself. Rarely (never?) does it work well when the victimized partner suggests the other’s need for counseling – or worse – proceeds to diagnose the other as a narcissist or having bipolar or borderline personality traits. That may be the case, but better to hear it from a professional who can offer support  and tools for change. 

Only then will the harsh, critical, blaming, defensive cycle change through humble mutual focus on the interactive patterns. Only then will friendship and mutual protection replace reciprocal volleys of criticism, blame, and defensiveness. Only then will the nice-to-nasty ratio rise, such that the marriage is each partner’s safest place on earth. 

Marriage is a Tango

Dr. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, compares a couple’s relationship to a tango. A tango can be a beautiful dance or an awful spectacle dependent on whether partners are attuned to each other and there for each other.  A tango is two people becoming one, gliding and stretching across the ballroom floor; at times pulling away from each other, but never apart, holding onto each other in a supportive way that allows a safe return to the other’s arms. There is independent singularity and interdependent duality at work in a complementary way that produces a beauty neither could produce alone. Two “me’s” become a “we.” It’s not a push and pull competition wherein one will win and the other lose, but a game of catch and release where both win. Daring turns to beauty as each protects the other; individual creative expression is enabled by interdependent steadfast devotion.

Relationships Live in a Dynamic Tension

Safe Giving Cycle - Vulnerability cf Boundaries

Relationships live in the constant dynamic tension between wanting our own way in pursuit of a self-actualized life, and yielding to others from other-centered love. Imbalance in either direction brings problems for oneself and for those with whom we are in relationship. The key is a balance of protection of self and protection of other(s). The ideal relationship is one of mutual giving, so that neither is forced to take from the other. Abraham Maslow even came around to a perspective similar to  this idea when late in life he began to identify an alternative apex to his famed Hierarchy of Needs. Near the end of his life, Maslow began to identify “Transcendence” as the pinnacle of human pursuit rather than Self-Actualization. In pursuit of Transcendence, we invest our lives in a way that transcends our own self-interest. This is the essence of love, which is other-centeredness.

To further explain the above illustration, our tendency is to pursue what we want and need; this is survival. Out of balance, however, such self-development and self-preservation can resort to taking what we need at the expense of others with whom we are in relationship; even becoming defensive (self-protective) against them. This self-protection, of course, is the opposite of protecting the other. In extreme imbalance, the risk here is selfishness.  At the other end of the spectrum is love, centered upon and protective of the wants and needs of others with whom we are in relationship. This is the kind of love we see demonstrated in the love of a parent toward a child; it is selflessness that sacrifices sleep, the use of time and space, dietary choices, the layout of the home, and many other things for the sake of the child’s needs and development. Such other-preferential love is vulnerable because there is no guarantee of reciprocation. Indeed, children should not be expected to sacrificially protect parents in reciprocal ways; this payoff may come only with advanced age and inverted dependence. But in the case of a relationship on par, such as marriage, other-centered love is vulnerable because, in protecting the other’s needs, we do so without a net; there is no guarantee the other will lovingly protect our needs and interest.

Ideally, there is mutual love; mutual protection of one another, wherein the feelings, needs, wants and wishes of each partner are understood and protected by the other, alleviating both from having to act selfishly by taking what they need at the expense of the other.  Instead, both give to each other what the other needs to have a life that is safe, secure, happy, self-actualized, and satisfying. Not that partners are the complete source of all these things for each other; that would suggest a god-complex, or the imposition of the same on the other. But such mutual, sacrificial giving is the essence of love, and even of solid friendship, which is the number one predictor of marital success, according to decades of research by The Gottman Institute.

The risk of other-centered love and a focus upon sacrificially giving to the other what they need is codependence, one aspect of which is losing oneself. Co-dependents lose their voice and even their identity in the life and needs of the other—to an extreme. That last caveat is important because one should not expect to enter into a relationship of marital oneness without adjustments. To live however we wish, making whatever decisions we like without any consultation or yielding, saying whatever we want to say in whatever way we want to say it, whenever we want to say it, and doing as we please regardless of its effect on others—that’s called living alone.  In marriage, we adjust for the sake of the other and are thus changed for the better by other-centeredness; this in contrast to trying to change the other (presumably into a version of ourself). That’s a topic for another article.

Boundaries must be erected when our partner is not acting in other-centered, protective love. An extreme example of this would be domestic violence, where other-protective love is wholly absent. In this case, the abused spouse must erect boundaries of self-protection against violence and disrespect, making clear in words and actions what will not be tolerated. In less extreme cases, boundaries are best articulated as positive requests that cast a vision for what is wanted, rather than criticisms of what was disappointing. For example, “I love getting all the house chores done before Sunday, so we have the whole day just to rest and play.”

Lastly, returning to Transcendence—Abraham Maslow’s late reflection on the essence of human needs—it seems to me that this brings the whole illustration full-circle. Transcendence is a paradox. It is the pursuit of something meaningful that is beyond our self. Yet, investing in it brings self-fulfillment. Examples are patriotism, altruism, parenting, and giving of ourselves and our means—even perhaps to the point of sacrificing our very lives—for something we so believe in that it is worth it. My father exemplified that transcendence in his dedication to fighting Communism in Vietnam, as explained in his letter to then-five-year-old-me, written one week before he was killed in action. He was self-actualized in his self-endangering role as an infantry officer and—as he wrote—fully expected “…to be serving in the world’s actions spots when you are my present age.”  Missionaries and organ donors and teachers and others who give of themselves in ways that bring no fame or riches will testify to the same intangible sense of meaning derived from such altruism. So, we’ve come full circle. To reach transcendence—the apex of our needs—is paradoxically achieved by selflessness… sacrificing ourselves for something more important than self. Our goal in marriage is a relationship where we can love vulnerably without having to erect self-protective boundaries, nor lose ourselves to the self-centeredness of the other, because both are living sacrificially in other-centered, protective love.

The Bully Spouse

The “bully spouse” is encountered with some regularity in couples counseling. This partner could be male or female. The key characteristic among bullies is that they do not listen to or heed their partner’s feelings, point of view, preferences, or needs. Specifically, bullies interact in a number of ways:

  • Bullies see only their own point of view.
  • Bullies do not reflect fairly their partners’ point of view before stating (or re-stating) their own.
  • Bullies interrupt their partner’s attempt to explain their point of view, feelings, wants, or needs. This, even if the bully had asked their partner, “Help me understand.” 
  • Bullies respond to their partner’s point of view, feelings, wants, wonders or needs   with sarcasm, mockery, minimizing, or diminishing their partner’s feelings or needs  in comparison to their own. 
  • Bullies insist on seeing the worst in their partner, not granting them the benefit of the doubt, judging their hearts and motives, and refusing to hear or believe their partner’s explanation.
  • Bullies put self-protection first, out of balance with protection of their partner (emotionally, physically, through allocation of resources, etc.).
  • Bullies lack empathy.
  • Bullies blame their partner for the couple’s interactive pattern, refusing to take some responsibility or quickly minimizing their own part in comparison to their partner’s more egregious part.
  • Bullies are quick to complain and slow to compliment; noticing what their partner does “wrong,” but rarely what their partner does “right.” (In Gottman terms, this is one example of Negative Sentiment Override).
  • Bullies play the victim, bypassing whatever hurt, inconvenience, disrespect, or injury their partner noted, and turning the conversation back to their own pain, inconvenience, injury, etc., making their own experience the sole issue.  
  • Bullies “blow up” conversations before mutual understanding is achieved, through escalation of harshness, volume, crying, yelling, etc.—for which they blame their partner—followed by hijacking the meeting and bringing conversation to an abrupt end’ perhaps even storming out as they complain they “just can’t take it anymore.”
  • Bullies gaslight. Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that twists another’s   correct observations to make them question their own senses, or even sanity. 
  • Bullies insist upon being granted grace for bad behavior because they’re “not perfect,” but do not grant grace to their partner for the same infractions.
  • Bullies “listen” to their partner’s disappointment over a past incident, but when a similar scenario unfolds, they forget what their partner asked for, and do as the same as they’ve done before. 
  • Bullies insist upon their own way. 
  • Bullies build alliances with other family members & friends by painting a one-sided narrative that vilifies their spouse and turns others against their partner, often in contexts where the partner has no voice. 
  • Bullies continue to employ past offenses as weapons, even after understanding has been reached, a sincere apology made and received, and reformations made. 

Bullying exists on a spectrum. To identify with one or more of the above, or to see one or more of the above in our partner, does not a bully make. Some of these are employed as a matter of course as we navigate life as self-interested persons. The key is the ability to balance self-interest with the interests of others.

On an extreme, bullying can be seen in people with low Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ was coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, and popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Healthy EQ refers to “…a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” (Salovey & Mayer)  On an extreme level, unhealthy—or extremely low EQ—is evidenced in the lives of people who meet the clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder or for Borderline Personality Disorder. While these personality disorders result from abuse in a persons’ pasts, it is hard to summon compassion for people who suffer from these disorders, since the outward expression of these disorders is experienced as self-centered, or outright selfish behavior. 

But before you label your partner a bully, or selfish, or a Narcissist or as suffering from Borderline tendencies, look in the mirror (or watch yourself on video, critiquing yourself, never your partner). Experience yourself from your partner’s eyes. This is important because projection is the tendency to see (and be irritated by) behaviors that are our own. We see them in others and dislike them; others see them in us and dislike them the same. This is why Dr. John Gottman commends employing the Assumption of Similarity, especially during a conflict with a partner. The Assumption of Similarity is the practice of also seeing in ourselves a negative quality that we are ascribing to our partner, and vice-versa; and of also seeing in our partner a positive quality we are attributing to ourselves. This keeps us from forming an exalted view of ourselves and a contemptuous view of our partner. Jesus even warned of this when he said, “Judge not, lest you be judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) 

What does one do with a bully? The solution to the bully dilemma is, first of all, to make sure that we’re not a bully. Make sure you’re not doing what you’re asking your partner to not do. Bullying back is not the path to peace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

The ideal is to model non-bullying behavior for our spouse. Help them understand that you are with them and for them, willing to protect their emotions, preferences and needs in balance with your own. For the Narcissist, reassure them of your respect; for the Borderline, reassure them of your love and loyalty. That is, help them understand that they need not resort to bullying to be protected. 

If your efforts to protect your partner are not reciprocated by their protection of you, then establish self-protective boundaries, even while continuing to love, respect, protect, and care for your partner. Boundaries establish what you will not accept (name-calling, physical abuse, yelling, profanity, etc.). The same Apostle Paul who said, “As far as it depends upon you, live at peace with everyone,” also allowed  himself be lowered in a basket through a window to escape people who were intent on doing him harm. (Acts 9:25) The best way to establish boundaries is to voice in the positive the behavior that you find protective, and that will gain and keep your engagement. For example, instead of “Don’t be such a b****! You’re so mean; no one could live with you,” say, “I want to talk about this with you; I’ll be back when we can talk about it calmly.” Instead of, “You’re so selfish,” say, “What’s important to you is important to me, and I need to know that what’s important to me is important to you.” Instead of “I can’t live with a liar,” say, “I want us to be able to trust each other.”

Finally, the best antidote to poor communication and conflict resolution is good communication and effective conflict management. The Gottman Institute—and likely any counselor specifically trained in couples therapy—will have tools designed to help partners understand each other’s differing points of view, different emotional responses, different pasts, different values beneath a conflict, and one other’s different needs. Specific to the Gottman Institute are its exercises: Talking it Out exercise, Aftermath of a Fight exercise, and Gottman-Rapoport conversation guide. In a nearby blog post, I also offer my 5 Rs for Understanding, which guide communication toward understanding and mutual protection. 

New ways of communicating take practice, of course, and practice is often most effective when we have a coach to walk us through new skills. Don’t hesitate to engage a relationship coach or counselor trained in research-based couples therapy to guide you through healthier patterns of communication. 

Doug Burford, DMin, LPC

Why married couples stop talking to each other

In restaurants, you can tell the dating couples from the married couples. The dating couples are talking to one another; the married couples frequently are not. Why is this?

As with most marriage-unfriendly behavior, the reason for silence is self-defense. Defense against what? For women, it is often defensiveness against feeling unloved when not heard by their husbands. For men, it is often defensiveness against feeling disrespected when he hears what he interprets as criticism and control. Neither partner sets out to make the other feel these things; each is simply doing what comes naturally to their own gender, who would not take offense. 

Research from the Gottman Institute identifies a principal underlying happy, long-lasting marriages; it is that of “accepting influence.“ Decades of data shows greater marital satisfaction among couples where men accept influence from their wives. This corresponds to the tendency of women to have their “heart heard” by husbands in order to feel loved, honored, and respected. The chapter in Dr. Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that elucidates this principle seems imbalanced in favor of men, compared to the parity of the other principles. As such, it runs the risk of fomenting as many relationship problems as it solves. It is certainly true that marriages are happier when men accept the influence of their wives more than might be a man’s natural tendency; however, the chapter is very light on whether women need adjust their own natural tendencies, as men are called to do. The truth is, couples are more likely to talk to one another if both genders adjust their natural tendencies, making it easier to accept influence from one another.

There is another noteworthy book that commends this balanced acceptance of influence; it precedes Dr. Gottman‘s book by about two millennia. I like to call it the New Testament. In it, Paul pens:  “…submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:21) and “…husbands love your wives; wives respect your husbands.“ (Ephesians 5:25). Here, both husbands and wives are called to equally adjust their natural tendencies. It was for good reason that Paul did not say, “…husbands respect your wives; wives love your husbands.“ He was asking men and women to do the opposite of what comes naturally to them, in order to meet the relational need of their spouse. This prescription recognizes that women tend naturally to extend love; while men tend naturally to bestow respect. It is the language each knows best; it is how they communicate with their own. But it doesn’t work as well in inter-gender relationships. What seems perfectly clear is a foreign language to one’s spouse. Women long for love; men long for respect. Scripture calls men and women to yield to how the other gender typically feels valued in relationship. Marriage is a journey of discovery into exactly what the alien gender means by these words, and how these are felt. 

Typically, a woman feels cared for, honored, and loved when her husband patiently listens to her. She is more likely to engage in conversation over the dinner table if she has a husband willing to hear what she has to say, without finding fault in what she says, or impatiently offering fixes in order to be done with the subject. And for the man? Is there anything a woman can do to help him be more conversational? Yes. The most common complaint I hear from men in unsatisfied marriages is that their wives are “critical and controlling.“ Women want to offer ideas, make suggestions, ask devil’s advocate questions, and generally have influence in decision-making which he, longing for respect, hears as a lack of confidence in his intelligence, competence, strength, or ability to handle things on his own (i.e., without her help). Obviously, these are directly in conflict with one another at all times, and quickly become conversational barriers. What we have here is a perpetual problem, and thus a couple’s learning opportunity. Men want to competently make decisions that will heroically fix things, and protect and serve their wives and families. Women want to participate in issues is at hand, not because they doubt their husband’s competence, but because problems are opportunities to draw close; to connect; to practice mutual dependence and thus foster togetherness.

What this looks like in everyday conversation is that a woman will bring up some thought or idea, and the man—instead of hearing her heart—will key in on an error in syntax, some logical inconsistency in what she said, or some financial, philosophical, mechanical, or scheduling problem inherent in her idea. He will point out to her these problems. In a woman’s world, this is highly unloving. A woman would disregard a syntax problem and affirm the heart of her sister’s idea, using kind, emotional words. Her focus would be on connecting, and discussing the challenge-at-hand together as a bonding experience. Only incidentally and later might she ask about problems with the ideas. When a man fails to do this, it feels to her like a lack of support and a failed emotional connection. So, she shuts down. Then there is the opposing scenario common to the male experience. When he brings up an idea, his wife—in an effort to come alongside—will ask questions of his plans, pose devil’s advocate scenarios, and wonder out loud about things that might hinder the success of his idea. She may suggest modifications or alternatives that bear little resemblance to his original proposal or decision. To a man, her effort to connect feels to him like criticism and control. The male mind interprets her input as questioning his intelligence, doubting his competence, and overtaking his idea with her own. When a man feels this way, he misunderstands the advice to “allow his wife to have influence” and hears instead the call to abdicate his authority, give her her way, and let her “wear the pants” in the marriage. 

What is at issue here is the different meaning men and women ascribe to the sharing of ideas. Dr. John Gray says that women share ideas in order to connect; men share ideas in order to compete. To women, the sharing of ideas and the asking of questions is a way to show caring. To men, to share ideas and ask questions is a to challenge whether another man knows what he is doing. It is questioning his intelligence and competence. Men, of course, don’t see their comments as a rejection of connection; and women do not regard their input as critical or controlling, or demanding their way. But such is the interpretation of their partner; it is one reason that married couples sit in silence. The woman fears that whatever she says will be met with some “ridiculous” objection or demeaning comment. The man fears that what he says will be met with questions and competing ideas, resulting in a hostile takeover. Neither has the energy for that conversation, so communication ends before it starts.

What is the answer to this stalemate? Step one is simply to recognize it. Women and men cannot expect their spouses to communicate in the same manner as members of their own gender. Translation is necessary. Pausing and considering the needs of the other is always necessary in relationship, and especially true when relating to a gender with which we have no direct internal experience. We need to adjust our natural tendencies. Men need to hear their wives, allowing women to “think out loud“ more than men typically do. He needs to come alongside and listen to her like a friend. This is not debate class. Surrender the grammar police badge. Let her share her thoughts and be with her, not against her. Likewise, wives can respect their husbands by scaling back the devil’s advocate questions, alternate ideas, and voiced doubts, instead granting him—at least first of all—what a man yearns for from his girlfriend – confidence, admiration, and encouragement. Neither men nor women want critics or managers; both want a cheerleader and a romantic lover, but to different degrees. 

This understanding and mutual yieldedness will get us through most days. But how do we handle marital gridlock, where yielding to the other’s need for love or respect doesn’t get us past self-canceling desires, such as one spouse wanting another child and the other not. Or one spouse wanting to move to another state upon retirement and the other wanting to stay put. What then? Even in gridlock—perhaps especially in gridlock—a woman needs to feel heard and protected; and a man needs to feel respected, not controlled. In addition, three other things enter in when gridlock threatens a united decision. 

The first, Dr. Gottman identifies as “becoming a dream detective.” Rather than spouses rehearsing their own viewpoints back and forth until exhaustion sets in, the wisdom here is to stop, identify, and articulate the other’s hope, value, dream, and desired outcome. This can stop a conflict in its tracks as the tone changes from self-defense to other-defense. One reason fights persist is that parties have not felt understood by each other. That’s why they keep explaining their point of view and desires over and over again. The way out of this gridlock is to articulate to the other’s satisfaction what we understand is important to them in the matter at hand. Identify and concentrate on the larger areas in which you agree, rather than upon the isolated areas in which you disagree. 

Secondly, remember that relationships live on the level of attachment needs and primary motions. In partnerships, the bottom line (attachment needs) includes feeling accepted, secure, safe, respected, affirmed, love, nurtured, comforted, and protected. When these attachment needs are met, we are at peace in the relationship, even when in conflict. When these needs are not securely met, negative primary emotions surface, such as fear, hurt, sadness, and shame. Our view of our spouse becomes negative and that negativity overrides our sentiment toward and interpretation of everything he or she says or does. So, in other-centeredness, step one is to understand the source of primary emotions (hurt, sadness, fear, shame, joy and peace) that are being masked as secondary emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, jealousy, etc.). What attachment need is its source, and how can that attachment need be met by me as spouse to my partner? If I can defend that, then my partner may be able to let go of self-defensiveness. 

This brings us to the third point with respect to gridlocked issues. Ask yourself, “Is this issue important enough to divide us as a couple?” Maybe it is, but hopefully such issues are few and far between. If we can take our eyes off of winning the argument, or getting our way, and focus instead on protecting one another and on the relationship as victor, then we can relax on most issues. Can we pause and switch sides – defending our partner’s position for a moment, rather than our own?  If we are protecting each other as diligently as we would protect ourselves, then we have a safe relationship in which conversations happen  more easily. What if a couple spent their time vying for what was important to the other rather than to oneself? Wouldn’t that be a refreshing fight? This is Dr. Gottman’s approach to overcoming gridlock when he suggests the afore-mentioned “becoming a dream detective.” When each partner is intent on discovering what is important to the other, and defending that, then we trade other-defensiveness for self-defensiveness and a vast array of new options open up to us. We become focused not on “my way,” but on “our future” that incorporates both our dreams.

The invitation here is for couples to change their view of what constitutes a “win” in marital discussion. If discussion is a debate or a contest wherein one partner walks away the “winner” by having the last word, or emerging superior in debate skills, or getting his or her way while the other feels defeated, then the relationship has lost. We do well to change our view of the “win“ such that is is measured by whether the conversation drew us closer. Was it a tool for connection? Did it make “deposits” into the relationship, rather than withdrawals? Did it improve the overall ratio in the marriage of feel-good to feel-bad interactions? Did positive emotions outnumber negative emotions? Were the attachment needs of both spouses recognized and protected, no matter the topic of discussion? Did other-centeredness prevail rather than self-centeredness? These are the things that make conversation safe. These are the things likely occurring at the table where the dating couple sits. These are things that can be practiced by the married couple, as well. 

Other-centeredness

We can know everything there is to know about marriage—intellectually—and still wind up with a bad marriage, or even divorced. Information about what makes marriage work isn’t enough. Conversely, people relatively ignorant of academic research and intellectual insights into marriage can have mutually endearing and enduring marriages, regardless of their life circumstances. What makes the difference, then, if not knowledge? It comes down to other-centeredness.

Other-centeredness… is that even a thing? (I have to hyphenate it so my spellcheck doesn’t object.) Yes, it must be a thing, because its opposite—self-centeredness—is a thing. And when it comes to marriage—and nearly all relationships—other-centeredness is THE thing. Bad behavior that creates or contributes to bad relationships is not mysterious. Bad behavior is simply self-centeredness in motion. Where it comes from is as individualistic as the individuals involved. But whatever its source, and whatever its more legitimate cousins—self-actualization, self-preservation, and self-protection, for example—its focus is on self, not the other. And self-focus (self interest at least, self centeredness perhaps, or selfishness at worst) usually doesn’t feel good in a relationship. It feels less than loving.

Other-centerdness is actually my definition of love. In scripture, the apostle Paul begins his chapter on love by remarking that a person can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, and thereby be nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:2)  That’s a strong verdict, especially in our culture that idolizes information. Yet, in the world of relationships, nothingness is what becomes of us if there is not love (other-centeredness). Listen for that term under all the words the apostle Paul uses to describe love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1st Corinthians 13:4-8) You might have noticed that there is not a self-serving word in the entire list. Everything that Paul commends as love would only be done for the benefit of someone else. After all, why be kind; what’s in it for me? Answer: It’s not about me; it’s about blessing someone else. Why be patient if I’m feeling impatient? Answer: for the sake of another. Why not be a braggart or envy others who have what I can’t have? Answer: Because other-centered love can be happy for others who have what I don’t. And we could go through the entire list this way. The point is, everything love does, it does for the benefit of someone else; that’s what makes it love.

Notice, too, that Paul’s list is devoid of feeling-words. Love is not an emotion. Love is a combination of attitudes and behaviors acted on regardless of how we feel. In fact, often, love is about doing the opposite of what we feel like doing. Love summons self-control so that we are not controlled by what our emotions tell us to do or say. It’s how responsible parents love their children. This understanding of love may not sound very romantic, but it is a relationally safe way of love that is the most solid foundation for romance. Romantic relationships are built upon the foundation of a ratio of “feel-good” to “feel bad” interactions. We are drawn to, and remain drawn to, people who make us feel good. Obviously, being affected by another’s self-centeredness feels bad; being gifted by another’s other-centeredness feels good.

Research by Dr. John Gottman has identified seven principles that undergird successful, mutually satisfying, long-enduring loving relationships. The first of these principles he calls “Love Maps.” A  Love Map is detailed knowledge of a partner’s world. It is familiarity with what is important to one’s partner—their likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears, anticipations. It is knowing what relaxes our partner, what stresses them, what angers them, what makes them feel supported, etc. It’s good information to know; but, as we noted earlier, knowledge is not enough. Knowing these things about our partner is like knowing French. What good is it, if we don’t use it? To quote Bob Goff’s book title, “Love does.” Love (other-centeredness) takes what we know about our partner (Gottman’s Love Map) and uses that knowledge to make our spouse feels protected, important, remembered, respected, and honored. It takes our partner’s likes and dislikes; preferences and anticipations, and includes them on our shopping lists, personal calendars, and to-do lists. Love looks for opportunities and invents ways to use the Love Map to make our partner feel good. Remember doing this when you were dating? It’s what many couples stop doing once they get married, and maybe start doing with someone who isn’t their spouse—their eventual affair partner. Affair partners learn each other’s preferences and build those into their interactions; they remember what is important to each other; they carefully govern their words and go out of their way to speak kindly; they listen and express understanding, rather than arguing their own point of view. In other words, they practice other-centeredness, like husbands and wives used to do when they were dating.

The hope for marriage is the recognition that both partners do indeed have Love Maps. It is further recognizing that partners’ Love Maps are not going to match. That does not spell incompatibility; it spells opportunity to understand what this entirely-other-human-being needs to feel loved. Hint: it won’t be what comes naturally to us. Our partner is not us; they’re them. Other-centeredness learns what feels good to them; love doesn’t insist that they like what feels good to us. Love is about learning a new map. This education will not come from a book. It will take other-centered focus to notice and remember what makes our spouse feel loved, respected, safe, secure, nurtured, supported, honored, comforted, protected, accepted, and liked. It is on the basis of such feelings that a ratio (feel-good to feel bad interactions) will be built that becomes strong enough to feel like love. Love is about knowing our spouse better than does anyone on the planet, and using that knowledge to make our spouse feel all of the things just listed. And to know how to do so better than anyone else on the planet. When our spouse is also—with other-centered love—meeting those same needs for us (but according to our different Love Map), then there is a solid, safe relationship.

Again, other-centeredness is not natural. Self-centeredness is natural (survival of the fittest). It can be a struggle to get beyond ourselves and empathize with someone else. Ideally, we experienced this kind of love from our parents. If so, it’s easier to replicate. If not, then we need a reparative experience or experiences from which to draw. If those experiences don’t come from safe people in our life, then God offers what people might not. That which we may not have been given to us by humans is available to us by the Holy Spirit. For free. The heart that humbles itself to Christ as Lord, and calls out to the Holy Spirit for help, will be graciously given awareness of God’s loving presence within and alongside it, always. One work of the Holy Spirit is to transform self-centeredness into other-centered love, like the love of God toward us. It was this love that drove him to visit earth, love the unloved, serve like a servant not a king, and die like a criminal so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s other-centeredness. That’s love. It’s what God has in his heart for us, and what he wants to form in our hearts for others. Just ask him for this gift. He will answer and grant you his heart.