Couples and marriage





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Whether partners are married or not and opposite sex or same sex, their relationship is like two images: playing a trombone and church buildings!

Two people joining together as partners is much like playing the trombone — or string instruments that don't have guitar frets-like precise marks for the notes. A trombone is doubly difficult because first the player must learn how to blow into it to produce the correct tone then move the slide to play the exact note needed, constantly moving it with changing notes — with no markers for the correct note. Partners must learn many skills to get the right tone or quality in their relationship, but have a skilled enough “ear” to match their actions to the constantly changing circumstances. And “ear” is the word, because few skills are more important than listening with your heart and expressing your feelings.


Ancient church buildings were supported and held together by many external arches and supports, while modern churches are supported by steel beams within the walls that usually are unseen. Until the last century marriages were held together by external "arches": laws of property ownership, customs, religion, traditions, and extended-families nearby that supported couples. All these external “arches” brought couples together and supported them.

Since those external, supportive social “arches” are gone, here are ways our relationships may be supported by internal strength that has give and take, for steel frames let structures flex with stress. As steel structure provides both strength and flexibility, couples benefit from developing qualities that support them and have give and take.

Partners or Married
I believe partnering is a fundamental human right. I believe marriage happens when a couple — straight or LGBT — gather with their friends; invoke a power greater than themselves to bless their union and promise to love and honor each other. The power is as described by AA, and could be Aphrodite or Eros or, I hope, the Abba of Jesus. Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling provides a thoughtful legal framework.

The 15% solution
People talk about couples meeting each other half-way, but that is not enough. Margaret and I early decided that we must go beyond meeting each other 50-50; we must go at least 15% past the middle ground—65% of the way. Consider a few examples:

  • Conflict is inevitable between any two people. Use the 15% solution to glimpse what the other is feeling and thinking and wanting. Seek to understand what hurts. Remember that little things accumulating are often the problem and not what blows up — the spark that fires the fuel! Find the small habits that rub the other wrongly, and find what lubricates the relationship.
  • Find out who "owns" the problem.
  • Sex communion happens as each works at learning what excites and fulfills the other and what does not. The man learns about the G-spot and clitoris and what thrills his mate and which don’t – or may repel. Each patiently seeks to satisfy the other. Each works to create romance in many common events not just in bed.

These are just examples of applying the 15% solution. Think of it as the touch or act or feelings that draw two souls closer.

We have deep needs for relationships and intimacy; we want to share our deepest selves — heart, mind, soul spoken and unspoken — and to find deep satisfaction. We want to avoid being isolated and lacking honest and open communication in our closest relationships.

“A solitary individual lives on the frontier of vulnerability. Marriage creates kin, someone whose first 'job' is to look after you. Gay people, like straight people, become ill or exhausted or despairing and need the comfort and support that marriage uniquely provides. Marriage can strengthen and stabilize their relationships and thereby strengthen the communities of which they are a part.... society benefits when people are durably committed to love and serve one another.” —Jonathan Rauch quoted by E. J. Dionne, Jr., in Souled Out, pg. 113.

I think couples need to spend time building and developing mutual trust and love, enjoying each other, and developing the "us" as well as each's individuality.

Anger is temporary! You may not believe it, but we decide whether to remain angry ninety seconds after a burst of anger. Flaming anger is a biological reaction, but continuing to feel angry is decisions by the left brain! Read this link to learn and probe further into this amazing reality. In ninety seconds the anger is gone — unless your left brain nourishes it!

Relationship building
One serendipitous evaluation of the parenting groups that I led was many said that developing parenting skills strengthened the couples' relationship. Skills they learned for parenting their children they used with each other, and their relationship blossomed. Listed to the left are links to parts of Synergistic Parenting that may be as helpful for partnering as for parenting.

When your relationship is tense, purposefully and tenderly massage each other's back, while breathing deep, slow breaths.

Find ways that you as a couple can spend time together apart from children after assuring that children are safely cared for. Communities have parents nights out or couples care for each other's children so they have time together. Catherine M. Wallace in For Fidelity passes on the values of a night out by a couple with children pp. 79ff.

In the past couples often came from the same community, but now each may come from a different place, has different habits, assumptions, and values, and different experiences. Differences need to be patiently confronted and worked through — never papered over.

Balancing Partners and Careers
Today’s economy adds pressures on partners if each has a profession or skill, since many of these mean a network of fellow workers in the field and of customers or clients. Or you work for an office or firm, which may have branches in other cities. The pressure comes if either receives an offer of a desirable job in another location; what does the partner do? Must one give up their network or clientele to start over? Couples are smart who face this issue early to explore their reactions logically, before the decision strikes with emotional pressures.

"I was the wife with the killer career for the first few years of my marriage. My husband, bless his soul, stayed patient while I figured out it really wasn't worth all the sacrifices.
We agreed on one simple rule: For every time I said "no" to my husband because of work, I'd say "no" to my boss because of my husband. Even though I stayed on my game professionally, my bosses noted that I had the gall (in their opinion) to assert myself for my marriage. It was a big law firm where all the partners, male and female, were on their second or third spouses.
I credit my husband for his patience and the support I needed to recognize that career advancement came at the cost of individual integrity." —reported by Carolyn Hax in Washington Post.

If a man responds positively to his wife's request for change, that is one of the best indicators they will stay together and have a happy relationship, according to research by John Gottman; let's openly and frankly recognize each other's needs.

Gender assumptions
Decades ago when a woman was asked what she did, her answer was usually wife and mother. Today many wives will answer as men long have with a profession or trade. Both men and women must come to terms with views of themselves and each other as spouse, parent, and worker.

A critical difference is our assumptions about men and women. Many men acquire cultural traditions about being a man and being a woman. These feelings appear within the psyche of many boys before they know there are alternatives. Many boys learn from parents and culture to dominate, to control girls. Unfortunately, some churches support male dominance.

Males must confront their attitudes and practices that fail to support and respect women’s autonomy. American women pilots have shot down enemies, women are firefighters and work in many other professions and crafts. If men are to accept and respect women as fellow humans with the same rights, then men must confront their own anxieties. Some men use women to bolster their feelings about themselves in many ways including jokes.

Dr. T. Walter Herbert calls these cultural assumptions “code manhood” that must be conquered at the “bed and board frontier” — by pioneering new attitudes and actions in kitchen and throughout our shared life.

For centuries domestic violence has scarred women and men. That dominance may be physical or psychological, but always there are scars in the heart and soul. Batterers have a hard time facing the realities of why it happens and how to stop this mindless compulsion. Those who are victimized must face why they let it continue before becoming survivors.

Dr. Judith S. Wallerstein studied couples married many years; she found those successful couples worked on these tasks:

  • “to separate emotionally from the family of one’s childhood so as to invest fully in the marriage;"
  • build togetherness based on mutual identification, shared intimacy, and an expanded conscience that includes both partners, while protecting each partner’s autonomy;
  • develop "a rich and pleasurable sexual relationship and protect it;"
  • embrace the daunting roles of parenthood while continuing to protect their own privacy;
  • confronting and mastering the inevitable crises of life, so the marriage is a safe haven in which partners are able to express their differences, anger and conflict;
  • use humor and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation;
  • nurture and comfort each other, satisfying each partner’s needs for dependency and offering continuing encouragement and support; and
  • keep alive the early romantic, idealized images.

Couples must work on their mutual relationship, just as we work on friendships and professional relationships. Our relationship building benefits the couple’s mutual love and trust as co-workers in a relationship. This is life work. It can continue though changes in professions, friendships, and neighbors. Our relationships can grow as we work on the inner steel that gives our relationship both strength and flexibility.

Economic and cultural forces can stress couples when each builds business, trade, or professional networks. If one is offered new opportunities elsewhere, how can a couple respond — including children? Early in being partners learn flexibility and two-way communication.

In Synergetic Parenting are suggestions about ways to build common bonds of strength and flexibility — the invisible steel beams.

Couples being together for so long a time requires that we nourish our trusting and loving each other. With time our interests and preferences change. Societal changes affect us; they may force the one who stays at home to consider work-for-wages and develop skills in a trade or profession. Both must be caregivers. Over time health changes often force uncomfortable changes. Only our internal steel like relationship of strength and flexibility that both partners work on and develop can build a relationship that grows deeply satisfying and enriching.

Friction between couples is normal. Couples can learn skills that resolve disagreement in ways that strengthen their relationship, and build up each other. George Robert Bach in his book The Intimate Enemy offers many useful suggestions. One we can often use is to avoid the "gunny sack." Couples pitch their minor grievances, irritations, and angers away. But they don't disappear; they fill a large gunny sack until it gets so full that a small problem splits it open explosively. He said couples must talk about grievances soon after they occur, when they are clearly remembered and often easily resolved. Focus on one grievance and its situation while you remember it clearly. If you cannot resolve it, then make an appointment with each other to take the time to work it out soon. Be careful irritations don't pile up into a gunny sack.

My dad’s second marriage to Lucie was a wonderful, interactive relationship. After dad died of emphysema our small family was reminiscing in the warm evening when Lucie asked if we’d like ice cream, and asked each what flavor they wanted. When she opened the freezer, she laughed, saying, “All I have is chocolate.” I instantly remembered that dad always wanted chocolate, yet my mother always had other flavors, and asked what flavor he wanted. Notice your partner's preferences that are always the same — their chocolate ice cream so you go with the flow. Eliminate small frictions.

If divorce seems inevitable and children live at home, please be certain to talk with a therapist who has experience with divorce. Many problems children are likely to have can be reduced or eliminated by a skilled therapist.

One couple shared their rules that they worked out together for their relationship:

  • The 60-60 rule: Meeting each other halfway is 50-50. Let's meet each other more than halfway: 60-60. (See my "15% solution" above.)
  • To whom does it matter most rule: If a disagreement arises, quickly find out to whom it matters most— and go with that person.
  • The blue helmet rule: We're on the same team, not competitors; let's help each other. No need for raised voices, no need to belittle.
  • Housework rule: There are no "his" and "her" jobs; no one is helping someone else. The work around the house is a joint responsibility. If you can afford it, pay someone to do those things neither of you wants to.
  • Money rule: It doesn't matter who makes the most money; it shouldn't dictate who is the most valued in the relationship.
  • Make time for each other rule: Never miss a chance to say "I love you" or "Thank you."
  • You don't have to eat everything with the same spoon rule: Cut each other some slack. There will be some things you want to do that your partner doesn't — and vice versa. Be flexible.
  • Always look for an opportunity to celebrate rule: anniversaries, birthdays, victories. Let's have fun.

When thinking of yourself as part of a couple, think about two different words: therapeutic and toxic. In a therapeutic relationship persons think about what will embrace and support the other, will give greater life and love and joy to the other. To be therapeutic is to use your imagination to think how to give satisfaction and joy to the other, and to be alert for things — often small things — that irritate and anger and hurt. Like a bit of gravel in your shoe, resolve those irritants. Toxic words and actions belittle and hurt. Talk with your partner about being therapeutic and being alert to any toxic feelings or actions.

Many in my parenting groups found these four A's helpful:

  • accept is first and primary of all the warts
  • appreciate each other as peers and partners
  • affirm each other as persons with prejudices, prides, particularities, ideas
  • affection for each other

Being a couple is above all romance — a give-and-take attraction between two who support and strengthen each other, that like a tree must be nourished and tended with loving care, so that it continues to grow into a tree that is strong enough for birds and children to play and gives with the winds that threaten to uproot the tree. Grow your relationship as we nourish a great tree.

An excellent book that explores many facets of developing relationships and intimacy is Dr. Dean Ornish's Love & Survival.

Copyright © 2003, 2010 John F. Yeaman




T. Walter Herbert in Sexual Violence and American Manhood explores many facets of dominant, controlling, and violent males, and is must reading, especially chapters 7 and 8 (which build on the earlier chapters); pages 161—167 give a vivid introduction to this subject. It is published by Harvard University Press.


















Stephanie Coontz in her excellent Marriage, a History reports:

"For centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today. It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. … It orchestrated people's personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property. Most societies had very specific rules about how people should arrange their marriages.… Kin, neighbors, and custom exerted far more control over people's choices and behaviors than is possible today. Most important, people's political rights, jobs, education, access to property, and obligations to others all were filtered through the institution of marriage." (pages 9, 11) The book has significant insights into the history and present pressures on marriage.

Another summary of changing marriage is in John C. Morris' First Comes Love?: the ever-changing face of marriage.
















I owe the trombone image to Catherine M. Wallace's provocative For Fidelity chapter 3. Details of the instrument came from our daughter who was the first female trombonist at her junior hi and second ever at her hi school (she has an excellent music ear)!