What we can learn about marriage from Michelle Obama

“The equality of any partnership ‘is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two.'”

Michelle Obama knows that every relationship is a work in progress. The New York Times Magazine article, “The Obamas’  Marriage” by Jodi Kantor 11/01/09, touches on some of the cornerstones of the healthy coupledom. Themes of constant negotiation, communication,  and humor are woven throughout this description of the Obamas’ many years together.

Take a look.  They talk, they sacrifice, they re tune and re tool, they touch and they take turns setting the tone and direction of their shared lives.

The Daily Challenge of Reentry

At the end of the work day, whatever the time, be it 6 P.M. or 12 midnight, a couple reunites under the same roof. How that reunion goes impacts greatly on the relationship over time, months, years. This is also true for couples where one partner travels and re entry may occur after a few days, a week or more.

The challenge to the Coupledom is how to negotiate this “reunion” in a healthy fashion. Each person is coming from a different place, a different focus. Often the reentry feels interruptive to the person already home, who may be attending to meals, children, pets, exhausted, tapped out or starving for adult company. The person returning is often wired from the day, still preoccupied by its good, bad and ugly aspects, fatigued, perhaps in need of a big hug or a big space. Each often feels a strong  need to be “acknowledged” in a manner unknown to the partner.

Please Read My Mind: These unspoken expectations and all kinds of history underlie the behaviors and color the reunion. If the reentries are snagged by frictions and frustrations, take the time to discuss what the expectations and wishes may be and how to best help each other satisfy some of  these wishes. Dispel the misguided view that the other should be able to read  your mind. We are the species wired to articulate in words what we need. When we do this with our partner, then the shared life can become mutually satisfying.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2009

How to Accept and Enjoy Differences

Couples often are strikingly bewildered by their partner’s inability to feel what they feel and act as they do. It does not easily compute that this person, with whom I have chosen to spend my time, thinks so differently and behaves so “unlike me.” And the “unlike me” is the operative word here.

The human species seeks safety in sameness, though often lured by “difference.” That very difference, in gender, cultural background, or personality style, has attractive and sometimes, alarming features. This becomes troublesome in a relationship when each partner sees this “difference” in personal terms.

If your partner prefers a different color sofa, or child discipline technique, and more importantly, doesn’t feel the same feelings of sadness or happiness as you at the same time, is this rejection or difference? Couples need the tools to communicate about those “differences” rather than letting them become distancing and hurtful wedges in their relationship.

There is only one way to do this. Each partner has to listen to the other talk about why they feel what they feel, do what they do, like what they like, and think as they think. There are historic reasons, family of origin reasons, temperament and fear, different psychological defenses utilized. Someone may withdraw when anxious. Someone may reach out. Someone may act tough when feeling vulnerable, confusing their partner with their attitude.

Trust can grow from deepening understanding that these differences are not “against the other” but rather are a part of the person. Bridges are built through this “conversation” that close the gap and new solutions can be drawn from this life long discussion of difference and knowing. Couples develop many of these “tools” in couples therapy and then have them at their disposal for a lifetime.

Knee Jerks

“He/She started it.”

Couples are very reactive to each other. A mere word, look or slam of a pan can ignite the air and partners are off and running with a volley of angry words, tears and recriminations. These are  “knee jerk reactions” that seem called for, but in fact, are exactly what is not needed.

Often I picture someone waving a white flag, suggesting mutual surrender, the laying down of arms, and cooling down the temperature. Each feels justified because the other is so provocative. It is irresistible pulling out the weapons of defense, taking aim, and boom, one for you.

But in fact, this is all reactivity and reinforcement of  “weapons of mass destruction.” Someone has to stop reacting, wave the flag, and call for talks. Someone has to stop the knee jerks and provide another option. That option involves each partner being “curious” and “interested” in what the other is feeling and why they are angry (often a cover for hurt). There is always a reason and , if presented without loading the pistol, with each person sharing the raw truth of their feelings, the other may be able to understand.

Self-control is an essential element in the effort to stop the bullets flying. Each partner has to resist the powerful urge to “defend their actions and attack the other.” Being “wrong” seems the greater fear, at these times, then being destructive.

CAUTION: Being wrong is no big deal. Being destructive is.

The Factor of TIME: Underrated and Overlooked

TIME is a most precious commodity.

Yet TIME for the couple to be together is often overlooked and undervalued, each partner rushing to do his or her best at the socially prescribed “role” of parent, employee or community volunteer.

In therapy, TIME for the couple is valued, precious, proscribed and imposed. Boundaries are firm and a couple is finally permitted to take the TIME to notice and attend to the pressing needs of the relationship.

It is easy to rationalize that one has neither the time nor the money for this “luxury.” But the price paid in not taking the TIME costs a great deal more. Divorces are expensive in dollars and pain, which lasts far longer than the time it takes for the therapy. Yet our culture chooses to deceive us in thinking that TIME for the couple is not as important as achieving and providing and can wait for the next day, someday, often the “it’s too late” day.