With Valentine Day just behind us, what better time to take inventory of what is arguably the most important relationship of your life: your marriage.
In India, many marriages are still arranged. Parents pick a suitable mate and then in most cases the union begins coolly but grows into a blaze of passion over time. In the United States, it’s often just the opposite, causing us to sometimes question whether we’re going about it all wrong.
Dr. Evan Fewsmith, a Southern California-based marriage counselor practicing for 20 years, has helped hundreds of couples, and he’s noticed a recurring theme: Spouses don’t end up together by chance.
“We pick our partners with exquisite accuracy,” says Fewsmith. “We’re always playing out the roles that were assigned to us in our nuclear family. But it is possible to re-write that role.”
Often times we carry that past into our present relationships.
As a way of avoiding, or at least understanding, the conflicts that arise when couples unconsciously interact in hurtful ways we learned growing up, Fewsmith advises that clients create something he calls a “geneogram.” It looks like a family tree, but rather than tracing genealogy, it maps out maladaptive patterns.
“We look at values, philosophies, paradigms and emotional temperatures of each family,” he says.
Such a practice can make it easier to see our own behaviors, because while it is often hard to acknowledge our own shortcomings, it is easier to see them in our parents. Recognizing we share these behaviors can be a major step toward changing them.
We may also learn certain character traits but be unaware that they are something markedly different from our partner.
Fewsmith describes what he terms “hot” and “cool” families. “Neither is good or bad, but if someone from a very demonstrative, loud family with a high emotional temperature ends up with someone from a ‘cool,’ reserved family, that person is going to feel neglected.”
Conversely, Fewsmith explains that someone from a “cool” family will feel assaulted by the spouse from a “hot” family.
Being aware of these differences can make it easier not to take certain things personally and instead recognize that this is just a difference in character that we or our spouse learned growing up.
For those that may not be as proactive about looking inside, or may struggle with healthy communication with their spouse, it can help to involve a skilled third party when persistent problems threaten our marriage.
Anastasia Stern, a mother of three in Beverly Hills, comes from a “hot” family. Her parents divorced by the time she was 2. Because of this experience, she says she’s a big believer in marriage therapy and therapy in general.
“It’s the holistic part of a good marriage and the most important thing you can do for your relationship,” she says.
Stern believes therapy should not be stigmatized as a last resort for a crumbling marriage, but rather something that can help a marriage stay healthy and thrive.
“Harvey and I are madly in love and it’s really a gift to have that 19 years later,” she says. “But we work at it.”
Having had great success over the years with therapy herself and having witnessed the breakthroughs her father and his second wife achieved through ongoing marriage counseling, Anastasia convinced her then-boyfriend to try something new. Today the couple still checks in with their counselor every few months.
“When I’m in therapy with Harvey and I get into my angry, [expletive] mode—which is just a defense mechanism—he responds badly,” she says. “But when the therapist helps strip away those layers of defense and I become more vulnerable, Harvey’s much more likely to hear and to understand what I’m saying.” And she learned another trick in therapy: to communicate her feelings without putting the responsibility on her spouse.
“I stop saying, ‘When you do this, I feel that,’” she explains. “Instead I say, ‘When I see you do this, I make myself anxious because …”
It’s Not Always About You
Oftentimes, we can interpret things our spouse does as having an intention that just isn’t there. For example, you might hear your spouse making what seems like a lot of noise in the kitchen and think they are mad because you didn’t wash the dishes. But it could just be that the TV isn’t on and so you hear those regular noises more loudly.
Other examples may be habits of communication or certain behaviors that can easily be misinterpreted.
Fewsmith warns that you can’t personalize everything your partner does, especially when they were doing those things long before your relationship even began.
And when a fight does flare-up, it’s important to ensure calmer heads prevail when trying to resolve it.
“It’s important not to engage in any further dialogue once the ‘fight or flight’ response has been triggered by something hurtful your partner has said or done,” Fewsmith says.
Our brain can flood the nervous system with strong chemicals in the face of a perceived threat, which can directly affect our rationality.
“And just like the bottle of Nyquil says ‘Don’t drive or operate heavy machinery’ on the back, don’t try to explain yourself or try to figure it all out once emotional reactivity has been triggered. Instead, self-soothe. Take a walk or a bath. You’re high, you need to take care of yourself.”
Sometimes You Just Know
Of course, every once in awhile, you will find a couple free from childhood issues they are unconsciously bringing into their relationship. Instead, they come together from an abundance of commonality.
Such is the case with Leora and Lance Fogel. Originally from South Africa, Leora came to the United States when she was just 10. Then, on Sept. 21, 1985, at age 17, she attended a family get-together some South African friends were throwing. There she met Lance, who was also from South Africa.
“When I first saw him, I knew,” she remembers. “He was gorgeous, on the swim team, with a nice tan.”
Leora had just started attending UCLA when she decided to call him. They had their first date shortly thereafter.
Today, the Fogels are as much in love as the day they first met.
“Neither of us had divorced parents so we’ve had good role models and we love the same things,” she says.
And she has one important bit of advice, “Never go to bed angry. In 24 years of marriage, we’ve slept in the same bed every night except maybe six times.”
Strong marriages like the Fogels’ and the Sterns’ take effort to nurture. A healthy marriage is not something to take for granted.
Don’t wait until your marriage has reached the crisis stage before seeking help, warns Fewsmith.
“By that time, there’s so much emotional reactivity and so many hurtful things done or said that therapy’s efficacy is limited,” he says. “Forgive the analogy, but like cancer, if you detect it early, there’s a much better chance of survival.”
One thing is certain, whether ailing or healthy, every marriage can benefit from a thoughtful gesture like a rose with a sweet note of appreciation, whether it’s Valentine’s day or not.
Joni Ravenna Sussman is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national and regional publications over the years. She is also a playwright and TV writer. Contact her at Joni.Ravenna@gmail.com