Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Feelings and Thoughts

I recently read 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, by John M. Gottman, Ph.D and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D. No, my marriage is not in trouble. The book was recommended by a friend, and I'm in the same camp as Happiness Project lady, Gretchen Rubin. (Mom, please don't even bother to comment about my use of the word "happy,"--that is totally not the point of this post.) Gretchen believes that happiness, like health, is something most people take for granted until they don't have it. Generally if you eat a mostly healthy diet, and move around a bit every day, it's no big deal to have a burger and a milkshake on the weekends, right? Gretchen says the same thing for happiness. If everyday, you do a few little things that make you happy, then when you have some big problem in your life, you're better prepared to deal with it.

I think the same thing about a good marriage. Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. I don't sit around worrying about it, but I know that our parents are going to get older and might get sick, or a major earthquake will come and demolish our house, or one of our siblings might get cancer, or I might lose my job. The list could go on and on. But, if we have a stable marriage now, and work to make it better now, we'll be better able to handle problems that might come up in the future.

10 Lessons basically says it's possible to learn how to fight fairly, balance priorities, and ensure that both partners feel important to the marriage. Anyone who has ever lived with someone ever knows that it's impossible to never disagree or argue. That's because the people are still different people. 10 Lessons says that there are more constructive, less hurtful, ways to disagree and argue in which both party feels respected, and that it's possible to learn and practice these techniques.

This makes a lot of sense to me. If Captain America and I can practice having a civil conversation about our budget now, while we're both employed and in good health, etc., then we will be better prepared for the probably much more emotional conversations of what to do with our (potentially) ailing parents if and when they can no longer live on their own (my mother's genetics and good health suggest she'll live to her 80s or 90s, so this really will be a conversation down the road).

However, (you knew there was a however coming right?), the book talks about expressing emotions, not thoughts and ideas. I understand that emotions can be more overpowering than thoughts and ideas because you can't control them. You can't do a single thing about how you feel about something. You can do something about how you react to that feeling, but that feeling is still whatever it is you feel. This is actually a distinction many people don't understand, but that conversation is a major digression from the topic at hand.

For example, many married couples argue about money. Captain America and I are fortunate that we don't. We both have ideas about what to do with our money. He's better at saving than I am, but I'm very good at sticking to a budget. Maybe it's because we're so aligned on our financial situation that I don't have feelings about it. I don't feel we're doing fine financially. I think...no, I know we are. I know we are because we pay our bills on time, have retirement accounts, don't have credit card debt, and still have spending money for fun things.

I also don't really think I have feelings about making dinner, cleaning the bathrooms, or doing laundry. We have to eat. I guess we don't technically have to clean the bathrooms, but, ugh, I don't even want to think about that! And, honestly, I think laundry is relaxing: you take a big pile of messy, dirty stuff and then when you're done you have neat, tidy piles of clean stuff. I don't feel relaxed while I'm doing laundry, though. In fact, I don't think I feel a thing, other than maybe a sense of order, and the peace that comes with knowing where things are.

Maybe I'm lacking a whole depth of feeling that other people have, or maybe I'm very, very fortunate to have such a good marriage. No, I know I'm fortunate to have such a good marriage. That's not a feeling, either. I guess I feel fortunate that I have a good marriage, but I also know my marriage is good.

The other thing that might be going on is that the book lists 10 basic types of disagreements (you did pick that up in the title, right?). Maybe it's one of those books that should be read a chapter here, a chapter next month, and so on. I don't read like that. If it's not the sort of book that's meant to be read cover to cover in a week or two, it's not a book for me. I'm sure the case studies in the book had thoughts and ideas, too. I think if I had spent more than five days reading the book (it's short), I might have felt less like, does anybody think in these marriages?, and more like, it can be hard to discuss feelings!

No doubt it's important to be able to express feelings in a healthy way, but I also think that it's important to sometimes think, too.

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