As a licensed marriage and family therapist and marital researcher for almost 15 years, I’ve come to some big picture conclusions about relationships. I call them “Big Truths” and penned them on Facebook for my friends and family. I’ve decided to post them here as well, in case they might be of some support to you and your partner, or your future relationship. All my best, Kelly Roberts, Editor ~ Red Dirt Chronicles
Big Truth #1: No one ever really wins the “I did more than you” game. At best, it’s zero-sum…but not really. Because even in a stalemate, ill will can be generated.
Sometimes people can have “I feel alone, weary, or exhausted” conversations with their partner, and ask for their needs to be met.
Checking to see if their partner has the space to carry out one of their tasks, or carry one of their burdens…rearranging or negotiating is a fair game.
But, other than that, nope.
If anyone ever starts off with, “I always, you never…” or anything in the shape of “you do/carry/am LESS and I do/carry/am MORE” then you’ve lost. Lost the game that no one can win.
Big Truth #1 summary: Don’t even try to play this game. It’s like Jumanji: you get in too deep, there’s wild animals around, and usually something dies.
Big Truth #2: You and your partner are the sole proprietars of your Shared Secret Language (SSL). The proper or improper use of your SSL can help you soar through the worst times in your marriage, or start a break-neck-speed plummet during the best times in your marriage. Your SSL is for the two of you only; if anyone tries to sneak in and access your SSL, they are imposters and should not be successful.
One of the best ways I can exemplify this truth is to tell you about a Stephen King novel entitled, “Lisey’s Story.” [Some of this language is borrowed from a review by Motoko Rich]: Told from her (Lisey’s) point of view, the novel is a vibrant celebration of language, particularly the shared “patois” (vernacular; share language of a common region or culture) of marriage.
The book is peppered with vivid words like “Incunks” (the couple’s name for the professors who study Scott’s [her husband’s] work, and then, after his death, pressure Lisey to donate his papers) or “bad-gunky” (Scott’s reference to the madness that sometimes overtakes him and other members of his family). Scott, and later Lisey, travel back and forth in their secret conversations, usually late at night, to an alternate world, both beautiful and monstrous, known as “Boo’ya Moon.”
In other words, Scott and Lisey had a unique, distinctive SSL, and imposters would not be welcome.
Your SSL is key to helping your partner relax when they’re feeling extremely anxious (sneak in a “just between the two of you joke”). SSLs work wonders when someone is in a hospital bed and is having a hard time processing confusion, fear or hurt (sneak in a…”this reminds me of…” SSL quip). SSLs work wonders in large crowds to communicate your feelings to each other without actually saying things like, “There is a massive booger on the hosts nose and I’m going to lose it.” Rather, you can pull words like “Incunks,” “bad-gunky” or “Boo’ya Moon,” that will then eloquently convey to your spouse whatever meaning you wish to share, and spare your host embarrassment.
Body language, ticklish areas, movie quotes, special clothing…are all part of your bona fide, couple-created SSL.
Big Truth Summary: Your SSL is like a Faberge’ egg. Hold it gently, honor it’s value, polish it till it blinds you with its brilliance. But drop it at the wrong time or on the wrong surface or share it with the wrong person, and you’ll spend years gluing it back together.
Big Truth #3: The only individually oriented goal your spouse or partner can fulfill for you is “the one where you have a person who loves you, sticks by your side, protects you, adores you, and is your lifetime teammate.”
Your spouse or partner cannot, nor will ever be able to, satisfy any deep-seated abyss you need filled by having the exact job you want them to have, or styling their hair the exact way you want them to style it, or being in the exact physical shape you want them to be.
They are living, breathing, feeling, spiritual beings who ended up genetically the way they did without any sayso in the matter, and they have the self-agency to maneuver through life with their own choices and ideas. In fact, nurturing them as growing, evolving human beings is one of the GREATEST gifts you can give them.
I watched a movie once where one spouse had a short affair with a new person who had come into their lives. This new person seemed to offer the offending partner all of the validation and energy they had so long been missing from their life. When the offender stepped out of that affair and began to repair their damaged marriage (and family), there was a speech they gave during a family meeting.
They said, “So, sometimes, you know, you’re together so long you stop seeing the other PERSON…and you just see…weird projections of your own junk. And rather than talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby, and make stupid choices which is what i did…and I feel sick about it because I love you guys. And I love your mom. And that’s the truth.”
Your spouse can never become the woman in the Victoria Secret catalog, or the man with the dreamy white linen shirt, long ponytail and Birkenstocks, or the athlete, or the artist, or the entertainer you fantasize about. They can become, however, the person you nurture…and treasure…and even talk to about how physically attractive a certain athlete is on the OKC Thunder Team (oh wait…that’s me and my husband…HA!).
Big truth summary: Your partner can never fill any hole you have in your soul, or your heart, or your brain, that thinks it NEEDS “this certain guy/girl” in order to truly be happy. That’s just a “weird projection of your own junk.”
Big Truth #4: Regardless of your religion or absence of one, your relationship needs a church.
Sometimes life is bigger than you, your spouse, your marriage or your family. Sometimes it’s even bigger than your collective families.
Sometimes, woven between the connective sinew of “Life” is this friend, who knows this friend, who has this skill, who is really good at hugs…or cooking…or wisdom…or rallying people around a cause…or knowing exactly how to fix the problem on the only car that is keeping your family transportation needs met. This miracle is the amazing, synergystic, exponential, electric, self-sustaining and self-propitiating power of your church.
The dyadic phenomenon of a couple is more than the power of two. You and your spouse are greater than the sum of your parts. And some, many, or even most times, that “more than two” collective energy and essence will get you through your days, weeks, and years.
But then…there’s the “thing.” The thing that blindsided you. It rocked your foundation and blew off your shingles. It challenged the precious people in your household. The thing created shock and awe. And numbness or hurt. And THAT’S when you’re going to need your church.
“Things” don’t even have to be negative. They can be overwhelmingly good.
But the church becomes the body, that connective sinew, that helps channel the energy of your celebration so that the full group to which you belong raises their arms, reaches for the heavens, presses in around you and says YES, YOU DID IT! Or, WE WILL HELP! Or, LET US FIND A WAY! Or…even when no one in our entire church can help, WE WILL NOT LEAVE YOUR SIDE.
I’ve witnessed many “churches” in my lifetime: The tender gesture of a 6’3″, 300 pound member of the “Pissed Off Bastards Motorcycle Gang” applying Neosporin and a bandaid on a bleeding comrade. 30 members of my own Christian church standing side-by-side around the periphery of a home, inside a member who is almost dead from cancer lies on her sofa…knowing everyone outside is praying her home…her husband beside her telling her we’re all there. Members of the military taking care of “their own.” Groups of firefighters from across the country piling in their service vehicles to head north to the Twin Towers, or south to the Murrah Building…
Carol Stack writes of this phenomenon in her book, “all our kin.” (small case lettering intentional) She calls this phenomenon “fictive kin:” ‘The material and cultural support needed to absorb, sustain, and socialize community members (couples/marriages) in The Flats is provided by networks of cooperating kinsmen.’
Maya Angelou wrote about another aspect of this issue in her book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She recalls, “Although there was always generosity in the Negro neighborhood, it was indulged on pain of sacrifice. Whatever was given by Black people to other Blacks was most probably needed as desperately by the donor as by the receiver. A fact which made the giving or receiving a rich exchange.”
Angelou is right. Your church members may need what they give you, but they’ll do it anyway.
And the cool thing is…so will you. You are “that couple” in “your church” and you give too.
Big Truth #4 summary: Your relationship needs a CHURCH. If you don’t have one, find one now.
Big Truth #5: As long as you’re in harmony, you’ll handle the periphery.
Close your eyes for a moment. If you can manage a fairly blank slate up there in that miraculous brain of yours, start conjuring up images of all the “periphery” in the life of your committed couple relationship.
You may have children. Perhaps a strange, reclusive yet agitating aunt or uncle. How about step-parents or exes? In-laws, or that really loud talker you try to avoid? Do you have pets? How about your boss or others at work? People at church, neighbors with barking dogs, that friend who keeps calling you for a “great opportunity, [he/she] just needs one hour of your time.”
If you were successful in this exercise, then you’ve just brought forth from the annals of your mind your very own, personal and one-of-a-kind “relationship periphery.” And, yes, your children count as someone “outside” your marriage for this exercise, if only SLIGHTLY removed from the “two of you” couplehood.
At any given time, every one of these wonderful, horrific, strange and fractured souls are swirling around your lives.
And your relationship will be just fine as long as the two of you understand how each of you sees this human whirling dervish.
Big Truth key –> That previous sentence? Crucial, critical, essential…this is the key that will help your team use less energy, seem more clear, feel more safe, and make better decisions day by week by year.
Your spouse needs to know that that one child you have, the one with the dark curls that wrap around her cheek like a cinnamon roll and then dangle off her bed at night… that you just want to completely envelop because her essence smites all your love and power when she looks up at you….that child…that perfect offspring is the one who will suck the parental confidence from your body when you really should be rendering a natural or logical consequence because they failed to clean up their toys.
Your spouse, once they know this, will help you be strong through the discipline. They will stay by your side when you share that they are losing 15 minutes of playtime tomorrow in order to make sure they have enough time to clean up their toys properly. They will grab your hand when your voice shakes because you’re about to cave, and reinforce the consequence if you’re working in the yard.
As long as you’re in harmony, you’ll handle the periphery.
And you? You know that it takes all your spouse can muster to set strong boundaries with one very horrific co-worker. You help them by answering the phone if they call. You listen when your spouse is “just about to lose it if they do THAT one more time.” You grab THEIR hand when their voice shakes because they’re about to tell this person off, and you sit by them in the car while they lean back, look at the sky, and sigh…breathing out the poison of their co-worker’s antics.
As long as you’re in harmony, you’ll handle the periphery.
In Oklahoma, we have tornadoes. In the east and south, there are hurricanes. And there is a similar phenomenon to both of these “swirling dervishes”… the center is interestingly calm. That’s you and your lover…because you have communicated all you can about your “peripheral weak spots.” You have stepped up when you are able during your peripheral strong spots. And you grab each other’s hand, raise your eyes, and keep watch over the hurricanes together.
The periphery might get loud. Your couple power is louder. It might get tough…but because the two of you intimately know the hurricane, you have periphery managing superpowers.
Big Truth #5 summary: How’s the forecast? If you feel you’re not quite ready for all the weather that’s coming, maybe it’s time to seek that harmony. If you have it, you possess a very special thing. Regardless, my wish for you is clear skies, clear minds, and a very firm marital handgrip.
Big Truth #6: The “Avatar” movie is real.
Important distinction disclaimer: I’m not talking about the philosophy of pantheism (we and everything around us [the universe] is ALL God). I’m also not talking about any prophecies of the “bad guys” (humans) destroying Nature (everything else), wreaking havoc while blinded by greed.
I’m talking about the metaphor “Avatar” offers up through the Na’vi tribe, the idea that we, committed couples, are connected by a multi-dimensional bond. And, through this multi-dimensional bond we are better off because of each other’s influence.
Before I lose you to the fear that you may be reading some kind of humanistic text, let me assure you that I am a Christian and embrace the fact that our physical bodies exude a spiritual component, and that component is a cohesive force awakened, or engaged by the Holy Spirit that we receive at baptism.
We are also, however, humans/couples created by God, and WOW, did he create good stuff.
For example, modern day research, by virtue of its growing body of literature, has published these discoverues about marriage:
1) Married people live longer (example: mortality rates are 50% higher for unmarried men),
2) They are mentally AND physically healthier,
3) They are more satisfied in their careers,
4) They are more economically advantaged,
5) They heal from illness more quickly,
6) They indulge in less risky behaviors,
7) They are happier (snuggling with your spouse actually releases endorphins, “feel good hormones the elevate your mood”),
8) They are more self-actualized,
9) They sleep better,
10) They give more to charity…and on and on and on…
Social science is funny because many times, (not all), it reveals what we might assume naturally to be true.
It’s as if the scientists are confirming what we may have already known, had we given this topic much thought–>> You are a human information receiver and you are connected to your spouse who is exactly the same thing.
Every word, every caress, every encouragement, every criticism, every discussion about “keeping that doctor appointment,” every struggle about doing the right thing, every decision you make “for your spouse, even if you wouldn’t do it for yourself” shapes, molds, squeezes, arranges, and grows who you are as a person.
Knowing that you are making each other better is a powerful fact. Knowing that you have the capacity to hurt each other more greatly than others is also powerful. But knowing that the two of you will become, or are becoming, or have become…
…just because you have committed your lives to each other is a fine, fine thing.
Big Truth #6 Summary: If sometimes you “feel” your spouse (empathize deeply), “see” your spouse (understand deeply) or “know” your spouse (agree with their thinking or logic deeply), it’s because “Avatar” is real.
Stay plugged in!
Big Truth #7: Your physical bodies are the codices of your relationship history.
“Codices” is the plural form of “codex,” a word for “a book made of thin wooden strips coated with wax upon which one wrote.” The usual modern sense of codex, “book formed of bound leaves of paper or parchment,” is due to Christianity. By the first century B.C. there existed at Rome notebooks made of leaves of parchment, used for rough copy, first drafts, and notes (The Free Dictionary, 2015).
In other words, that unique mixture of flesh, muscles and organs that your bones carry around tells your story, even when you’ve forgotten some of the details.
There is a shiny, white (and fake) tooth in your partner’s mouth. It’s there because they face-planted right into your bedroom doorjam when sleepily scrambling for a robe, awakened by your child’s cry for a bottle.
There is a 1″X4.5″ scar on his forearm, a remnant of the day he was out riding bikes with the kids, took a corner too quickly, and had a very bad date with the pavement.
Her breasts have stretch-marks that caused her to cry when she was very pregnant until you told her that you appreciated her paying for your child with that kind of currency. They also have a little tiny stainless steel ribbon embedded in the left one that shows up on x-rays…you remember the first time she called about the biopsy…you remember the joy you felt when it was “nothing.”
His knee has deteriorating cartilage; you’ve noticed a limp for the last five years. The hair on your heads has been twenty different shades of some version of your youth, your spouse’s has been twenty different styles of a short, trim cut except that one year when mullets were actually a thing.
That finger was broken during a move, has worn grandfather’s heirloom ring, and shaken in judgement at the behavior of your child. That skin has been so cold during your camping trip it turned blue, so sweaty during the time you built the swing set that you couldn’t grip the screwdriver, and so soft that you couldn’t get enough of it during your first year of marriage.
Each wrinkle next to those ever-wisening eyes is like the lines inside a tree; that was a tough year…and that one was wonderful. And that one, that deeply etched wrinkle in their forehead, is the one that shows the most intensely when your life partner bellows with laughter.
One “codex” definition tells of thin sheets of wood, covered with wax into which historical etchings are scribed. Holy etchings that contain the secrets of history, the codes to your heart, the lines of your worries, and the script of what you’ve endured in your time together. Your bones are the wood, and your skin is the wax, into which your whole life is being written minute, by day, by hour.
If you forget what you’ve made together, have your partner disrobe. Then you disrobe too. Then look, feel, and think deeply. A chapter for every year, a page for every day. What a volume of history you’ve manifested!
Big Truth #7 summary: Into every square inch of your bodies are etched the stories of your life. You are the curators of this unique volume of secrets, and you are the docents for your future generations. Oh, what stories you’ll tell!
Big Truth #8: When you’re facing a crossroads, “Get out of Dodge.”
Throughout their entire relational life, couples find themselves, from time to time, at the edge of a precipice. As they stand on this metaphorical threshold, it’s common to experience a form of information overload. You’ve thought a big decision through to such a degree, you’re not even sure you’re at the RIGHT precipice, much less whether or not you should grab your partner’s hand and jump into the next life adventure.
If your relationship is experiencing information overload, in the words of a Navy Seal friend of mine, “It’s time to blow this popsicle stand, sir.”
“Get out of town, Jack.”
“Make a new plan, Stan; get on the bus, Gus; slip out the back, Jack; just drop off the key, Lee…and set yourself free.”
Here’s why. Joseph Ruff at the Harvard Graduate School of Education writes:
“As might be expected, with little or no information, individuals have little or nothing to process and consequently make poor decisions. As the amount of information increases, so too does information processing and the quality of decision-making.
However, after a certain point is reached, the decision-maker has obtained more information than he/she can process, information overload has occurred and decision-making ability decreases. Any information received beyond that point will not be processed, may lead to confusion and could have a negative impact on the individual’s ability to set priorities as well as remember previous information (Eppler 2002).
It is not difficult to imagine the affect this has on both individuals and organizations.”
When you physically remove yourself and your partner from your job, your home, your world, and your normal life and go ANYWHERE DIFFERENT, you’ve automatically upped the odds that you’ll find what you were looking for…the right decision for the two of you, AND “clarity and confidence” about that decision” (S. Harris, personal communication, January, 2015).
Imagine all your pros, cons, anxieties, hopes, fears and other emotions balled up around your big decision flowing through an otherwise well-functioning gate. When there is this much information, your gateway becomes blocked from everything trying to press through at the same time. This causes couples to stare at each other with bewildered looks and hopeless postures. It causes you to “try harder,” when that’s the last thing you need.
The human brain is an amazing thing. Two human brains, freed up from their environments, are doubly brilliant.
If you get out on the ski slopes, go to the ocean and meet the head-high waves with open arms, hike ‘till you drop, get out to the country where there is only you, your lover, a campfire and ten million stars…the clarity, AND the confidence will find you.
Systems theorists call this “the difference that makes the difference.” Psychologist call it rebalancing your decision-making capacity.
I call it a sure-fire way to find the light-switch you have both been desperately seeking.
Big Truth #8 Summary: Get out of Dodge, put both sets of hands on the light-switch, flip it up together, and let the answers you were seeking shine on your beautiful faces.
Big Truth #9: If you err, you must repair.
If I had only a single Big Truth to place in your capable hands for safekeeping, this would be my choice. And I’ll start that transfer with a story showing my own vulnerabilities even at 51 years old, with a doctoral diploma hanging on my wall conveying some level of, “this girl knows about relationships.”
I was home this past weekend: doing laundry, editing a paper, reading homework, cooking a meal, paying the bills…all the while my husband was sitting in the living room watching basketball games and a golf tournament on TV. If the shutter of a family camera had been open for that three-or-so hour window, a perfectly calm husband would be in his recliner in the center of the frame, and a multi-colored, multi-swirling blurred pattern would be all over the rest of our home. These swirls would push to the absolute edges of that photograph.
At some point, exhaustion, a moderate level of anxiety and brain-drain triggered the “Done” level on my internal gauge. I stood up, closed my computer and walked into the living room.
“Hey,” I started, “You’ve been watching TV for a while, and I need a break. Could I watch that recorded Big Bang?”
Mick’s body didn’t move, but he glanced slightly over to my area and said, “Yeah…you want to ask without that first part?”
He’d caught me. I was back to Big Truth #1: No one wins the “I did more, you did less game.”
In a milli-second I thought about the feeling I had when I walked into a sparkling clean kitchen the night before. The furniture was rearranged, the laundry was done. My gut told me Mick had once again taken care of everything we needed to feed the dog, manage the leaves in the lawn, go to his job every day, and call me at night.
My brain began to back up the Blame Truck.
I smiled, paused, then said, “Hey, I want to watch that Big Bang episode you recorded for me on Thursday. Can I have the TV? And also…sorry about throwing that first part in there…”
“I don’t know WHAT you’re talkin’ about…” he smiled.
His response was SSL (Big Truth #2) for, “I’ve already forgiven you. I won’t bring this up as ammunition in the future. I’ve got your back; we’re good.”
“Thanks,” I said. I re-traced that conversation once more in my mind; I needed to process the reason I pushed. I blamed because I was tired, and I needed to take inventory of the tasks I was managing. I need to clean my personal house.
If you err, you must repair.
Relationship expert John Gottman maintains that the number and frequency of repairs made within a couple is a direct measure of the quality of their relationship. Substance abuse counselors call it, “Keeping your side of the street clean.” Some family therapists talk about increasing cohesion and healthy interdependence by reducing anxiety and sharing vulnerabilities.
They’re all true.
On any given day, a person managing their relationship proactively will say, “Let me start again” or “Sorry, that was low. What I meant was…” or “I can do this better. Here’s what I really mean…without throwing in ‘weird projections of my own junk’” (see Big Truth #3).
If you err, you must repair.
Big Truth #9 summary: Sometimes repairs take a while, and you may have to repair for things in the past. The wounds will heal, and there may be scar tissue grow in its place. But scar tissue is tough. Scar tissue reminds us of what we’ve accomplished. And repairs are one of the very best tools a couple toolbox can hold.
Big Truth #10: “Use your strengths to shore up the alloy in your weakest links.”
I stared down at my paper with a decision to make.
The husband and wife across from me were both in the military, had two children andwere providing care for two foster children, and…had just told me their marriage was a wreck. I was at a retreat facilitating a “feedback session.” The day before they had spent an hour filling in 120 dots, answering questions about all aspects of their marital life. We were now in the process of sharing the results of all that dot-filling.
The only strength of the twelve measures they completed was “sexual intimacy.” I had two more “growth areas” to process with them: financial and conflict resolution. I decided to go with the strength first.
“So, how is it that you two scored so high on sexual intimacy? You seem to both see that area as something working extremely well, despite the fact that you report your marriage being in pretty big trouble.
He looked at her. She shrugged and leaned back…then grinned. He looked at me and said, “I don’t know. For some reason, everything is fine during sex. It’s like…I don’t know, it just works.”
“Without sharing the details, what specifically ‘works.’ How is that you can describe your life in such dismal terms, but both agree that your sex life is really great?”
After a few minutes of processing I learned these facts: they have always felt good and strong about their body image, and they appreciate each other deeply during lovemaking. They’re open. They make it a priority (“It’s just something that’s important – – you gotta have sex, right?”). They are more relaxed; they talk freely; they sleep easily after sex; they’re not worried. They can even ask each other for help in certain areas, or to try new things together…it’s “easy.”
“How is it that you have come to feel so good about your body image?”
They work out. They were athletes in high school and continued to play on intermurals and military teams. They go to the gym together…they work out six days a week.
And just like that, five minutes of discussion provided us all we needed in order to document their strengths:
1) They feel good about their body image–> they have the capacity for confidence in other areas of their life.
2) They have the capacity to appreciate each other deeply.
3) They DO have good communication in at least one area of their life.
4) They can prioritize an issue together.
5) They can relax together, they can ask for their needs to be met, they can experiment with new options, they can stick to something six days a week to improve a goal they agree is important….
Even more amazing? They didn’t have a clue they were doing all those things. They were bursting with relationship strengths in one area, but had never looked at what they meant. They just liked to have sex together, and had been doing so for 15 years while the rest of their marriage was going down the crapper.
Bill Purdin wrote, “A measure of honest introspection is worth more than an immeasurable pile of pontification.”
It’s incredibly important to reflect upon your relationship. Chances are…somewhere there are strengths.
And, Diane Wakoski wrote, “Learning to live with what you’re BORN with is the process, the involvement, the making of a life.”
Once you UNDERSTAND and ACCEPT those strengths…look out world.
You will have unlocked the precious metal you needed to shore up that mixture, that mish-mash, that wonderful amalgam you needed to bond your weakest links. To purify them with the fire of brilliance. To protect your marriage from the pressures that normally break couples in places that were unattended, underinvestigated, and unappreciated.
Big Truth #10 summary: Couples MUST take appraisal of the characteristics that make them unique as two individuals committed to a lifetime relationship. They must next accept they ARE that unique collection of strengths AND growth areas (grieve what you’re not; celebrate what you are). And finally, use what they truly excel at to break through the struggles they address over and over…and over.
Even if you didn’t know it, you hold the keys. Cool, huh?