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Two Things I must Know for a Successful Marriage. Part 2

March 14, 2022

We talked in Part 1 about the first of two things I have found, having worked with hundreds of couples, tend to stand out as absolutely critical to success in achieving a healthy marriage. And by the way, the opposite of each of these is devastating to success. The first was:

1. To Find the Most Generous Explanation for Each Other’s Behavior and Believe It!

Now let’s talk about the second critical component in a successful marriage:

2. When You Notice a Flaw, Reframe it in Your Mind’s Eye as an Aspect of a Strength.

Someone once said that a person’s greatest strength is also potentially their greatest weakness. Take for instance my sense of humor. I must admit, all my life, I’ve found something funny about almost any situation. I think that’s because of the human condition, so convoluted and paradoxical. Irony abounds. There never seems to be any straight lines when it comes to discerning reality. And my mind has a unique way of picking out so many of these incongruities. So that has served me well . . . in certain situations. It has also proved a hindrance, in other circumstances. Before I better learned how to monitor my tongue in elementary school, I spent a great deal of time standing in the hall after blurting out a comment the class found hilarious, but the teacher found disruptive.

That said, we come to marriage. Interesting to me is the fact that often many of the traits that draw us initially to our future spouses (“He’s so funny”) become the chief irritants in the years ahead (“Can’t you be serious about anything?”).

First, I want you to grasp this statistic. 63% of all behavior in marriage is unchangeable. Did you get that? Basically two thirds of all the behavior you observe in your spouse is there for good (or bad). We can argue as to whether behavior traits are the result of nature (It’s my genes) or nurture (Blame my parents). I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of both. But nonetheless, that behavior tends to be immutable. Much of this behavior can be discerned by taking any number of personality inventories that are out there – the Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinders, DISC, Enneagram, etc. I personally have taken the four inventories I mentioned above. Each gave me a little bit different slant on how I ‘do’ life. And each I found helpful to explain to me how I act and how I come across to people (I’ve found most people have little to no understanding as to the impact they have on other people).

So, to succeed in marriage, I’ve found that we need the conscious ability to reframe those behaviors that simply cannot change. But before we talk about reframing, let’s take a look at recursive patterns.

Here’s what’s interesting to me. We don’t like certain behaviors in our spouses. Okay, I get it. What we usually don’t realize is how we ourselves are usually complicit in those behaviors. Notice, I said complicit. That doesn’t mean we’re to blame for our spouses’ behavior. It does mean that almost invariably the very way that I react to the behaviors I don’t like only manage to exacerbate those very behaviors.

Let’s take an example. Sue, an extrovert, doesn’t like the fact that her husband John, an introvert, withdraws a great deal to pursue solitude and isolated activities. So, what does she do? She pursues him constantly to engage with him and draw him out. This response by her merely serves to drive John more toward solitude. Is it Sue’s fault that John seeks solitude? No. But her response to his solitude makes the situation worse. By the way, more useful for Sue to say something like this to John. “I know you need time alone. I get that. And I need dedicated time to be with you. Can we find a way for both of us to get what each of us needs? It will probably not be ideal for either of us, but it will be a compromise that will prove more satisfying than the way we do things now.”

Now let’s talk about reframing. To succeed in marriage, one must learn the art of reframing the unchangeable. As our lives unfold around us, we are constantly framing each situation and person we encounter. We are attaching meaning to that experience and that person. “This happened to me (the actual experience), and this is what it meant to me.” It’s done effortlessly and basically unconsciously and continually. The meaning we attach to events and people springs from our personal development. This was good. That was bad. He was serious. She was undisciplined. And on and on. When you encounter Jesus in the scriptures, you’ll notice how he tended to turn the meaning of everything upside down. He constantly reframed – who’s actually powerful, how we should behold enemies, who eventually inherits the earth. So as Christians, we should constantly be reframing situations. We are perpetually seeing the counter-intuitive explanation for people and events, because that’s exactly what Jesus did. A kingdom perspective invariably runs counter to the prevailing viewpoint.

Understand that invariably there is more than one premise, one explanation, one perspective for everything that happens. And there is always more than one way to explain a person’s behavior. This tends to run counter to the way most of us think. Once we’ve arrived at an explanation, a frame, for a person, behavior, or event, we assume that the frame we’ve attached to the person or behavior is correct, and in need of no further revisions. But there is always a differing explanation to what has just happened. Jesus rarely accepted the first frame of a situation. “Don’t trouble the rabbi any further. My daughter just died.” “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Talk about finding another explanation for a situation!

Also realize that the frame we place on a person or situation usually has more to say about us than it does about the other person. That’s because all our observations are filtered through our personal lens which refracts the image according to our own internal categories. In other words, we’re never objective. Everything we experience is shaped and interpreted by past experience and interpretations. And people and behaviors are constant reminders of people and experiences of the past. We can’t help but be reminded, but not just reminded. All that I’ve experienced forms a potent filter for my present perspective on reality.

So, when my spouse acts in a certain way, that action will be filtered by me, often reminding me of past people who acted that way (for good or ill according to my own interpretation). Something as insignificant as a glance or gesture can be a powerful reminder of the past. And my reaction to that gesture will be shaped by that reminder, even if there is no intent on the part of my spouse when employing the gesture.

This is why you’ll get comments like, “I can’t stand it when you look at me that way.” The glance is a reminder, and a powerful symbol of some past gesture that was very influential in my life. This is why often what appears to be an insignificant action on one spouse’s part elicits a strong reaction from the other spouse. The reaction appears to be out of proportion to the action. But the energy fueling the reaction is coming not so much from the action, but from the past where that action holds deep significance.

So, before I can reframe a situation, it may be useful for each of us to be curious as to why I frame a particular behavior a particular way in the first place. “I can’t stand it when she says that to me in that particular way. But as I think about it, I realize my mom said similar things in similar ways that always made me feel small and insignificant.” As I come to realize what is triggering me to frame behaviors in my spouse a particular way, I can begin to explore alternative frames that will cast my partner in a whole new light.

Okay, now we have somewhat of a grasp on what makes the two steps to a successful marriage difficult. In the next blog, we’ll talk about how we can go about making it easier to actually take those two steps.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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