Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Putting the "Quality" Back in Marriage Equality

It seems that everywhere you look there is someone talking about Marriage Equality.  From the Supreme Court to local churches, from Barack Obama to Dan Savage, everyone has a point-of-view on how they prefer marriage to be acknowledged, validated, and celebrated.  Yet no one seems very interested in discussing the actual work, skills, and resilience involved in actually participating in a committed relationship.  It's like arguing for your right to buy a car, without taking the time to learn to drive. 

No matter how two people define "relationship," they all involve a certain degree of work, organization, focus, and commitment.  In my sixteen years of practicing therapy with couples and individuals, I have found these five secrets indispensable for those who seek to enjoy long term nourishing and loving relationships:

Creativity vs. Conformity: Couples who experience joy together are able to create a structure and framework that is uniquely right for them, as opposed to automatically conforming to what society says they "should" do.  For example, in the world at large it may be considered "wrong" or "selfish" for one to go on a vacation without a spouse.  But what if one person in a couple loves traveling and the other hates it?  It is quite possible, and I would argue necessary, for couples who want to avoid resentments and bitterness to create arrangements that are specifically right for them.  This pertains to travel, handling money, sexual frequency, child rearing, socializing with friends, any action or situation that impacts both parties can be served by being respectfully created and negotiated.

Communication vs Conclusion:  So often couples think they know each other well enough that they can conclude what the other person is thinking or feeling.  A partner might say, "I know my husband doesn't want to see that play so I'm not even going to ask him."  What gets lost here is the ability for two people to communicate, and again create, a solution that is right for both parties.  Even if it's true that your husband doesn't love theater, people do change, and he might still appreciate being asked.  It is so easy for us in a busy world to assume we know what our partners want and need.  These assumptions can often lead to missed opportunities, hurt feelings, and more resentments.  I encourage couples to respectfully communicate and ask questions even if you think you already know the answer.  Counseling can be a great way for couples to learn unique and effective ways to communicate thoughts, needs, desires, preferences, and goals.

Compassion vs. Condemnation: So what if you have a partner who doesn't share many of your interests?  What if you can't wait to get to City Hall to get married and he's expressing concerns or doubts?  What if you're wanting sex more often than him?  These areas can all be created and communicated utilizing compassion.  When you are compassionate, it does not mean you agree and go along everything your partner wants.  But it does mean you make a genuine effort to be empathic, that is, to see and feel things from their point of view.  Compassion is recognizing nobody wakes up saying, "I can't wait to be a jerk today."  We are all trying to do the best we can with what we have, and some days are easier than others.  The opposite of this is condemnation, which involves blaming your partner for how you feel, putting him or her down for having different perspectives or needs, and making him or her "wrong."  Condemnation results in anger, resentments, at times domestic violence, and mostly definitely plays a fundamental role in divorces and separations.  Couples counseling can be instrumental in helping couples shift from condemnation to compassion in their interactions.

Contribution vs. Control: In successful long-term relationships there is a sense of two people contributing toward a common goal, as opposed to one person making all the decisions and seeking to control the other.  This can become tricky in relationships where there is a significant difference in income, age, health, or other power imbalance.  However, even when circumstances contribute to power differentials, it is still possible, and necessary, for both members to feel they are contributing something vital and essential to the relationship.  This can be accomplished by using the previous three tools above (creation, communication, compassion), and figuring out areas where both can feel empowered.  If one person is the breadwinner, perhaps the other can bake the bread. Any opportunity for both members to feel they are giving to the one another, and contributing to the relationship as a whole, will increase their satisfaction, enjoyment, and sense of pride.

Connection vs. Completion: Unfortunately, many have been taught by pop culture and Hollywood films that a relationship is meant to "complete" them, or help them find their "missing soul mate."  This, in my personal and professional experience,  is one of the biggest misnomers and crimes ever perpetuated against long-term unions.  Not only is it impossible for someone to meet all your needs, but it is no one's responsibility to or ability to "make" you feel anything.  Every great philosopher, therapist, or relationship expert, from Epictetus to Dr. Albert Ellis to Tina Turner to Oprah Winfrey, has discussed the importance of taking responsibility for one's own growth and development.  Another person in a fulfilling relationship can promote and enhance that growth, but does not "make" it happen.  Partnerships thrive when they are based in the authentic and pure desire to connect with someone, not to hold them accountable for your "completion."

Good counseling can promote wellness, love, respect, and sustainability in all stages of couplehood.  To learn more, please do not hesitate to contact me Shouldless@gmail.com, or call 347-227-7707. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, body image, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at Shouldless@gmail.com

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