A happy marriage.
We all want it. Sometimes its there in abundance and sometimes it feels so darn elusive that we’ll never have it.
Why is that?
Before we can understand how to have a happy marriage, we have to understand a few key things about happiness itself.
Because sadly, we humans are notoriously TERRIBLE at understanding what makes us happy and what doesn’t. We become fixated, convinced that happiness lies juuuust ahead of that promotion or that 20 pounds we want to lose or when we find our soul mate.
BUT studies show over and over that happiness isn’t actually affected by our circumstances nearly as much as we think it is.
There is this fascinating study conducted by the University of California, Irvine that surveyed hundreds of people over the course of many years, asking them all sorts of questions and ranking their happiness and life satisfaction. What they found was the key indicator that correlated with the highest happiness scores didn’t have to do with wealth, social support, intelligence or even health.
What was the key indicator leading to happiness? What is the magic sauce?
(Well, are you sitting down? I mean I’m about to tell you the secret to happiness here . . .)
The key indicator they found was this: the ability to focus on controlling what you can control.
They found that for those who felt they had and exercised control over where their lives were going and what they were doing rated high levels of happiness and satisfaction regardless of wealth, success, beauty, smarts. And people who reported feeling like they had little control over what they were doing and where they were going reported low levels of happiness.
Focus on controlling what you can control.
This concept corresponds perfectly to happiness in relationships. We’re CONVINCED we’d have a happy marriage if and when our spouse would get a new job, have more time for us, deal with their depression, become healthy, etc, etc, etc.
We forget, daily, that they key to OUR happiness in our relationships is focusing on what WE can control.
So what is it we can control?
So glad you asked.
Here are a few things we CAN’T control:
– our spouse’s mood
– our spouse’s health habits
– how our spouse interacts with our kids
– our spouse’s spirituality
– our spouse’s communication skills
– our spouse’s work ethic
– how often our spouse initiates sex
– our spouse’s relationship to our family
– our spouse’s relationship to their family
– what our spouse does with their time
– how often our spouse does the dishes
To name a few.
The more we focus on these things, the more miserable we will be. (Literally, its been measured.)
Maybe that list sounds depressing, but never fear! Here’s what we CAN control:
– our feelings toward our spouse
– our words
– how easy we are to live with
– our health habits
– how we interact with our kids
– our spirituality
– our communication skills
– our work ethic
– how often we initiate sex
– our relationship with our family
– our relationship with our spouse’s family
– how we spend our time
– how often we do the dishes
Your happiness in your marriage lies in hyper-focusing on these things that you can control and tolerating what you can’t.
Remember that study we just discussed? Those people who FELT like they had control of their lives felt happy. I would guess the most miserable marriages are those where one or both spouses feel like the happiness of their marriage is completely out of their hands.
Its true many things are out of our control in a marriage (namely our spouse), but the first step to our happy marriage is the mindset shift that the happiness of our marriage does not depend on our spouse.
It depends on US.
Obviously, some spouses make happy marriages VERY difficult. Even so, if you’ve made the decision to stay, focusing on how they make it miserable makes things worse and helps no one. Focusing on what YOU can do makes things better and helps everyone.
Yes, But What About When My Spouse Bothers Me?
Let’s get into some specific advice: what to do when your spouse bothers you.
I mention in this post that I recently took an online marriage course from therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. In it she says the very first thing you should do when you are upset with your spouse is to self-confront.
Self-confronting has everything to do with controlling what you can control.
“When you are self-confronting, you are dealing with the part you have control over and that makes you less anxious. Whenever you’re trying to control something you don’t have control over, you’re anxiety level will go up. When you are anchoring into what you do have control over and tolerating what you don’t, you will calm down. And when you calm down, you can think rationally.”
Personally I have found again and again and again (and AGAIN) that when I’m most sure that the problem lies with Rich and not me, these are the times I MOST need to self-confront.
When I’m bothered, all my attention tends to go toward noticing what is wrong with HIM or a frustrating circumstance (ie- things I cannot control), which leaves little attention and energy to focus on what I can control and tends to make me a real joy to be around (<- sarcasm).
Self-confronting first has never lead me wrong.
This lesson came as a great epiphany when I combined what I learned from the books Forgive for Love and Loving What Is. (which I discuss in greater detail here) Forgive for Love says when you are angry over a circumstance with your spouse, you now have two problems: 1. your anger and 2. the circumstance that needs addressing.
Usually we try to address the circumstance with our spouse without trying to address our anger at all. Speaking with anger will cause our spouse’s defenses to go up every time. Our anger (and subsequent blame) is usually the thing that roadblocks us from solving problems with our spouse.
If we instead address our anger first and THEN address the circumstance with our spouse once we’ve got our heart in the right place, these conversations go MUCH better. Blame and defensiveness don’t tend to show up in the absence of anger.
But how to address our anger? I found the perfect tool in the book Loving What Is. She has this worksheet that I’ve turned to again and again. Each time I fill it out, it causes me to question my self (ie- self-confront). While filling it out, I literally feel the anger ebb away.
For me, this has been a great way to control what I can control (the state of my heart) without worrying so much about what I can’t (my spouse).
I can’t tell you how much more at peace I am in our marriage since focusing on controlling what I can control. This technique and mindset has helped me again and again when big and little frustrations arise.
I used to fixate on controlling what bothered me in my spouse. Ever since I started this blog and dove into marriage research and literature (which is overloaded with this idea of self-confrontation), I’ve been SO much happier and so has our marriage.
Your first step in your own happy marriage is to focus on controlling what you can control
How I wish I had this advice when I was first married!
So, your homework for this week is this:
- Think of something that is currently bothering you about your spouse or your marriage.
- Now think of something WITHIN YOUR CONTROL that would improve the situation. Sometimes this involves a mindset shift, sometimes a behavioral shift and almost always a shift of the heart (often this has to do with forgiveness, for which I recommend the book Forgive For Love).
- Do that thing you can control.
- Remember this for all future conflicts. 🙂
Good luck fellow marriage lab mates- and let me know how it goes!