What if changing a marriage doesn’t always involve something huge? What if believing the best–a simple shift in attitude–can change everything?
I get notes everyday from women who are just desperate in their marriages. One yesterday stands out to me: they have two very small children; she has no friends; her husband likes to go out with the guys; and they never do anything together. Whenever they are together she begs him to talk more, to go on a date, and that just pushes him away. And so he goes out more.
And she feels unloved.
But here’s the thing: he probably does, too, because the only interaction they have these days is that she’s upset with him. So now what do you do?
That’s where Shaunti Feldhahn’s book Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages comes in, and it’s our book of the month for our Ultimate Marriage Reading Challenge. I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve read so many marriage books over the last year, but this is probably the one I’d say gives the biggest bang for its buck, because it’s so immensely doable. These aren’t huge changes you have to make; they’re actually quite small. Seriously, go buy it. It’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
Shaunti is a researcher at heart, and what she set out to do was to answer the question:
What separates highly happy couples from other couples? What are the key things they’re doing differently?
So she surveyed tons of couples and asked them to rank how happy they were in their marriage on a scale of 1 to 5–with 5 being Totally Happy–I’d marry them again! Many couples were one 4 and another 5; many were both 4s; and many were a 5 and a 3. Those couples are still pretty happy. But the couples where both said 5 were special.
Then she did in-depth interviews and surveys to try to figure out what practical things the highly happy couples were doing that the other couples weren’t. And she found two interesting things:
1. The things that the happy couples thought were making the difference actually weren’t.
2. The things that did make a difference were often quite small.
In other words, if you were to ask a happy couple why they’re happy, their answer is likely wrong. It’s not that what they’re saying isn’t important (“we always seek to serve the other; we never go to bed mad”), it’s that other couples may do those things, too–or they don’t actually do these things as often as they think they do. It’s something else that matters.
And what is that something else?
Shaunti lists 12 habits that make a difference, and some of them I’ve talked about on this blog before.
- Wives–say thank you! In highly happy couples, men say “I love you” and women say “thank you”, and they show affection and gratitude easily.
- Re-connect after a fight. Have a simple way to signal, “we’re okay”.
- Turn towards each other when you’re upset, not away from each other. When you’re going through a hard time, spend more time together, not less. (I mentioned that concept in the post on sleeping in separate bedrooms.)
Today I want to talk about one more: Highly happy couples believe the best about each other.
Assuming that your spouse wants the best for you can change everything.
Here’s how this plays out: let’s imagine that couple that I was talking about at the beginning of this post. He’s heading out with the boys, and she interprets it like this: “he doesn’t want to spend time with me anymore. He doesn’t love me. He thinks I’m boring.”
And so what does she do? She cries. She builds it up to be a huge thing in her mind. When he’s there, she berates him for it, which blows up into a fight. He feels attacked, and just wants to escape.
But what if her interpretation was wrong?
(Incidentally, I’m not saying that it’s okay for a guy to spend a ton of time out with the boys and ignore his little kids. But I do think this problem would be solved so much more easily if she could believe the best.)
Let’s look at some stats.
When asked, “do you care about your spouse and want the best for them, even during a fight?”, 99% of happy couples said yes; 97% of mostly happy couples said yes; and 80% of struggling couples said yes.
So that’s good–in general, married people deeply care about their spouse and want the best for them ALL THE TIME.
But here’s where things get tricky. When asked, “do you believe your spouse wants the best for you, even during a fight”, 96% of highly happy couples said yes; 87% of mostly happy couples said yes; but only 59% of struggling couples said yes.
So 41% of struggling couples believe that their spouse does NOT want the best for them, but only 20% would actually say that’s true. That’s a lot of people who think their spouse is out to get them when their spouse actually isn’t.
Can you see how believing the best could transform this relationship?
If she said to herself, “I know my husband loves me and wants me to be happy, but he’s still going out with the guys a lot and I miss him. I wonder how we can reconnect?”–that gives a totally different feel for how she could approach him.
She could say, “I’m glad you had time to unwind with the guys! I was thinking about ways that we could unwind together this weekend, too. Can I run some by you and then we can brainstorm some together?” Now there’s no blame. There’s no hurt feelings. There’s just an issue that needs to be discussed, and it’s not a big deal.
Of course, it could be that this guy really is a lout, who really doesn’t care about his wife, and who really is an insensitive clod who doesn’t care about his kids either. Some men are certainly like that. But not very many. And if he’s truly that bad a character, don’t you think you would have seen that before you married him?
Shaunti believes that this one habit is a prerequisite to a happy marriage. It’s correlates more highly with happy marriages than any of the others. She says,
Either we try to believe the best of our spouse when we are hurt, or we allow ourselves to believe the worst sometimes–which keeps us from ever entering that lush valley where we so want to be.
It’s your choice. If your husband struggles with porn, can you believe that he wants to love you and wants to be sexually enthralled with you, but he’s fighting this battle he can’t seem to win? And can you join him in that fight instead of feeding the feelings that “he doesn’t find me attractive. He really hates me.?” (Note: if your husband doesn’t believe porn is a problem and won’t deal with it, that’s a totally different story. You need to confront him about porn and say, “no more”! But if he’s just struggling, or trying to stop, join the fight with him, not against him!)
If your husband spends a lot of time away, can you believe that he’s just trying to unwind and isn’t deliberately rejecting you–and then work at how you can spend more time together?
If your husband rarely shows affection, can you believe that he’s just wired differently than you, instead of believing that he doesn’t love you? And then reach out to him anyway?
Like I said, in some marriages he really doesn’t believe the best. Some marriages really are emotionally destructive. But this is a minority.
Shaunti says that in marriage we are often presented with times when there are two possible explanations for our spouse’s behaviour: a positive one and a negative one.
We tend to veer towards the negative. But if you veer towards the positive, and try to figure out why he acted that way, often you find that your more generous explanation was actually true! And the more you do this, the more you realize your spouse really does believe the best–and it’s easier to keep believing that. It snowballs.
So next time you’re facing a situation where you can believe your husband did something to hurt you or you can believe there was another explanation, seek out that other explanation. Find out the WHY before assuming anything bad. And you just may find a great deal of relief!
This is just one habit. There are eleven more. And they’re not huge. But they make a big difference. And Shaunti also has an action plan to show you how to implement them, because you can’t implement twelve changes all at once.
This research is gold, and if we could catch hold of these things, our marriages really would be transformed. I had such a great time reading this book, and I hope you all did, too. If you haven’t already, pick it up. It’s easy to read. It’s short. There are tons of stories. And it will give you hope.