How Does Your Marital Garden Grow?

How Does Your Marital Garden Grow?
by Lee Raffel

Let’s consider your marriage is like a garden. As in nature, how do you begin? What kind of soil do you need? What sort of seeds will you plant? What will your crop look like at harvest time? What special helpers are required to make your garden grow so that you can enjoy it?

You might smile and say, "Of course, you need good soil, water, fertilizer, sun and tender loving care to make my garden grow." But what would happen perchance, if you planted your seeds in a toxic field? Will there be a harvest? And if so what will that look like? By this time you are probably laughing, "No question about it," you say, "Plants shrivel and wither and don’t bear fruit when the soil is contaminated."

Marital gardens fare no better if the field is not properly nourished and tended. Prior to marriage it is only natural to have dreams of a harmonious relationship. You wish for a coupling based on mutual loyalty, respect, compassion and trust. Newly married couples assume their mutual love is all that is required to ensure a perfect marriage.

I would urge you to be aware, however, of how quickly your marital garden can become contaminated. Persistent cynicism, blame, criticism and negativity are particularly dangerous to the integrity of your marriage. Life being so daily, it is often difficult to keep romance alive once the reality of your individual differences sets in.

How did you expect you would handle disagreements? Did you expect you and your mate would essentially agree to agree? Did you think that your differences would be handled politely and quickly? Had you thought about the fallout of hurt feelings if your misbegotten efforts went astray? I pose these questions because so many partners are essentially unprepared to manage their arguments in a constructive manner.

As a marriage and family therapist for the past 30 years, I’ve seen spouses who can have respectful discussions, but few mates are adequately prepared to cooperatively manage heated arguments that endlessly go nowhere. Inevitably, resentment builds when individual differences are put to the test. Differences of opinion can unexpectedly erupt into unseemly discussions that lead to rude arguments that over time damage a loving relationship. And suddenly your precious relationship is at risk as conflict mounts. Like weeds that inevitably sprout in the morning, wisdom requires that you don’t destroy the worth of your marital garden in an effort to prove that you are not at fault, that you know it all and are impervious to making a mistake.

In a healthy marriage, it is essential you and your mate be responsible for what you say and do. However, should you and/or your mate react defensively; you are likely to feel attacked, intimidated, overpowered, diminished, and misunderstood. When this happens, I would ask you to look inward and consider what it would be like if your spouse was right and you were right? Are each of you entitled to express your own opinions without being discounted or scapegoated? John Gottman, Ph.D. (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail) suggests that one third of all disagreements are non-negotiable. Without satisfactory closure, no end of mischief is apt to ensue. Unspoken and even spoken resentment can simmer for a while on the back burner, but what happens when it explodes into a damaging bonfire, leaving the couple unprepared to deal with the conflagration?

My husband, Mark, and I decided early in our marriage to declare "blame" off limits. How would you feel if you did that, too? Personally, I discovered that I felt incredibly lonely when there was no one for me to blame. Only then did I feel obliged to go deeper within. I talked to God and asked for direction. And the answer came as a guiding light: Acceptance. And as I focused on the broader meaning of Acceptance, I understood that I was to have compassion for myself and compassion for my husband, because as God reminded me, "We are all human and that means we are a little lower than the angels."

Hints for Managing Disagreements

Choose a time when you and your partner will not be interrupted.
Turn off the television and radio.
No alcohol permitted.
No vulgarities allowed.
Eat first.
Lower your voice, two octaves.
Beforehand, agree not to interrupt one another.
Focus on one issue at a time.
If you get distracted, stop immediately and go back to original issue.
Blame is not allowed; neither is destructive criticism.
Agree to say, "Stop" if the argument gets heated within five minutes.
If you feel unfinished, agree to reconnect at a convenient time in a day or two.
Be clear about what topics are non-negotiable.
Above all be patient and keep your sense of humor.

Questions for Reflection:

In what ways are you nurturing your marital garden?
What happens when you react defensively with your spouse?
What are you defending against?
How often do you need to be right?
Do you refuse to take responsibility for your part in an argument?
Do you insist on having the last word?
How would you personally change to improve your marital garden?

(Lee Raffel, MSW, a practicing psychotherapist for over 30 years, is the author of Should I Stay Or Go? : How Controlled Separation (CS) Can Save Your Marriage and I Hate Conflict!, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Lee is a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and a Board Certified Diplomate in Psychotherapy and Behavioral Medicine and a Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work.)

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