We can get so busy looking for what we can do to build a happier marriage that we overlook the fact that many of our problems are all in our heads. That is, if we exchanged a few negative thinking patterns for some healthier thought habits, we'd be surprised to find ourselves in a happier marriage.
Take Mark and Diana, a couple of habitual negative thinkers. Here's a typical conversation, with their unspoken thoughts in italics.
Mark: "Do you want me to clean up the dinner dishes?" As usual, Diana's leaving the kitchen a mess. She doesn't care that I prefer an orderly home.
Diana: "I'll take care of them later." He's comparing me to his mother again. Of course, I don't measure up.
Mark (irritably): "Wouldn't it be easier if one of us did the dishes now?" She wouldn't do them at all tonight if I hadn't said something. In her world, my needs don't count.
Diana (sharply): "I said I'll take care of them. You just watch TV or read." I wish for once he wouldn't bug me about the way I keep the house. He doesn't understand what it's like to work and take care of a toddler.
No matter what was said, Mark and Diana would put a negative spin on it. They mentally labeled each other "rotten housekeeper" or "nag." But once they recognized what they were doing, they began to monitor their thought patterns. As they developed more positive thinking habits, they began to feel and act differently. As they changed how they viewed each other, they found that their marriage was growing into the relationship they had wanted in the first place.
Here are six types of healthy thinking that build and maintain a happy marriage.
1. Assume the best.
Practice giving each other the benefit of the doubt, since assuming the worst doesn't help anyone. If your spouse offers to clean the kitchen, don't assume it's criticism. Instead, view it as an action designed to show love. Assume that criticism is meant to help rather than to put down. Assume that a sharp response reflects your spouse's momentary state of irritability rather than a rejection of you as a person.
2. Ask more questions.
If negative thoughts persist and you fear your spouse really did mean to put you down, ask some questions. First, ask yourself why you reacted negatively and what other meanings your spouse's words or actions might carry. Check with your mate to see if your negative thoughts are accurate. You may find that you misinterpreted a remark.
3. Expect good outcomes.
For the first few years of their marriage, every time Jane and her husband argued she had the same thought: "This marriage is doomed. There's no hope for our future together." Her fears caused her to withdraw from her husband.
To overcome her negative assumptions, Jane had to stop and rethink the situation. Now when she argues with her husband, she reminds herself that conflict can be good for their marriage and that people who never disagree may simply not care enough about each other to argue.
4. Focus on what's good.
You're married to a flawed person, and so is your mate. You can choose to focus on your partner's deficiencies or on his or her strengths. For example, a quiet spouse is either withdrawn and emotionally disengaged, or he or she is careful before speaking in an attempt to avoid misunderstanding. So even in the middle of a disagreement, when tension and hurt feelings take center stage, remind yourself of the admirable traits that led you to marry this person.
5. Redefine your differences.
Ever wondered why your spouse couldn't be more spontaneous, more responsible, more outgoing, more punctual? In other words, more like you? Toxic thinkers define such differences as serious shortcomings. But healthy thinkers see strength in these same differences.
Most of us marry our opposites, a tendency that holds great potential for creating a richer life. For instance, if a saver marries a spender, the saver can help the spender be more responsible with money. And the spender can help the saver loosen up and get more enjoyment out of life.
6. Practice loving thoughts.
Some people habitually picture their mates in the context of their deficiencies. But healthy thinkers reflect on things they respect and love about their spouses. A young husband told us that he and his wife set a time every day when each thinks about the other. "We know that when 3:15 rolls around, I'll be thinking of Pam and she'll be thinking of me."
Spend time practicing loving thoughts of your spouse and thanking God for bringing you together. This is the best way to eliminate the negatives and build the healthy thought patterns that help make marriage a joyful adventure.
Robert H. Lauer, Ph.D., and Jeanette C. Lauer, Ph.D., lead marriage workshops and are the authors of several books, including True Intimacy and For Better and Better (both published by Dimensions for Living).
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.