5 Remembrances for a Happy Marriage
If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you’ve already found your person and made a lifetime commitment. And, by now you’ve likely realized that marriage is not only one of the biggest blessings you’ll ever receive, but also one of the greatest challenges you’ll ever take on.
There’s a famous Buddhist sutra which lays forth “five remembrances” whose memorization and internalization are said to pave the way for spiritual enlightenment (Franz, 2021), or at the very least, a happy life. Here, we’ve instead distilled the five remembrances for a happy marriage. Like the 5 remembrances of the Upajjhaathana Sutra (Franz, 2021), these morsels of vital information are also intended to be memorized and internalized. Our 5 remembrances for a happy marriage are inspired by the work of acclaimed relationship psychologist Stan Tatkin. Recalling them during important moments will help your marriage thrive.
Caution: Our Brains Automate Everything!
You might think that realistic, conscious, and practical reasons drive most of your behaviors. You went back in the house after leaving to check whether the stove was on because you couldn’t remember for sure whether you’d turned it off. It’s a good reason, and one that occurred to you in the moment for a practical reason–because you couldn’t remember, right? Well, maybe not right.
Actually, most of what we do is conditioned by earlier experiences that left a lasting impression. Perhaps at some point in the past, you understood that something you did led to pain, so you didn’t do it again. Perhaps you were rewarded handsomely for something, and your brain decided to keep doing it whenever possible (Olds, 2021). In the case of the stove, maybe you saw your mother perform the same little ritual multiple times during your childhood. Maybe she even praised you for similar acts of carefulness. Viewed in this light, many habits and actions that seem simple and logical may actually be automatic behaviors conditioned by earlier experiences.
Because our brains automate our behaviors and our interpretations of events based on past experiences, 99% of what we do on any given day is completely automatic. This is how the brain conserves energy, and this energy-saving process of automation has a far-reaching consequence: it means that new things quickly become old. That includes our partner. As a result, we don’t always pay as close attention to them as we did when the relationship felt new (Olds, 2021).
Our brains do lots of cool stuff to help us survive. Thanks, brains! Unfortunately, many of these tendencies can be destructive when applied automatically in interpersonal relationships, especially marriage. In order to stop your brain from automating your relationship, you must consistently cultivate ongoing curiosity about your partner. You can also throw a wrench in the automation process simply by getting curious about your and your partner’s habitual reactions to events, as well. Why do you automatically clench your jaw when your wife throws her hands in the air in frustration, but not when she raises her voice? Why does your wife tend to cock her head to the side when greeting a new person? Curiosity is the enemy of automation, whereas indifference will only hurry it along.
Psychologists have a fancy name for an automated reaction which is no longer serving you. It’s called a maladaptive behavioral mechanism. It’s a behavior that helped you at some specific point in the past, which you continue to exhibit even though its moment has passed. If you learned as a child that requests for help were met with punishment, you may have learned not to ask for help and even not to accept help. However, an inability to ask for or accept help in an adult relationship can be a hindrance to trust-building and bonding. Hence, the inability to accept help due to past conditioning becomes a maladaptive behavioral mechanism when carried forward past the time in which it was useful.
One of the most important times to cultivate awareness of your automated reactions is while you are in the process of writing your prenup. Your knee-jerk instincts regarding what to include and what you feel about your partner’s requests are most likely also conditioned by earlier experiences, such as what you witnessed of the relationship between your parents. Our parents usually provide our first example of what a relationship looks like, and we tend to repeat their patterns and unconsciously model our most intimate relationships after theirs (Olds, 2021). Take the time to think through why you want what you want when it comes to your prenup. What experiences have conditioned you to feel this way? Then, question whether each request and reaction truly makes sense in the present, not just the past. Are there any maladaptive behavioral mechanisms getting in your way?
Comparison is Natural…but Don’t go Overboard!
Human beings come equipped with a range of features that help us with survival. Regrettably, our operating system has not been updated in quite some time, and so even some of our innate human tendencies are species-wide maladaptive behavioral mechanisms with their origins in a different time in history. One of the most potent of these is our habit of comparing and contrasting in relationships.
Comparing and contrasting was important to our survival in the past; we needed this particular brand of higher-order thinking to be able to seek out food (Olds, 2021) and compare the advantages and disadvantages of cultivating or basing our lives on different pieces of land with their unique challenges and rewards, for example. Heck, comparing and contrasting is still useful in many areas of our lives.
Lamentably, comparing and contrasting is not usually helpful in relationships (Olds, 2021). Comparing your relationship or your partner to others decreases your commitment and satisfaction and can give you insatiable FOMO (fear of missing out). But, don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself comparing. The tendency is natural; we can’t really control our thoughts any more than we can control the clouds passing through the sky. However, we get to choose how we react to our thoughts. Every thought brings with it two options: 1. Indulge it and feed it, or 2. let it go.
When you notice yourself caught up in a fantasy of how things might be if your relationship were different or if you were with another partner, remember that you can choose whether to nourish or starve this thought. It might be fun to feed the thought, but it won’t be good for your relationship. You do not need to repress it; indeed you shouldn’t. Instead, you can say “Hello, I see you…bye bye” and let it go. When it comes back up again, as it probably will, you can repeat the same process. (Incidentally, this works with all thoughts that are not constructive in our lives. There is a sane middle ground between indulgence and repression of thoughts).
Since writing a prenup is something you will only do once (hopefully!), you will probably have a lot of questions and may seek advice from others. Doing so can definitely be helpful, but you also must remember not to make decisions about your prenup based solely on comparing yours to what your friends and loved ones have done. Just because your parents chose certain agreements to include in their debt liability clause doesn’t mean that you are wrong if you choose to approach it differently. Despite the fact that they influenced you considerably, you are a different couple with a different shared reality.
Remember that comparison is natural. Then rather than making relationship decisions based on comparison, ask yourself what you and your partner want for your relationship, what works well within the context of your particular relationship, and what you both can do to address difficulties that arise.
Every Person is a Whole World; Communication is Approximation
Every person, every human’s unique experience, is a separate world unto itself. Many people in relationships begin to feel like because they are a team, they are each an extension of the other. This is a romantic and beautiful notion, but it doesn’t totally line up with reality. You can avoid some rude awakenings by remembering that you are two different people and because of this, communication is only approximate (Olds, 2021). Try as you might, you cannot put the idea you wish to convey directly into your partner’s mind unchanged. You can only approximate with words, gestures, facial expressions, and the tone of your voice. Your partner will then interpret what you attempted to convey based on their conditioning.
Our romantic experiences are often unconscious imitations of earlier experiences and impressions. We may imitate relationships we had in our early days, with our parents, siblings, teachers, neighbors, or friends. Or (as aforementioned) we may imitate or project based on interactions we witnessed during our childhoods between others, such as our parents or other influential figures. Our projections of earlier experiences lead us to misinterpret each other all the time.
Therefore, if you’re offended by something your partner said or did, before you react try to consider that sometimes people get each other wrong because our behaviors and interpretations are driven by totally different earlier experiences. For better or for worse, that’s just a part of being human. Bearing in mind that this is the case can help you to take things less personally, and to take fewer things personally. If you find yourself feeling defensive when your partner makes an unanticipated request while you’re writing your prenup, step back and ask yourself what earlier experiences may be guiding their thinking.
Digital communication makes the problem of misinterpretation much worse. Don’t rely too heavily on it for talking about important things.
Love May be the Foundation of a Happy marriage, but Rules are the Roof
It may be unpopular and unsexy to talk about rules when it comes to relationships, but it’s also really important. You know how societies are governed by rules, laws, customs and shared purpose that hold things together? A relationship is the smallest unit of society, and its sustainability is linked to the same systems that sustain societies. On top of love, remember that you also need a shared vision, a sense of where you are going together, and a system of shared governance to protect the two of you from the worst of each other. (A prenup is one of the ways to do this). You also need to have a shared agreement about what you’re going to do and not going to do (Olds, 2001).
Be realistic about your rules and guiding principles. Talk them over carefully, and then commit to your decision as strongly as you’ve committed to your marriage. Then, hold each other accountable.
Committing to rules doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. It does mean you take your commitments very seriously and are ready to repair should you experience a lapse in judgment. For example, if Mike and Judy decide that they are not going to slam doors or punch walls when they’re upset, they both must take this seriously. If Judy has a bad habit of slamming doors when angry because her mother used to do so, she needs to find a way to make sure it happens rarely, if ever. She can see a counselor, take up mindfulness practices, or attend an anger management course. What she cannot do is habitually slam doors, apologize, and do it again.
The point about comparison applies here, too: Every couple will decide on a different vision, different set of rules, and different governing principles. Yours do not have to match others’. Divergence is normal.
Remembering the importance of rules and shared vision will help keep your marriage functional and grounded.
Our Nervous Systems can Make us Behave Irrationally
In any close relationship, things will happen which will trigger your nervous system and make you feel threatened. Sometimes these instances even have nothing to do with past conditioning, they are just a part of the human condition (Olds, 2021). Whatever the reason, you will lose certain capabilities when your nervous system is triggered, such as those associated with rational thought and decision-making (Olds, 2021). The same thing will happen to your partner. Surely you can recall a time when you said or did something completely crazy because your nervous system was going totally bonkers. Were you proud of it? Probably not. Was it truly an expression of who you really are or what you really think? Also probably not.
You should certainly work to keep your reactions from spinning out of control and doing lasting damage to your relationship. Nevertheless, the less personally you each take one anothers’ reactions when your nervous systems are triggered and you’re behaving irrationally, the happier your marriage will be.
Remember that people are incapable of behaving rationally when their nervous systems are triggered, and cut yourself and your partner some slack while working to mitigate the effects of a triggered nervous system.
Memory is the basis of habit. Remember these 5 facts about the human condition and relationships, and then act accordingly in your marriage. Your future self will thank you!
Franz, K. Buddhism’s “Five Remembrances” are Wake-Up Calls for Us All. 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhisms-five-remembrances-are-wake-up-calls-for-us-all/
Olds, T. 2021. Stan Tatkin Interview – The Rules of Relationship. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpMSm4nW354