In the previous chapters, I have shared with you four simple steps you can use to take your marriage from good to really great. I know these strategies work because they are based on a winning combination of sound research, common sense, and experience. They also work because they approach the most basic aspects of your marriage in unexpected ways. It is the presence of these strategies and new behaviors in your marriage that will lead to an exceptional relationship with your spouse. I am confident that these small changes in behavior and attitudes will produce significant, positive benefits to your marriage.
You may have noticed that all four steps so far concentrate on the exciting, fun, and positive behaviors or attitudes that you can easily adopt and weave into your married life. These steps to making your marriage great are all about adding specific positive and rewarding experiences to your relationship. I have shown you how to achieve: (1) realistic expectations of your relationship and spouse; (2) affective affirmation and support; (3) daily briefings to get to know your partner; and (4) change that reduces marital boredom and keeps the relationship fresh.
Now, what about the problematic or bothersome things that occur in your relationship - things you'd love to get rid of but don't know how to? The fifth step to making your marriage really great is to reduce costly behaviors. Doing so tips the emotional scale-the overall way you and your spouse feel about your marriage-so the relationship feels profitable for both partners and vastly more rewarding. The absence of these troubles or complaints is as important for nurturing a happy marriage as the presence of the rewarding behaviors and attitudes you've learned so far.
In Step 5 you will learn effective strategies to defray the problematic behaviors in your relationship. Once you apply them, the negative costs will go down and the positive benefits will gain momentum. The essential point to understand is that you need to weed out the problematic behaviors in your relationship if you want the positive and rewarding behaviors you learned in Steps I through 4 to continue to give you happiness over time. If not, the costly behaviors will tip the balance of your relationship in a negative way and stand in the way of happiness for both you and your partner.
In this chapter, I focus on the six behaviors that are most likely to tip your relationship happiness toward the deficit side of the balance sheet. I also offer practical and concrete ways to move around these obstacles so you can enjoy the benefits of your marriage. I have found that couples who define themselves as "happy" have been able to reduce the frequency of costly or problematic behaviors so that the positives outweigh the negatives in their marriage.
In this fifth step, I am asking you to identify the costly behaviors in your marriage and strategize ways to eliminate or change them. A relationship cost is a behavior your partner does that is a recurrent source of irritation to you. Perhaps it bugs you that your spouse is perpetually late to everything, including picking up the kids from school. Or that your partner always puts his dishes in the sink without cleaning them or stacking them in the dishwasher. A relationship cost can also be a problem or issue that never gets resolved or settled in your marriage, which creates persistent tension or conflict for the two of you. A classic example I sec time and again when I work with couples is when the husband and wife can't seem to resolve their differences regarding how to discipline and raise their children. Every time the issue comes up, they blow up and yell at each other. Another common topic that creates tension is when spouses cannot settle differences around their respective extended families-how much time to spend with them, how to share time with both sides of the family, how much information to disclose, and the like.
The presence of costly behaviors makes you and your spouse angry, upset, and irritated. Also, these negatives tend to add up over time. As these issues accumulate and become habitual, they detract from the presence of positive and rewarding behaviors and experiences in your marriage. This gets translated into a feeling of discontentment or unhappiness. The good news is that when you add positive behaviors and subtract negative ones, happiness increases. You probably already know, intuitively, which behaviors in your marriage feel costly and somewhat detrimental.
Can you make issues like these go away? No, of course not. They are part of life. What I'm suggesting is that our reactions to life's challenges - not the challenges themselves-are what become costly behaviors. I am going to show you how to change your behaviors around these inevitable hurdles so you can sail right over them and get to the good stuff in your marriage.
Audit Your Relationship
Think hard about what might be the costly behaviors in your marriage. Every couple has them. If you have difficulty coming up with the problems in your relationship, try keeping a daily journal of each interaction (face-to-face, phone, email, text) you have with your spouse. This journal should briefly describe the communication, whether you experienced a positive or negative feeling during or after the communication, and what specific events or actions precipitated this emotion. Write down these feelings and events for four days. Once you identify the costly behaviors, the ones that created negative feelings within you, you can start weeding them out of your relationship.
Psychologists have developed a theory that people keep track mentally of how much emotional currency they spend in a love relationship compared with how much they earn or get back, much like a tax audit. You've probably done this yourself in the past with ex-lovers. "He's just not worth the effort," you might have said to yourself, or "I don't get much back from her - it's give, give, give." You do the same in your marriage, whether you are aware of it or not. You evaluate your relationship based on the rewards versus costs.
Rewards are the relationship experiences or partner behaviors that are positive, uplifting, and joyful (e.g., he gives me affective affirmation, she really knows and understands me, she supports me in times of trouble or stress, he makes my life interesting and exciting, our sex life is very satisfying). Costs are the experiences or partner behaviors that trouble you or give you displeasure (e.g., she doesn't get along with my family, he withholds information about finances from me, we can't discuss his past). In most cases, these rewards and costs aren't items you check off on a balance sheet literally. Instead, you keep sort of a ledger or tally in your head of everything that is happening. You then evaluate your mental list of positive and negative experiences. The outcome of your evaluation determines whether you are really happy.