9 Ways Couples Must Agree A quick guide for solving the most common problems in a marriage. BY DR. LAWRENCE BIRNBACH AND DR. BEVERLY HYMAN
Having a happy marriage means taking care of your relationship needs--all of them.
Every month Eric dreads opening the credit card bills. No matter how bad he thinks it will be, it’s worse, even though he repeatedly—sometimes gently, sometimes angrily—has begged his wife, Jessica, to reign in her spending. Nothing he says gets through to her. For her part, Jessica says she is only spending what she feels she has to in order to dress herself and their children as well as the neighbors do and to make their home as nice as their friends’ homes.
Every couple has to work out agreements in what we call the nine different areas in a marriage. These universal issues have been identified by family researchers. We talk about the nine areas in detail and provide stories of how couples handle or fail to handle them. They are:
* Relationships with extended family
* Household and gender roles
* Substance use
* Leisure time
* Career or job issues
In order to have a happy marriage couples have to work out agreements in almost all of these areas. Failure to do so, in even one or two of them, can upset the delicate balance of trust and respect that successful marriages need.
It doesn't take much for one problem to compound into multiple relationship issues. Eric and Jessica’s struggles about money have been going on for years. Each has hardened their position and nothing has gotten resolved. Their mood is despairing. Jessica has lost interest in sex with Eric. He has started drinking more and has hurt her by openly flirting with other women at social gatherings.
Money issues in a marriage can take many forms. Some couples argue because one is a big spender and the other is frugal. Others argue about the amount of debt, especially credit card debt, that one or the other feels uncomfortable with. They may argue about whether to pool their money or have each pay for a share of expenses. Some argue whether money belongs to the person who earns it, or to both, or whether the person who earns more money has a greater say in how to spend it. Some couples argue about whether a stay-at-home parent’s efforts are an equal contribution to the household. Others argue over what to spend money on. Is gambling, for example, a legitimate expense in the marriage?
The worst impact of money on a marriage is when one or both people lose their jobs. The stress of this financial crisis causes problems to surface in the other eight areas that may have stayed hidden when there was enough money to meet the bills.
Eric and Jessica’s failure to resolve the money issue has started a cascade of these other issues. Their marriage is in trouble. What can they do to get things moving back in the right direction?
Solutions: Jessica needs to show respect for Eric’s needs and immediately trim her spending to a level that he is also comfortable with. He probably will need to expand his comfort level to meet her half way. Right now they are playing a win-lose game. To continue in their marriage they need to play fair with one another. Right now they are each escalating the fight. "If you won’t stop spending, then I’ll drink and flirt" is a win-lose scenario. If they want to save their marriage, they need to manage this negotiation with the idea that they are fighting to make their relationship work and do it without grumbling about it. A good relationship around money is built on trust. Trust takes years of respecting one another’s values and trying hard to treat your spouse’s values with respect.
Couples disagree about parenting in innumerable ways. They may accuse one another of being too strict or too lenient, of not being involved enough with the children or of being too involved. Some couples argue about feeling undermined by the other parent when setting limits on the kids. Some feel the other is competing for the children’s love.
Solutions: Recognize that good parenting has to be a joint venture. You need to find a way to agree with your spouse on the rules and standards you will both be willing to enforce with your kids. You need to back one another up in front of your children and iron out differences behind closed doors, the way all good partners do when they are negotiating a deal with others.
Protect your marriage from your kids! Too often the fun and romance that was the basis for you two getting together gets lost in an overly child-centered family. Children are like vacuum cleaners. We love them, but they will "Hoover up" all the energy, money, love, attention, that you will give them and demand more. Parenting is only one part of your marriage. Purposefully save some love, energy and attention for one another. Take some time alone for the two of you. It will be good for your children too.
Men and women marry for different reasons. Women say they want romance, companionship and a relationship. Men want sex, home and children. Recent research indicates that 40 percent of married women report having lost interest in sex with their husbands. Sales of Viagra and Cialis to men are booming, mostly to provide assistance with marital sex, not for health-related reasons. It’s no surprise that couples struggle about how much affection or romance needs to accompany a sexual encounter or about the frequency of their sex or about what is in or out of bounds.
Solutions: If you want to have a good marriage, recognize that sex is a kind of glue in marriage. Every couple has to work out their own ground rules for frequency or romance or boundaries, but you must work it out together. A basic rule we recommend is the 75 percent rule. If each of you says "yes" 75 percent of the time to a sexual request from the other—even if it’s an indirect or subtle request, you are not in the mood, or you are tired or cranky—you’ll be amazed at what a great sex life you will have and how positively it will affect the other areas of your marriage. Remember you can say "no" 25 percent of the time without fear of repercussions.
Relationships with Extended Family
Getting married means forming a new family. When one or both of you fails to shift loyalty from your original family, your new family can’t get off to the proper start. If your original family puts pressure on you, takes up a great deal of your time and expects to be treated as they were when you lived with them, your marriage can’t be the centerpiece of your life that it deserves to be. A good marriage doesn’t play second fiddle.
Solutions: Transfer your primary allegiance to your spouse. Your family will survive it and they will gain new respect for the marriage you are trying to build and the mate you have chosen. Be loyal to your spouse. Don’t confide secrets or private details about your marriage to siblings or parents. Insist that your spouse do the same for you.
A couple we knew went to war with each other over a Christmas tree. The wife decided she had to have a tree the year their first child was three. The husband was Jewish and, even though he wasn’t religious, decided that having a Christmas tree was intolerable in his home. They became furious with one another. Finally, the husband went to a rabbi to consult. The rabbi told him to go out and buy a tree. He said, and we agree, "You love your wife, so respect her. Give her room to practice what she believes." Couples get into trouble when one tries to legislate how religion should or should not be practiced by the other.
Solutions: If you have religious differences, practice respect and tolerance. What we have seen is that over time, if people have a good marriage, they grow together in so many ways it often includes their religious practices and preferences.
Household and Gender Roles
You may be surprised to hear that two-thirds of all divorces are initiated by women. When asked why, women often say that they divorced their husbands because these men were rigid about male/female roles and uninterested in change. The rules of the marriage game have changed in the last generation. More than two-thirds of married women work, and in 25 percent of married couples, the women out earn their husbands. Still, some married men and women remain trapped in their parents’ stereotypical roles and rules. These couples argue about doing their fair share of household and parenting responsibilities even though both of them experience equally powerful time pressures and stress in their lives.
Solutions: We are lucky to live in a time and place of greater freedom. You have the choice to do more of the things you like to do rather than stay stuck in a stereotype. Try to explore and enjoy the freedom this provides. Try to allocate work based on actual preference—who likes to do what, not who should do what. If your arrangements around who does what chores or takes care of what responsibilities doesn’t feel fair to both of you, it’s not. Renegotiate it.
Guys who would rather live with their wife than their mother will just have to give up the luxury of all the things Mom let them get away with when they were kids. Women who were raised to expect to be taken care of may need to develop more self reliance. The trade off can be worth it for both sexes and their children.
Substance Use or Abuse
People who are married need to agree on what they mean by moderation and what are acceptable intoxicants. When they don’t, they have a problem.
Solutions: If the differences between you are sufficiently serious, one of you will have to draw the line and be willing to go so far as to end the marriage. This is for your protection, for your spouse's protection and for the protection of the family. When you draw the line, it’s only effective if you mean it—you can’t be bluffing—otherwise you lose all credibility. Substance abuse can be so serious that it can be a life or death issue. Seek help immediately. Al Anon helps thousands of family members annually. 12-step programs help abusers to recover every day.
You and your spouse need to agree on how much time you need to spend together and how much time you need to spend apart. If all your leisure time together is spent satisfying the interests of just one of you, there isn’t much companionship or stimulation in the relationship and you two will drift apart.
Solutions: Your partner can bring real enhancement to your life, but you have to be open to it. This can be challenging, but in the spirit of fairness, which we have referred to in many of the solutions, there needs to be a balance between your activities, my activities and our activities.
Career and Job
Couples get into trouble around career and job issues when they don’t share the same values. In one couple, we knew the wife travelled for her business very frequently before they married. After the two were married, her husband—who didn’t travel for his job—found all her travel excessive. He didn’t think the satisfaction or money she got out of it was worth the amount of time they had to spend apart.
Solution: She needed to decide what was more important, being in this particular career or being in her marriage. Her husband wasn’t prepared to settle into being second best in her life. Fortunately for them, she was able to make the choice. She stopped travelling so much and was able to continue working for the same company, although not in as high paying a job. They worked it out because she came to agree with his value in this. As in many of the nine areas, it doesn’t matter what the solution the two of you come up with is, it just has to be one that you both genuinely feel meets your needs.
Husband and wife team and marriage experts, Dr. Lawrence Birnbach and Dr. Beverly Hyman are the authors of the new book, "How to Know If It’s Time to Go: A 10-Step Reality Test for Your Marriage" (March, Sterling Publishing). Dr. Birnbach is a psychoanalyst who specializes in working with individuals and couples in troubled relationships. He has an ongoing mental health column in The Westport News and is a frequent speaker on this subject. Dr. Hyman is an internationally known business and organizational consultant specializing in conflict management. She is a consultant to several United Nations agencies, through which she is involved in addressing the concerns of women and families.