Category Archives: Marriage

Self-Gratitude: Thank You to My Former Selves

I’ve been reading about gratitude again because that’s the topic of the second book in the Positive Psychology News Daily series. We’ve selected more than twenty articles. We’ve started editing. Kevin Gillespie has started drawing pictures. We’ll have it ready by Thanksgiving at the latest (cross fingers).

Earlier I posted my notes for the talk on gratitude that I gave to a Sunday School class at a local church. In particular, borrowing from some of the experts in the field, I wrote:

Cultivating Gratitude involves…

1) Acknowledging good things that happen – major and minor. Be mindful of present benefits; enhance the ability to remember positive events.

2) Recognizing the sources of goodness that are outside us. Much goodness happens to us independent of our own actions. What if we said, “Why me?” when good things happen to us?

But what if we also kept in mind gratitude that we owe our former selves?

Just to show what I mean, here are some of the things for which I can thank Kathie Sugg (baby name), Kathy Heninger (after adoption by step-father), Kathryn Heninger (chosen name at college), and even Kathryn Heninger Britton, looking back over the years.

Kathie holding Lou's ThumbI thank you, Kathie, for the picture of you holding your father’s thumb when you were tiny. That picture has created a strong sense of connection to my father who died when I was about 2 years old. It’s actually the only picture I have with both of us in it.

I thank you, Kathy, for your love of reading. You filled my head with stories of people I admire. These stories often return to me when I feel challenged. These stories remind me of duty cheerfully performed, of self-sacrifice, of courage in the face of fear, of taking the long view, of the impact of love on life.

I thank you Kathie, Kathy, Kathryn for building friendships all along the way. I have close friends from early childhood, from high school, from college from graduate school, work, child rearing and graduate school again. Thank you for being so curious about people and for exchanging the words and deeds that made lasting bonds.

Learning how to snorkel

Learning how to snorkel

Thank you for the adventures you’ve had with friends — such as the trip to Bora Bora with friend Pam to stay on friend Sue’s catamaran, making new friends of Sue’s family.

 

I thank you, Kathryn, for always finding something to do with your life while you tried to figured out what you wanted to DO with your life. Yes, it took about 30 years for you to find a vocation that is also an avocation. But in the meantime, you gained experience with a lot of different people, different technologies, and different business considerations.

Thank you for taking care of my body, so that I enjoy good health now in spite of 30 years with Type 1 diabetes. I know it wasn’t easy.

More than 30 years together

I also thank you for finding Edward Britton to marry and then for building up more than 30 years of shared experience with him. I don’t think you understood that marriage at my age would be even more rewarding than it was at yours. Thank both our earlier selves for all the little acts of warmth and appreciation that must have added up to more than 5-to-1 one positivity ratio between us — but who’s counting?

Thank you, also, for deciding to have children, one of life’s greatest adventures.

And so on. Who would I be if it hadn’t been for you?

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Filed under Curiosity, Gratitude, Marriage

Memory Cues


Todd Kashdan is a psychology professor, researcher, and author of the new book, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. When I asked him in an interview what he wanted to explore in the future, he said he’s curious about what keeps some marriages vital and vibrant over the very long haul. He thought he might live long enough to get well past his diamond anniversary (6oth), so what could he learn from people who have kept their marriages good to the end.

Based on my own 28 years of experience being married, I nominate shared memories and frequent strong hugs.

My husband has a much better memory than mine, so he’s the one who can refresh me with stories about what happened when our children were born or what what the food was like when we splurged and ate lunch at the Tour d’Argent in Paris in 1981. I do remember the service there being like something out of a fairy tale — invisible hands anticipating every need.

I attach memories to things, which is why I’m sometimes loath to give them up, even when they are worn out. We have a couch we bought together about 30 years ago — after 18 months of searching through D.C. area furniture stores and sitting on a lot of surfaces that one thought were great and the other thought were either ugly or uncomfortable. We agreed on a Flexsteel model with soft, slightly fuzzy, dark russet upholstery. My husband says to this day that the salesperson said the fabric wasn’t suitable for small children, but I have trouble believing I would have agreed to that. I do remember right after it was delivered, when our old really really ugly couch needing a cinder block to support the middle was hauled away and we both had trouble sitting casually on something so new and pristine. We also felt we were so far apart — our old couch was a bit smaller, so we could each nest on one side and easily stretch out a leg to touch the other.

Since then, our couch has absorbed so many family memories. I lay on my left side on it for the last 3 months of my first pregnancy — doctor’s orders. I rested on it with baby daugher and broken ankle (another story!)

Baby and Broken Ankle on couch

Baby and Broken Ankle on couch

My children made forts and tunnels and castles with the cushions. We all used it as a refuge when ill. During the years when my husband couldn’t sit flat in a chair and we stopped going out to theaters, we clocked many a Saturday night watching a movie and drinking fine wine while sitting on the couch. I learned how to stretch a little further to reach him with my foot. Now the buttons have disappeared inside the cushions and friends complain about how hard it is to get up from it, it sags so much. The fabric has survived 2 children remarkably well, but there a few places that are worn through, even a tear or two. We need a new couch. But what we want is this couch, just 25 years younger.

I have learned not to attach too much importance to objects. I made my wedding dress myself out of cream-colored wool challis that we found in an enormous fabric warehouse in Alexandria Virginia. It held memories too, for example, of the Thanksgiving when I put in what seemed like miles of hem while watching Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Wedding dress hem

Wedding dress hem

I edged the hem with lace handmade by a friend. But after the wedding, I neglected to have it professionally boxed up, and a few years later found it full of moth holes. At the time, I thought “I hope this doesn’t say anything about our marriage” — and it hasn’t. But now I have only the memory of an object that holds memories…

Shared memories and lots of hugs — and shared curiosity.

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Filed under Marriage, Stories, Uncategorized

Reflections on Marriage Part 2 – One thing to know

A colleague asked me recently about positive psychology lessons that could help people strengthen marriages.  I’ve written about this before (Reflections on Marriage), but his question reminded me of something very germane that I read in Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know (pp. 16-24), based on research by Sandra Murray and colleagues at SUNY Buffalo.

The One Thing you need to know about marriage is

“Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior and believe it.” (p. 22)

Let me give an example of putting this to work.

To-do listMy husband is a very organized person. He has a system for making to-do lists that includes consulting several master lists — one for annual events like eye doctor appointments, one for monthly events, one for weekly events, and one for ongoing projects. Once he has made a list, he doesn’t like to do something that is not on the list unless it is of overarching importance. When I first knew him, I sometimes found it very annoying if I had an idea for a project, and he said, “It’s not on the list.”

So I could think, “I love him, even if he is sometimes really rigid about his lists.”

Or I could find a generous way to think about his list-making that includes it among the things I love about him. Buckingham says, “When you notice a flaw, recast it in your mind as an aspect of a strength.” In this case, I can think about how we never fail to pay bills or get the filters changed or shop for holidays or …. When we have a big event coming up, like giving a party or preparing for a hurricane, I can count on him to plan for it and execute all the things that on his list. His list-making has made my life easier and more secure.

So when I think about his list-making, my feelings are fondness and amusement and acceptance — even awe for how much he accomplishes. I haven’t compartmentalized a piece of him away hoping not to think about it. Compartmentalizing doesn’t really work. Those cordoned-off aspects of the person continue to be there, ready to generate irritation and resentment whenever you can’t ignore them. Besides, ignoring them takes energy.

I view this as a form of realistic optimism where I’m choosing how I want to deal with fuzzy meaning (a lovely term that I got from Dr. Sandra Schneider). There is no right or wrong interpretation of his list-making behavior. So I can choose an interpretation that increases my appreciation of him every time it becomes evident. It took a while to make this interpretation habitual, but it becomes easier all the time.

Aside: This approach is not suitable for violence or abuse of any kind. But it is helpful for the personality differences that lead to ongoing friction between two people who love each other and want to make marriage work together.

Source of to-do list picture

Murray, S., Holmes, J., Dolderman, D., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). What the motivated mind sees: Comparing friends’ perspectives to married partners’ views of each other. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(6), 600-620. First sentence of abstract: This article argues that satisfaction in marriage is associated with motivated and benevolent biases in perception. Link to place to order

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Filed under Good with the Bad, Marriage, Optimism, Relationships

Reflections on Marriage


We celebrated our 27th wedding anniversary on January 17. That has led me to think about what I’ve learned about marriage in slightly more than a quarter century.
Wedding Rice

My marriage is more important to me now than it was in the beginning. I think that’s because of the collected weight of so many shared memories. We did some remembering together during our anniversary dinner. Do you remember staying in the hotel La Perouse in Nice? The walk we took up the hill where your blood sugar dropped so low that you didn’t recognize the donkey I pointed out to you — and I had to get a soft drink for you even though you’re the one who speaks French? The hike in the Cascades where you fell through the ice crust and were hanging by your armpits over the stream running under the snow? The bed-and-breakfast in Idaho with no curtains where you finished every night sleeping in the closet to get some darkness? The ice storm where we lost power for a week and had to camp out in our basement? Thank goodness for gas hot water heaters. The time our 2-year-old came to the table saying “I’ve got an eye up my nose” (it turned out to be a detachable eye from a toy). Trips to the emergency room?

I remember back during one of the MAPP onsite meetings when we were collecting a scrapbook for a classmate who had just gotten engaged. I wrote about the importance of finding the most positive interpretations possible of even the most annoying aspects of our partners. Doing so means you don’t leave out any part of them when you love them. I think that was an application of what we later read about realistic optimism (Schneider, 2001) — differentiating between fuzzy knowledge, where ignoring the unknown facts is foolhardiness and fuzzy meaning, where no interpretation is any more factual than any other, so it makes sense to choose the most positive one possible. The recipient of the scrapbook found it very good advice — it hope it is turning out well for her in practice.

Our marriage is a close friendship. We’ve each helped the other out of tight spots and long downers — all of which go in the memory bank. We learned that we can’t fight each other’s battles at work — a lesson that is reusable with children. We learned the usefulness of ‘tag-team wrestling’ as a way of raising children. When one is just about to lose it, the other takes over. We share the character strengths of curiosity and love of learning. We’ve taken classes together — from Japanese art appreciation at the Frick Gallery to ballroom dancing. We also fill in each other’s gaps. When I was overwhelmed by taking the MAPP program and working full-time at the same time, he became my project manager, kept me focused, and kept me from going past good enough when time wouldn’t allow it.

One set of my grandparents had their golden wedding anniversary (50 years), and the other reached their diamond anniversary (60 years). Both pairs got married younger than we did, but maybe we’ll get within reach.

Reference:

Schneider, S. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

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Filed under Friendship, Marriage, Relationships

Growth Mindsets and Marriage

Mindset CoverA friend asked me what positive psychology can tell us about marriage. When I went digging around through my notes and books, one of the things I found was Carol Dweck’s chapter, Relationships: Mindsets in Love (or Not) in her book, Mindsets: The new psychology of success.

Dweck argues that people tend to have either fixed mindsets or growth mindsets about their lives. Someone with a fixed mindset believes his or her qualities are fixed and life is about discovering what already is. You are either smart or you’re not, and failure means you are not. Someone with a growth mindset believes human qualities can be cultivated through effort. Getting something wrong doesn’t mean failure, it means learning. She cites Alfred Binet, who clearly didn’t think IQ was a fixed quantity:

With practice, training, and above all, method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, and literally to become more intelligent than we were before.

So what does this have to do with marriage? Dweck describes two fixed mindset attitudes that get in the way of having a happy marriage:

Fixed Mindset Attitude 1. If you have to work at it, it wasn’t meant to be.

This made me laugh, because I remember people telling me before I got married that you have to work at marriage – and I couldn’t understand what they meant. After nearly 27 years, I know exactly what they mean. It’s a dance of self-expression, observation, and adjustment where the happiness is in that slightly off-balance state of relying on and being surprised by each other. Dweck quotes John Gottman, a foremost relationship researcher:

Every marriage demands an effort to keep it on the right track; there is a constant tension … between the forces that hold you together and those that can tear you apart.

Fixed Mindset Attitude 2. Problems indicate character flaws.

Whoo, what a tarpit that can be! If you believe a problem indicates a fixed character flaw in the other person, then how can you hope for a workable compromise that suits you both?

Mindsets are changeable. People who recognize the limitations of fixed mindsets can learn how to adopt growth mindsets. Marriage is a challenge that thrives on two people both being willing and eager to grow – and to let the other grow.

Check out Nick Hall’s article, Brainset – Neuroscience examines Carol Dweck’s Theory if you want to explore further.

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Filed under Life satisfaction, Marriage, Positive Interventions