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.
My 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.
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