“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for their destructive role in relationships: stonewalling, defensiveness, criticism, and contempt. Well, sometimes we indulged in stonewalling, defensiveness, and criticism, but never contempt, the worst behavior of all. Working on my marriage was an obvious goal for my happiness project, because a good marriage is one of the factors most strongly associated with happiness. Partly this reflects the fact that happy people find it easier to get and stay married than unhappy people do, because happy people make better dates and easier spouses. But marriage itself also brings happiness, because it provides the support and companionship that everyone needs.
Like everyone, he’s a combination of good and not-so-good qualities, and the worst of my bad habits was to focus on his faults while taking his virtues for granted. I had come to understand one critical fact about my happiness project: I couldn’t change anyone else. As tempting as it was to try, I couldn’t lighten the atmosphere of our marriage by bullying Jamie into changing his ways. I could work only on myself. For inspiration, I turned to the twelfth of my Twelve Commandments: “There is only love.”
First, I needed to change my approach to household work. I was spending too much time handing out assignments and nagging, and not only was I nagging Jamie to do his work, I was nagging him to give me praise for my work. Also, I wanted to become more lighthearted, especially in moments of anger. And I wanted to stop taking Jamie for granted. Small, frequent gestures of thoughtfulness were more important than flowers on Valentine’s Day, and I wanted to load Jamie with small treats and courtesies, praise and appreciation—after all, as my Secret of Adulthood holds, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”
These resolutions were going to be tough for me—I knew that. I wasn’t unrealistic enough to expect to be able to keep every resolution, every day, but I wanted to aim higher than I had. One reason I started my happiness project by raising my energy and clearing my clutter was that I knew I’d be more able to act lighthearted and loving if I didn’t feel overwhelmed by mental or physical disorder. It seemed ridiculous, but already, having a tidier closet and getting more sleep was putting me into a happier and more peaceable frame of mind. The challenge would be to keep up with January’s resolutions now that I was adding a new list of resolutions for February.
Studies show that the quality of a couple’s friendship determines, in large part, whether they feel satisfied with their marriage’s romance and passion, and nothing kills the feeling of friendship (and passion) more than nagging. Anyway, nagging doesn’t work.
To make it easier to quit nagging, I made myself a checklist of antinagging techniques. First, because it’s annoying to hear a hectoring voice, I found ways for us to suggest tasks without talking; when I put an envelope on the floor by the front door, Jamie knew he was supposed to mail it on his way to work. I limited myself to a one-word reminder. I reminded myself that tasks didn’t need to be done according to my schedule. I did give myself credit for not indulging in the popular “It’s for your own good” variety of nagging. The most obvious (and least appealing) antinagging technique, of course, was to do a task myself. I also tried to be more observant and appreciative of all the tasks that Jamie did. I was certainly guilty of “unconscious overclaiming,” the phenomenon in which we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people. I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time Jamie spends dealing with our car.
I have a friend who has a radical solution. She and her husband don’t assign. Even though they have four children, they have a tacit agreement never to say things such as “You need to take the kids to the birthday party” or “Fix the toilet, it’s running again.” Their system works because they both pitch in, but even so, I can’t imagine living that way. It’s an impossible ideal, yet inspiring.
DON’T EXPECT PRAISE OR APPRECIATION.
My examination of my nagging habit showed me that I also engaged in a more subtle form of nagging—nagging that concerned work that I did. I nagged Jamie to give me more praise. wanted that gold star stuck onto my homework.
Why did I have such a need for gold stars? Was it vanity that needed to be stoked? Was it insecurity that needed to be soothed? Whatever the reason, I knew I should get over my need for Jamie to applaud the nice things I did, and, even more, I should get over my need for Jamie even to notice the nice things I did. So I made the resolution “Don’t expect praise or appreciation.”
We hugged—for at least six seconds, which, I happened to know from my research, is the minimum time necessary to promote the flow of oxytocin and serotonin, mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding. The moment of tension passed.
This exchange led me to an important insight into how to manage myself better. I’d been self-righteously telling myself that I did certain chores or made certain efforts “for Jamie” or “for the team.” Though this sounded generous, it led to a bad result, because I sulked when Jamie didn’t appreciate my efforts. Instead, I started to tell myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I wanted to send out Valentine’s cards. I wanted to clean out the kitchen cabinets. This sounded selfish, but in fact, it was less selfish, because it meant I wasn’t nagging to get a gold star from Jamie or anyone else. No one else even had to notice what I’d done.
“They always said,” he told me, “that you have to do that kind of work for yourself. If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them to acknowledge it and to be grateful and to give you credit. If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.” I think that’s right.
I faced a tougher challenge with my second priority: lightening my attitude. Marital conflicts fall into two categories: issues that can be clearly resolved and those that can’t. Unfortunately, more conflicts fall into the open-ended “How should we spend our money?” and “How should we raise our children?” categories than into the easier “What movie should we see this weekend?” or “Where should we go on our vacation this summer?” category.
Some disagreement is inevitable and even valuable. Since Jamie and I were going to fight, I wanted to be able to have fights that were more fun, where we could joke around and be affectionate even while we were disagreeing.
I also wanted to conquer my own particular bosom enemy: snapping.
Fighting style is very important to the health of a marriage; Gottman’s “love laboratory” research shows that how a couple fights matters more than how much they fight. Couples who fight right tackle only one difficult topic at a time, instead of indulging in arguments that cover every grievance since the first date. These couples ease into arguments instead of blowing up immediately—and avoid bombs such as “You never…” and “You always…” They know how to bring an argument to an end, instead of keeping it going for hours. They make “repair attempts” by using words or actions to keep bad feelings from escalating. They recognize other pressures imposed on a spouse.
In marriage, it’s less important to have many pleasant experiences than it is to have fewer unpleasant experiences, because people have a “negativity bias” our reactions to bad events are faster, stronger, and stickier than our reactions to good events. In fact, in practically every language, there are more concepts to describe negative emotions than positive emotions.
It takes at least five positive marital actions to offset one critical or destructive action, so one way to strengthen a marriage is to make sure that thepositive far outweighs the negative. When a couple’s interactions are usually loving and kind, it’s much easier to disregard the occasional unpleasant exchange.
I’d learned a lot. For example, there’s an intriguing difference in how men and women approach intimacy. Although men and women agree that sharing activities and self-disclosure are important, women’s idea of an intimate moment is a face-to-face conversation, while men feel close when they work or play sitting alongside someone.
Perhaps because men have this low standard for what qualifies as intimacy, both men and women find relationships with women to be more intimate and enjoyable than those with men. Women have more feelings of empathy for other people than men do (though women and men have about the same degree of empathy for animals, whatever that means). In fact, for both men and women—and this finding struck me as highly significant—the most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women. Time spent with men doesn’t make a difference.
Learning that men and women both turn to women for understanding showed me that Jamie wasn’t ignoring me out of lack of interest or affection; he just wasn’t good at giving that kind of support. Jamie wasn’t going to have a long discussion about whether I should start a blog or how I should structure my book. He didn’t want to spend hours pumping up my self-confidence. He was never going to play the role of a female writing partner, and it wasn’t realistic to expect him to do it. If I needed that kind of support, I should figure out another way to get it. My realization didn’t change his behavior—but I stopped feeling so resentful. I’d also noticed that the more upset I felt, the less Jamie seemed to want to talk about it.
GIVE PROOFS OF LOVE.
“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions. Some ways of showing my love were easy. Because people are 47 percent (how do they come up with these statistics?) more apt to feel close to a family member who often expresses affection than to one who rarely does, I started telling Jamie “I love you” at every turn and putting “ILY” at the end of my e-mails. I also started hugging Jamie more—as well as other people in my life. Hugging relieves stress, boosts feelings of closeness, and even squelches pain. In one study, people assigned to give five hugs each day for a month, aiming to hug as many different people as they could, became happier.
Some things I was already doing right. Because I didn’t want every one of my e-mails to Jamie to contain some irksome question or reminder, I’d gotten into the habit of sending him enjoyable messages, with interesting news or funny stories about the girls.
To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.
So simple, yet so profound. It looks like something you might read on the cover of a glossy magazine, but it had taken enormous effort to come up with a framework that ordered and distilled everything I’d learned.
To be happy, I needed to generate more positive emotions, so that I increased the amount of joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, gratitude, intimacy, and friendship in my life. That wasn’t hard to understand. I also needed to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffered less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, and irritation. Also easy to understand. And apart from feeling more “good” and feeling less “bad,” I saw that I also needed to consider feeling right.
“Feeling right” was a trickier concept: it was the feeling that I’m living the life I’m supposed to lead. In my own case, although I’d had a great experience as a lawyer, I’d been haunted by an uncomfortable feeling—that I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing. Now, though my writing career can be a source of “feeling bad” as well as “feeling good,” I do “feel right.”
“Feeling right” is about living the life that’s right for you—in occupation, location, marital status, and so on. It’s also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself. For some people, “feeling right” can also include less elevated considerations: achieving a certain job status or material standard of living.
The First Splendid Truth: To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
When thinking about happiness in marriage, you may have an almost irresistible impulse to focus on your spouse, to emphasize how he or she should change in order to boost your happiness. But the fact is, you can’t change anyone but yourself. A friend told me that her “marriage mantra” was “I love Leo, just as he is.” I love Jamie just as he is. I can’t make him do a better job of doing household chores, I can only stop myself from nagging—and that makes me happier. When you give up expecting a spouse to change (within reason), you lessen anger and resentment, and that creates a more loving atmosphere in a marriage.