One of the main themes of my happiness project is marriage. For me, as with many people, my marriage is one of the most central elements in my life, my home, and my happiness.
When I started my happiness project, and I reflected about the changes I wanted to make, I realized I had five particular problem areas in my marriage. Here they are, along with the strategies I try to use to address them, though they remain challenging:
1. Demanding gold stars.
Oh, how I crave appreciation and recognition! I always want that gold star stuck to my homework. But my husband just isn’t very good at handing out gold stars, and that makes me feel angry and unappreciated.
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In response, I now think more about doing things for myself. I used to tell myself I was doing nice things for him – “He’ll be so happy to see that I put all the books away,” “He’ll be so pleased that I finally got the trunk packed for camp” etc. – then I’d be mad when he wasn’t appreciative. Now I tell myself that I’m doing these things because I want to do them. “Wow, the kitchen cabinets look great!” “I’m so organized to have bought all the supplies in advance!” Because I do things for myself, I don’t expect him to respond in any particular way.
2. Using a snappish tone.
I have a very short fuse and become irritable extremely easily – but my husband really doesn’t like it when I snap at him (big surprise). I’ve done a lot to try to keep my temper in check. I don’t let myself get too hungry or too cold (I fall into these states very easily); I try to keep our apartment in reasonable order, because a mess makes me crabby; when he tries to make a joke out of my temper, I try to laugh along; I try to control my voice to keep it light and cheery instead of accusatory and impatient. Confession: I’ve worked on this issue relentlessly for years, and still have a really tough time with it. For instance, I spoke in a snappish tone just last night.
3. Not showing enough consideration.
Studies show that married people treat each other with less civility than they show to other people — and I do this with my husband, I know. I’m working hard on basic consideration, such as giving him warm greetings and farewells, not reading my emails while talking to him on the phone, etc. Very basic, I know.
I’m a score-keeper, always calculating who has done what. “I cleaned up the kitchen, so you have to run to the store” — that sort of thing. I’ve found two ways to try to deal with this tendency.
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First, I remind myself of the phenomenon of unconscious over-claiming; i.e., we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. This makes sense, because of course we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. According to Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, “When husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent.” I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car. It’s easy to see that over-claiming leads to resentment and an inflated sense of entitlement. So now when I find myself thinking, “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” I remind myself of all the tasks I don’t do.
Second, I remind myself of the words of my spiritual master, St. Therese of Lisieux: “When one loves, one does not calculate.” That precept is the basis for my 11th Personal Commandment: No calculation.
5. Taking my husband for granted.
Just as I find it easily to overlook the chores done by my husband (see #4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws. For example, although I find it hard to resist using an irritable tone, my husband almost never speaks harshly, and that’s really a wonderful trait. I’m trying to stay alert to all the things I love about him, and let go of my petty annoyances. This is easier said than done.
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I’ve found that working to keep my resolution to Kiss more, hug more, touch more is an effective way to help me stay in loving, appreciative frame of mind, with my husband and my daughters, too. KMHMTM is one of my very favorite resolutions! It doesn’t take any extra time, energy, or money, and it makes a real difference in the atmosphere of my home.
A version of this post originally appeared on Gretchen Rubin’s website, where Gretchen writes about her experiments in the pursuit of happiness and good habits.