Archive for September, 2012

Marital Relationships in the 21st Century:

A Few Modern Day Insights


Part II

This leads us to the core causes of much marital discord and dysfunction. My days as a social scientist are long over. However, a lifetime of study in psychology and sociology, and observation of the real world, has given me a few insights into the human condition.

All marriages have strengths and weaknesses. Metaphorically speaking, in my more cynical moments, I can think of marriage as a “Battlefield.” In my more playful or humorous moments I like to think of marriage as a “Playing Field.”  The Battlefield metaphor, of course, is about warring factions; the playing field metaphor connotes something more like a sporting event with winners and losers. A better metaphorical image (yet always a work in progress) of marriage—is the United Nations model, whereby cooperation and understanding is always promoted but can, at times, be imperfect in trying to bring about such cooperation and understanding.

In a marriage what tends to bring about cooperation and understanding is Mental and Emotional Maturity. What tends to create great difficulty for marriage partners is extreme selfishness and control freak behavior. Depending upon the psychological characteristics of the individuals, marriage is either an ongoing war or it is the personification of cooperation and understanding. What is your marriage all about?

Let’s take a look now at what these personality characteristics are all about.

Mental and Emotional Maturity in Marriage

All of us have social needs. Yet, the need to control our own destiny is also important. But in a marital relationship the needs and independence of our spouse is equally important. Nothing promotes the needs and independence of one’s spouse more than mental and emotional maturity. Because of the complexity of the concepts Mental and Emotional Maturity, I’ve opted to give readers the abbreviated explanation for these concepts.

When mentally mature partners in a marriage are dealing with marital conflict, there is often a proactive, sometimes insightful, assessment of the situation. Compromises may or may not be reached during such an assessment; nevertheless, mature individuals often take a step backwards for a moment and try to put themselves in their spouse’s position. Thus, mental and emotional maturity promotes empathy at its best. What does it mean to be mature? It means generally seven things. According to Krystal Kuehn, citing Merriam-Webster, “mature is defined as having completed natural growth and development. That is, being fully grown, complete, ready.” According to her, “I do not believe that we arrive at a state of complete emotional maturity with no further need for growth and development. Rather, emotional maturity is a life-long process. We continually grow in our experience of love, acceptance, stability, adaption, and so forth.”

Following is the list of Criteria of Emotional Maturity by William C. Menninger, psychiatrist and co-founder of the Menninger Clinic along with some of Ms. Kuehn’s thoughts and comments. “As we grow and develop in the following areas, we become more emotionally mature with greater mental and emotional stability, healthier relationships, and improved lives.”

The ability to deal constructively with reality

To deal with reality in a constructive manner, we must face truth, the facts, rather than deny them. Running from problems or hoping they do not exist does not make them go away. Regardless of how unpleasant they may be at times, facing the facts is the first step to dealing with any situation.

The capacity to adapt to change

Change is not always easy. It can turn our world upside down at times and cause a great deal of stress. Whether the change is minor, like having to change our plans for the day, or more significant, such as moving to a new home, changing jobs, getting married or divorced, adapting to change is to make necessary adjustments. Sometimes the most important adjustment is in our attitude. Change can annoy us as it disrupts our routine and expectations, but we can choose to accept it and allow ourselves time to get comfortable with change.

A relative freedom from symptoms that are produced by tensions and anxieties

The symptoms produced from tensions and anxieties can include physical distress (headaches, stomach problems, rapid heart rate) and emotional distress (worry, restlessness, panic). Anxiety is a major mental health problem affecting millions of people every day. To live free of its destructive symptoms and consequences is to cope with life stress in a healthy manner, learn to relax, release worries, and develop inner peace..

The capacity to find more satisfaction in giving than receiving

People who give of themselves–their time, attention, help, finances, or what they are able– are generally more fulfilled and happy than those who do not. People who are primarily takers are more likely to use others for their own personal gain and are often considered selfish, stingy, and/or greedy. Givers, on the other hand, want to contribute and make a positive difference in this world. It is healthy to give cheerfully and willingly as it contributes to our sense of purpose and helps us connect with others and our society.

The capacity to relate to other people in a consistent manner with mutual satisfaction and helpfulness

Like I always say, life is all about relationships. We relate to others every single day–whether it is a relative, co-worker, neighbor, or stranger, our lives are intertwined with others. Love and respect are two key factors to relating successfully to others. Unlike dysfunctional relationships, healthy relationships are stable and provide deep satisfaction and joy.

The capacity to sublimate, to direct one’s instinctive hostile energy into creative and constructive outlets

If we were to release all our frustrations and anger on the world, we would have a hostile existence. Instead, we can take that energy and direct it into something good and productive. It has long been said that sports is a great outlet of extra energy. Anything that is positive, constructive and creative can redirect our energies and put them to good use.

The capacity to love

Love is the greatest power in the world. As humans, we are born with the capacity to love. The greatest differences between us are how we communicate our love.

Love cures people – both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it. ~Karl Menninger

One does not fall in love; one grows into love, and love grows in him. ~Karl Menninger

Self-love is not opposed to the love of other people. You cannot really love yourself and do yourself a favor without doing people a favor, and vise versa. ~Karl Menninger

Experience is not what happens to you, it’s how you interpret what happens to you. ~Aldous Huxley

In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships. ~John Gottman (from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child)

Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it. ~Vincent Van Gogh


Balancing Act

All of the characteristics of emotionally mature people are true and correct; the problem here is that, unfortunately, many of us do not manifest all or even most of these terrific characteristics all the time. To my way of thinking, the United Nations metaphor of marital relationships is a Balancing Act.

Sometimes when a person is highly irritated with their spouse, it becomes necessary to look beyond the surface to what is happening at that moment to your spouse. Put very simply—you need to ask yourself this very simple question, what’s bothering my spouse?

Is there something I can do to make his or her situation better? Mature, insightful individuals tend to ask these more reflective types of questions when dealing with marital problems. Now I have to say from personal experience it’s easier said than done. Often, it’s common to simply react negatively, to let emotions dictate one’s thoughts and reason. An all-giving individual is rare in this society; a more usual approach among individuals in a marriage is A Balancing Act.

Together as a couple you could negotiate a solution that either satisfies both of you or, more likely, takes care of one of you in a particular moment or situation. This creates an emotional I.O.U. for the sacrificing spouse. You’ll know you’re there if you can strike a balance between getting what you want and giving what is needed.

When you can defer to someone else without feeling powerless and without fearing emotional abandonment, you’re a grown-up. Savor it. Push yourself to use this cooperation model as often as possible.

Maintaining Balance with Misdirected Anger

Sometimes a spouse will take out all of his or her frustrations on you, when what’s bothering them, in fact, may have nothing whatsoever to do with you. It is incumbent upon the individual to not simply react all the time. Instead, try to understand what may be bothering your partner. If you love your spouse, you will and should give your spouse the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes when a partner unloads on you, he or she may actually be showing just how comfortable they really are in your presence by being able to unload on you their anger and concerns in the first place.

Unloading on one’s children or others may get them into serious trouble real quick. Instead, you get elected as the recipient of his or her momentary emotional catharsis because they feel you will ultimately be supportive. Surprise! I bet you didn’t think about that. If you didn’t, that’s okay. Not many people do. It’s just a different way of looking at anger directed at you.

There are two psychological characteristics in oneself, or a spouse, that can counter the best of responses by a partner in a marriage. That is, extreme selfishness and having to control everything. Both characteristics in the extreme are related to personality disorders. And, not surprisingly, it may be your partner who is least able to see or understand this pattern in his or her own behavior.

Extreme selfishness is one of the symptoms—pursuing mainly selfish goals—tied to a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Selfishness is placing concern with oneself or one’s own interests above the well-being or interests of others.) and the need to control everything can be related to an Obsessive Personality Disorder. Obsessive–Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is a personality disorder characterized by a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency. People experiencing OCPD generally perceive their behaviors as correct and desirable.

OCPD is a generally considered a chronic non-adaptive pattern of extreme perfectionism, preoccupation with neatness and detail, and a requirement or need for control or power over one’s environment that results in major suffering and stress, especially in areas of personal relationships.

Persons with OCPD are usually known to be inflexible and extremely controlling. They may find it hard to relax, and feel the need to plan out their activities down to the minute. OCPD occurs in about 1 percent of the general population. It is seen in 3–10 percent of psychiatric outpatients. It is twice as common in males as females.

Both of these psychological characteristics, when found in a marital relationship, can pose real problems and/or turn a spouse into a victim.


Psychological Origins of Selfish and Control Freak Behavior

What causes people to turn out extremely greedy, selfish and self absorbed more than others? By greediness I mean spending all of ones time on oneself and totally self-absorbed with one’s own activity. The spouse is treated as if he or she isn’t even there.

The irony of these characteristics is that sometimes a healthy mentally well adjusted individual needs to be a bit selfish with their time and activity, most likely because ones self esteem is built into leading a fulfilled and satisfying life that does require one to be a bit self-absorbed on occasion. Or, one needs to share their time and activities with significant others like family members, children, or friends in addition to one’s spouse.

What I’m trying to say in my own clumsy way is that selfishness in the extreme is what gets one in trouble, not that one is sometimes selfish. It is easy to misread “self-actualization or caring for others” as pure “selfishness.” However, there is a twist to these comparisons whereby the “selfish” and the “selfless” are sometimes hard to distinguish from one another. This is why human nature can be rather complex to understand in terms of only its face value.

Eric Hoffer, the late longshoreman, philosopher, newspaper columnist and author, said in The True Believer, “The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.”

Psychological Origin of Extreme Selfishness

Extreme selfishness is usually caused by low self esteem or some kind of childhood trauma. I believe it definitely has to do with psychological reasons especially if one is talking about having this quality at the “extreme” level.

The original source of such low self-esteem may be one’s own parents. Growing up in a family where one’s parents puts one down all the time and has to digest a constant diet of “you’re not good enough,” or you are constantly challenged by a parent that incessantly contradicts ones every word, insight, or knowledge, leads to a child manifesting a king-size inferiority complex later in life. That can spell trouble for one’s marriage later on as well.

Psychological Origin of Control Freak Behavior

In psychology-related slang, control freak is a derogatory term for a person who attempts to dictate how everything around them is done. The phrase was first used in the late 1960s, an era when great stress was laid on the principle of ‘doing one’s own thing’ and letting others do the same.

Certainly, it’s natural to want to be in control of your own life. But when you have to be in control of the people around you as well, when you literally can’t rest until you get your way … you may have a personality disorder. Controlling the behavior of others is part of a cluster of behaviors that can be labeled as compulsive. It is generally characterized by perfectionism, orderliness, workaholic tendencies, an inability to make commitments, or to trust others, and a fear that one’s flaws will be exposed.

Deep down, these people are terrified of being vulnerable. They believe they can only protect themselves by staying in control of every aspect of their lives, including their relationships. Control freaks take the need and urge to control to new heights, causing others stress so they can maintain a sense of order. These people are riddled with anxiety, fear, insecurity, and anger. They’re very critical of themselves, their lover, and their friends, but underneath that perfectionist, controlling personality is a mountain of unhappiness. Let’s look at what makes control freaks tick.

A confirmed control freak is not interested in true discussion. It’s as if they have all the truth, and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. They feel no need to examine both sides of any issue and their mind is made up before they even hear that there is another side to an issue. They circle the wagons to protect their opinions and deny even an effort at clarification, balance, compromise or understanding, to say nothing of building community with people who do not see things exactly as they do (sort of sounds like a conservative Republican, don’t you think!).

Tips for Improving Your Marriage

I mentioned in Part I of this series that the greatest need people have is companionship. The earliest anthropological data on record verifies this truth in human nature. That is, we are basically social animals and need to share our life with others. A special form of that need to share with others is the one-to-one coupling known as marriage. Make use of this knowledge about companionship to improve your marriage. Sometimes when one reads tips on how to improve their marriage they seem all to obvious; at other times, they seem to border on over-simplified  platitudes of little use to anyone.

Improving your marriage need not necessarily involve huge changes, but even the cumulative effect of small changes can make a significant difference in the quality of a relationship. Here are some Tips for improving Marriage and avoiding relationship boredom.

I view valuable tips as falling into two categories: (1) strategies for creating a more workable marital relationship, and (2) creating modern day ideas for reinforcing the companionship need in a marriage.


  1. Don’t take each other for granted.

It is a huge mistake to take your partner for granted always assuming they will be there for you. It is a kind of social dependency; our relationships don’t last forever but, while we have a marriage, it is important to work on it every day.

Take the time and make the effort to be kind, thoughtful, considerate, appreciative, supportive, and affirming toward your spouse. If you have a regular pattern of constantly disagreeing with your spouse, or contradicting his or her every word—you are not long going to remain in a relationship. Not taking your spouse for granted means three basic  things:

  • Be tuned in as to how your spouse feels and what your spouse thinks
  • Listen, don’t interupt your spouse when they’re trying to communicate with you
  • Show and tell your spouse that you love them, and do it often. I’m not kidding; this is important

2. Work Together to improve intimacy

I don’t care if an individual has passed his or her 110th birthday. Intimacy is important at every age and stage in life. Touching, caressing, holding hands, special smiling looks, and words all matter, as well as heart-pounding sexual intercourse.

No one expects sex at 70, 80, or 90 to be the same as it was at 20 or 30. But, in fact, often older couples can have just as satisfying sexual relations as their younger counterparts. And often older couples make up any loss of stamina with experience, creativity and skill. A 20’s something will possess greater sexual stamina, greater testosterone levels among men, and greater flexibility and natural lubrication among  women.

Take time to be alone together working on your intimacy. Schedule dates or romantic getaways. Some couples like date nights. Go out to dinner to your favorate restaurant. Activities outside the home can be really “cool” if well-planned.  Make out in the car; you’ll feel like 17 again. But, like every relationship, know when the timing is right and stay tuned to your partner’s moods and mental state at all times. What I’m saying is “be smart and thoughtful about this.”

Good sex however is as much mental as it is physical. It involves thinking about your partner’s needs as it does your own. When both partners are working in concert with one another, it increases the probabilty that both will achieve at the same time—you guessed it—“mental and/or physical orgasmic heaven.

3. Agree to Do Your Share of Chores Around Your Home

If you want peace, harmony and a clean, organized home, then the two of you need to work together to insure that household tasks such as keeping financial records, maintenance, shopping, yard work, planning, cleaning, cooking, child care, transportation, etc. are shared responsibilities.

Clutter around the house can create stress for both of you so talk about how both of you can routinely keep the clutter to a minimum. Partners really enjoy one another when they choose to work together.

4. Talk About Your Finances

When you have money it can come between the two of you if you haven’t talked about your financial goals, saving money, and spending money. If your budget is tight, money can create stress and division as you cope with bills and worry. Attend a financial workshop, talk with a financial planner, learn recommended ways of building a nest egg for emergencies and planning for your retirement. Discuss your finances so the two of you are on the same financial wave length.
5. Simplify Your Lives

Companionship is meaningless if it simply involves being in the same room or house as your spouse. It means doing things together in a very proactive way. For example, wisely budget your time. Think about the number of hours you each work, the amount of time you spend on hobbies or on home maintenance, and the time you want to spend with friends or extended family versus the amount of time you spend with one another.

Reevaluate how you both spend your time and consider how to simplify your lives whether you are newlyweds, a couple with children, or an empty nest couple. If you are over-worked, over extended, and over tired, you put your marriage at risk. The idea of downsizing involves more than moving to a smaller home. Downsizing is more about attitude than it is about space.

6. General Modes of Interaction

Not everyone is going to follow the following tips all the time. You’ll be successful in your relationship with your spouse if you can do the following most of the time:

Be totally honest.

Support one another’s goals and achievements.

Respect each other.

Take time to share dreams and goals on a regular basis with your spouse.

Respect each other’s alone or quiet time. Doing so will pay  many dividends of a psychological nature.

Shut the TV off sometimes. Life’s too short and interaction with your spouse directly is more difficult if you’re always off in TV land.

Laugh together (yes, even if it means at each other or yourself sometimes).

Fight fair.

Be willing to forgive.

Cultivate a great sense of humor (one of my favorite things to do)

Remember kindness towards each other is a wonderful gift. This can make up for a lot, especially if you’ve been rather busy lately.

Share your daily expectations. Say things, like I do right after getting up in the morning  (something very simple) such as “What are your plans today, dear?”


7. Children are Always Special


As parents you have a duty and responsibility to raise the self-esteem of your children throughout their lives. If you have children, agree on how to go about that task with your spouse to raise the self-esteem of your children. Be proactive and do it together. Having only one parent with this idea and the other always criticizing your children’s every thought or behavior is going to produce great stress, discontent, and simmering longterm anger in your relationship.

I’m not talking about disciplinary moments, but just general day-in and day-out social interaction with your children. Get smart folks! You don’t have to have a degree in psychology to know these things, and to actuate your responsibility in raising your children’s self-esteem. Why? Because the psychological health and well-being of your children depends on his or her self-esteem.


8.  Special Ideas

Here are a few modern day ideas and a few not-so-modern ideas for improving your relationship with your spouse (consistent with the idea that companionship is our greatest social need).

  •  Remove the TV from the bedroom
  • Play games together on your I-phones. This is a “together activity” that can be lots of fun besides the added feature that you’re doing something together.
  • Before you marry, and after you marry, there is something that is critical to your future. People’s values can change, but research has shown for decades that, by 25 years of age, a person’s values are usually set for life. Discuss honestly with your date or marriage partner what you value in life, what’s important to you. Even one’s politics can tell you a lot about them because political differences are at root—personal value differences.
  • Take up a hobby together, or if pursuing separate hobbies, attend each other’s shows, demonstrations, or award ceremonies. Praise your partner for their efforts no matter what.
  • Cook together at home when you can.
  • Go to a romantic environment and watch the sunset, waves at the seashore, or travel together in the mountains. Be alone together and relish that time—like no other.


This Blog is about marital relationships. Love each other and show it. Many years ago I asked myself an age old question, “What is love and how do you know you love someone?” Poets and philosophers have tried to answer those two questions for several centuries. The closest answer I‘ve ever been able to come up with is this: It involves two aspects of connection between you and others.

First, love is a feeling of intensity, or serene calmness, whereby you care or value your loved one’s internal feelings more than your own.

Second, there is a test for knowing when you love someone. It’s a simple test. All of us want to live life to the fullest and for as long as we can. But, if you are willing to sacrifice yourself (lose your life) and save your loved one(s) from death, you just figured out how to know you love someone. I’m not dead yet. But I know in my heart one thing is for sure. Whether I’m talking about my wife, children or grandchildren I’m more than willing to sacrifice my life for any or all those I love. Are you?

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