Five Mistakes I Make in My Marriage

How to be happier.
June 17 2009 10:02 AM

Five Mistakes I Make in My Marriage

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: Five big mistakes I make in my marriage, and how I try to address them.

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One of the main 12 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 and my happiness.

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When I started my happiness project, and I reflected about the changes I wanted to make—as well as the resolutions I wanted to keep in order to bring about those changes—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:

1. My demand for 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.

I figured out a good strategy. 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 m yself , he doesn’t have to notice. This sounds like a more self-centered approach, but it’s really much better.

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 haven’t made much headway here.

3. Getting angry about a fixed trait . This is very, very tough. One of the things I’ve learned from my happiness project is that you can’t change anyone but yourself, and while there are some things I’d love to change about my husband, those things aren’t going to change. He isn’t going to get better about answering my e-mails. He is going to keep making rich desserts that tempt me. Etc. Instead of getting all worked up, as I often do, I’m trying to remind myself of  how small  his flaws are, in the scheme of things.

4. Score-keeping . 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.

First, I remind myself of the phenomenon of unconscious overclaiming ; 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 organizing babysitting or paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car or grocery shopping. It’s easy to see that overclaiming 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 no. 4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws (see no. 3). 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.

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.

What are some mistakes you make in your marriage or long-term relationship? Have you found any great strategies for addressing them?

* I had a great time doing an interview with the very funny Rob Sachs of NPR's What Would Rob Do? about how to make conversation with strangers (he'd seen my post on that topic).

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 24,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or e-mail me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about that weird format—trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write "newsletter" in the subject line. It’s free.

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