Let’s say you are young and idealistic and haven’t been married even once. Please accept my sincere congratulations and condolences. You have emotional heights before you that I can remember only with disciplined memory. A dark and quiet room would help as well. And you have some severe challenges ahead, too, because neither your youth nor your idealism are built to last.
I know of only one way to experience and express the fireworks imagined and then expressed and then accepted and then reciprocated. I know of lots of ways to deal with the demise of those hopes and before I get into my proposal, I want to name a few of those. But today I want to describe something better than either. It is not giddy. The explosion of romantic love is a sugar high. What I am going to describe is a balanced diet; something good for year after year after year.
Some young people deal with post-romantic catastrophe by turning their love to hate, Some by plugging along in the relationship—trustworthy, don’t ya know—but no longer hoping for something better or mourning the “better” it had once been. Some transfer their real emotional and intellectual investment to something easier to control—financial derivatives or pork futures, say. There are lots of ways to deal with disappointments, but there aren’t many ways not to be disappointed in love.
I am going to describe a model of married love that I like a lot. This is a model I have some experience with and I say that not because any of my marriages (I’m ten years into my third) have been exactly like this template, but because my marriages have had moments like this. More than moments; episodes. And there will be more such episodes and when they come, they will seem familiar to me and I will stay in that “zone” as long as I can.
I am going to use names—Bette and Dale—because it is easier than “He” and “She.” But these people are not Bette and me. I am putting our names into this template as a convenience. So here’s the setup. Bette wants me to do something for her. It might be idiosyncratic, complicated or unpleasant (ICU). Whatever. I’m committed to doing this thing because I agree it is the best way to get it done, because I am grateful to her for any number of things, and because I will enjoy our common achievement—we did this together—when it’s done.
I know I can do this because I know I can count on Bette’s help. How does she help and why does it matter? She thanks me for agreeing to do this task. She explains it as well as she can, but we both know that because it is ICU (idiosyncratic, complicated, or unpleasant), it is going to be hard for me to learn it and then to internalize it. Every time I try to do this, she expresses her appreciation that I tried and also for the degree to which I succeeded. She counts on our friendship as she explains the parts that aren’t quite right.
Presumably, the next time, I do it better. Again, she thanks me for my effort and for my increased success and again points out what remains to be done. This goes on until I get it exactly right and until I have made that pattern of work my own pattern and then we celebrate what we have done; what we have achieved together. And still… every now and then…she remembers that this used to be a problem and she thanks me for my care in preventing it. “Telling the Truth” is a good idea, of course, but the truth is in the whole process, not in each statement that makes up the process.
Now I, the “template Dale,” really like this process. I wish it weren’t so ICU, but it is what it is. Bette hasn’t made it seem more onerous than it really is just to amp up her case that I should do something about it. I understand, also, that this isn’t a piece of cake for Bette. One of the things we both value, generally speaking, is authentic expression. Bette has chosen to forego that for a while because “strategic expression”—that’s what all that thanking and explaining is— is going to get the job done better and faster and with less collateral damage. I know giving up the feel-it say-it model is a sacrifice for her.
Besides, I like to be recognized for what I am doing, especially if it is difficult or onerous. There are different “love languages” as Gary Chapman says and what I like best is a style Chapman calls “words of affirmation.” I call it “rich language.” It is the way of expressing love and respect that goes right to my heart and that gives me the resource base to do gladly what I would otherwise be able to do only dutifully. Or that I would regularly “forget” to do at all.
Neither the template Bette nor the template Dale looks very good in this caricature. I look like a puppet; Bette looks like a puppet-master. I look credulous and naive; Bette looks manipulative and insincere. If we were actually those templates instead of the actual people we are, we would have to acknowledge, when criticized, that the whole deal looks bad. I don’t think it really is bad, however, because we know what we are doing and we don’t do it all the time and we like the results. These two young lovers are not us, obviously, but they don’t have pictures of people our age saying “Thank you.”
So there’s the puppet master problem. Besides that, I am guessing that some of you think this is a lot of fuss to make about the simple process by which people adjust to each other, That is what the actual Bette thinks about how I describe the process. She calls is hyper-processing. Here’s why I don’t agree.
First, the easiest response the template Dale might make is to deny that there is anything that needs to be done. It isn’t “that bad,” he might say. Or he might point out that resolving it is impossible because the problem itself is idiosyncratic. Denial comes in lots of flavors.
Second, for the work to continue in the way I have described it, it will need to be focused on for a long time. Dale will have to “pay attention” and he knows how well chosen the “pay” part of that expression is. It is a common thing for someone in his position to agree that there is an issue, to agree to do something about it, and then just to wander off. He isn’t really avoiding it; he is just refusing to do the work of keeping it in focus. It would cost too much to do that, he might say, picking up the “pay” metaphor without thinking about it.
Third, for incremental improvement to be made, he will have to keep trying and will have to accept the guidance Bette is offering him. “Rats!” he might think, “I failed again!” But the guidance, which is necessary if improvements are to be made, comes with the appreciation, which is.. .um. . .necessary if improvements are to be made.
The solution to these common difficulties is the same solution. Dale—this template guy, not me—needs to take Bette’s word for it—the template Bette, not my real wife—that this really matters. It will be easier to do if he knows she will support his efforts at every point. She will not seem exasperated even if she is; she will be generous and appreciative of his efforts no matter how she is feeling. Dale gets her appreciation for remembering that it is important, for attempting to accomplish it, and for making incremental improvements. Dale gets to look forward to the successful completion of the process, which will be treated as a win for the team, not the triumph of one person over the other.
That’s a pretty good solution, you have to admit. On the other hand, it isn’t for beginners. Here’s why.
- You have to know what you are doing.
- You have to be able to play your part, confident that your partner is playing hers.
- You have to be willing to pay the price. It isn’t a high price compared with the value of the achievement, but the achievement is not until then and the price is right now.
- You have to be willing to privilege the account you and your partner are using over the different understandings of the process that others might have.
- You have to really care about the ultimate success and to commit to celebrating it together.
So it isn’t easy. On the other hand, it works. The goal of mutual adaptation is a commonplace in any marriage. This is just the style we use. And not only does it work, but the reasons it works, make sense. And besides, what is the alternative?
Here is a set of alternatives I cribbed from a book on social power. You can overcome your partner and take what you want. I think we can rule that one out as not fitting the kind of marriage we are talking about. You can trade for it. That’s really common and a lot of people take it for granted in marriage. Tit for tat, I call it, meaning nothing really salacious. It’s not a bad solution if there is nothing better. I am arguing in this essay that there is something better. You can resolve to do without the resource the other person has. I’ve seen that in a lot of marriages that are on autopilot or that are coming apart. Finally, you can get “it,” the crucial resource, somewhere else. I know that sounds like outsourcing your sex life, but it could just be outsourcing your house cleaning or your yard work or your management of the kids.
All in all, I don’t like those. There are, after all, things you can outsource and things you can’t and all of the other “solutions” are ones I don’t like.
So I have an idea. Let’s do it my way.
 Yup. Did it on purpose.
 See Appeciative Motivation, Vol.3. Just kidding about Vol 3. My piece on appreciative motivation is only a short essay, but it meant a great deal to us 10 years ago when we were trying to get to know each other. Note: This “template Bette” is not a model of consistency. What was ‘right” on the third try might have been superseded by some new notion by the fourth try. That’s fine. She’s gentle and I’m patient.
 “Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages. Bette introduced me to this book. It’s a very simple notion and anyone who has ever made a living selling things understands it at such a deep level that it seems pointless to form it into words and say it out loud. It is that if you want someone to understand what you are saying, you should language “speak” it in a language that person understands. Period. That’s the whole book. Amazing how hard it is to remember all the time.
 ‘I call that specific flavor of denial “that control.”
 Peter Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life. I’ve never seen it applied to a marriage situation, but as I think about it, it works pretty well.