Married 40 years – What Worked?

My brother and I attended a small private college in England in 1975. Over the last 43 years, about 25 of us have enjoyed getting together for reunions. This weekend we had our eighth one. We always have a wonderful time and it’s remarkable how we still think we all look the same age to each other. The conversations have shifted from new jobs, children and relationships to retirement. Life does fly by and it’s a sobering perspective to realize that although we mentally feel 22 years-old, we don’t exactly physically feel the same.

Three of the couples have been married about 40 years. Most of us didn’t make it that long. Since the family issues have become one of the main focuses of the healing process from pain, I asked both halves of each couple what was working for them. Here are their comments.

 

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Bernie and Carolyn

Bernie worked night shifts for many years and they were forced to have a lot of space in their marriage. Although there were some negatives, they felt that it was helpful in making them develop their own styles and interests. They also had a shared value system and were active in the church. They enjoyed a strong sense of community and giving back. Social isolation

Finally, they often “ignored the problem” and eventually it disappeared or “just wasn’t worth fighting about.”

Ken and Merrilee

Merrilee:

“Love them even though they change.”

She felt the honeymoon ended when her focus shifted from making her husband happy back to her happiness. “Life keeps coming at you and you just don’t have the same energy to keep giving.” She has been reconnecting to being more emotionally supportive going forward and enjoying her family more.

She shared that her daughter had a wonderful perspective in that she quit worrying about herself and concentrated on being “the wife that her husband deserves.” Without expectations, his behavior and their relationship improved. She also performed “deliberate acts of service.”

Ken:

He felt that respect for each other’s views was important. There is rarely one answer and it doesn’t have to be repeated scenarios of “win or lose.” This perspective evolved about five years into his marriage and involved better awareness and willingness to listen.

He also realized that under stress that he would remain aloof and withdraw and that sharing everything, enjoyable or unpleasant, was critical. A turning point occurred when their daughter incurred severe life-threatening injuries in a boating accident and everyone pitched in and pulled together. Shared adversity became a strong bond.

 

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Jennifer and Gary

They both shared that maintaining a sense of humor was the cornerstone of why they had thrived for so long. They just “laugh a lot.” Consequently, they don’t seem to trigger each other that much. Their main advice to their children is, “Find someone with a sense of humor.”

Shared values were also important. They cared about similar issues. Appearances and material things aren’t that important to them. They really enjoy traveling together.

Respect was also in the forefront of their relationship. They espoused being kind and treating each other and others well. “Being tired” wasn’t an excuse to behave poorly. They consciously don’t speak badly about each other to others.

Chronic pain and your family

There are many books giving marriage advice, but I was impressed how these observations reflected a lot of wisdom. Chronic pain introduces an intense angry energy into the home and the effects are consistently devastating. Every time I ask a patient’s partner about the impact, the response is strong. It’s a disaster.

Chronic pain is a legitimate reason to be angry. You’re trapped – from every direction. Why would you not be angry? The problem is that anger is destructive and the family you treasure now becomes one of the targets of your anger, even if it isn’t directly focused on them. As they react back, then it triggers your pain and there is not an end to this vicious cycle.

We are seeing tremendous success in guiding families to create structures to break up these unconscious survival patterns. They are powerful reactive survival responses that aren’t subject to rational interventions. These strategies are outlined in multiple posts in the family section of this website.

One of the most effective approaches, after the chaos has settled a bit, is to proactively recreate a life that you want beginning at home. The wisdom of these couples encapsulates this concept. It also happens to be the foundation for our three-day workshops, which are based on awareness, hope, forgiveness and play. Omega 17

Awareness

All the couples felt respect was essential, but to have it you must to be able to listen and become aware of the other person’s needs. When you’re angry, you’ve completely lost awareness. It’s crucial to be aware that you are upset and not take action while you are reacting. This one is tough and an ongoing challenge for me personally. However, anger is about your own needs and is destructive to others and relationships. You have to disengage until you can calm down and then discuss the possible solutions to the problem.

Committing to the other person’s needs or well-being also requires a keen awareness of what those might be. Awareness is the foundation of any relationship in all arenas of your life.

Hope

What were your dreams for your life and family on the day of your wedding? Why did you want to be with this person? That energy seems to be commonly crushed by life stresses for many families. One of the suggestions we make to couples is to spend an hour remembering the most enjoyable and happy times of their relationship. Most couples with pain in the family haven’t done that for a while and often find it difficult to get back to that spot. If you can’t re-connect with why you are together in the first place, then you have to really dig in and figure a few things out. You’re in a pressure cooker.

Forgiveness

This is a self-evident truth that most of us forget in the midst of relationship issues. It is easy to be judgmental of your partner’s “faults.” However, when you are judgmental you are just projecting your view of you onto someone else. When you have labeled anyone, either positively or negatively you have lost awareness and you have little or no idea who this person is, and you cannot see the world or situation through his or her eyes. All the couples had their own style of letting go and moving on. Fighting is the antithesis of love, compassion and respect. Would you talk to a stranger or fellow worker the way you talk to your partner?

My wife and I have a little saying, “Anger isn’t attractive.” It’s true. However, although it’s easy to see how unattractive the other person is in that state, it’s challenging to see how you appear to others when you are in that mode. Do you want to remain that way? Is that the way you want people to consistently perceive you? Isn’t it great to be around someone who laughs a lot? Wouldn’t you want to be that person? You can’t get there without deep forgiveness.

Play

One of the more definitive solutions to solving chronic pain is play. There is a surge of wonderful chemicals such as serotonin, GABA chemicals (Valium-like chemicals), oxytocin (the love drug) and dopamine (the pleasure hormone). As the body chemistry switches into this mode, there is a profound effect on all of your body’s organ systems and many physical symptoms resolve. Why wouldn’t you want to spend most of your time in this state? What was a common theme with all of the three couples? Actively cultivating pleasure is a learned skill and needs to be nurtured. Taking things in stride with a sense of humor is the essence of this aspect of relationships. We have been amazed at how frequently we have observed how much controversy is generated around how to load the dishwasher. That might be good starting place to step back and just laugh about how deeply we get pulled into situations of little consequence. We can do better than that.

Life is full of adversity and you can either support each other or bring each other down. I have never advocated positive thinking or enjoying adversity. However, sharing challenges together is an intense bond and it’s helpful to bring a sense of adventure and play to all of this. Challenges will always be coming at us. Without making a conscious effort, play will be pushed aside. It’s critical to be able to regenerate your energy daily.

Chronic pain infiltrates every aspect of your life – especially into your family. It appears to be one of the most powerful forces keeping you in pain. However, with relatively simple strategies, the energy can be switched to your close relationships being a wonderful connection to healing – for both you and your family.

Healing begins at home