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Reframing Your Marriage

Reframing Your Marriage

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Both my wife and I are big fans of jigsaw puzzles. Although we haven't done a major one in years (try putting together a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle with a one-year old baby walking around), we did do more of them when we were a young(er) couple.

I remember that the first summer after we were married, we bought a beautiful, 2000 piece puzzle. It was a picture of an outdoor, circular staircase made of stone that led to a bridge, and it was surrounded by the most breathtaking flowers in varying shades of pink - just the place you would love to take a quiet, relaxing walk with your spouse.

Between work and everything, it took us about two weeks to finish the puzzle. After we glued it to the carton backing, we made our way to a frame gallery to choose the perfect frame for our first puzzle together.

It was there that I discovered something amazing.

No matter how beautiful the puzzle was, its beauty changed depending on the frame.

I thought choosing a frame would be simple. It wasn't. Some frames made the puzzle look drab, while others had colors that looked like they would match but when put up against the puzzle they clashed. Some drew so much attention to the frame that you forgot about the puzzle, and others were so nondescript that they might as well not have been there.

This experience taught me something very important. The picture you see is either enhanced or diminished according to the frame in which you put it.

This discovery has helped me tremendously since I started working in marriage counseling.

In every marriage - as in life in general - there are situations that are more pleasant and those that are less. But the degree to which we view those situations as pleasant or unpleasant depends on the frames we place around them.

This, in a nutshell, is the art of reframing.

To elaborate, reframing means to take a situation that is a given -i.e., the basic facts cannot be changed - and to control the way I react to it by viewing it in a certain way. For example, we had a family get-together the other day. A certain relative behaved somewhat distant toward me, and avoided conversation. At first, I admit, I was hurt. "I didn't do anything to him. Why is he acting so coldly?" But then I thought to myself, "Wait a minute. Since I'm absolutely sure that I didn't do anything to him, his behavior must not have anything to do with me at all. Maybe there's something bothering him. Maybe he had a rough day at work. Maybe he's not feeling well, but didn't want to disappoint the hosts and so he showed up anyway." I kept thinking of different explanations for his behavior, and lo and behold! I didn't feel hurt anymore at all.

That's the basic idea of reframing. You can do the same in your marriage. But before we start with examples, there are a couple of rules you should know about how to reframe effectively:

1) The reframe has to be real. We're not dealing with mind-tricks here. If you want to be able to use reframing effectively, then it has to be real for you. The reason I emphasize "for you" is that not every reframe will work for every person. So whether you're trying to find a reframe for yourself or you want to suggest one to your spouse, make sure that it's personally real and relevant.

2) Time-out. Some people are capable of reframing immediately; others need to calm down emotionally first. Give some thought as to what your needs and the needs of your spouse are before you start reframing. That's because, if you're a person who needs some time before you can reframe and you don't allow yourself that time, the reframing won't be effective. And if you start reframing for your spouse before he or she is ready, you'll just make them feel worse.

3) Terminology. Different words work for different people. Some enjoy "professional" terminology, and others prefer more colloquial terms. See what works for both you and your spouse. I know people who when they hear the word "reframe" they close up, but if they're told to look for new "perspectives", they're very open to the idea. On other hand, there are people who prefer the word "reframe". Again, see which words both you and your spouse prefer, and use them.

That said, here are a couple of reframing examples:

Mark and Lisa found that they were constantly getting into little mini-fights. After analyzing their interactions, it became clear that most of their quarrels centered around relatively minor, everyday things that Mark was satisfied with but Lisa was not. For example, Lisa once made lasagna for dinner, and Mark told her that it was the best lasagna he'd ever tasted. Lisa said he was just saying that, but Mark really meant it. Lisa then countered that it couldn't possibly be the best he'd ever tasted because the noodles were too soft, the eggplant wasn't layered evenly, and there was too much oregano. This went on and on, and Mark felt very discouraged that no matter what he said to compliment Lisa, it was deflected right back into his face. He found himself feeling angry, discouraged, and belittled.

One day, after another fight like this, Mark sat down to think. He realized that he was viewing Lisa's reactions as directed personally against him. He began to tell himself, "Lisa isn't trying to hurt me. She's a real perfectionist, and she wants everything she does to come out 100%. 98% isn't good enough for her. I can choose to appreciate how hard she tries and how well she does everything, and to understand that her reactions stem from her desire to be a high achiever."

The next time Mark complimented Lisa on her new outfit, and she countered by saying, "It doesn't sit well on the shoulders, and the hem is uneven," he didn't lose his cool. He calmly replied, "I understand that in your eyes, the dress isn't perfect. But I want you to know that you look perfect in it to me, regardless of any minor flaws there might be in the sewing." Lisa was so touched that tears came to her eyes, and Mark knew that he'd hit the reframe jackpot. They haven't fought once since.

Debbie found herself getting frustrated with her husband, Andrew. It's not that he wasn't a good husband; on the contrary. He was steady, dependable, responsible, and caring. But after being married for a little while, Debbie began to feel that he was a bit too steady and dependable, that there was a certain spontaneity missing. There were never any surprises, never anything out of the ordinary. Every day, Andrew left for work at the same hour, came home at the same hour, they ate dinner at the same hour and went to sleep at the same hour. It was really beginning to bug her, although she kept quiet.

One day, when Debbie was inwardly sulking about this issue, she remembered that one of the reasons she'd been so attracted to Andrew in the first place was his sense of responsibility. She herself had grown up in a home that was very spontaneous - too spontaneous, in fact - and knew that she wanted to marry a man whom she could depend on. "Well," Debbie said to herself, "you got what you wanted. Every coin has two sides, and you need to decide which side of the coin you're going to focus on." Debbie began to consciously admire and respect Andrew's character, and the sense of security it provided. In addition, one night during dinner, she turned to him and asked, "Andrew, do you like surprises?"

Andrew thought a minute. "Yeah, I guess I do, as long as they're pleasant ones."

Debbie smiled inwardly at her husband's predictable response. "I like them, too. Actually, I like them a lot. And I was thinking that, if we each surprised the other once in a while, it might really enhance our marriage. Do you think we could try it out?"

Andrew agreed, and Debbie got the best of both worlds. The steady, dependable, responsible husband she loved, and a bit of surprise and spontaneity as well.

Just in case you think that Mark, Lisa, Debbie and Andrew are made up, they're not. These are real couples who discovered the art of reframing and used it to turn potential mine fields into gold mines. You can do it, too - and you'll be surprised at how much better your marriage will become.

Reframing Your Marriage | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work - Part 2 | The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part III | The 3 Main Challenges in Marriage - Part II | The 3 Main Challenges to Marriage - Part I | See More »
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