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The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work

The 5 Word Formula to Make Your Marriage Work

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It's true. There is a five word formula that can both improve a great marriage and make a difficult one work. It was coined by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in his book, Marriage (this article draws on many of his ideas). Here it is:

Don't cause pain, give pleasure.

That's all there is to it, folks. If you and your spouse can concentrate on not causing pain and on giving the other pleasure, you've got it made.

Some people will read this formula and laugh at how easy it sounds. Others will read this formula and laugh sarcastically at how impossible it sounds. It all depends on your point of view, and on your current relationship with your spouse. But whether it sounds easy or hard to implement, the truth still stands.

As kids, we used to say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." As adults, we all know how false that statement is. One of the greatest sources of pain and pleasure in marriage lies in the way we speak. So in order to make this five-word formula work, we need to talk about how to not cause pain, and the ways in which we can give pleasure instead.

Let's start with not causing pain.

There are certain situations in marriage that leave a larger opening for causing pain than others. One of these situations is when one spouse wants or needs something from the other spouse, but is not managing to get it. This can lead to feelings of "If she really cared about me, then…" and "If he really loved me as much as he says he does, he wouldn't…", and these thoughts are a direct road to saying words that inflict a lot of pain. However, very often, if the one making the request would do so in a pleasant manner to begin with, the response might be very different - or, at the very least, if the answer is still "no", it will be delivered in a manner that leaves no doubt in the requester's mind that if their spouse could have fulfilled the request, he/she would have.

Here's an example:

Kimberly loves to talk on the phone, and she spends most of her free time chatting with friends and family. Seth, her husband, understands her, and says nothing about the whopping bill that arrives in their mailbox faithfully every month. But there's one thing that annoys him. He leaves for work at 8:30 am and comes home at 7:00 pm. He loves Kimberly very much and looks forward to seeing her at the end of a long day. But almost every day, when he walks in the door, she's in the middle of a phone conversation and barely gives him a nod. Later on, when they sit down to eat dinner together, more often than not the phone rings - and Kim gets involved in a lengthy powwow that can extend long beyond the time that her husband has given up on waiting for her and finished eating by himself. Seth is very frustrated, and doesn't think it's too much to ask for Kimberly to get off the phone when he comes in, and to refrain from speaking on the phone during their dinner hour. One day, he can't take it anymore, and this is what happens:

He: You know, Kim, I've had it.

She: Had what?

He: I've had it with you being on the phone every night when I walk in, and when we eat dinner together. It just blows my fuse. Is your phone conversation always so much more important to you than I am? You don't even have the decency to say, "Seth just came in, I'll talk to you later," or "We're eating dinner, can I get back to you?"

This approach leaves a wide opening for Kimberly to shoot back with an answer of her own, and for the whole issue to escalate into a real fight. But suppose Seth had held himself back a bit, and said the following:

He: You know, Kim, there's something on my mind and I was wondering if we could discuss it. Do you have a minute?

She: Sure.

He: Kim, I love you so much. I leave the house at 8:30 and don't see you again until 7:00 pm. I come home every day, looking forward to seeing you and hearing about how your day went, but almost every time when I walk in the door, you're on the phone. The same happens every night when we're eating dinner together. I would really appreciate it if, when I come home, you could say something like, "Seth just walked in, can I call you later?" And when we're eating supper, would it be too much of an inconvenience if we turned off the ringer, or if you want to pick up the phone, to say, "We're eating dinner right now. Can I get back to you?"

Same message, but delivered without pain.

Another frequent pain-causing situation is when one spouse speaks in a way that seems perfectly normal to him/her, but which the other spouse finds annoying and even painful. Sometimes this occurs because of the different homes in which they grew up; other times, it's because one spouse really does suffer from a lack of sensitivity. Whatever the reason, one thing should be made clear: If your spouse is in pain because of something you said, DO NOT respond by saying, "What I said wasn't painful. You're just too sensitive. If you would change the way you look at things, you would save yourself a lot of pain." That's about the equivalent of throwing a heavy object at someone, and then saying that they're to blame for getting hurt because they didn't duck fast enough. If you caused your spouse pain, swallow your pride and apologize - sincerely. If you wish to explain yourself at a later opportunity, by all means do so.

Here's an example of this kind of talk:

I have a friend who grew up in a house with a lot of sarcastic humor. If a sibling tripped over something, another would say, "Wow, what a klutz!" If one person forgot something, another would comment something like, "You know, you're really young to be going senile." All of this was said in a joking tone, with goodwill, and it never occurred to anyone to get insulted by these friendly jabs.

When my friend got married, everyone told his wife how lucky she was to find someone so good-natured and warm. But it didn't take long for them to start having problems. Why? When she was late, he would say, "You know, Hortace the Tortoise had nothing on you." If she didn't hear something, he would say, "Wow, better get your hearing checked." Like I said, my friend is a very good-natured, warm-hearted person. He would have never deliberately caused his wife pain. But it didn't occur to him that, while he had grown up in a house where this type of teasing was accepted with good humor, it made his wife feel terrible. Luckily, she is a very understanding, good-hearted person as well, and it didn't take long for her to figure out what the root of the problem was. She explained it to her husband, he understood her, and they went on to build a beautiful marriage together.

There are also common expressions that people use in everyday conversation, but that can be major pain-causers if used frequently between husband and wife. Here's a list to compare:

"That's crazy" vs. "I see some problems with that theory/idea/plan."

"No one in their right mind would think that way" vs. "Maybe there's another way of looking at this."

"You couldn't be more off the mark" vs. "It seems to me that another approach might be better."

"Only a dimwit would say something like that" vs. "I hear what you're saying." But if we take a closer look at this, we might find that. . .

"I can't believe you didn't know that." If your spouse doesn't know or remember something, don't make a comment. Share the knowledge/information you know in a way that won't make your spouse feel stupid for not knowing on his/her own.

Take a look at this list, as well as the examples above. Try to test yourself - how are you accustomed to speaking to your spouse? If you find that you fall into some of the negative patterns described here, practice more positive ways of speaking. You'll be amazed at the difference in your marriage!

Stay tuned for the second part of this article - giving pleasure.

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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