A note from the author: I’ve been writing here for a while, but today I’m excited to embark on a new kind of sharing. We’re kicking off a column called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.
There are a handful of consistent complaints that couples bring into my office when seeking therapy. Often they’ll say, “We’re really bad at communication” or “We don’t do conflict well” or even “We’re pretty much just roommates.” Most often they’ve slipped into predictable, comfortable patterns that don’t require much work and ultimately lead them to complacency. If you want to prevent these drifts into passivity, you must decide to be married on purpose.
An Intentional Marriage is a beautiful thing. It’s marked by strong connection, an ability to engage conflict with courage and compassion, and the joy and creativity of moving through life together.
In order to build an Intentional Marriage, you have to have the right tools. That’s another common complaint from couples: “We don’t have tools.” I call b.s. You definitely already have tools. Or you already have some of them. For the most part, you know how to be in healthy, mature, mutually gratifying relationships. You do that at work. You do it with the friends you’ve had since high school. You do that with strangers you meet at parties.
But with your spouse, the rules change. The tools change. The tools you already have need sharpening. Or you need to upgrade.
If you’re serious about an Intentional Marriage, the first tool you need in your toolbox is a Common Enemy. You might be more comfortable calling it a Common Goal, but what matters most is that you have a sense of “we-ness” as you move through time together. I prefer Common Enemy simply because uniting against a threat together is an extremely powerful motivation. I’m often awed by stories of soldiers in wartime who, despite being from dramatically different backgrounds, call each other “brother” when tested in battle together.
Your relationship is a thing that needs protecting. And threats are everywhere. There’s the stress and strain of work. Unstated, and unmet, expectations. The memory of your high school sweetheart. His anxiety about finances. Her parents. Your phone. Your children. (Yes, even your children are a threat to your relationship.) Couples who recognize and unite against these threats have a much stronger chance for success than those who allow these things—consciously or not—to gain a foothold in the relationship.
What happens most often is that the partner gets lumped in with the threat. “Our financial problems are because you don’t make enough money.” “You’re more interested in your screen than you are in me.” Or one partner may actually choose to side with the enemy as a way to cope with the relationship. We all know stories of prioritizing work over dinner with the family—even if it’s “for the family.” You may choose an extra cocktail after work to avoid that important conversation. In parenting, it’s called triangulation—when one parent leverages the child for his or her own agenda against the other parent.
Adopting a Common Enemy mentality can help create unity against these threats. An early research study in couples therapy conducted by Bob Levenson tested several prescribed interventions designed to lead toward increased satisfaction and intimacy for couples. The study revealed that none of the interventions had any discernible impact on the outcome. The only thing that did lead to greater couple health was something that wasn’t prescribed at all. The couples who were thriving at the end of the study had all come up with their own strategies for protecting the relationship against external stress. They made stress their Common Enemy and worked to buffer the relationship from its effects.
It almost doesn’t matter what the strategies are. What matters is that you can identify the stressors as external to the relationship and unite with your partner to resist them. Your Common Enemy can be something tangible, such as an unfair boss, a nagging in-law, or an addictive substance. Or it can be something more obscure.
Dr. John Gottman has identified four toxic behaviors that can lead to relationship demise: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I love that he has personified them. You can almost see them riding into your conflict designed to create a wedge between you and your partner. In your search for a Common Enemy, you can start there. Decide today that you will not allow those behaviors to take root in your relationship. Imagine literally protecting your home from these invaders. Again, uniting against this or any threat together can be a great way to foster your connection.
If a Common Enemy is not appealing, you might declare a Common Goal. In this case, I’d encourage you to make it based on values. What will your relationship ultimately be about? Hospitality? Generosity? Adventure? Having a clear value that guides your choices and shapes your identity is the beginning of living intentionally. Your clear Common Goal will also give you an idea of where to look for threats.
As this column unfolds, I’ll look forward to giving you lots of practical tools for an Intentional Marriage, but it’s critical that you start with a mindset of unity. Having an Intentional Marriage requires you to do things on purpose, and I hope that you’ll be inspired to make some changes in your relationship. For now I encourage you to identify your Common Enemy. Perhaps you can try uniting against an Accidental Marriage?