How To Stay Married/Partnered/In Love

By Vicki Elson, MA, CCE, CD Feel free to copy this.

Imagine your perfect mate. The sex appeal of your favorite movie star. The skills of a celebrity chef, an expert massage therapist, a master builder, a sensitive counselor, a professional housecleaner, and an amateur comedian, all rolled into one. The net worth of Oprah. The humility of Gandhi. Throw in your particular cravings – a world-class sailor? a successful activist? a stunt pilot? a cat lover? This perfect person, free of emotional baggage, is utterly devoted to your happiness. Your darling does not snore, and would no sooner leave a wet towel on the floor than fly to the moon.

Mine is named Sven. Sven does not exist. 

My real life-partner, the father of my children, the man I do dishes and pay bills and pull weeds with, is wonderful. But, unlike Sven, he’s allergic to cats, among other things. If I compare him to Sven, I might be disappointed, and he might start comparing me to his own imaginary goddess-wife, whose sparkling charms would outshine mine in a heartbeat.

My grandmother-in-law summed it up thus, in her inimitable Yiddish accent: “Don’t look for poyfect, you won’t find.”

There are exactly three reasons I’m still married to not-Sven (it’s been 28 years) and I plan to stay that way – and by the way, it keeps getting better.

1. I chose a mate with good values and great potential.

2. The grandkids named us “Nermie” and “Derpa,” and it’s impossible not to love someone called “Derpa.”

3. We read one really great book when the going was rough, and it saved us. The book helped us to acknowledge that, like all humans, we were not born with perfect relationship abilities. We came to understand how our parents’ styles of relating to one another are not appropriate for our generation, nor for our own particular quirks. And we learned a whole new set of skills.

The book is called The New Rules of Marriage, by Terrence Real. You could, if you are very wealthy, hire Terry to counsel you himself, and I’m sure it would be worth it. You could, for the cost of ordinary marriage counseling, hire one of his protégés, and it would be wonderful. But he has done such an excellent job of distilling the wisdom of generations of smart, passionate, and enlightened family therapists into one small and reader-friendly book that you might want to start there for fifteen bucks.

Like all self-help books, there’s a wisp of self-promotion, but in this case I think it’s worth promoting. (By the way, I have no connection with Terry Real whatsoever, other than having read his book. I also listened to a recording he made on the same topic, and it was pretty good, but it wasn’t as useful as the book.)

We read the book, my sweetheart and I, and grudgingly realized that we were making all the classic mistakes: trying to change and control one another, “expressing” ourselves in ways that did not serve our love, subtly retaliating for hurts, withdrawing into dissatisfied “acceptance,” and, worst of all, insisting that we were “right” and making that the most important thing.

Well, you can be right, or you can be married.

We are products of our culture, and the culture has been shifting under our feet, faster and faster. Gender roles are shifting. Roles in the family and in the workplace are shifting. Divorce is commonplace, with its attendant economic and childrearing difficulties. If we are to maintain healthy, happy relationships, we have to choose good partners, heal past traumas and addictions, eliminate verbal and physical violence, and learn, as Terry says, “full respect living…assertiveness in a manner that cherishes your partner and helps him [or her] succeed, thereby empowering both of you.”

In my grandparents’ day, women’s “disempowered acquiescence” resulted in scenarios like this…

She (muttering to herself): Darn it, he left a big pile of sticky dishes for me again. Oh well, he makes the money and he doesn’t hit me, so I’ll just wash these.

He (muttering to himself): I wonder why she never wants to make love with me.

In my parents’ day, women discovered “personal empowerment.” But that often came packaged with the mistake of what Terry calls “unbridled self-expression.” Now we had something like this…

She (at top of lungs): You always leave me the sticky dishes, you insensitive jerk! You men are all alike.

He: Like YOU never left a dish in the sink? …or…
He: You’re such a b____! …or…
He: I’m outta here. I can find somebody else. …or…
He: Now just calm down and talk to me when you’re sane.

Now we are less constrained by traditional gender roles, but still not very smart about which is more destructive, “empowerment” or “acceptance.” We need skills.

What might the same scenario look like for sincere people who have read Terry’s book and agreed to abide by some new rules? What if we knew how to be “moderate and respectful, not backing down” as we “stand firm and mean it?” There’s a script that my honey and I have gotten used to, which goes something like this:

Partner #1 (the one who is currently dissatisfied): Take some breaths. Remember that you theoretically love this person. Ask if this is a good time to talk. Say what you noticed. Say what story you told yourself. Say how you made yourself feel. Ask for what you want.

Partner #2: Keep mouth shut. Keep mouth shut. Keep mouth shut. Acknowledge what you feel you can. Learn about your partner with curiosity and cherishing. Apologize if necessary.

My sweetie and I have to admit that this felt annoyingly unnatural and fake at first. Here’s an example…

#1 (taking a couple of deep breaths and trying to remember that s/he supposedly loves #2): Hey honey, I need to check in about something. Is this a good time?

#2: Sure, what’s up?

#1: Well, when I got home from work today I noticed that there were sticky dishes in the sink from this morning.

#2 (listening attentively with mouth CLOSED): Mmm.

#1: The story I told myself was that if I have to spend my life doing your dishes I’ll never have time for the things I care about most. I told myself a story that you have never valued my time, that you think I’m your mother/father/servant, that you’ll always take me for granted, that it was stupid to marry you, and that it’ll only get worse unless I fix you right now.

#2 (listening attentively with mouth still closed): Mmm.

#1: The way I made myself feel was angry, resentful, afraid, and…and…like I wanted to yell and put the dirty dishes under the blankets on your side of the bed.

#2 (listening attentively with mouth spectacularly still closed): Mmm.

#1: What I want is for you to be a little more conscious about your dishes.

#2 (opening mouth at last): I’m really sorry about the dishes. I was in such a rush, and I wasn’t thinking about how sticky they’d get. I can see how that was really annoying.

#1: Thanks for understanding. (They kiss.)

(#2 gets bonus points, and probably even more kisses, if s/he continues thus: I’m sorry I left them and I’m sorry I didn’t clean them up when I got home. I’ll try not to do that again. And I’m glad you did marry me. Thanks for being brave and telling me what was on your mind. I love the image of the dishes in the bed – you’re so creative!)

What did you think of that “the story I told myself” part? We thought it was pretty radical, after a lifetime of “what really happened.” I think there is tremendous benefit in acknowledging that we are always telling ourselves stories and making ourselves feel things, even if we never tell our partners about them, even if we don’t HAVE partners. Stories are stories, not necessarily facts, and understanding that leads to sanity and peace. I think our real selves live quietly in the space between the stories. As the bumper sticker says, “DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK.”

Here’s something even more radical. Terry says: “We are drawn to people whose issues fit perfectly with our own in a way that guarantees a reenactment of the old, familiar struggles we grew up with…the mad, inspired thing about real love is that we all marry our unfinished business…And we think we’re the only ones who do!…You may think that a good relationship doesn’t bring up to the surface every hurt and anger you’ve ever carried inside. But it does. Rule: A good relationship is not one in which the raw parts of ourselves are avoided. A good relationship is one in which they are handled. And a great relationship is one in which they are healed.”

So we chip away, year after year, learning to cop to our stories and cherish each other. I’d be lying if I said that my beloved and I are the world’s experts at Terry’s method. Especially in the early days, we were stuck in what we called Dueling Stories, each of us still insisting that we were the sole owners of objective reality. It was hard for both of us to follow the rules all the time, especially that pesky rule about keeping our mouths shut till it was our turn.

It’s still hard sometimes, but we’re learning that at any moment, either of us can instantly become the “relational hero” who listens well and doesn’t need to be right. The results are refreshing.

When we lose our tempers, we try to remember that once the amygdala (a primitive part of the brain) gets activated and the hot temper overrides the sensible frontal lobes, it takes several minutes just for the brain chemistry to settle back down. We try to take some space when that happens, but not the old way (smug, “mature,” “self-controlled” silence, or slamming doors and driving away much too fast with no indication of when, or if, we might return). We follow Terry’s suggestion for a better way to wait out the amygdala: “responsible leave-taking” is saying where we’re going and when we’ll check back in.

We are committed to the relationship, so we’re each learning to be a little more generous, a little more heroic, and a little less right. It takes work. And the payoff is much more quality, connection, and enjoyment than I ever thought possible.

I’m just scratching the surface here – the book is full of stuff you can use today for any relationship, with your partner or with anybody else. There are chapters on healthy boundaries, healthy self-esteem, and why you have the same fight over and over again. If you read the book and your partner doesn’t, you’ll still be gaining skills and insights to move both of you closer to better communication and probably more satisfying intimacy, and that will blow your partner’s mind.


  1. How ever did you know that this was the perfect day for me to read about this? Thanks!

  2. Very helpful! Thanks, Vicki!

  3. Jenn

    Thanks Vicki! You don’t know how timely this posting is for me. I really needed to read these words & apparently read this book. Thanks again.

  4. Thanks, Vicky. We needed this today!

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