Friday, November 30, 2012

How Marriage Works

A surgeon doesn't have to have a heart attack before he can be an expert in cardiology.

But it helps!

I am only on my second marriage. I am by no means an expert.  Besides, I'm not certain if being divorced gives me any credibility as an expert, or just the opposite.  Perhaps it doesn't signify anything at all.  In any case, I recently came across a saying that resonated with me as containing an essential truth:

A woman's greatest disappointment is discovering that men don't change.
A man's greatest disappointment is discovering that women do.

While it is a gross generalization that women frequently change their minds and constantly re-analyze their decisions, and men generally stick doggedly to a decision once they've made it, it is a generalization that bears up under scrutiny.  And it affects how marriage works, while explaining why it often doesn't.

Women (following my gross generalization) consider their habit of constantly re-evaluating their decisions to be a virtue, and one which men would do well to emulate.  As long as it is to the woman's benefit.

Men consider their dogged persistence and refusal to constantly second-guess themselves to be a virtue, and one which women would do well to emulate, except when the decision was a silly, womanish one to begin with, obviously.

So, how is it possible for anyone to have both a good marriage and a long-lasting one?  And should we assume that the two are one and the same?

"No kangaroos here - only us . . .
um . . . what are we again?"
In the introduction to this book by Marcus Buckingham, which is not about marriage at all, the author cites efforts to study successful marriage through analyzing the causes of divorce in all their variety.  Such efforts make about as much sense as a plan to study kangaroos by analyzing and cataloging each of the specific locations in the world where they do not exist.  He then tells of another effort to understand marriage by - remarkably enough - studying successful marriages!

What did they find?  That successful marriage was mostly an illusion.  Smoke and mirrors.  Oh, the people participating in them were real enough, and they were genuinely happy and in love, some into their 7th and 8th decade of wedded bliss.  But what made them that way was nothing material, and nothing that anyone in the world could not choose to have at any time:  Thoughts.

Each successfully-married person in the study had an unshakable illusion about their partner which caused them to attribute to all of their partners' words and actions only the most optimistic and loving possible motives. They genuinely believed that their partner was the best person in the world, and anything their partner said or did served only to reinforce that belief.  Confirmation bias turned useful.

And the habit of making the most charitable, positive assumptions about one's marriage partner had a feedback effect on their partners, making them more likely to do little things that reinforced their partner's illusions. Another example of the power of beliefs to actually construct one's reality.

Can only incurable, insufferable Optimists have a great marriage?  Yes. The answer is yes, and the rest of us are doomed.

No!  Just kidding!  Everyone has the option and the possibility, available to them at any moment of every day, of making themselves into an optimist, and therefore of leading a happy, long, productive and successful life.

Oh, what - is that TOO HARD?  Is your ego afraid of losing its grouchy, poor, sick and lonely identity if you accept optimistic beliefs?  Are you going to stay miserable just to keep your ego happy?  It isn't even you!  Your ego, your conditioned mind, is just someone else's discarded thoughts living in your head.

Keep in mind that optimistic beliefs are no more or less objectively valid than pessimistic ones, but have the advantage that THEY, unlike negative thoughts and pessimistic beliefs, do not cause depression, illness, divorce, poverty and early DEATH.  You have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain by focusing on the positive side of life, and making positive attributions to things that happen to you.

How is this possible?  It works because few things that happen to you are objectively good or bad.  The Mind, however, is a Meaning Making Machine, and before you can say, "Unconscious!" your brain has judged an event happening to you as having a positive or negative meaning or emotional context.  It's nothing more than a belief.  Pessimists habitually and unconsciously make negative meanings out of everything, even things that for most people would be welcome news.  Optimists automatically make positive meanings out of every possible thing, period.  Even death ("Well, at least the suspense is over!").

A pessimist could even win the lottery and STILL manage to feel bad about it ("This is going to cost me a bloody fortune in accountant's fees.").

Are you born pessimistic or optimistic?  No.  You get that way through your social conditioning.  The conditioned mind, however, gives you the illusion that your thoughts are who and what you are, and that there's nothing you can do about it.  All false!  You certainly can do something about it.  The hardest part is believing that it is possible in the first place.

Changing your own unconscious mind into one that allows you to be happy, healthy, wealthy and have an excellent and fulfilling marriage is relatively easy as long as you accept the possibility.  Getting someone else to change, however, is practically impossible, and rather ill-advised when it comes to it.

Women who aspire to change their husbands into something they believe to be more suitable can have one of two disastrous things go wrong.  The first and obvious thing that can go wrong is they can  fail entirely.  The second, and far worse thing that could happen is they might actually succeed.

When a woman tries to make her husband change in any way, the male brain interprets that as "I don't love you, you're not good enough, I'm not happy, and it's your fault."  Girls, is that what you meant to say?

If the husband complies, it is because he has low self-esteem.  If he resists, it is because he believes in himself and knows who he is.  Ladies, which would you really rather be married to?  Be honest.

But if the woman actually succeeds in making her husband change outwardly, she discovers that she isn't really all that attracted to him anymore.  He's just a slightly hairier version of herself.  Barf!

In thirteen years of marriage, my first wife changed me into something to which she was better able to relate: a sick, angry, depressed, victimized, ill-tempered pussy who wished he was dead.  When I showed signs of wanting to change back, her conditioned mind felt threatened and made her become even more emotionally abusive.  Finally, an event occurred which I once judged to be the worst moment in my life, but which I am now delighted to have experienced:  she evicted me from the family home. A year later I divorced her.

And that's how marriage works.  It isn't a guarantee, it isn't a partnership.  It isn't something you have to change for, and it isn't even two people yelling at the same kids.  Marriage is a belief about who that person really is, snoring there on the pillow next to you, what they want, and why their stuff is taking up all the space in your closet.

An optimist would see that as a good thing, and would get a beautiful feeling inside.

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