Category Archives: Relationship Advice

Spring Cleaning: Your relationship needs it, too!

I get the bug every year about this time. The Spring Cleaning Bug. The pillow that falls in my face every time I open the linen closet, the pillow I would so casually crunch back onto a shelf without even a second thought, that pillow falling in my face, as of yesterday, caused groaning and cursing. Monday, when I couldn’t find the spice I wanted, I nearly dumped the whole spice drawer on the floor and started over again. Or that closet where I have extra picture frames, tools, tape, fabric, suddenly is unbearable to me. I walk around the house muttering under my breath about how much I hate that closet and how I seem to be the only person capable of cleaning out closets or keeping them organized. My husband usually pretends he doesn’t hear me muttering because if I am muttering I am not particularly rational or articulate. I start fantasizing about taking days off from work to clean out closets. I would call in sick, except I am the boss, and I don’t pay myself for sick days. Or spring cleaning days.

Spring Cleaning 2

Cleaning out the unnecessary and re-ordering the necessary is a good thing, and not just in our homes and offices. It is a good time to do some spring cleaning in our relationships and marriages as well. Is there something that has been bothering you that you’ve been able to ignore but that will inevitably make you blow your stack one of these days? Or is there a something that you walk around muttering about, under your breath, that really does need some attention?

The most common serious problems in marriage, the ones labeled by John Gottman as The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse need to be addressed as early as possible in a relationship: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.

Criticism is different from a complaint. When we criticize, we are attacking someone’s character. “You never do anything around here. You are so lazy.” Or it might sound like this: “Why don’t you ever do anything with the kids? You are so selfish.” Or this. “You have no idea how to manage money. If I wasn’t around you would spend yourself into bankruptcy.” This approach usually puts the other person on the defensive, and once that happens, not much can get resolved. So, if you truly want to try and resolve some problems, and you want to be listened to, try a soft start-up and switch to a clear complaint. “I know you are tired when you come home from work. It would really help me, though, if you could chip in during dinner prep. I feel overwhelmed in the kitchen trying to get everything done by myself.  Here’s another example: “I know you don’t like to talk about money. But I am feeling burdened with trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Could we agree on a weekly budget or a way of communicating about how much disposable income we really have?”

If criticism and defensiveness go on for too long, what will usually be seen next in one, and sometimes both people is contempt, that horrible, poisonous feeling of hatred, disgust, repulsion, and resentment that is cancerous in any relationship. And with contempt, stonewalling is often present, a complete tuning out of the other person. Stonewalling can look like completely ignoring the other person’s feeling, thoughts, or even presence. Sometimes people walk away from each other to completely avoid having to interact. The combination of contempt and stonewalling in a relationship is often deadly; the apocalypse has come.

Spring cleaning


Here are some ideas and skills to help you clean up your relationship.

1) Be mindful and present to yourself. Notice what you are feeling. Take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. Enlist a professional therapist if you need help in understanding what is going on inside of you.
2) Learn to listen. Truly listen. Abstain from planning your next statement. Pretend you are trying to get to know this person for the first time and ask inquiring, curious questions. And just listen until you feel like you have learned something about your partner.
3) Make “I-statements” about what you are feeling and thinking. “I have noticed that I am angry a lot. I don’t want to be like this and I certainly don’t want us to be angry at each other all the time.”
4) Practice appreciations and gratitude. As hard as it can be sometimes, most of us can find something we are appreciative of in a partner. Perhaps something as simple as stopping by the grocery store on the way home. Or feeding the pets before bedtime. Just a few simple words can help. Challenge yourself to speak appreciations and gratitude every day.
5) Play together. Research shows that play is a completely different state of being. Playing together changes our brain chemistry. It opens our hearts and accesses parts of ourselves and each other that are unavailable at other times.
6) Practice forgiveness. For yourself and your partner. If you don’t understand the process of forgiveness, and you find yourself nursing grudges, seek the help of your clergy or a professional counselor who can help you with this process.
7) Talk of the future. What are your dreams? What are you hoping for? What are some of the things you want to do together? Separately?

I hope your Spring cleaning goes well, whether it is in your home or in your relationships. Good luck.

Two Hundred and Two Years Of Marriage: A Group Collaboration

Over the holidays, my husband, daughter, and I participate in two “ritual” dinner parties. One is affectionately known as “The Night Before The Night Before”, (TNBTNB) and the other is our New Year’s Eve Dinner Extravaganza. (NYEDE) Because I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that these occasions would continue for decades, which they both have, neither I nor anyone else kept an accurate accounting of when these ritual dinners started. So, relying on memories, “Ok, we had it at your house when you lived in this neighborhood the first year, because I remember you had just moved in and your youngest one was recovering from chicken pox,” this is an approximation, but all participants agree it is a fairly close accounting.  TNBTNB has been happening for more than two decades, and the NYEDE is nearing three decades now,

Each year the dinner conversation is lively and intimate, but also surprising because we never know where the conversation will lead. Both events have always been intergenerational although the children have now turned into adults and are bringing friends and significant others to join in. This year, at both parties, the topic turned to the number of years of first marriages that were sitting around the table. At TNBTNB we had a cumulative 101 years from four couples each in first marriages. At the NYEDE we had 136 years of first marriage experience at the table.

Now this seems like a lot of relationship wisdom to me. So I asked the question: What do you think are the most important qualities in a lasting marriage? I have been pondering the answers ever since. While all of the answers were given and taken seriously, some are funnier than others. They all deserve sharing. Here they are.

Respect: This piece of advice came from the wife of the youngest married couple, only two years of marriage. Already, though, her relational wisdom is showing. The research shows repeatedly that respect and trust are the foundational pieces of any marriage. Without these two components, chances of a vibrant, healthy, life-giving marriage are slim.

Compromise: You have to learn to give and take. You have to remember it isn’t all about you. In a true compromise, both parties get something and both parties lose something. If you help me with the yard work this morning, I will be able to play nine holes with you this afternoon. You didn’t really want to do yard work and I did not really want to golf, but this compromise works because we are both getting something we want.

Have a spouse who travels some, or maybe a lot: Sometimes a little space is a good thing. In marriages where the personalities are very different, or if one person likes a little more space, or if one person loves being on the go, this can be a helpful piece of advice. It is quite sentimental to believe that all married couples want to be together every night of the week. This might be more true after children are grown and more independent, but I can honestly tell you that I kind of crave those nights when I can read magazines in bed and leave them lying all around me and fall asleep, reading, with the light on. I also love being able to come home to deep quiet some nights. No conversation. No noise. And just for the record, this one was not my piece of advice, but I agree.

Have a lot of sex, even when you don’t want to: Nearing thirty years of marriage, this advice came from a wise woman. Sex, while not the be-all-and-end-all of a marriage, is often the glue in married life. And while sex should never be forced, it is quite ok to have sex from a sacrificial stance; I don’t really feel like it but I know it’s important to you and ultimately to us. In sex, we are restating our commitment to somehow mysteriously become one. Oh, and it is just plain fun. And good for your brain. And your body. And your mood. So yeah, have a lot of sex. 

Sacrifice/Death of self: The man who offered this quality had trouble getting words around what he was trying to say. He was saying things like don’t sweat the little stuff, and let things go, and figure out what ditch you really want to die in. And then someone at the table offered the word. Sacrifice. And he lit up. Yes, that’s it. And then another woman at the table said, “Death of Self”, to which we, the collective table said, “Yesssss…………perfect.”

Marry your best friend: This advice was given quickly by one of the quieter members at the table of the NYEDE. But he spoke up almost immediately, which to me is a sign that he has integrated this truth into his life. “I married my best friend. That’s why we are still married.” This has some real heft to it, doesn’t it? Why? Because many couples are in what Gay and Katie Hendrix call “entanglements” rather than intimate relationships.,42

In an entanglement, a couple is not truly comfortable together. They are not each other’s best friend and so there is often a palpable level of tension. Marrying your best friend prevents being in an entanglement. 

Negotiation: Why is being able to negotiate important in a marriage? Each person needs to be able to clearly state his or her point, and this clarity of communication helps develop friendship and understanding. Being able to negotiate means you know your own position and can understand at least a portion of what your partner is saying, even if you don’t get the whole thing. Negotiation requires active listening and compromise. This is good for any relationship.

Keep a sense of humor: One of the reasons I married my husband is because he makes me laugh, and he has taught me to laugh more. Marriage can be full of comedy and tragedy, and developing the ironic and comedic eye can be an amazingly constructive and creative endeavor. It is good to be able to laugh, even in the middle of crisis. It is good to have the capacity to break up an intense moment with a clear sense of the comedic or the ironic. Read the chapter in my book entitled, Ready?, and you will see an example of how humor has helped me in my marriage. 

Have fun: “Couples that play together stay together.” Also heard as “Couples that pray together stay together.”   Playing and praying are not as far apart as they may seem. Both true play and true spirituality come from the same place in us, that place of intimacy and connection. So having fun is critical to the connection of a marriage. In small ways, dancing in the kitchen, telling jokes, laughing at a movie, playing games together, playing sports together, praying together, or visiting with friends, make sure fun is a part of your marriage. 

Create and participate in rituals: If you have been reading my blog for long, or have read my book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power Of Everyday Life,, you already know that one of my favorite ways to spend time is around a dinner table with good friends and good food. Over the years, rituals like the ones I am describing, TNBTNB and the NYEDE, have become bedrocks of our married life. I am honored to be a part of these rituals. They give life meaning on so many levels. There are many other rituals in which we participate, two of which I blogged about earlier, attending church and ballroom dancing.,

I believe rituals bind us together in ever-deepening ways. Rituals give meaning to life. They speak to the mysterious nature of this life we are trying to live.

Learn to apologize: How most of us hate to apologize! I mean a real apology. An “I’m sorry” without the necessary understanding of how you have hurt the other person can actually make the damage worse. There are components to a good apology. Learn them. I have attached them as an addendum below.

Forgiveness: I put this quality last on purpose. Married life will not be without hurt and betrayal. Even the best marriages have had their day in the trenches. Learning the process of forgiveness can be key to a lasting marriage. Forgiveness does not mean that you are pretending you weren’t hurt. Forgiveness means that you have worked through the issues or events so that they have no power in your life anymore. It’s some of the best work you can do for yourself.

So I offer you this wisdom, from a collective 202 years of first marriages. (I only added my married years once because we were at both parties, in case you are the calculating type). Let me know what you think.







What Makes For a Good Apology? Adapted from the book by Springs, J.A. and M. Springs, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To. New York: Perennial Currents, 2005.

The offender takes responsibility for the damage they caused. “I understand what I’ve done to you.”

The offender makes their apology personal. “I care about YOU, I know I hurt YOU, and I know that given your specific background, personality, history, etc, I know this would hurt you in this particular way.”

The offender makes their apology specific. Not broad brushstrokes but with fine details. “ I hurt you in these specific ways.”

The offender makes their apology deep. Because saying “I’m sorry” is so often not enough. What are you sorry for?

The apology is heartfelt. God is not interested unless our heart is in it.

The offender uses no excuses or rationalizations. The apology is clean.

The offender is capable of apologizing over and over if necessary. The hurt will come back because life will trigger the wound again.

The offender can say, “I want to earn your forgiveness and trust.”

The offender shares “Aha” moments. For example, “I use to think this, but now I know this.” Or, “Yesterday I realized again how awful this must have been for you.” Or, “watching that movie made me realize how off base I’ve been.”