One reason I see marriages going stale (or blowing up) is that partners get caught up in the shopping mentality. I don’t mean too many mall trips. I’m talking about the idea that you find The One, bring him or her home, and the relationship just keeps running for decades, like a Volvo. Choosing a partner is just the beginning. I want to say it’s like getting your hands on a well-designed junker and then tinkering with it in the driveway for a couple of decades until it’s humming, but maybe that’s a discouraging way to describe marriage as a creative process, which is great news.
Let’s go back to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s ideas about flow. (Find my two previous posts on this topic here and here.) Two more elements of flow, says Dr. C.: Clear Goals and Feedback; and Concentration on the Task at Hand. If you usually think of flow as being on autopilot, or as just letting things happen, neither of those elements sounds very “flowing,” does it? Instead they are both about getting clear on what you’re aiming for and focusing hard to get there.
That kind of goal-centered awareness keeps a marriage moving forward. Some marriage experts recommend partners create a mission statement. Asking yourself and each other, “What kind of life do we want to build?” is helpful, but I also like a more dynamic approach that lets us learn from bumps and breakdowns. So more often I ask people to take a step back and incorporate into regular conversation what makes them special as a couple. Do a weekly check-in on one or two of these questions: When do you enjoy yourselves most? When do you enjoy each other? What really matters to you? What do you hope to gain from tough times? What aspect of your relationship are you working on right now? How can you do it more effectively?
“I’ve been super supportive during your deal,” Sarah, a tax accountant, told her husband, John, an attorney who was calling from his office at midnight. “I want you to admit that last year during my busy season you didn’t step up to the plate.” Not surprisingly, John refused to “admit” anything and they hung up angry.
Sarah had gone the Fast Marriage route: No attention to whether her hasty late-night phone demand was likely to elicit a meaningful response. No focus on results. By comparing John’s behavior unfavorably to her own, she’d resorted to taking the moral high ground — never a promising way to engage a partner. Sarah was feeling the pain of a relationship wound that needed healing, but raising it this way wasn’t going to accomplish that.
Let’s take a Slow Marriage approach:
Which brings us to the #2 element in Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s analysis of flow: The Merging of Action and Awareness. When we just criticize our partner, we are highly aware of what we’re feeling. But awareness without action is just complaining. It’s like an awkward dance or a bad golf swing. No flow. By telling John about her hurt and letting him know what she’d like in the future, Sarah is both aware of her relationship wound and taking action to heal it, She’s changed their dance step. Flow.
What make a marriage feel like a dance? Couples therapists and researchers whose work I most admire — John and Julie Gottman, William Doherty. Sue Johnson, Terry Real, Michele Weiner-Davis, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, and Ellen Bader and Peter Pearson — have offered cogent, helpful answers. On the shoulders of giants, I’m interested in a particular way of viewing the question. Here on the Slow Marriage blog I’ll explore the impact of time as a silent partner in every marriage. The more we deepen our awareness of time, the more we connect to each other. It”s a lot like dancing.
Think about it. Time slows down when you’re dancing; you’re counting beats, and yet, when all goes well, you lose track. You let go. In a landmark book Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the Hungarian professor who founded the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University — called that paradoxical experience “flow.”
Dr. C. described in detail the kind of optimal experiences we all discover when we first fall in love. Time with our beloved seems to last forever, we lose ourselves in the experience, we feel as though the gods have smiled on us. Powerful.
As a marriage counselor, I always ask couples to tell me how they met. If they turn to each other and their eyes light up and they tell me about long walks and leisurely conversations, I know that even in long-married couples, those memories are likely to be vivid enough to see them through the hard work of repairing their relationship. Together they’ve experienced flow.
Often couples think they need to solve all their problems before they’ll find that flow again. Not so. Actually, getting into that flow gives them a running start when they need to tackle tough stuff. Flow is just as much as cause of marriage happiness as it is an effect.
So how do we find that flow? There are 6 elements, wrote Dr. C., in this kind of pleasure:
For today let’s take a look at the first element, A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills. Dr. C. notes that most of these optimal or peak experiences happen “within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules.” These activities “require the investment of psychic energy, and…could not be done without the appropriate skills.” Sports and games are an obvious example, but Dr. C.points out that flow can happen in any pursuit that demands a “fine balancing of challenges and skills.”
Would many people put marriage in that category?
Often I find that couples who come to see me believe that their partner should automatically be their best friend. Or they tell me that it “shouldn’t be this hard.” When things are really bad they just want to explain in exquisite detail exactly how all the problems in their marriage are their partner’s fault.
Thinking of marriage as A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills means recognizing that with training and practice, a relationship improves over time. Like trained dancers, we turn and dip instead of stepping on each other’s toes. Over the years, we learn a few things. We grow.
Has an older person in your life ever told you that? Why not ask a long-married couple in your family or neighborhood about their experience? We have quite a bit of research to say it’s true.
More on Dr. C’s flow criteria next time.