What makes a marriage feel like a dance?


What make a marriage feel like a dance?  Couples therapists and researchers whose work I most admire — John and Julie Gottman, William Doherty. Sue JohnsonTerry Real, Michele Weiner-DavisHarville 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:

  1. A Challenging Activity That Requires Skills
  2. The Merging of Action and Awareness
  3. Clear Goals and Feedback
  4. Concentration on the Task at Hand
  5. The Paradox of Control
  6. The Loss of Self-Consciousness

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.



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