All Stories Start at the Beginning
(Provided by How to Stop Your Divorce)

Theorists suggest that personality development is 30% nature and 70% nurture. That is to say, our genetics are 30 % responsible for who we are. The other 70% is the result of what has happened to us as we have lived our lives. Consequently, our behavior, what we expect and how we view the world is largely the result of our past experiences. The past does impact the present in terms of relationships.

During our initial session, Michael and Nancy each shared important aspects of their individual histories. As a marriage counselor, these revelations were key to understanding the dynamics of this couple’s relationship. At least, they provided clues as to areas for further investigation.

Regarding Michael’s previous marriage, you will recall that he did not provide details regarding about how his first relationship ended. He could not say who was the first to leave the relationship emotionally. As a counselor, I wondered if he was unwilling or unable to disclose more. If he was unwilling, I wondered why? Was he still feeling some pain about this early loss? Was he embarrassed? Is this why he dismissed it as “no big deal?”

Perhaps Michael was simply unable to disclose more information. If this were the case, it could be true that he didn’t understand relationships very well. Was it possible that there were similarities between his first and second marriages? Was he repeating the same patterns, making the same mistakes?

More importantly, what had Michael learned about marriage and divorce? If his spouse had been the first to leave, had he been so wounded that his tolerance for discomfort was limited? On the other hand, if Michael was the first to leave his previous marriage had he learned that one simply leaves when things become difficult? Answers to any of these questions had a direct bearing on Michael’s relationship with Nancy. Certainly Michael’s past had an effect on his present situation.

Nancy’s story included her parents’ “perfect marriage.” There is no reason to doubt that her parents’ marriage was good, but there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. The prerequisite for a perfect marriage is two perfect people! Perfect people do not exist. So, how does Nancy’s view of her own history impact her present relationship with Michael? Did she set the bar too high? Did she expect perfection? Was she intolerant of anything less than perfection? These were important issues to explore.

One thing is for sure, if Nancy never saw her parents fight, she had no idea about how to effectively resolve conflicts. We can be sure that her parents had occasional disagreements with one another. If what she said was true, they most likely handled their conflicts in private. Some parents believe in error that children should never be exposed to parental disagreement. By doing so, Nancy’s parents had deprived her from the opportunity to learn how to effectively manage conflicts. How much better equipped for marriage – and life – would Nancy have been if she had learned to resolve conflict?

Nancy also said that she had difficulty telling her parents about her and Michael’s problems because she feared their disapproval and criticism. I wondered if Nancy was plagued by parental expectations? To what degree were her parents involved in her life? Were they a support or an obstacle to the marriage? Did this fear of disapproval cause her to avoid or deny problems so that she too could be “perfect?” Certainly Nancy’s past had an effect on her present situation.

You may want to explore answering some questions regarding your own history in order to better understand your current marital situation. To clarify your thinking you may wish to write your answers out on paper or in a journal.

If you have been previously married:
1. How does your current marriage resemble previous relationship(s)?
2. How are they different?
3. What did you learn about marriage from your previous relationship(s) that helps you in your current marriage?
4. What did you learn about marriage from your previous relationship that hinders you in your current marriage??

The first marriage that any of us ever observe is our parents’. From their example, we can learn what to do and what not to do in our own marriages.

1. How does your marriage compare with your parents’?
2. What is the same?
3. What is different?
4. What did you learn about resolving marital conflicts from your parents that is helpful?
5. What is unhelpful?
It takes two to have a problem.

One of Michael and Nancy’s relationship problems was that both had a tendency to defend themselves to the teeth. Neither was willing to listen to the other’s assessment of their shared problem. Neither was willing to own any degree of personal responsibility for the problem. When we say things like “that’s your problem”, it seems as if they believed that one person alone could have a relationship problem.

In reality, it always takes two people to have a relationship problem. To illustrate this point, think about what your life might be like if you lived alone on a desert island in some remote part of the world. Essentially, you could do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted and would be conflict free. Suppose that you liked to play the music of your choice at top volume 24 hours a day. No problem! Suppose that you wanted to chew your food with your mouth open. No problem! Suppose that you wanted to drive down the middle of the road at just five miles an hour. No problem! There is nothing intrinsically right or wrong with loud music, poor dining habits or an odd driving style. Such behavior is a matter of personal choice. With no one to bother, you could do whatever you wanted.

Now suppose that after being used to your solitude, you obtained a next-door neighbor with whom you were required to interact on a regular basis. Suddenly, all of the behavior mentioned above could be problematic. If your neighbor were of the same mind, the two of you would get along quite well. On the other hand, if this other person did not like your music, objected to your table manners or liked to drive a bit faster without fear of colliding with you, the potential for conflict would increase. This would depend on the preferences of your new neighbor.

That being said, it is important that we listen to our spouse’s differing opinions. We need to avoid being defensive. If you are the recipient of complaints from your spouse, hear them out. It is important to realize that in most cases you are not being accused of committing some gross moral wrong. What your spouse may identify as a problem may merely be a conflict of differing personal preferences. If they say, “I have a problem” you can believe that what they are saying is true. Their comment is not intended to hurt you. They would be saying the same thing to anyone else with which they were in relationship. So, make every attempt not to take what they are saying as personal. It is in your best interest to find out what they have to say and understand their complaint. Only then can you begin to negotiate with your spouse and find a resolution. Most problems can be solved.

If you are the person identifying problem behavior, avoid condemnation. Remember, if you weren’t there, your spouse would not be having a problem all by himself or herself. What may seem intolerable to you is simply another person’s preference. Remember too that in most cases your spouse’s behavior is not designed solely for the purpose of making your life miserable. Be careful not to take the “high moral ground.” If the conflict does not involve some intrinsically moral issue, your opinion is no more valid than your spouse’s.

So, etch these basic principles in your mind. You may find it helpful to write them down or at least post them in a place where you will frequently see them as reminders.

1. It takes two to have a relationship problem.
2. Differences of opinion/preferences are normal.
3. There is no need to be defensive when receiving feedback from your partner. You are not being accused of moral wrongdoing.
4. Avoid making accusations
5. Your preference is no more valid than that of your spouse.

Information provided by:
How to Stop Your Divorce

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