Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Mastering Marriage: Part 2

Years ago in my sabbatical from marriage counselling, after my affair, I found employment with the State of Texas. Up to that point I had remained ignorant when it came to typing or word processors. Dictaphones and secretaries had allowed me to skip learning those basic skills. However on my first day at the state when I asked, "Where's my dictaphone?" I was shocked when my boss said, “We don't have those". "You'll do your own typing". "But I don't know how to type" I told her. "You'll learn" she said confidently. You'll have a computer and I'm sure you can figure it out". "But I don't know how to use a computer" I told her. "You'll learn that too" she said and left me standing there feeling a bit overwhelmed. Thus began my introduction to the world of word processing.

To be honest I only learned what I had to. Once I was able to do what I wanted I quit taking classes to increase my skill level. And unfortunately that's true for most of us. If you needed brain surgery would you want the guy who with 5 years experience or 20? I think most of us would say 20 because we believe that 20 years of professional practice translates to a higher skill set, but research shows there's rarely a difference between the two because most professionals feel they've learned enough by 5 years and stop the necessary disciplines to improve their skill sets. I wonder how many marriages arrest their development at five years. How many of us come to the point where we're distracted by other pursuits and leave our relationships to atrophy over time?

Do great marriages or other types of elite level performers stem from dumb luck or genetic gifting? Psychologist Anders Ericsson would answer that question with a resounding "no". Ericsson has spent his academic career researching why some individuals are better at certain task than others. Why do some couples manage to thrive while others don't even survive? It just so happens that those who rise to the top do so through something as basic as deliberate practice.

As the saying goes "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. Ericsson's research clearly shows that's it's not a matter of ability, but rather a willingness to be intentional in learning. It's recognizing there's not only room for improvement, but a need to be committed to deliberate growth. Becoming a master in marriage or in a career field isn't about ability rather it's about recognizing the need to be continually practicing the art of relationship.

It's a little known fact, but most couples don't reach their sexual potential until they've been married for at least 30 years. Who would have guessed that one? We mistakenly believe that guys hit their peak in their late teens and women in their early thirties, but our sexual potential isn't about how we perform, but rather how comfortable we are with release and being one. All that’s to say it takes a like time to master relational skills. But that's not how we're taught. It's as if the whole world works against mastery. Instead of teaching the value of lifelong learning and deliberate practice we receive messages about immediate gratification. Sitcoms and movies show things working out in no more than a two hour time span, and if we have to continue repeating things, we’re slow and in need of remedial classes.

Lifelong commitments are never truly mastered in a lifetime. It’s not a matter of how well we’re doing rather it’s a matter of how well we’re doing what we’re doing. The dabbler, the obsessive and the hacker have to learn in life it isn’t about getting it right rather it’s about staying focused on doing it right and a commitment to continually practice the process of relating to one another. The dabblers, along with the obsessives, need realistic expectations. Life isn’t about a continual series of peaks; there are always valleys and plateaus on the journey. Mastery in marriage is about continuing to practice the processes even when it seems nothing is changing. If we stop practicing we can be guaranteed something will happen, atrophy. Refusing to accept mediocrity is essential for the hacker. It takes two to make a relationship and both parties need to be committed to the right thing and that right thing isn’t a great relationship. A great relationship is an outcome not a goal. To develop a great relationship you have to practice the process. It’s about practicing the behavior of respect, conflict resolution, continual analyzing how we can do it better next time.

How does one master the process of marriage? Here are a few tips:

  1. Find good instructors (and beware of bad instructors): If we knew all the answers we wouldn’t have any problems. Learn from the masters themselves. Find those who do it well and let them mentor you in the processes of relationships or find experts in the field who use research proven methods of what does and doesn’t work. Let them help you identify what you’re doing well and what areas of relating need improvement. In my opinion, Hollywood tends to be poor instructor. Portraying good relationships as an endless series of highs eliminates the reality of plateaus and the on-going need to stay committed to the process even when things aren’t going as we envisioned. If our relationships come too easily you’re tempted not to work hard.
  2. Practice: We typically think of practice as a verb. Its goal oriented like you practicing to learn to play the guitar or practicing your multiplication tables. This type of practice is separate from the rest of your life. It’s something you do to accomplish a goal. For those who want mastery however practice is a noun. It’s not something you do, but rather t’s something you have. It’s the routine that becomes an on-going part of life. Having baseline routines helps you pick up other routines. The human body creates energy by using energy. For instance being sedentary and watching television doesn’t create energy it robs us of energy and leaves us feeling lethargic. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life. Goals aren’t bad, but mastery is about maintaining a balance between life as a practice, which is goalless, and the alluring goals presented by life.
  3. Intentionality: The masters of marriage are intentional in their process. Learning becomes a way of life. They don’t assume they’ve arrived rather they have a beginner’s mind, which is open to the foolishness and awkwardness that comes with learning. Continual learning allows them to stay present to the process and aware of disconnection. The masters of marriage never assume they’ve done it right and their mate has really messed up. Looking for ways to improve how they love their mate and how to improve their responses becomes a lifelong quest. Intentionality provides a lifelong commitment to practicing the practice of marriage. Date nights aren’t done to accomplish something rather it’s part of the practice of marriage. Intentionality teaches how to enjoy the process of marriage with no specific goal in mind. It’s doing the same routine always trying to learn how to improve our interactions within that routine. Intentionality is about taking the lessons learned from good instructors and implementing those rituals and making them a lifelong practice.

As you travel down life’s road I hope you’ll become a master of marriage. Beginning to practice the practice of marriage might be a new concept, but that doesn’t make it any less critical for a great relationship. Breaking out of our homeostasis requires having that beginners mind and dedicating yourself to deliberate practice. Part of our hope at Affair Recovery is that we can impart lifelong rituals that will help you become a lifelong learner about your marriage. Are you willing to become a master of marriage?

 

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