You know the cringe-worthy old married couple who openly bicker about each other in front of other people? Perhaps one of them is telling a story “for the millionth time” or the other remembers it differently and jumps in to correct the details. The first one takes offense and says something snarky. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room is looking at their watches or trying to figure out an excuse to be somewhere–anywhere else. As you date and consider marriage, I hope you will intentionally and affirmatively work to create relationships that do not end up as bickering or even hostile.
Remember when you were young and in love and your former loved one could do no wrong? Remember how glowingly you spoke about him or her to other people? How does a couple “grow” from that idealistic young love to a bickering old married couple that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable and embarrasses themselves? Think about the way you have sometimes talked about your former spouse, and you may have your answer.
After a couple has been together for a significant time, they often start to notice little things about each other that annoy them. These aren’t matters of any real consequence. They are matters of personal preference. Cathy can’t stand the voice on my GPS app. I think it’s funny. Who is right? We both are. The truth about the character and quality of the voice is completely in the eye of the beholder. We could bicker about it, or we could just agree that I’ll use the app but turn it down when Cathy is in the car.
Any annoyance we have about those little things that irritate us is our own. And the enjoyment of the same thing is also our own. Most of the things couples publicly bicker about are just that way. John and Julie Gottman say the number one thing couples argue about is “nothing.” The arguments are actually about trying to achieve happiness by controlling those around us instead of managing our own minds. If we understand that our feelings originate inside us, it is easier to take responsibility for them and master them.
You have never heard about my trivial disagreement with Cathy about my GPS voice because we don’t typically air such things in public. I am only doing so now to illustrate that many things we feel very sure about are often just matters of opinion and no one needs to be wrong about them. And even when they aren’t just matters of opinion (like the factual details of a story one of them is telling), does it really matter that much? Does it matter to the other people in the room that it was Phil and not Robert that said that funny thing at dinner one night? Do you really think your partner needs to be corrected about it?
My advice is not to become your partner’s censor and editor. The old “you are a reflection on me” excuse to become controlling doesn’t really work. Remove it from your lexicon. Let your partner speak for himself or herself. In fact, defend him or her if others say critical things about him or her in your presence.
Letting your partner speak for himself or herself isn’t just about other people and their comfort. While the comfort of others is important, and many people are blind to it as they are fighting out the meaningless battles of their relationship, there is a much deeper principle involved. Whose approval do you want the most? Who is your number one audience? Does it bother you to send the message to your partner that he or she is embarrassing to you? If your number one audience isn’t your partner, your priorities are out of place. Some people are, perhaps, so secure in their partners’ approval that they feel free to neglect their partners’ feelings to please other people that ought to be lower on your totem pole.
Am I saying you should bite your tongue? That’s exactly what I’m saying. Don’t say or do things that convey disapproval of your partner in public. Period. 99.9 percent of the time, if it even matters, it can wait until later to be discussed in private. There is almost never a reason to correct or criticize your partner in public. Instead, I suggest that you build him or her up. Tell other people how great he or she is and how lucky you are. It will help you to convince yourself as well as build loving thoughts inside your partner.
My great-grandfather was one of the most positive people I’ve known in life. But I remember one family reunion where he gave a speech to his posterity and mentioned that his wife had been blessed with “the gift of gab.” I’m sure he meant the remark to be funny, although I think it hurt Grandma’s feelings. This moment passed without further comment by anyone. But the next day, Grandpa gave another speech where he apologized for his choice of words and said he only meant that Grandma always had a lot to say and was a pleasure to have conversations with and what a blessing that had been in his life.
While I don’t know for sure, I imagine Grandma expressed how she felt about his choice of words in private—and he corrected himself publicly in a dignified and heartfelt way. The way my great-grandparents handled this little incident turned out far better for all concerned than public bickering would have. They were both over 90 years old at the time of that reunion. Somewhere along the way, they learned that their loved one’s feelings were more important than getting a laugh, responding to irritation, or impressing a third-party with a witty comment.
I am directing this message to singles. But it is trickier applying these ideas to couples who are dating because: (1) their love is new, and they still think everything the other person does is art; and (2) they are unsure enough of the other’s approval that they don’t take it for granted and don’t yet feel comfortable running their partners down. We know if we bicker in public with a dating partner, we will probably lose him or her. But think about that for a minute. Your partner has done such a good job helping you feel safe with him or her, that you know you can get away with derogatory comments or criticism that you would never dare say to a new dating partner that you had interest in. In our common English, this is called taking your partner for granted. “Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12.)
When we are trying to impress a new love interest, it is easy to see him or her in a positive light. But somehow, a lot of people who once saw each other as perfect come to a place where those feelings become ugly and contorted. So, how can you tell in the beginning, whether it is going to eventually grow into that ugliness or remain beautiful?
First, it’s a big clue how the other person talks about their former spouse or dating partners. If it’s rare for that person to say anything about their former spouse without contempt, there’s a good chance that’s how he or she will come to think of you as some of your quirks start to grate on your partner.
Even more important, you need to have conversations, set intentions, and make agreements. Chances are, if you go about your relationship haphazardly, you will eventually fall into those patterns of mistreating your partner in public. It’s natural. Remember also that, “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19). Without setting intentions about how you will act, you are bound to be “acted upon” by your lesser feelings (2 Nephi 2:14, 16, 26).
So, talk about this and set intentions when you are dating. Don’t simply deal with public bickering as it comes up in marriage. That is not being intentional. And we all know that dealing with issues in the heat of the moment is not the most effective way to go about life. We titled our book “Intentional Courtship” because we want to encourage mid-singles to go about building relationships with intention. Most of you have already experienced how it goes when you govern a relationship with emotion instead of intention.
So, part of the solution is making intentional decisions about how you will act. It is biting your tongue when you are tempted to cut your partner down in public (or in private for that matter). It is letting him or her tell the story the way he or she wants, have his or her own political or other opinions, and refraining from expressing your frustrations with your partner in front of other people. Part of it is simply exercising the discipline to refrain from speaking when you are tempted to say something derogatory to or about your partner.
Even more important is to exercise intention in the way you think about your partner. Don’t simply shove down your feelings and watch them come out sideways. It is even more about changing the way you think and feel about your partner, so you are no longer disposed to have unkind thoughts toward him or her. That has little to do with his or her speech or behavior. It has everything to do with your thinking. We call this a mighty change of heart (Alma 5:12-13, 49). The deepest principles of the Gospel are involved. Become the person that not only doesn’t say unkind things about his or her partner, but rarely even thinks such unkind thoughts.
Your relationship with your partner will not only shape who you are, it will reveal who you are. So, while you are uncoupled, work at becoming genuinely tolerant and avoid small-minded criticism of the people closest to you–including your former spouse. Practice seeing the goodness in your dating partners rather than gazing about for red flags. The best way to set yourself up for a good marriage is to become the kind of person who has a good marriage, rather than emphasizing every weakness of your partner and trying to change him or her. We attract what we are. So be the kind of person you want to attract.
I want Cathy and I to be the kind of couple others look at in our old age and think we are naive. I want the cynical people to think they’ve “grown up” from adoring their partners, while we have never gotten over how lucky we are. That kind of positivity only endures in marriage with intention.
About the Author
Jeff Teichert, and his wife Cathy Butler Teichert, are the founders of “Love in Later Years,” which ministers to Latter-day Saint single adults seeking peace, healing, and more joyful relationships. They are co-authors of the Amazon bestseller Intentional Courtship: A Mid-Singles Guide to Peace, Progress and Pairing Up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeff and Cathy each spent nearly a decade in the mid-singles community and they use that experience to provide counsel and hope to mid-singles and later married couples through written articles, podcasts, and videos. Jeff and Cathy are both Advanced Certified Life Coaches and have university degrees in Family & Human Development. They are the parents of a blended family that includes four handsome sons, one lovely daughter-in-law, and a sweet baby granddaughter.
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