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Most every week I meet with clients who are experiencing troubles in their marriage. In the vast majority of these cases, their difficulties are not due to who they married, but rather how they have each treated the one they married.

So often when couples get into marital strife they think their only solution is to end their marriage and find someone else. As you’ll read in today’s column, this is often an unwise decision.

Marriage is an incredible journey in which two different people have to figure out how to become one — not an enmeshed blob, but a healthy, functioning team. It’s ironic that differences that once attracted one to another can, over the years, become obstacles to oneness. Or they can be opportunities for growth and maturity.

I met today’s columnist in 2012 when I attended his workshop in Albuquerque. Alan Godwin is a licensed psychologist and marital therapist in Nashville, Tenn.  He is the author of “How to Solve Your People Problems: Dealing With Your Difficult Relationships.” For more information, go to peopleproblems.org.

I consider him to be a gifted and wise man, and I hope you take to heart what he shares with us today.

Relationships reveal and heal weaknesses

“I can’t fix you, I can only fix me.”  This idea has become so entrenched in our culture that it rivals other truisms we accept unquestioningly, such as:

  • You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar
  • Into every life a little rain must fall, and
  • The only two things that will survive a nuclear holocaust are cockroaches and Cher

It sounds so right but leaves so much out.  It suggests that if two broken people go get themselves fixed, things will just work better when they reunite.  I get the part about being responsible for your own growth and not being responsible for the growth of another and agree with it.  But it diminishes the importance of relationships in personal growth.

A couple came to see me once because they were stuck.  I asked if they’d had any experiences getting unstuck and they told me this story.  He grew up as a nice, accommodating individual.  He was a natural-born concierge, instinctively noticing the needs of those around him and doing whatever he could to help.  When he grew up, he worked for a company that organized itself in teams and it became his unofficial job to see to it that everyone’s needs were met.  Indeed, the team functioned more smoothly because of his presence.

His wife grew up as an i-dotter and a t-crosser.  She was a very structured individual.  She told me once that she slept better at night if all the items on her to-do list had check marks beside them by day’s end.  If there was a bumper sticker defining her existence, it might be, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”  When she grew up, she became, guess what, an administrative assistant. And she was wonderful at it — nothing ever fell through the cracks on her watch.

Well, Mr. Accommodation fell in love with Miss Administration.  After marrying, she said to him one night, “We should divide up our household responsibilities.  Let’s figure out who does what.”  True to form, he said, “Sure, I’d be glad to.”  So they determined that she would cook, and he would clean.  Alas, all was right with the world.

But here’s what happened.  On a nightly basis, he’d be loading the dishwasher and she’d come in to watch.

“Would you mind turning those bowls in the same direction so that the water will hit everything uniformly,” she’d ask.

“Sure,” he would respond outwardly while inwardly thinking her request was a tad excessive and weird.

The next night, it would be the plates, the next night the silverware, the next night the pots and pans.  This went on for a while.  Finally, one evening, he said exasperatedly, “Look, I told you I would clean up and I’m happy to do so.  But if you’re going to come in every night and scrutinize and critique my every move, I may just start sitting in the den.”

Notice what happened here.  This situation required something of him that, historically, he had too little of — assertiveness.  He was an accommodating person but not an assertive person.  But he cared about his marriage and, for it to work better, he had to strengthen his assertiveness muscle.  By doing so, he became a more balanced version of himself.  On her side, this situation required something of her that, historically, she had too little of — flexibility.  She was a structured person but not a flexible person.  But she cared about the relationship and, for it to work better, she had to strengthen her flexibility muscle.  By doing so, she became a more balanced version of herself.

The closeness of marriage had revealed their weaknesses but valuing their marriage caused them to strengthen those weaknesses. They didn’t go get fixed so that the marriage would work better. They made the marriage work better and became more fixed. Their marriage provided the context in which personal growth occurred. Relationships reveal and heal weaknesses.

Ron Price is the owner and operator of Productive Outcomes Inc. and the author of "PLAY NICE in Your Sandbox at Work," an e-book available on Amazon. He can be reached at 505-324-6328.

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