Marriage: What No One Tells You

By Thea and Duane Harvey

Your partner is a pain in the ass. You probably already know this, but what you may not know is that this is the way it is supposed to be. Sorry, it’s unavoidable. Everyone is difficult close up, even you. “But this is so unfair!” you might think. “My friends are easy.” Marry them and they won’t be. This is usually the first thing relationship experts Harville Hendrix and Stan Tatkin point out.

Commitment creates a unique environment with its own law of physics. What goes on in the rest of world doesn’t apply. Primary partners get close, very close, and this is the problem.

Of course, you didn’t realize this when you first met, and neither did they. You didn’t notice because you both were high on drugs. Your pituitary glands secreted love hormones and you fed off each other with high excitement and obsession. You have so much in common. You are so much alike. Everything is wonderful. But it doesn’t last. The hormones fade and what you are left with is a partner who knows exactly how to try your last nerve. 

There are three reasons why your partner gets under your skin.

Close Proximity

The first has to do with shared space. You are more likely to bump into one another, more likely to step on each others toes, to get elbowed in the eye in the middle of night. But this isn’t just physical space, it’s psychological space. The fact that you’re actually very different people comes as a shock. We each have preferences, moods, rhythms, idiosyncrasies, to say nothing of bad habits. The very fact that you are different and locked in the same room provides plenty of opportunities to clash. You are on a space station together, you speak different languages and there is no gravity.


The second reason has to do with a special kind of memory called implicit memory, the kind we don’t recall in the usual sense. The brain likes to pare down and simplify the past so it converts stories into automatic reactions. Another name for this is procedural memory. The vast majority of our brain architecture was formed before we had the verbal capacity to label and recall events, therefore a great deal of our experience cannot be accessed directly. Instead of recalling early events we act them out, or sink into the feelings they inspired.

The most important characteristic of these early years is that we were utterly dependent on someone. Problems always arise with one-sided dependency, even in the best of situations. These same problems resurface as implicit memory when we enter into a committed adult relationship. Like it or not, commitment is dependency and dependency is scary. And to complicate matters, we are taught from a very early age that dependency is bad. We live in a counter-dependent culture. Dependency is natural and necessary, yet we are shamed by it.

Growing Up

The third reason your partner is frustrating is because they perform the job we enlisted them to do — to help us finish growing up. Were your parents annoying? Same thing. We have to be told what to do or we won’t do it.

Your partner has the blueprint for your personal growth, but the very idea that someone knows us better than we know ourselves is inherently offensive. But it’s true. Partnering is two-way parenting. It is in a relationship that we learn and mature.

Here are three things you can do to turn things around:


The part of the brain responsible for processing vision is called the occipital lobe.
The strange thing is that the occipital lobe defers to the hippocampus, the seat of memory, to decipher what we see. This means that for the most part what we see is the past. The brain has an evolutionary bias toward the negative, so what we think we see isn’t good. We must compensate for this by consciously visualizing our partner in a positive light. Research has demonstrated that happy couples delude themselves about their partners qualities. Get delusional.


The next step is to take that positive visualization and express it. When your partner does something you like, tell them. Remember, this is in your best interest. If you don’t tell them they are likely to stop doing it. Tell them what you appreciate — often. The most radical way to implement this is to combine three fresh appreciations a day together with a commitment of zero negativity. No criticism. That means if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.


Commit to radically reducing your partner’s displeasure by eliminating one by one the things you do that frustrate them. Be curious as to what it’s actually like living with you. Exploring how your partner experiences you can be a real eye-opener. If you can swallow the idea that your partner holds the blueprint for your personal growth you will soon discover capacities and talents you didn’t know you had.

Practicing these three points is guaranteed to turn a pain in the ass partner back into the love of your life. And when they do annoy you, you won’t mind so much.

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What Grown Up Marriage Looks Like: Huffington Post

What Grown Up Marriage Looks Like

No one is emotionally grown-up all the time. Our earlier selves are not filed away as memories but cordoned off like a half dozen smaller siblings who think it isn’t fair that the biggest makes all the decisions. It doesn’t take much for any one of them to climb the furniture and take over. Marital maturity is not about suppressing these earlier stages, but recognizing when they show up in ourselves and in our partners, and then, before coaxing them back into the highchair, gently remove any sharp utensils they may be welding. As grown-ups, we protect our marriage from ourselves.

Good role models are hard to find. Although no marriage is perfect, we need to have a vision, however ideal, toward which we can direct our appetite for order and adventure. That is what this is: A simple five-course menu to satisfy the circumspect as well as the exploratory palate, with minimal disruption and mess.

1. Secure

Safety is built into the environment. There are no windows left open for someone to fall out of, and the air is fresh and free of pollutants. Marriage is no place for criticism or put-downs, however well intentioned. The unbreakableness of the bond, a kind of necessary illusion, is assumed. We are securely attached. We need a solid base. Emotional safety is a foundational tenet of both Imago Relationship Therapy and Safe Conversations. You can afford to take risks because you know the house won’t collapse. The freedom to deeply depend on another and the privilege of being deeply depended on is a kind of shared amnionic fluid. When we inevitably do let one another down, we recognize the hurt and quickly repair. In this way, the small woundings and salves can foster a growing sense of resilience. The mechanics of safety are commitment and trust. Not just trust in the upper case issues of Money and Sex, but in the small moments of on-going availability and responsiveness. It also helps to know that we interest our partner enough that we can draw on their prolonged undivided attention.

2. Hot

Roll the word erotic off your tongue and notice how it changes your mood, energizes your senses. It’s utterance evokes an electrical charge that makes an ordinary room or a meal magical and otherworldly. It provides energy, promotes focus and transcendence. If that sounds like a drug, it’s because it is. But this addiction is delicate and needs regular feeding. We mustn’t take desire for granted. Sex therapists report that low sexual desire is the fastest growing sexual dysfunction. Among the many contributing factors the one we can immediately do something about is laziness. Good chemistry takes planning. The more we scheme to give pleasure, the more pleasure there is to receive. If desire is already low, sex experts encourage us to simply bypass this first stage and move on to the second stage of arousal by engaging in pleasurable touch.

Even the greatest pleasure can become irritating with mindless repetition. Human beings are, as more than 100 studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, an innate—and measurable—capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes, positive or negative. Our senses grow dull to what is most familiar. Intimacy and desire have always felt mutually exclusive, even to researchers. The workaround is enlisting the imagination to discover the strangeness of our partner. Their familiarity is actually a comforting illusion designed to make us feel safe, but we are all ultimately unknowable and unpredictable. Looking at them as if we don’t know them can feel slightly dangerous. Looking at them the way others might see them, as a sexual object, can feel stirring and somehow off limits— in other words, erotic.

Dan Savage has a simple directive for keeping the flame alive: simply be Good, Game and Giving, that is, develop some basic sexual skills, be open to whatever your partner proposes, and in addition to focusing on their pleasure, I would add a fourth G of Greed, for the simple reason that desire begets desire.

3. Adventurous

Marriage is often mistaken for the end of possibility. But if you list and compare the activities of dating singles to committed couples, you will explode the myth of the spontaneity and daring of the dating scene. Dating activities are actually quite predictable and highly planned. When you don’t know the hidden desires and fears of your date you are likely to play it safe because doing otherwise is courting disaster. How were you supposed to know that a class in the seductive art of Japanese bonding would bring on a full blown panic attack? or that the skydiving instructor would remind her of that ex-boyfriend? Dating, to be successful, is a rather conservative game of trial and error. Married couples can experiment and push the limit because they know so much about each other’s threshold for excitement.

Novel experiences release dopamine, which elevates our energy and mood, and generates bonding. The research of social scientist Sonja Lyubomirsky names adventure as a key ingredient for happiness, especially between couples.

Although adventure can certainly promote eroticism, it’s also about tapping into that child-like curiosity toward everything around us. Experience has a tendency to contract on us unless we step out of our comfort zone and explore. Whether international travel, hang gliding, scuba diving, checking out sex shops, trying new restaurants, or trapeze lessons at the Santa Monica Pier, breaking with the safety of routine and habit opens up a depth of bonding that imprints pleasurable associations between people.

4. Imperfect

This one emits a sigh of relief. The project of self-improvement, when applied to our partner, has a limit. As important as it is to strive and grow, it is equality important to relent and relax into the human mess that we ultimately are.

If you have ever tried to teach your partner how to improve their ways hopefully, your experience with whatever aftermath that caused has guaranteed you will not try again. Believe it or not, acceptance is the best device there is for promoting change.

We all struggle with bad habits, bad attitude, rudeness, carelessness, self-righteousness, prejudice, narrow-mindedness, etc. Each one of us is a piece of work. We would do well to remember that we are the primary pain in the ass to those we love. These imperfections are what Dan Savage calls The Price of Admission to be with an otherwise wonderful person. Alain de Botton writes that in marriage “we must choose which sufferings we wish to endure.”

Focus on your partner’s assets and overlook their shortcomings. This applies to physical appearance, personality traits, and behaviors. Make a list all the things you adore about your partner in each of these three categories, review, and share it often. Allowing yourself and your partner to be flawed is liberating, and spurs unexpected growth. Relaxing on the behaviors we want changed, in ourself and our partner, is the first step, but not the last, to crafting new more effective ways of living.

5. Forgiving

How long is it reasonable to hold a grudge against a toddler who made you late for work because of a car seat inspired melt-down? Imagine what it would be like if you let your so-called adult partner off the hook just as quickly. Not easy. But with practice the ventral vagal nerve complex becomes toned and develops a wider range of responses, allowing you to actually choose how to respond to stress or hurt. If you want to let more things roll off your back, you have to practice. Choosing to let it go or address it is up to you, so long as it is a choice. Forgiveness can be learned. Choosing a posture of generosity toward your partner will create the goodwill required for them to switch out the behaviors that hurt you, for those that feel caring. Letting your partner off the hook doesn’t encourage bad behavior, it prevents it.

The easiest way to forgive is to see beyond the adult mask into the eyes of the child. No one is always grown up. Regression is nature’s evolutionary phase of rest before and after developmental strides. If you know your partner well enough to marry them, you should also know that they have no intention of causing you pain. It happens as a result of their own pain.

As grown-ups, we don’t get triggered, at least not often. And when we do we have the ability to listen to complaints while resisting the powerful urge to defend ourselves. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a defense, however well reasoned, only deepens the hole we have dug, or stumbled into. When we grow big our issues get small.

For a personal view into how Thea and I repair from a breakdown, see our Couples Repair Playbook.

Attending to any one of these five menu items makes each of the others easier to absorb. What your grown-up marriage looks like will be up to you. No two relationships are the same. The complexity of flavors we bring out in each other cannot be replicated. The romantic notion of lovers that their connection is absolutely unique is absolutely true. And most of the time that irreplaceable bond wants to grow up and be taken seriously because that’s where the real fun is.

Thea & Duane Harvey

Read the entire article at the Huffington Post here: