Spouse Conversion or Being A Team (Part 1)

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Bill and I have done as well as we have because we work very well together as a team. We have similar goals, needs, wants and desires. We both agree on the need to spend less than we earn, to get closer to financial freedom, to have enough stuff but not so much it chokes us, and to be able to choose the work we really want to do. Heading in the same direction makes the life journey much smoother and easier.

We don't avoid conflict, but we don't consider fighting to be a recreational sport, either.

We don’t avoid conflict, but we don’t consider fighting to be a recreational sport, either.

We also do not have any of the killer bad habits. Gambling. Pornography. Alcoholism. Drug addiction. Adultery. Abusiveness and anger management. Control-freakishess. Spendthrift and shopaholic. Chronic meanness, pettiness, and disdain for each other. Spitefulness. Contempt. We don’t avoid conflict, but we don’t consider fighting to be a recreational sport, either. We like to talk and boy, do we! We consider ourselves very lucky to have found each other.

Being able to talk and forming a mutual support and admiration society has made our life much easier. I have read advice columns for some forty years, and I am constantly amazed at both what people will put up with from their partners and how spouses undermine each other to score a few points. Do they not realize the damage their doing to their relationships? I suppose they would rather be right and alone than compromise and be happy. I wonder how anyone could think that they could treat their family or friends as doormats and punching bags and then be surprised when family members estrange themselves and friends walk away forever. How can you belittle your partner and then expect them to be supportive of your goals?

As we move deeper into a very uncertain future, the Long Emergency as some call it, we will need to be part of a reliable support network. Any disaster-preparedness group, such as FEMA or the Red Cross, will tell you that the first person to come to your aid in a disaster is likely to be an immediate family member or a neighbor. The bigger the disaster, the longer it takes for outside responders to ride to the rescue. This assumes that there is someone to come to the rescue. Enormous disasters such as Hurricane Katrina overwhelm professional responders and you may not see them for weeks. Tiny disasters such as job layoffs are not the concern of the Red Cross. If you and your partner got downsized and the benefits have run out, FEMA won’t be there for you. It will be your relatives. If you are still on speaking terms with them.

It is easy to think that a disaster is a hurricane or tornado or an earthquake. Yet the most likely disaster to happen to any given household is economic or medical. That is, job loss and debt or sickness and injury. You may have heard the joke that if your neighbor loses his job, the economy is in a recession. If you lose your job, the economy is in a depression. Which, for your household, it is. Widespread job loss does not fit the government’s definition of either recession or depression but it certainly feels like that for the households involved.

Being at odds with your partner will not make any of this better.

Being at odds with your partner will not make any of this better.

As we move deeper into the Great Recession (I do not believe that we are anywhere near the bottom; when you look at economic charts of the Great Depression, you can see that the economy and stock market rallied all the way to the bottom. The overall downward trend line is what mattered), I think we will see more individual households entering their own depression, no matter what the official statistics say. Too many workers for too few jobs is a bad mix. Downward pressure on wages, huge government debts, resource depletion, climate change, and widespread social unrest overseas will make things worse.

Being at odds with your partner will not make any of this better.

A partnership, which is what marriage should be, means you work together as a team for a common set of goals. Look at your partner. Are you working together? Or are you at loggerheads over the basic issues of spending, debt management, and trust? Somewhere in between? If you are dealing with the four A’s of adultery, abandonment, abuse, and addiction then you should be thinking very seriously about why you are with this person. If you are the abuser, addict, adulterer or abandoner, then you should not be anywhere near decent people until after you have fixed your behavioral and psychological problems.

If your problems are not as extreme as the four A’s, then you have maneuvering room. Advice columnists all advocate making a list of goods and bads leading to the decision of “am I better off with him or without him.” Be as complete as possible. Why did you pair off with this person? There must have been some reason. Look for it and see what changed. It may have been you. Do you look at your spouse with rage and contempt? Does she belittle your every action? Does he treat you with sneering disdain? Do you want to change? Do you want things to be better? Or do you just want out? What do you think your partner wants? Do you actually know or are you just guessing? Serious problems like this may require outside help.

You cannot change your spouse. You have to give him or her reasons to change their behaviors.

You cannot change your spouse. You have to give him or her reasons to change their behaviors.

Many, many couples have been helped by marriage counselors and therapists. Ministers and priests provide this service as well. You may have a friend or family member who is a really good listener. Keeping a private journal of thoughts, fears, and concerns can help some people. These things are all way, way cheaper than divorce and far less traumatic. They also require effort and change on your part as well as that (maybe) of your spouse. You cannot change your spouse. You have to give him or her reasons to change their behaviors. They have to change themselves. Your can only change yourself. However, changes in your behavior can encourage changes in your partner’s behavior. If you are dealing with a sane person and not an abusive psycho, then behavior changes are possible and your relationship can get better. You can start pulling together as a team.

Think of good dog training. Dogs will work very hard for praise and a pat on the head. Unlike cats, say, who are motivated strictly by food rewards and then only if they feel like it. The key to effective dog training is being consistent, being clear in your expectations, repetition, and praise, praise, praise for a correctly done action. Complex actions are taught to a dog in small increments. In order to learn how to lay down, you first have to teach your dog to sit. In order to stay, you have to teach your dog to sit. In order to give a paw, you have to teach your dog to sit. If you want to teach your dog to roll over, you have to teach sit and then lay down.

Each learned behavior builds on previous learned behaviors. It isn’t actually that hard, as long as you are willing to spend a lot of time, on a regular, long term basis. You have to be clear in your expectations and not confuse the dog by trying to do multiple things at once. You have to be consistent in your actions and commands. That is, sit means sit. It does not mean stay, wait, beg, give a paw, or anything else. You, the trainer, use the same word and action every time. If you can’t be consistent, regular, and methodical, you will confuse the dog. The whole training experience will be far more frustrating for both you andl your dog and won’t turn out nearly as well as it could.

People training is similar. Treat your partner (or your children, co-workers, family members, friends) with care and concern. Be considerate towards them. Make your expectations clear. Practice what you preach. Follow through on your promises. Lead by example. Don’t expect any member of your household to do any work you refuse to do.

Is this hard? Oh, God, yes. It can be endlessly frustrating, especially when you can’t seem to explain what you mean and no one listens because they are all busy and tired and overwhelmed and full of unresolved feelings just like you are. Dog training is way easier as dogs tend not to have mental issues like people do. Dogs don’t multitask. Dogs get enough sleep. Dogs don’t stress out over what someone else thinks of their grooming or the size of their dog house or how well they wrote that last position paper. Dogs don’t have to-do lists a mile long. Dogs don’t have jobs, homework, or commutes. The only issue a dog has with training is you and your inconsistencies and poorly expressed expectations.

Since people do have all sorts of impediments to training—not the least of which is knowing that you are using dog techniques on them!—should you try? Of course, as that is the whole point. Do you want to be part of a successful team or not? Clarify in your own mind what you want out of your life and how you want to be better prepared to meet the Long Emergency. Look at your spouse. Is the possibility of change there? Is your partner sane, no addiction issues, no impossible behavior problems, not terminally lazy? Then there is hope.

So what do you do next? That’s our topic for next Saturday.