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10 Things Never to do in a Marriage, Part 1

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Michael Tobin

Transform a relationship mired in negativity into one based on trust and safety.

Love is a very delicate feeling. It flees from an atmosphere filled with blame, anger and sarcasm and grows in an environment of respect, acceptance and honesty. The following 10 marital proscriptions -- if followed consciously and conscientiously-- will transform a relationship mired in negativity into one based on trust and safety.

Why a list of marital taboos rather than a positive "to do" list of marital suggestions? The following Talmudic story answer the question:

A non-believer confronted the great sage Hillel, the Elder, and demanded that he teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel agreed and said the following: "What's hateful to yourself don't do to another. Everything else is commentary. Now go and learn." Many commentators have wondered why he chose to answer in the negative rather than quoting the famous Biblical proscription "To love thy neighbor as thyself."

My understanding is quite simple. We understand what it is that hurts us; we've experienced how painful a critical statement or disdainful look can feel; we've seen how one negative comment can harm or even destroy a relationship and we know that the negative things that we do or that are done to us can far outweigh our or others' positive behaviors.

Therefore, the first step in improving a relationship is to eradicate the negative behaviors that continually pollute the marital environment. It doesn't help to plant rose bushes in a toxic waste field. First, we have to clean up the poison and then we can beautify the area. The more we sensitize ourselves to the subtle ways that we have hurt our partners, the more we enable our feelings of love to blossom.

As you read each of the following 10 Things, I encourage you to practice the exercises. The challenge of marriage demands a commitment to the three P's -- practice, persistence and patience. Just do it, and you'll begin to see the benefit. Even if only one of the partners in the relationship makes a concerted effort to change, the results will still be quite significant.


Marriage is probably the most effective and challenging training program for developing character. Many of the encounters we have with our partners afford us an opportunity to practice self-control, kindness and respect. At any given moment, for example, you could be confronted with a choice between lashing out in anger or communicating your resentment. At another moment, the choice might be between taking your partner for granted or expressing appreciation.

You're either taking your spouse for granted or your acknowledging her kindness. There's no middle ground.

The injunction to stop taking your partner for granted is among the 10 Things. The only way to fulfill it is by performing a positive act, namely showing appreciation. You're either taking your spouse for granted or your acknowledging her kindness. There's no middle ground. It is also the best means for overcoming selfishness. In order to reach the point where you have a real desire to express appreciation you have to uproot three negative attitudes -- a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations and conscious amnesia.

Entitlement is that sense that whatever you do for me I deserve, so why bother thanking you. It's the attitude that my needs come first and it's your job to meet them. Closely aligned with a sense of entitlement is the attitude that if I expect it, you're obligated to do it. With entitlement and expectations, we relate to our partners as if they are extensions of ourselves, not unlike a baby's relationship to his mother's breast. When he cries, he expects to be fed immediately. Conscious amnesia or mindlessness is the art of ignoring or forgetting the obvious. We become oblivious to those small and large kindnesses that our partners do for us. I suspect a sense of entitlement or expectation leads to a state of conscious amnesia.

If you wish to know if you're taking your partner for granted, then I suggest you ask yourself the following question: Are you as polite, kind and considerate to your partner as you are to a casual acquaintance or to a colleague? For most of us, the answer is no. So, ask yourself this question: How would you feel if your partner treated you impolitely, ignored your kindnesses and was inconsiderate of your needs? Before answering, remember the words of Hillel the Elder, "What's hateful to you, don't do to another."


Record those things that your partner does for you -- both large and small. Try to include everything from the cup of coffee he makes for you in the morning to the efficient way that she manages the finances.

Ask yourself, "Among those things that your partner does for you, do you show appreciation and in what manner do you express it?" Most likely, you'll discover that for a good of portion of the kindnesses on the list you've probably never expressed your gratitude.

Try committing yourself to a week of expressing your appreciation and notice the change. You might even consider writing a letter of appreciation to your partner.


Don't assume that you know what your partner is thinking and feeling. There's a good chance you could be wrong, and wrong assumptions cause unnecessary conflict.

Imagine this situation. You walk into the living room and there's your husband sitting on his favorite chair glaring at the wall. His lips are tight; his jaw is clenched. Your immediate reaction: fear! "What did I do? Why is he so angry at me?" You tentatively approach him, "What's the matter, David?" you ask, expecting him to pour his wrath upon you. David slowly turns toward you. The tense, angry look begins to melt and he says sadly, "I've been laid off." "Thank God," you almost blurt out, "at least it wasn't me."

In this case, the woman checked out her assumptions and discovered that her husband wasn't upset with her. Yet, how often does it happen that we make the wrong assumptions and just go on believing them without ever discovering if they're true?

It often happens during the process of marital therapy that assumptions, illusions and fantasies are exposed as false or only partially true. For example, the angry, critical husband who supposedly hates his wife might in fact be an insecure man who is convinced that his wife doesn't love him. Perhaps, as in one case that I know of, a distant, rejecting wife turned out to be a very sad woman, grieving the loss of her mother. Don't assume. Check it out.


Take a piece of paper and without thinking too much about it, complete the following sentence: "I assume that my partner thinks or feels.... about me."

After you compile your list, try checking out your assumptions.

I suspect that you'll discover that many of your assumptions are incorrect. However, it is possible that your partner will acknowledge the validity of some of your assumptions. This may be painful but it's far better to deal with reality than unverified assumptions. At least now, you have the possibility of resolving the issue.


How easy it is to say, "It's your fault. You made me do it. It's because of you that things are so bad between us. You're the reason I feel so miserable." It's so hard to look at ourselves and ask, "What's my part in creating the difficulties between us?"

It's so hard to look at ourselves and ask, "What's my part in creating the difficulties between us?"

Blaming is a form of disempowerment. In essence, when I blame I am saying to my partner that she controls my feelings and behavior. My relationship to her is like that of Pavlov's dog -- the bell rings, the dog salivates. My wife forgets to say hello, and I blow up.

When we blame, we deny our partner the opportunity to think seriously about our words and to respond in a thoughtful manner. Instead of expressing our legitimate grievances and feelings, we accuse and threaten, which only invites a similar response. The result is either a skirmish or an all out war, and, as we so painfully understand, all is fair in love and war and marriage is both.

So, what's the antidote to blaming? The answer is simple: Take responsibility for yourself. Putting it into practice, however, is a challenge. It's hard to give up that feeling of being right. It's so difficult to let go of that need to force a confession out of our partners. I'll let you in on a marital truth: Being "right" in a relationship is the booby prize. You win; the relationship loses. If you want the relationship to win, try looking hard at what your part is in creating the conflict. Ask yourself, "What am I doing to create distance and hurt?"


Write a list of all the ways you blame your spouse. For example, "It's because of you that the house is a mess" or "You're the reason Sara is running around with a bad crowd. It's because you never spend any time with her."

Take a good hard look at yourself and record what you're responsible for.

Look for solutions in each of these situations. In the last example, she might consider telling her husband, "I'm worried that Sara is running around with a bad crowd. I'd like to talk about what we can do about it." She might be pleasantly surprised to discover that when approached respectfully, her husband, on his own, will realize that he needs to spend more time with his daughter.


Think about how you would feel if your partner were to tell you, "Now I understand why you're so critical. You're just like your father. I'm sure he was even more critical of you than you are of me." Would you experience this so-called analysis of your behavior as helpful, as contributing to your self-knowledge and personal development?

I think the answer is self-evident. The words might appear to contain insightful information, but, in fact, they are resentments cloaked in a garment of objective concern. You might believe you understand your partner's deepest motivations and the subtlest nuances of his behavior, and you might think you're being objective and helpful when you interpret his behavior, but I can tell you that nobody who is deeply involved in a relationship can maintain professional distance. More often than not, our interpretations come from a place of self-interest and a desire to change our partners.

I don't want my wife to interpret what I think and feel. I want her to listen.

Perhaps, you're like me. I don't want my wife to interpret what I think and feel. I want her to listen. I want her to hear. I want her to respond as a friend, as someone who is concerned about me. I want her to help me to understand myself by reflecting back what I am saying and by identifying the feelings that I am expressing.

Therefore, in order to avoid interpreting, let me suggest the following two antidotes: First, be clear about your resentments and be careful not to express them covertly through an analysis of your partner's behavior. Second, listen in an open, loving manner.


The next time your partner talks to you, work extra hard at trying to understand her.
Practice active listening by non-verbally indicating that you're hearing him. You can do this by maintaining eye contact and holding your partner's hand or embracing her in a caring, non-sexual manner.

Periodically, respond with supportive statements that acknowledge how your partner feels. An example might be, "I understand how angry you are at your boss. If I were you, I'd sure be furious."


We're often afraid to say no to our partners. Perhaps, you're scared that she'll become angry, or, maybe, if you were to say "I'm sorry, I just don't want to do that," he'd be disappointed and you'd start feeling guilty. So, instead of asserting ourselves and saying what we want, we end up doing the opposite and feeling resentful. The problem with saying yes when we mean no is that we stop being real in the relationship. There's no intimacy in a relationship without honesty.

Becoming other-centered and giving does not mean that you have to sacrifice your feelings, wants and needs in order to satisfy your partner. If you do, you may very well feel resentful or distant. By expressing your true feelings and desires to your spouse, you enable him to relate to the real you rather than to some fictitious version of what you think he wants. The same Hillel, the Elder, whom I quoted earlier, said something very relevant and profound: "If I am not for me who am I? And, if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?"

It may be that when you start to say no when you mean no, you'll say yes when you mean yes and your spouse might feel safer knowing that he can trust what you're saying. More likely, however, the change in your behavior will at first be threatening to your partner. Remember he's not used to your honesty. She might be painfully surprised to learn that not all your yeses were indeed yeses.

It's important to know that any time you change the rules in a relationship there's bound to be conflict. That's okay. Conflict is often necessary for a relationship to grow. Through conflict, two people can create a deeper understanding of one another and develop a stronger bond.

If you already have a strong connection with your spouse, then your commitment to honesty will only deepen that relationship. If you don't, I recommend that you proceed carefully. Before you start being totally honest, try assessing what your partner's reaction will be. Some couples may need professional guidance to help them make the transition from a relationship based on wanting the other's approval to a relationship grounded in truth. The process of reaching a deeper level of honesty is often bumpy, but once you arrive, it's well worth it.


Write the following on a piece of paper: "I'm afraid to tell my partner...."

Prioritize the list, one being the easiest of your truths to reveal, two the second easiest and so on.

Imagine approaching your partner and telling him or her the truth. Notice how you feel as you do that. Try breathing easily and gently tell yourself to relax.
When you're able to visualize speaking to your partner, then take the risk to do it in reality. Start with the easiest (1) and go down your list.

Click here to read 10 Things Never to Do in a Marriage, Part 2

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