As told to Leigh Newman
"It takes two people to couple up and get married," says Harriet Lerner, PhD, celebrated author of "The Dance of Anger," "but only one to make a relationship better." Waiting for your spouse to change first, she believes, is a recipe for unhappiness and divorce. Her new book, "Marriage Rules," lists 100 clear-cut, everyday ways to improve your marriage -- starting with you and your own behavior. This week, we spoke with her and gleaned the ten most surprising:
1. Describe it in three sentences (or less). Your partner might say things like "I don't want to talk" or "I'm not good at talking." Usually, the real issue is that he gets easily flooded with too much information and shuts down. So, when bringing up an issue, end your description after three sentences. For example, cut off your point at "You said you'd clean up the kitchen, and you didn't." Don't add on all those extra but related issues like: "You don't do what you say you're going to do. I can't trust you. I can't even trust what you're going to do next. And by the way, I saw that you also left the dog out in the yard."
2. Disorient him with praise. Surprise your spouse with praise just when he's most expecting you to criticize him. For example, if he has a tendency to be overbearing with his younger brother, and the two of you have fought about this, repeatedly, wait until you hear them on the phone together. After he hangs up, say something like: "I so admire the way you used humor to lighten things up with your brother. You can be so funny with him." It's disarming. It's unexpected, and it encourages new behavior -- from both of you.
3. End the phony I-statements. Many of us know about the value of an "I-statement," a technique that requires you to talk about your feelings instead of your partner's behavior. For example, if your partner is frequently late, instead of saying to him, "You're always late. It's so rude," you might say, "It's more difficult for me when you're late because I don't know how to plan the dinner." This way, you can talk about the issue without attacking him. But be warned: Not all statements that begin with the word "I" are I-statements. Tacking on an "I think" does not necessarily mean you are talking about yourself. Avoid comments like "I think you're controlling," or "I think you're treating me like your domineering mother." That is, unless you want to start a big fight.
4. Invite what you dread. If you're sick of hearing, say, your partner's repetitive worry about putting his mother in a nursing home, you need to initiate that very conversation. You may worry that you will open the emotional dams and have to talk about what you least want to hear about -- for forever. But in fact, your partner will dwell on the issue less if you really invite him to tell you everything in one fell swoop. You don't have to come up with solutions or cheer him up. You just have to listen.
5. Never say the word "foreplay." Yes, it's true... very true. Most couples need to talk more about sex. But not with clunky '70s "The Joy of Sex" vocabulary. Not only is the term "foreplay" not sexy, but worse, it also suggests that whatever you do short of intercourse isn't "the real thing" and is just something you do to get ready.
6. Put some limits on your listening. Listening is the ultimate spiritual act. It's the greatest gift that we can give our partner, and, as I've said, we all need to do more of it. But sometimes you have to put a limit on when. If your husband wants to talk about how much the two of you spent during the holidays right as you're making dinner, supervising the kids' homework and watching the news, you're not going to be able to focus, and you might even say, "I can't listen to this. I'm cooking!" That doesn't work. You need one more quick (calm) sentence in which you articulate that you will listen later, just not right now.
7. Love -- and praise -- specifically. It's not wrong to say, "You're the greatest, and I love you." It's just not sufficient. In the early days of your relationship, there were probably many, many wonderful qualities you noticed about your spouse: his dry humor or way of making guests feel welcome. The longer people are together, the less they mention these kinds of details. Think about how specific your criticisms are: "Why do you put so much water in the pasta pot?" or "Why have you come home with five bananas when I told you three are going to be rotten?" Be exactly that specific with your praise too.
8. Stop correcting your partner's unrelated factual errors. Whether there were 50 or 70 guests at the wedding has no bearing on whether you had way too much to drink at the reception.
9. Invent an imaginary British houseguest. All of us have much more control over our behavior than we like to think. For instance, if you had a very proper, prestigious British guest at your home, sleeping in the bedroom adjacent to yours, you'd act differently during arguments. You'd behave more kindly and politely to your spouse when, say, he sold your mother's hideous-but-beloved vase during a garage sale -- if only because you didn't want to feel deeply ashamed. So the next time you consider screaming, imagine poor Rupert lying in the guest room, overhearing your every word.
10. Ignore the experts. It's so funny that people seek expert advice and pay a lot of money to come see me, for example, for marriage counseling. Each of us knows three things we can do to make our partner happier: clean the old fast food wrappers out of the car, seduce him before the kids wake up, and iron his T-shirts or whatever happens to easily and absolutely delight him. Name them -- and do them, right now.