A cartoon tacked up in my therapy consulting room shows a dog and a cat in bed together. The dog is looking morose and reading a book called "Dogs who Love too Much."
The cat is saying, "I'm not distancing! I'm a cat, damn it!"
I love this cartoon, created by my humorist friend Jennifer Berman, because marriage requires, first and foremost, a profound respect for differences. We each see the world through the filter of our age, gender, birth order, culture, and unique history, along with the cosmic toss of the genetic dice. Differences don't mean one person is right and the other is wrong. In fact, if you want a recipe for relationship failure, keep trying to shape up your partner in order to make him think, feel and react just like you do. You'll see where you get.
But here's the caveat. Sometimes we are so tolerant of differences, that we have an "anything goes" policy. We may use the latest research or expert advice on gender differences to excuse our partner from being responsible or accountable. Admittedly, I've never actually had a therapy client tell me that her husband couldn't vacuum the rug because of a certain anatomical difference -- but I've heard the most imaginative variety of excuses for why he can't be expected to pick up his socks, or talk about something that really matters, and why she can't be expected to dial down the criticism or get a grip on her intensity.
Nor are same sex couples immune from too much giving in and going along. And diagnosing our partner (He can't change because of his ADD) is both a form of one-upmanship and another way to make excuses for him, rather than expecting more and tapping his competence to do better.
In sum: failing to respect or at least tolerate differences is half the formula for taking your marriage downstream. However, marriage suffers equally when we become so tolerant of our partner's behavior that we expect too little or settle for unfair arrangements that violate our deeply held values, priorities and beliefs. Sometimes we have to say "Enough!" and really mean it.
"Really meaning it" (in contrast to complaining) is what I call taking a bottom line position. It's an incredibly difficult challenge in marriage because we can start out with a clear position, only to have our brain turn to mush when we don't get the response we want. A bottom line position may be about voicing the ultimate (If this doesn't change, I don't think I can stay in the relationship.) More frequently it's about the countless issues we have to negotiate in the dailiness of coupledom (I can't continue this conversation if you keep talking to me in your debate tone. I'm here to talk to you about anything, but you need to approach me with respect and leave room for two opinions")
Here's an example of a bottom line position from my marriage with Steve. It was my week to clean the kitchen, and dirty dishes were piling up in the sink. Over several days I continued to ignore them, and space out Steve's telling me that the accumulating mess wasn't okay with him. When Friday night arrived and I wanted to go to the movies, Steve said there'd be no business as usual until I cleaned up. I could tell he had moved from non-productive complaining to drawing the line. He didn't need to lecture or raise his voice. I knew he really meant it because I know Steve. He went off to play his guitar, and I cleaned the kitchen motivated both by a sense of fairness and because I needed him to fix my printer, plus I really did want to go out with him.
Lightness, humor, letting things go, and a profound respect for differences are what makes marriage work 85 percent of the time. For the other 15 percent we have to stop making excuses for our partner on the one hand ("He came from a dysfunctional family") or blaming him on the other ("He's a jerk). Instead, we have to do whatever it takes to exceed our partner's threshold of deafness and show our partner that we really mean it, whatever the "it" happens to be.
Stand like a mountain, bend like grass. It's at the heart of having both a marriage and a self.