The Marriage Happiness Experiment

03/04/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Here is a non-news flash for you: Marriage is hard. Some newbies may be a bit bewildered when they realize that committed relationships are not the magic elixir for all that ails you, but long-term couples have likely already come to this sobering realization. Some may shrug with resignation, others fight the urge to inflict bodily harm on one another, and some choose to work their asses off in therapy or stock up on self-help books. Then there are those who fall in the category of "truly happy." How did they get there? Have they legitimately found their soulmate, or was there a little bit more behind-the-scenes action that led to their contentment?

I have a theory on how to maximize your chances of a harmonious marriage. It's certainly nothing new, and it can be summarized in one word: empathy. The old "put yourself in another's shoes" bit. The tried-and-true "see things from your partner's perspective" method. It may not be a revolutionary concept, but if you were to put it into practice regularly, it just might change everything.

The problem with this strategy is, for many of us, it doesn't come naturally. We have come to don the righteous indignation act like a pair of comfy sweats. Even those of us in our thirties have become as stuck in our ways as a crotchety octogenarian. Um, hello, that's not where the casserole dish goes! Stop leaving your paperwork in the kitchen! Why can't you just load the freaking dishwasher correctly?

We. Are. Different.

It's so easy for us to find fault with our spouses when they insist on doing ridiculously annoying things, like chewing noisily on the couch while we're watching TV (I totally do that). Maybe you enjoyed a rare night out with friends and came home to a trashed house and pile of dishes in the sink. Or maybe you just got home from work and your partner won't stop talking to you (Hi, me again). The point is, we all have our irritating habits, and we also tend to spend more time focusing on our own inner experiences than considering the people around us. (If that doesn't apply to you, high five! You can quit reading now.)

So here is my challenge: What if, no matter how unreasonable or annoying your partner was being, you stopped in your tracks to consider what might be going on inside his/her head? Even if you are totally convinced that they are wrong and you are right. (**To clarify, this absolutely does not apply to abusive relationships.**)

Last week I had a major temper tantrum over something stupid, and instead of appearing irked by my unreasonable outburst or pointing out how preoccupied and irritable I'd been lately, my husband empathized with my plight and suggested I take some time alone to calm down. His compassionate response immediately defused the situation, whereas criticism or even a raised eyebrow would have sent me spiraling further.

Conversely, the other day my husband went out with a friend. He was supposed to return before I had to take my oldest daughter to a birthday party so I didn't have to worry about waking my youngest up from her nap and dragging her along. When he told me he wasn't going to be home in time, my first reaction was to silently fume. What a hassle! Then I remembered that he'd put in insanely long hours at work all week, driven himself into the ground, and rarely took a break. He totally deserved a long outing with a friend. And my irritation evaporated. Perhaps it was easier for me to think of his needs because he had been so routinely considering mine. And full disclosure: This type of kindness hasn't always been there. It's taken practice, diligence, and consciousness.

I think the empathetic perspective change is difficult for both men and women, for different reasons. Historically (and, arguably, currently), women have been socialized to consider their husbands' needs first. We are still recovering from a 1950's mentality of greeting your man after work with a smile and dinner on the table, no matter how hellish or unfulfilling your own day was. The idea of once again placing a higher value on our partner's happiness than our own is distasteful at best.

And, at the risk of making global generalizations here (please don't throw things at me, angry Internet people), I personally don't happen to know very many women who boast about their husband's extraordinary ability to apologize quickly and sincerely. (I'm sure there are some men who are excellent at saying "I'm sorry." More power to you.) While girls are raised to be "nice" and polite, boys are raised to be "strong" and just. Admitting a mistake has been made is tantamount to admitting failure. That's a hard pill to swallow.

Whether your partnership consists of two men, two women, or one of each, there are a lot of wounded psyches coming to the table, of every possible variety. Trying to consider your spouse's point of view is humbling, challenging, and requires a hell of a lot of courage and vulnerability.

The key to this experiment is that, to work most effectively, both people in the couple would have to do it. Knowing that while you're considering your partner's needs and feelings, they're considering yours, immediately removes the elements of defensiveness and injustice. It makes it safer.

Last week, the Internet exploded over #TheDress debate. After the scientific explanation emerged, most people who are even moderately evolved came to accept that the people on the "opposing" side--Blue/Black or White/Gold--weren't actually wrong, per se. Even though it boggled our minds to grasp that another person could literally see things differently, even though we couldn't possibly understand how they saw that obviously white dress as blue, we accepted the fact that their viewpoints were valid.

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So why can't we do this in more subtle matters, when our perspectives go deeper than the visual plane? It's somehow so much harder to give other people the benefit of the doubt, let alone empathy, for having an inner perspective that is wildly different from our own. Why is it difficult to grasp that while we view our partner's silence as quiet judgment, they truly believe they are giving us space to vent? Why can't we consider that their day might have been equally as crappy as ours? Maybe, just maybe, the place they put the Tupperware makes more sense than where we'd like to put it. (Scratch that--that last one is just too crazy.)

When you're annoyed that your wife left her shoes lying in the middle of the floor, remember what a challenging day she's had.
When you're fuming that your husband didn't load his breakfast dishes, remember how worried he's been about his mom.
When your partner comes home from work and immediately heads upstairs to take a shower or read the newspaper, remember that the extra time and space helps her to thrive as a parent.

Try it for one week. Every time you feel a flare of anger or irritation, pause, and consider what is going through your partner's mind, or better yet, what's in his/her heart. Find empathy. Walk a mile in his, um, ugly old flip-flops or her over-priced slingbacks. Try to imagine that white dress as blue. For just a second, put her experience ahead of your own. Even if you ultimately decide that you have been wronged, it's a worthwhile exercise to consider the flip side.

We're only human, and relationship dynamics are rarely black and white. None of us is able to exist in a constant state of open-mindedness and compassion. But that's what makes this an experiment. By focusing on your partner's inner experience, see if you can open up even the smallest window for empathy. Maybe you'll find habits or qualities that are absolutely not OK with you and others you come to understand. Find your lines in the sand, and notice your own hard-wired responses.

Is it a utopian daydream to imagine a relationship where your partner has your happiness in mind and vice versa, instead of each of you fighting for your own needs? It's worth a try. After all, it's far more satisfying when someone else scratches your back than when you try to scratch it yourself.

This post originally appeared on Mommy, for Real. Connect with Stephanie on Facebook.