What Driver’s Ed Taught Me About Marriage

Healthy Marriage Challenge 1

It is impossible to love someone perfectly. Harder yet to love “til death do us part.” The habits that couples develop have much to do with whether the marriage ends up “for better or for worse.” This is the first installation of monthly challenges that will help create healthy habits in your marriage.

Many troubled marriages have a common pattern: one or both assume the worst of the other when things go wrong. Like a life raft with a slow leak, this is a habit that slowly drains the trust and goodwill out of a relationship. Missing the opportunity for grace, we jump to conclusions, creating a negative spiral that can eventually drain all good will in the relationship.

Learning to look for and assume the BEST in our partner is a powerful antidote to this negative cycle.

What it means to assume

When I took driver's ed eons ago, Coach Redman taught a lesson that I remember to this day. My fellow student driver entered an intersection without checking cross traffic, and Coach abruptly directed the driver into a nearby parking lot.

“Never assume you have the right of way. Do you know what assume means?”

We waited, breathe held as he prepared to make his point.

“To assume is to make an ASS out of U and ME.”

Got it.

What is your automatic response when something goes wrong at home? Is your default to blame your partner? Do you assume that when something you requested isn't done, that your spouse is ignoring you? Or worse, intentionally trying to push your button? If something is misplaced, left empty, or just MIA, what is your first thought? Looking for honesty here.

Or do you hold your tongue, take a deep breath, and try to generate alternate explanations that MIGHT explain your spouse’s behavior? (Hint: this is how you interrupt the cycle.)

Examples “from a friend”

It’s your birthday and you have dropped a thousand hints about this purse you’ve had your eye on. Fliers left by the reading throne, casual comments about the big sale coming up on handbags, and how your old purse is falling apart. On the morning of your birthday, when no surprise appears when you open your eyes, you ASSUME he missed all your subtle clues. You start the day in a bad mood, because you ASSUME he just didn’t care enough to go buy that purse for you. Humph, you tell yourself, he doesn’t forget to go buy ammo so he can go to the gun range. Or new golf balls. I can’t believe how thoughtless he is, and after all the trouble I went to for HIS last birthday. So selfish. See how quickly this can spiral to a negative place? But he surprises you with the purse at dinner that night. And you feel like a schmuck for the time and energy wasted, not to mention, the missed opportunity to believe the BEST about him.

Or your wife wants to start taking night classes to finish her degree, and you automatically squash the idea, assuming that she'll have even less energy than she already has after chasing 3 kids around all day.  What you miss is the opportunity to hear her dreams, and be the partner that works through a transition that allows her to utilize her gifts. You miss a win/win by assuming too quickly.

Or your spouse, a passionate entrepreneur, is home late–again. And you assume that his only focus is building something for his own ego, not for the good of the family. So you give him the cold shoulder, he's too tired to explain, and so the spiral begins. The dance feels familiar, as it's happened for months now. If nothing is done to interrupt, the cycle can become toxic.

Or consider the small, automatic assumptions that happen countless times a week. Ugh, why didn't he replace the toilet paper? Then you remember that he's out of town…blaming him and he's not even there–that's when you know it's automatic :).

Learning new dance steps

When you continually assume the worst possible explanation for the other's motivation, you eventually become resentful and bitter. The brain is an efficient organ–it doesn't want to have to come up with a new response every time it's faced with a decision. Just like ruts that develop on a frequently traveled road, our brain will conserve energy by taking a path it's used before. And this is why habits are so common, and sometimes hard to break.

But the beauty of our human mind is that we can CHOOSE our responses. In between stimulus and response, take a deep breath and RESPOND, rather than REACT. Before you knee jerk defensively, stop to ask yourself, “What evidence do I have that my belief is true?” or “Is there some other explanation other than what I'm telling myself?” We CAN change our habits.

In her book Rising Strong,  Brene Brown shares vulnerably (her trademark) about a phrase that she and her husband came up with when they were in this negative cycle.  They learned to preface their version with, “This is the story that I'm telling myself.” We all come to marriage with a complicated web of expectations/disappointments/hurts which play like a recording. By stating the scene that plays out in our head, we take ownership, and also give our partner the opportunity to understand the unique soundtrack in our head.

Time to assess

If you're not sure whether or not this applies to you, just observe for a few days, and see if you jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts. Or does your partner get frustrated by something you've done or haven't done, assuming they know the whole story? It's always best to just take responsibility for your own actions, but if assuming the worst is your partner's pattern, bring it to their attention using your awesome communication tool . Your job is not to be the policeman of the relationship. However, saying what you feel about an interaction is healthy for the relationship. Your partner can't change something that bothers you if they aren't aware of it.

You can learn to assume the BEST about your partner. Old habits die hard, and take time to replace. Awareness is the first step in any type of change. Even when you slip up, it gets easier to catch your automatic reaction, “whoa, there I go again. I was assuming the worst. Maybe there's another explanation.”

Here are some thoughts on assuming the BEST about your partner:

  1. Observe the thoughts that come into your mind when something happens that upsets you.  Jot down the thoughts in a journal, or make a note in your phone. Do this enough to identify your pattern of automatic response.
  2. Take a deep breath, and know that you can CHOOSE a RESPONSE, instead of automatically REACTING.
  3. Learn to ask, “Is there something else that could explain ______?” “Do I need more information?” Explore alternate explanations before jumping to conclusions. So many blow ups can be avoided altogether when we learn to pause and gather information, asking clarifying questions before responding.
  4. If it is someone else that is making negative comments about your spouse (hold my earrings) assume the best until facts are in place. “That doesn't sound like something he/she would say/do. Did you observe this directly or is this second hand information?” (GOSSIP–nip it in the bud!!)
  5. If, in fact, there is something that happens repeatedly, that is detrimental to you or the marriage, and you want to request a change, that topic is handled here.

For a related post, see Sarah Sandifer's post and how she and her husband worked through negative assumptions.

Question: How would you rate your tendency to jump to negative assumptions, on a scale of 1-10 (10 would be always jumping to the worst explanation)? Has this ever been an issue in your relationship/marriage? If so, how did you address the tendency? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: In the spirit of developing a respectful community, I reserve the right to delete comments that are rude, snarky or disrespectful. If you wouldn't say it to your mama, don't say it here.