Relationships, You & Your Family

Mixed doubles

Mixed doubles

My wife and I had the opportunity recently to visit and observe up close some couples—all married for more than 20 years—who appeared as different as chalk and cheese.

You, too, probably know of such couples. For example, where one spouse is a lark while the other an owl in their sleeping and waking patterns. One whose idea of a good holiday involves dashing off to cover as many sights as possible, while all the other wants is to stay put and relax. One a hoarder while the other a minimalist in their approach to possessions. I think you get the idea of what I mean by the differences which “mixed doubles” have to endure living with one another.

Although some of the differences may seem trivial, over time it could become the pebble in one’s shoe, causing annoyance that eventually leads to open warfare or even a permanent schism. We may have heard of couples who fight over their toothpaste, because one spouse systematically begins from the bottom and carefully rolls up the tube while the other squeezes the tube wherever convenient.

Toothpaste tubes

As a marital therapist, I have a professional interest in this area. How is it that some marriages can weather such turbulence and others do not? This question highlights that it is not the absence of differences nor even conflict that makes a marriage strong. Even in spite of apparent mismatch, some marriages are fundamentally strong.

I made some observations in our interactions with the long-married couples.

One feature is humour, or a couple’s ability to laugh about and with each other but not at each other. The difference is small but critical. You may complain about your spouse’s need to check repeatedly that the door is properly closed before leaving home but you also accept that the anxiety has a good intent and in the greater scheme of things, amounts at most to an annoyance.

The phrase “greater scheme of things” encapsulates another coping feature. In other words, the couple keeps in mind the big picture, which helps them not to “sweat the small stuff” or “major in the minors”.  They acknowledge that the irritations and annoyances do exist but there are bigger things holding them together, be it their children, shared history or hopes for the future. To be sure, this important glue may change over time. For example, the children will grow up and the couple may then band together to be better caregivers to their ailing parents.

Another characteristic is the recognition that we all have faults. In strong relationships, there is no competition over who has more faults or whose faults are more damning. When spouses start keeping score on how each has been disappointed, the relationship descends to unforgiveness and bitterness. Remember not to be overly critical of each other and of yourself.

And like any enduring relationship, it is important to set aside time regularly to give the marriage some TLC (tender loving care). If we take spa retreats to care for our tired bodies or treat eyebags, why not do the same for our tired relationships? Spending a few days together, not immersing yourselves in activity but sharing slow meals and quiet walks is a useful start. Then take time to reflect on the past, maybe giggle about the petty fights, or mourn jointly over past losses. Acknowledge and give thanks for where you currently are. Perhaps recalibrate plans for the near future. Doing all this as part of a relationship’s repair or maintenance can help build a mixed but effective doubles match.

Benny Bong has over 40 years of experience as a therapist, counsellor and trainer. He also conducts regular talks and webinars. Benny has helmed the You & Your Family column for more than 16 years and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.