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Civil Unions

Why are we so rude to our spouses, yet courteous, kind, and patient with complete strangers? Paying attention to good manners and small niceties may be the key to sustaining the vitality of your relationships.

When you were a child, you didn’t know how to be civilized. As you grew up, however, your elders took pains to integrate you into polite society. They taught you to say “please” and “thank you,” to shake hands, to chew with your mouth closed. They taught you to share and to consider other people’s feelings. Over time, you learned to be polite. And then you fell in love, committed yourself to someone and promptly forgot every bit of etiquette you ever knew.

Why is it that we often unleash our most impolite and uncivil behaviors on those we most love – particularly spouses? Does familiarity truly breed contempt? “Many people think good manners aren’t needed among family and friends, that manners are like a formal jacket that you only put on when you leave home,” says P. M. Forni, PhD, author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003) and cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. “This is unfortunate, because by using good manners – which is to say by being polite, considerate and kind – you show that your respect and love for your spouse are not just empty words but rather a daily commitment to action.”

And so, gentle reader, here are nine relationship-building principles to keep top-of-mind – manners that will not only make your mother proud, but that could, if practiced regularly, significantly boost the health and longevity of your partnership.

1. Be Nice

It’s a simple but powerful concept. Partners who are as courteous with their spouses as they are with perfect strangers are, at the very least, keeping air in the tires of their relationship.

“I tell couples to live their lives using the stranger standard,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, LCSW, a marriage therapist who specializes in helping couples on the brink of divorce and author of Divorce Busting (Simon & Schuster, 1993) and The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2004). “I have so many couples tell me they’ve had an enormous, nasty fight, and then they go to the grocery store together and one of them will say to a stranger cutting in ahead of them in line, ‘Oh, that’s OK, please go ahead.’ All too often, we don’t treat our spouse half as well as we treat strangers.”

Consider how you speak to your sweetheart.

Joshua Coleman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco and author of Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin’s Press, 2003) and The Lazy Husband (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), believes we need to talk to our partners with the same precision and care (and sometimes cordiality) that we extend to new friends and acquaintances. “What often happens after a year or two is that couples start getting sloppy about how they communicate,” Coleman says. “They start saying things they wouldn’t dare say to their coworkers and friends.”

Consider how you speak to your sweetheart. When you want the television volume lowered because your partner is watching Fear Factor and you’re trying to read Great Expectations, are you more likely to say, “Honey, could you please turn that down a little?” or “Hey, are you deaf? Turn it down!” If it’s the latter, you might want to fiddle a bit with your own volume and tuning.

2. Be a Good Listener

Interrupting someone when he or she is talking is almost always bad form, and it does much to erode bonds between partners. Cutting off your spouse before he’s fully finished expressing his thoughts is tantamount to saying, “I really don’t care what you have to say.”

The art of active listening can lead to understanding and, in the best scenarios, to compassion. Steven Stosny, PhD, creator of the CompassionPower program, and author of The Powerful Self (BookSurge Publishing, 2003), works regularly with emotionally and physically abusive couples, but his message on the importance of empathy also applies to healthy unions. “The implicit promise you make when you form an intimate bond is that you’re going to care how this other person feels. When you fall in love you don’t say, ‘I’m going to care about you when I feel like it,'” Stosny says. “But when you let the compassion in a relationship erode, you appear desensitized to the emotional world of the other person. You are automatically causing resentment. A failure of compassion starts the relationship on the downward spiral.”

Fortunately, empathy and listening skills can be improved with practice, says Weiner-Davis. She suggests the following active-listening exercise to make couples aware of their conversational dynamics. “Take turns: One person is the speaker and one is the listener. After the speaker has stopped talking, the listener has to paraphrase – accurately and without exaggeration – what the speaker has said. It’s amazing how that can diffuse the tension.” She says the idea is to teach couples to really hear one another – to accurately receive and confirm receipt of the message given – without offering any immediate commentary or rebuttal.

A good listener also learns to read the feelings that underlie his or her partner’s statements, Stosny says. “You have to tune in to the emotion. If your partner feels like his feelings are heard and valued, he’ll be far more open to compromise,” he explains. “Resistance in relationships is often about a person not feeling valued.”

3. Go Beyond the Golden Rule

That age-old guideline for considerate behavior, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” is well meaning, but it comes with some built-in liabilities. The problem is, people in general – and men and women in relationships in particular – don’t always share the same preferences. “Sometimes, for example, a husband may not have a clue that one of his behaviors is bothering his wife,” says Forni. “It doesn’t bother him, so from the point of view of the golden rule, he’s blameless. But he’s completely unaware that she has a different sensitivity.”

The classic example: A woman enjoys being asked how her day went (because it makes her feel cared for), so the moment her husband gets home from work, she asks him how his day went – which makes him feel hassled and irritated. Teasing out how your partner actually wants to be treated is vital to the success of long-term partnerships, Coleman says. “When you love somebody, you want to love them in a way they want to be loved,” he explains. “Guys, if it makes her feel more loved to talk to you about your feelings and have you appreciate her and be romantic, then you can’t simply say, ‘Well, I don’t love you that way. I love you by cutting the grass and fixing things and buying things for you,’ and expect her to be happy about it. Learning how to love your partner in a way they want to be loved is an ongoing process.”

By the same token, don’t expect your partner to intuit your needs in every situation. You’ll need to speak up if you need an hour alone or you hate it when your spouse starches your underwear. And you’ll have to be realistic about your partner’s own limitations: If your spouse travels extensively for business, you probably can’t expect her to attend every one of your weekend softball games – no matter how important they are to you.

4. Mind Your Mess

Well-mannered folks never leave messes for someone else to clean up. That’s because they always consider the feelings of those who might be disconcerted by a pair of pajamas on the bathroom floor or dirty dishes left in the sink.

When one member of a couple doesn’t clean up after him- or herself, laziness is at work, asserts Jason Tesauro, coauthor with Phineas Mollod of The Modern Lover: A Playbook for Suitors, Spouses & Ringless Carousers (Ten Speed Press, 2004). “Entropy creeps into a relationship no matter how hard you try to keep it out,” says Tesauro, who is also the manners and love columnist for Match.com, Men’s Health and The Nest. “Any busy person going from one project to the next leaves a wake. But the last thing you really want to be arguing about is a triviality like trash.”

Housekeeping habits are a perennial sore spot for couples, says Peter Post (great-grandson of etiquette expert Emily Post), director of the Emily Post Institute and author of the forthcoming Essential Manners for Couples (HarperResource, 2005). In order to avoid squabbles with his wife over keeping the house tidy, he says, he decided to be honest about who was master of the house – or, at least, the steward of each room. “You have to ask: Whose space is it, yours or your partner’s?” he says. “I figured out that the bathroom is my wife’s room. I had to learn to leave the room the way she wanted it, not the way I wanted it.”

5. Considerate Self-Care

One of the best gifts you can give your partner is a self-respected, cared-for body. Thus, personal grooming should be a high priority on any spouse’s to-do list. Looking and smelling good not only communicates your respect for your own body, it also shows your beloved that you take care of things he or she cares about – including you. Everyone’s hygiene and grooming standards are different, of course. But that’s the whole point: It’s best to at least be mindful of your partner’s preferences.

“On a Saturday morning I don’t necessarily go shave and get showered up if I’m going to do chores, but I do it afterward,” Post says. “When you sit down to dinner with your partner, put on a nice shirt and pants. If I look a little bit better for my wife, she’ll feel more proud of being with me.”

Keeping healthy and fit is another way to strengthen your marriage. A smooth-running ticker means you’ll stick around longer, for one thing. But being fit also makes it more likely you’ll be up for fun of all kinds, whether a game of tennis with your sweetie, a brisk after-dinner walk or other active entertainments.

Vigorous exercise also moderates moods, tones muscles and helps you maintain a healthy, attractive weight — a sticky wicket in many relationships. It’s not easy for couples to talk about how weight gain affects a marriage, but in many partnerships, it’s an issue, Weiner-Davis says: “It happens so often that one spouse will say, ‘You’ve gained 40 pounds and, therefore, sex is less appealing to me.’ And the other spouse will say, ‘I hate that you don’t love me for who I am. Why should I lose the weight for you?'”

While we would all like for our partners to love us no matter what, it’s also true that our emotional relationship may hinge strongly on our physical chemistry and interaction.

While we would all like for our partners to love us no matter what, it’s also true that our emotional relationship may hinge strongly on our physical chemistry and interaction. If a previously shared value for physicality, fitness or athleticism is later downgraded or abandoned by one partner, it can cause very real feelings of loss and betrayal. It’s just one piece of a complex bond, but for many couples, it’s an important one.

6. Touch Well and Often

Tending to your partner’s physical needs is important to the foundation of a well-mannered marriage – and that includes nonsexual touching.

“We did an online survey about what people did to help make their relationships successful,” Post says. “Holding hands is a huge way for people to communicate with each other. There are also different kinds of hugs: that good-morning hug, or the hug when you’re washing dishes and your partner comes up behind you – both of those send a message of affection. Touching is really important, and not just when you’re being intimate.”

Weiner-Davis advises couples to discuss their physical needs openly. “The real key in healthy marriages is to figure out what touch means to both your spouse and to you and to make sure you go the extra mile to be there for each other,” she says. “It’s about taking time to find out from the other person what feels good to him or her: ‘When you hook your arm in mine walking down the street, that really makes me feel good.’ It goes back to recognizing what you need, what your spouse needs, and then being able to communicate that and offer it to each other.”

7. Fight Fair

All is certainly not fair in love and war. To keep arguments civil, establish some rules of engagement. And note, too, that sometimes a civil fight will end in a draw or a deferral, rather than defeat or triumph. “Couples really get into trouble when they become more intent on being right than making harmony,” Weiner-Davis says. “Relationships tend to go bad when people put a lot of energy into keeping score and holding grudges, when they won’t let go of the past, refuse to look inward and prefer pointing fingers rather than seeing their own role in things going downhill.”

Along with the damage that all-out conflict does to a marriage, it appears that arguments can also lead to physiological breakdown. Husband-and-wife team Ronald Glaser, PhD, and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, along with colleagues at Ohio State University, studied 90 newlywed couples. As reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2003, they found that arguments between spouses were associated with a weakening of the immune system – potentially making participants more susceptible to illness – and with raised levels of the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol.

In fact, high levels of stress hormones in couples may be the best predictors of future problems: When the scientists followed up with the couples 10 years later, 19 percent were divorced, all of whom had had high levels of three of the four stress hormones when measured in the initial study. Couples who were still married but deemed “in trouble” also had higher levels of those hormones than their happily partnered peers.

Taking time to learn how to fight fair is advantageous on many fronts. One helpful tool is a list of rules for conflict that both partners develop together and then sign. It might include such items as: “No leaving the house during an argument,” or “Either partner can call for a 20-minute cool-down,” or “All discussions automatically get tabled at 9 p.m. and can’t resume until the next morning.”

Consider rounding out your list with at least one oddball rule, such as “If the conflict isn’t resolved in half an hour, both participants have to remove their socks,” or “Either partner has the right to put the conversation on hold for a quick round of Trivial Pursuit or Mad Libs.” It may sound crazy, but it could also cut the tension and lead to a more amicable discussion.

8. Don’t Be a Tattletale

Good stewards of marital relations never, ever reveal their spouse’s most embarrassing or dark secrets – to anyone. “Breaking any important confidence is an egregious blow to your vows,” says Tesauro. “If you read the fine print on any good marriage contract, it says that secrets told on the pillow are meant to stay there.”

Bedroom antics should also stay behind closed doors. Tesauro believes that a man should never regale his buddies with tales (or complaints) related to his wife’s boudoir behaviors. “I think husbands can do better than that, and besides, do you really want to objectify your wife?” he asks.

And ladies, you’re not off the hook either. Just because you discuss your own intimate life details with your gal pals doesn’t mean you should dish on your husband’s deepest fears or mention his experiments with Viagra. If word of your breach of trust gets back to him, he’ll have every reason to be hurt and angry.

On the other hand, there are times when each of us needs to vent. Talking things out with someone other than your partner can have a leveling effect on your emotions. Just make sure that what you’re revealing to your friends or family doesn’t put them in an awkward position – or betray confidential information that your partner has told you. “Both partners need to get the reflection of their friends for support,” Coleman says. “So you should talk with friends if you need to, unless it’s about something the other person finds shameful or humiliating. In that case, it should be kept a secret.”

9. Make Note of Special Occasions

Thank-you notes are considered an essential gesture in polite society. So are the formal recognitions of birthdays, anniversaries and other notable occasions. The same rules apply in a civil union, and although they may be applied less formally, they should, if anything, be applied even more often.

Why not pen your spouse an occasional note of appreciation – for bringing home groceries, cleaning the bathroom, taking the dog out on a walk or doing an especially good job of listening? Even if they feel a little corny, small expressions of gratitude can go a long way toward keeping deeper appreciation and goodwill alive.

Anniversaries and personal holidays are important opportunities for you and your significant other to celebrate your history, your mutual commitment and your love for each other.

Good manners go way beyond knowing which fork to use with fish or where to seat people at a dinner party. Abiding by the rules of civility can help ease the daily friction in your most intimate relationships. “Human interaction is a delicate thing,” says Forni. “It is fraught with the possibility of hurt, the result of carelessness, defensiveness, misunderstanding, manipulation and hostility. Good manners are a set of relational skills that allow us to minimize hurt in any kind of human encounter. They are wonderful tools for relational maintenance. Civility is good for relationships.”

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.

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