I was confident that I knew what it took to be a good husband. I had watched my father and other great role models, and now I was going to put into practice what I had learned. Somehow, it became clear I had not observed well enough. The challenge was some things that seemed obvious to the male mind (or at least, to this male mind) just did not work very well. Even though, Pam and I were determined to have a wonderful marriage together, I seemed to unwittingly cause problems in our relationship. Along the way, it is dawning on me that there are some principles which seem paradoxical to men that make a significant difference to this most intimate of relationships.
1. If you want to succeed, don't be so ambitious
After six years of married life, we made the decision that I would leave my secure employment and start a business venture. A week before the great day, I happened to read a magazine article whose message was: if you want to succeed in building a business you have to be willing to sacrifice everything else - including your wife and family, if necessary. Us men know we have to pay the price for success; we have to focus, be determined, courageous - all those good manly qualities. Fortunately the message of the article was so starkly brutal that an inner voice sounded a warning. I immediately made a decision, and told my wife we were not going to live that way. I told her she and the children were at the center of my life and if the business failed, then the failure would have happened in the right place. We decided that Sundays, Monday nights and Friday nights were to be ours, with the rest of the week being available for business building. By toning down my ambition, I gave myself a chance to succeed where it matters.
2. Spontaneity requires Consistency
This decision was the right one. The problem was that outside of Sunday, and the two evenings, I was entirely focused on my work, which left a tough burden on my wife in raising our young family. She would also be left feeling her responsibilities were secondary. I would, periodically, try to fix things by bringing home gifts or trying to do something spontaneous. This was good but inadequate. The grand gesture has the greatest value when it is the icing to the daily cake of hugs, quick phone calls, taking on some of the chores, listening - and all on a consistent basis. The small consistent acts of love are worth much more than expensive gifts, even though they cost much less.
Incidentally, I heard rumor of a study which concluded that men who kiss their wives goodbye each day live five years longer. That seems a good investment of five seconds.
3. If you put your spouse first, she will support you in everything else
I have discovered an interesting spin-off of this quotidian sharing. Pam is willing to consistently support me in all my responsibilities, sacrificing greatly, when she knows that I am not taking her for granted but that she truly is at the heart of my life. This takes more than words. It is shown by the small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness.
4. Couples win by not winning
We have had some painful arguments. At such times, I could not understand why my wife did not respond to my detailed explanations about why I was feeling hurt or unjustly addressed. The male instinct in me would indicate that if I could communicate clearly enough, then Pam should grasp my logic, give me a hug and tell me I was right. What did not occur to me was that Pam also had deeply-held feelings - and ones of which I was usually completely unaware. When one of us would finally soften our attitude, listen to understand and validate what the other was saying, everything changed. Sometimes, we would both see we had to apologize. More often than not, it would dawn on me that I was in the wrong. Regardless, the relief of being able to share, understand and rebuild would be immense. I would realize, again, that I was doing Pam a great disservice by forgetting to think the best of her - that there was a reason for whatever she was feeling. Maybe she was right, or maybe she was wrong, but marriage is not zero-sum game. I don't win if I somehow score more points than my wife if I silence her by the power of my argument or the volume of my voice. If one of us loses we both lose. My goal must not be to win, but for us to win together.
5. You find what you are looking for as you lose yourself in the service of your spouse
The Master said it best: You find yourself when you lose yourself in the service of others. This is nowhere more true than in marriage. Pam and I made a solemn promise that we would always be true to each other, that we would lift and cherish each other. There may be those who believe if their needs or emotions are not being fed by their spouse that it is best to walk away and find another relationship. This is a great deception. Freedom and intimacy come from keeping our promise, and through our both putting each other first without keeping score. In creating a great marriage, that is the greatest paradox of all.