Take it from me: Advice for couples in long-term relationships

The top two lessons to learn are 1) don’t give unsolicited advice and 2) don’t try to change your partner.

I’m very fortunate. My wife Diane and I will celebrate our 44th wedding anniversary this year. Wow! That’s a long time.

Periodically, someone will want to know the secret of marital longevity. Couples who have been married for less than a decade wonder how to make it through all the ups and downs of married life. I’m very fortunate to have married the right person for me. But I have also learned a few things along the way.

I admit — I’m a slow learner (I know that Diane will agree with this!). It’s taken me a long time to learn these lessons, and even now, I sometimes forget. So be patient. This week, I share several big lessons I’ve learned.

Men aren’t from Mars — we’re from Pluto. (Mars and Venus are right next to Earth.) We all know that men and women are different in a hundred different ways. Yet sometimes we forget. Below is one stereotypical difference that I’ve observed over the years that can have a huge impact on our relationships. Woman can also be guilty of this characteristic, too.

Men like to give their partners unsolicited advice. The other day, Joe talked to his best friend, Bill, about a problem a work. Bill thought long and hard about the problem and gave Joe some advice. Joe was appreciative and thanked Bill. Men often feel comfortable both giving and receiving advice. It’s our way of being helpful to each other on Pluto.

Earlier this week, my wife discussed some of her health worries with me. I thought about her concerns and gave her what I thought was helpful advice. Guess what? She wasn’t happy. She wondered why I didn’t have faith in her ability to solve her own problems. And she wasn’t terribly polite about her feelings — she was pretty direct.

In my experience, men — and women — can get into trouble when we give “unsolicited” advice to our partners. Your spouse may just want to bounce some ideas off of you and figure out their own solution. If their partner jumps in with a suggestion, their spouse can feel interrupted, or even worse, criticized (e.g., “Don’t you have confidence in my abilities?”).

The lesson I’ve learned is to keep unsolicited advice to yourself. It’s OK to ask your partner if they would like your advice. If they say yes, the door is open. However, that will probably be the exception, not the rule.

So, give it a try, and see what happens. Instead of trying to be helpful, just listen. You will like the results.

Another piece of useful advice (see, here I go again): Accept your partner for who they are.

It appears to be human nature that opposites attract. A quiet person seeks a talkative one. Someone who plans everything in advance is attracted to someone who is spontaneous. And then we spend the next 20 years trying to get our partner to be just like us. It’s a recipe for misery and, even worse, it doesn’t work.

It’s helpful to accept your loved one for who they are — don’t try to change them. That doesn’t stop you from asking for what you want. It’s also no guarantee that you will always get what you want. This doesn’t mean that we can’t modify our behavior, particularly when we feel that we have a bad habit we want to change. But ultimately, change has to come from within.

Love and commitment that results in long-lived relationships require growing and learning together as a couple. It takes work, self-awareness, empathy and communication.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com.health-wellness-library.html.

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