What About ScreamFree Marriage?
Why your marriage is every bit as important (if not more so) than your parenting.
I used to believe that marriage would diminish me,
reduce my options. That you had to be someone less
to live with someone else when, of course, you have
to be someone more.
--Candice Bergen, American Actress (1946 - )
As we travel around the country, inspiring parents to calm down and grow up, I always hear one wish: “I can’t wait to see ScreamFree Marriage!” Now, I’ve been working with couples for years, and I’ve started presenting the Marriage seminar around the country, but these parents want more. They want the book. I like to think this is because after hearing the amazing power and wisdom of ScreamFree Parenting (and awestruck by the engaging, dashing speaker), people naturally want to expand that vision; they can’t help but want to revolutionize their marriages with the same relationship principles. More likely, however, the wish has something to do with the fact that in the back of the book we included an ad for upcoming books. And the Marriage book, according to the ad, was supposed to be released February 2006. Yep, last month. And so now, I'm the one wishing, “I can’t wait to see ScreamFree Marriage!”
I’m actually hoping that the book will drop down from heaven someday soon, complete as a Word document ready for a publisher. That way I don’t actually have to go through the process of writing it. I won’t bore you with the standard writer’s saga of how difficult it is to write the second book, or how challenging it is to carve out the emotional time and energy needed to bleed out one’s thoughts into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters.
But writing, like marriage, is incredibly difficult. And, like marriage, it is supposed to be. Writing is not an activity that’s supposed to come easily, or always flow freely. It’s not like riding a bike, where you can always pick it right back up, regardless of the time away. No, writing is different—each time you truly begin again. You may have knowledge of accomplishments in the past, you may cherish memories of when it did seem to flow, and it seemed so natural and effortless. But living in those memories, trying to rekindle those early flames, only serves to distract and discourage you away from the present challenge at hand. But if you can say “yes” to the challenging moment, hang on to yourself even as you feel stretched to the limit, the process always leaves you changed for the better.
Wait—are we talking about writing, or marriage?
ScreamFree Marriage is coming, albeit slower than many might prefer. But don’t be too eager to see it, because it’s not necessarily going to be the “feel-good book of the year.” This is because it starts with one premise: your marriage is supposed to be this difficult. The marriage you are in right now, right this minute, is the marriage you’re supposed to be in, right this minute. That’s not saying you have to stay in that marriage, but it is saying that you helped co-create the marriage you’re in, like it or not. You have been an active participant every step of the way, and while you may initially object to that fact, it is awfully good news. It’s good news because if you helped co-create it, then you can actually do something about it now. And if you want to do something about it, then you must begin at the same place ScreamFree Parenting began:
The greatest thing you can do for your marriage is learn to focus on yourself.
ScreamFree Marriage is not about “fighting fair,” or learning a slew of anger-management techniques. No, we’re talking about something far more optimistic, something far more hopeful than any technique could provide. ScreamFree Marriage is about taking your marriage seriously as a growth vehicle. I have said many times that parenting is the hardest thing most of us are ever called to do. Well, I was wrong. Nothing is harder than being truly married. Sure, anyone can go through the vows and anniversaries and mortgages, but being truly married means not just actively working on your marriage, but in the words of Dr. David Schnarch, “letting your marriage work on you.”
The marriage you find yourself in right this minute is really trying to do a number on you. “No, duh,” you say. In the back-and-forth jostling for whose needs get met, in the brave refusals to accommodate and compromise, in the troubling disagreements over the five mountains of marriage (kids, in-laws, money, division of household labor, and sex), your marriage is asking three things of you: calm down, grow up, and get closer.
And that’s actually the structure of the new book.
Section One: Calming Down focuses on the essence of becoming ScreamFree: learning to calm your own anxiety. If you’ve read Parenting, then you know that the hallmark of the ScreamFree life is recognizing one solid principle: Emotional reactivity doesn’t just make things worse, it actually creates the very outcomes you’re hoping to avoid. This explains why panicking about your child’s homework actually decreases her motivation to do it. This explains why nagging your husband as soon as he walks in the door late actually decreases the chances he’ll want to come home early the next time. Or why freaking out about your wife’s credit card bill will only increase its chances of soon maxing out.
Whenever we give in to our anxious reactivity, we place all our emotional needs into the hands of the people we’re trying to influence. And as long as we’re not under our own emotional control, then we become weak and needy, actually depending on the other person to calm us down. And when’s the last time you respected such an emotionally needy person? When’s the last time you genuinely wanted to change your behavior because an emotionally needy person begged (or nagged) you to?
What this calls us to is taking our attention off our spouses and placing it squarely upon ourselves. Regardless of how my spouse is behaving, how am I behaving? Am I the spouse I always wanted to be? Am I the type of self-respecting, and yet caring, spouse that people would cheer on the movie screen? Whatever the answer to those questions, what I first have to do is learn that I am only responsible for me. I am responsible to my spouse, but I am responsible for myself. And that means I’m responsible for calming my own anxiety. That way I’m not automatically getting in my own way, sabotaging my very efforts to improve my relationship. I first have to reclaim my own calm.
Section Two: Growing Up sends us further, asking us to let marriage do its job and grow us up. Think about it. What else besides increased maturity can lead us to “speak up” to our spouses without becoming childish and demanding? What else besides increased maturity can lead us to refuse participating in the same old argument and yet also refuse to leave the scene? Growth always occurs through conflict, whether it’s a muscle straining beneath a barbell, or a husband honestly addressing the fact that he’s not very attracted to his wife anymore. Or a wife choosing to bravely pursue a more active, adventurous sex life with the man she loves (even if she’s not sure he wants the same thing).
What’s consistent about all these conflicts is their location. The true, life-changing location of conflict is not between partners, but rather within them. And that’s what marriage naturally does to us. By placing us in such close juxtaposition with someone essentially different from us, marriage asks us to ask ourselves what we really want. And that’s where we find the conflict, in our own conflicting desires.
Growing up means facing those conflicting desires, and discovering what you want most. And then pursuing it without knowing the outcome of that pursuit. This is scary, because we all know how well our spouses can hurt us. No one can eat your heart out like the one you’ve given your heart to. But no one can freely choose you, despite and even because of your differences, like the one you’ve freely chosen. And that’s the promise of personal growth in marriage: the intimacy you’ve always craved.
Section Three: Getting Closer operates with one solid premise: we all both crave and fear intimacy at the same time. Intimacy is the art of knowing and becoming known, warts and ecstasy and all. And for most of us, the prospect of being that naked before another is both inviting and terrifying. Sure, there’s times we like being naked, and there’s times we like our spouse to be naked, but there’s naked and then there’s really, really naked. Some of us have learned to connect with our genitals so that we can avoid having to really connect with our eyes. The idea that intimacy has become a euphemism for sex actually devalues both. Again, intimacy is the art of knowing and being known, and that means it includes both the passionate togetherness of intercourse and the painful separateness of one partner revealing to another: “You know, I don’t really like you right now.” Intimacy includes all of the above.
And ScreamFree Marriage leads us to the possibility that you can have both within the same marriage. That’s why the marriage you’re in right now is the one you’re supposed to be in, because the very challenges you’re experiencing now are the ones challenging both your desire for and fear of intimacy. You wouldn’t be having the challenges if you didn’t want something more from your spouse and your marriage. You wouldn’t be worried about the challenges you’re having if you weren’t afraid of what you might be learning (knowing) about your spouse and yourself. And what he/she may be learning about you.
For the brave, those who are willing to both confront their fears and desires, there is a brilliant process awaiting you. This process centers on calming yourself down, growing yourself up, and pursuing the intimacy you crave. This process certainly won’t come easily, and just like the writing of this article, it won’t flow freely. But it will leave you changed for the better.