Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Policy of Joint Agreement: Part 2

(More thoughts on the Policy of Joint Agreement from Dr. Willard Harley)

The first few weeks following the Policy of Joint Agreement are definitely the hardest, because that's when incompatible habits and activities are first identified for termination, and that's when the termination begins. As a couple takes a critical look at their entire lifestyle, evaluating which elements of it are not acceptable to one of them, they may find fifty or more problem areas. Sometimes the results of that early analysis seem so overwhelming that couples don't know where to begin. Then, when they tackle the very first item on the list, resentment rears its ugly head. When couples first tackle their incompatibility head-on, it can seem very discouraging.

Let's talk about how incompatibility is created. It begins when one spouse does something in his or her own best interest that's not in the other spouse's best interest. An example is having an affair. People have an affair because it meets their emotional needs and makes them feel good. The fact that the affair hurts their spouse does not deter them. An affair creates instant incompatibility because as long as it's tolerated, there's no way that a couple can live together in harmony.

All other acts of self-interest at the other's expense also creates incompatibility in various degrees. Incompatibility, therefore, is simply the accumulation of thoughtless habits and activities. The more of them a couple tries to tolerate, the more incompatible they become.

Most marriages start off with very few thoughtless habits because successful courting usually gets rid of them. Couples who are considering marriage go to great pains to behave thoughtfully because, if they don't, they won't get to the altar.

But after marriage, thoughtless behavior usually begins to grow. In the name of personal freedom, private interests and expanding horizons, spouses develop habits and activities that do not take each other's feelings into account. Before long, they are no longer "compatible."

The bottom line is that couples need to eliminate behavior that is good for one and bad for the other, even if it makes the one eliminating it feel bad. The truth is, it should never have been there in the first place, and all you're doing is eliminating a bad habit. It's like telling a child molester to stop molesting children. It may make him feel bad to stop, but he should never have gotten started in the first place.

Now here's an important question, how should people deal with the disappointments of giving up thoughtless behavior?

The more pleasure a spouse gets from his or her thoughtless behavior, the more difficult it is to eliminate. Affairs, which are usually intensely pleasurable, are very difficult to eliminate because the withdrawal symptoms are so severe. A spouse having an affair goes through deep depression when he or she tries to leave the lover. Even every-day pleasurable activities, such as Monday Night Football, can leave a husband depressed if his wife puts it on her termination list. The truth is, whenever we try to stop doing something we like, we miss it, and experience some sadness in its wake.

Having spent some time helping people overcome addiction, I am very aware of how difficult it is to give up something that gives a person considerable pleasure. The procedure we use is to provide emotional support to help people keep the commitment they had made. Clients are tempted at all hours of the day or night to start drinking again. The worst of it is during the first few weeks of sobriety, but as time passes, it becomes easier and easier for them to remain sober.

I believe that the same principle applies to overcoming very enjoyable but thoughtless behaviors in marriage. At first, you may need support from someone who can not only provide emotional encouragement, but also accountability. Sometimes a pastor or good same-sex friend can fill the bill. If none of those people are available, a marriage counselor provides that support and accountability as part of his or her job. In the most serious cases, I go so far as to recommend anti-depressant medication to someone who experiences severe withdrawal symptoms. As time separates a person from the enjoyable habit, the depression and resentment subside and he or she returns to normal. But if a slip occurs, and the person returns to the habit, in many cases the process of withdrawal must begin all over again. This is most obvious when working with alcoholics and those having an affair. One drink or one phone call to the lover is all it takes to plunge the person back into the captivity of their addiction.

For most of us the problem habits are the simpler but nonetheless troublesome behaviors that we can easily avoid, but leave us feeling somewhat depressed and resentful. My advice in such situations is to give it three weeks. At the end of that time, most people find their negative feelings turning around. Besides, if both spouses are abandoning thoughtless behavior, their improved lifestyle more than makes up for trivial losses in selfish pleasure.

As a couple identifies and eliminates thoughtless behavior, the withdrawal they experience will cause some unhappiness at first. But it doesn't leave a void -- couples are not left with nothing to do. They replace their thoughtless behavior with new thoughtful activities that give them a solid marriage, love for each other and much greater happiness than they ever could have had with all their thoughtless activities combined.

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