Marriage is an adventure … an opportunity … a chance to love and be loved, to know and be known. But successful marriages don’t just happen. They take time and intentionality.
It’s interesting that one of the most important facets of marriage is also one of the most overlooked—the idea of knowing yourself.
Your emotional intelligence (EQ)
My wife, Michelle, and I have been married for almost 23 years. We’re both fiercely independent and like to do things our own way. In many ways, we’re a classic example of “opposites attract.” One thing we absolutely agree on though is that mornings are from the devil.
When we first married, we mindlessly went through our get-ready routines each morning. We could even go 30 minutes without speaking. It wasn’t because we were upset; we were just tired. And neither of us likes mornings. More than two decades later, our routine hasn’t changed much.
What makes this work for us is that at some point early on we actually had a meaningful conversation about mornings. It included some general information about how it takes us both time to warm up in the mornings, and it’s not personal if we don’t say much to one another. (In fact, we actually preferred that we say nothing.)
But underneath that discussion was a canvas of self-knowledge derived from 20-plus years of experience at being, well, us. This is essentially what is referred to as “emotional intelligence” (or EQ).
Marriage counselor and researcher John Gottman spends time and energy helping couples know and access their EQ. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he explains, “Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.”
While it’s true that some EQ is innate, I believe every individual can work on developing it. Within a marriage relationship, each individual should constantly be striving to grow in two key areas.
I think of self-awareness as knowing things about yourself—your preferences as well as how you’re likely to respond in a particular situation. A few things about me: I love fried shrimp and chocolate ice cream. I don’t like sushi. I hate when someone sneaks up on me, intentionally or not. I have a highly sensitive startle response and will likely shout and recoil. Especially if I’m working alone in a quiet place or have gotten really lost in my own thoughts.
Because I’m self-aware of certain things, I can make things easier for my wife. For example, I told her early on about my startle response, so she’s good to make sure I hear her from a distance before she walks in and scares the Jesus out of me.
In a marriage, each person can use self-awareness to make the relationship work better.
When Michelle and I were first married, I really messed up by not celebrating her birthday in a big enough fashion. In my own family of origin, birthdays were just another day on the calendar—and you happened to have cake. But in her family, birthdays were the opportunity to be queen for a day (or a week). Cards. Balloons. Flowers. Candles. The works. Needless to say, I now make sure she is fully celebrated.
Both individuals in the marriage should be growing in self-awareness. This isn’t just about the husband knowing why he leaves his dirty socks all over the house or why the wife leaves her damp towel on the bed. This is about really discovering some of the real reasons for the things you do. Or being able to honestly tell your spouse that there’s no real reason for some of the things you do.
Mindfulness is closely related to self-awareness, but it goes deeper. I think of mindfulness in terms of knowing why we feel and think the way we do at a specific point in time.
For example, one morning not long ago, I had an upsetting meeting with a co-worker. The discussion made me distressed. And to be honest, that negative conversation impacted every interaction that day.
So when my wife texted me to ask about meeting her for lunch, I agreed. But it wasn’t long into our lunch before I regretted my decision. She wasn’t aware of my bad morning, so my “emotional hangover” clouded our conversation.
I was frustrated, but not with her.
But in the absence of information, those around us tend to take our moodiness personally. Not long into our lunch date, Michelle stung me with these words: “I wish you’d just told me no.”
When we fail to practice mindfulness, we often become our own worst enemies, sabotaging interaction after interaction. And without a little intentional self-help, we can soon find our spouses and children bearing the brunt of our frustrations.
For that reason, I always urge people to do their best to draw a dividing line between their work life and their home life. For many, that means driving around the block a couple extra times before going home, especially if they’ve had a difficult day. For others, that means just sitting in the garage for a few minutes to collect thoughts and clear the mind before entering the house.
Mindfulness allows you to regain a measure of control over yourself so that you can bring your best self home to those you love most.
A better tomorrow
As a believer, self-awareness and mindfulness also involve reminding myself of the true source of my value. That’s not about what my boss thinks, my co-workers think, or my wife thinks. It’s about who Jesus says I am—His child. Radically loved. Deeply accepted. And completely forgiven.
No matter how good or bad you currently judge your marriage to be, every marriage can grow and improve. Your path to a better tomorrow begins with taking time to really know yourself. And then being vulnerable enough to share with your spouse.
The journey is definitely more like a marathon than a sprint, but the goal is to cross the finish line together, hand in hand.
Other healthy habits
Scientists agree that emotional intelligence is just one of five habits that directly correlates to marital health. Read about the other habits, too.
Copyright © 2019 Garrick D. Conner. All rights reserved.
Garrick D. Conner is a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, ordained minister, and freelance writer. He serves as discipleship pastor at Park Hill Baptist Church in North Little Rock, Arkansas. You can read more from him at garrickdconner.com. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.