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Laura Hunt

Relationship Guide
January 2005:
Start Your "Full-Potential Marriage" Now
by Claire Hatch
Claire Hatch, MSW is a licensed social worker and mediator who specializes in working with couples. From her Seattle area office, she counsels people by phone and in person.

Claire will be happy to answer your relationship questions in this column. Please send them to or call her at 425.823.2273.
Want more relationship help? Then The Bridal Sanity Workbook is for you. Claire shares wisdom from her pre-wedding counseling experience and her work with troubled marriages.

Did you find an engagement ring in your Christmas stocking? Congratulations! Getting married is one of most positive steps you can take in your life. Research shows that marriage makes you healthier, wealthier, and definitely happier. Married people have lower rates of depression and anxiety than single people. Some studies have shown that they have a death rate half that of singles. And as to wealth, well, it should be no surprise that if you have someone who supports you and believes in you, it will make a big difference in your ability to achieve all of your goals, financial and otherwise.

I call this kind of marriage a "full-potential marriage." Of course, we are all acutely aware that this is not everyone’s experience. That’s why you should start now to lay the ground work. Here are some ideas about what it means to have a full-potential marriage, along with two keys to make it happen for you.

Elaine and Mark are a good example of a full-potential marriage. When Mark has a big deadline coming up, Elaine takes on more of the chores and tries to make things easier on him. She makes time to listen to how things are going and acts as a sounding board. And when he pulls off a tough assignment, she gets as big a kick out of his success as he does.

On the other hand, Mark encouraged Elaine’s growing interest in investing in real estate, and even encouraged her to leave her job to pursue it full time. Their income took a big hit in the short run, but Mark figured they'd more than make it up down the road. And in any event, he felt that the growth and learning that her new work brought into their lives was valuable in itself.

"When I start to doubt myself, I look at Mark and know he believes in me completely. There’s just nothing like it," says Elaine.

Together, Mark and Elaine have more energy, interests, and resources than they did on their own. Unfortunately, many couples can only dream of this kind of synergy.

For Kathy and Jim, marriage is like a see-saw. When one is up, the other’s down. Jim feels that Kathy, who is a full time mom, resents his job rather than supporting it. "She seems to feel like it’s my hobby, something that benefits just me. Can’t she see this is what we all live on?" he asks in frustration.

For her part, Kathy feels on the defensive about her household spending. "It simply takes a certain amount of money to maintain a home. I'm not being extravagant. I'm just trying to keep everyone comfortable, including Jim. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate it."

Why do some couples find themselves locked in a zero sum game, in which one partner’s gain is the other’s loss? And what does it take to have a marriage like Mark’' and Elaine's?

Based on my work counseling couples, as well as my own marriage, I believe there are two key ingredients to a full potential marriage.

1. Support for Each Other’s Highest Priorities
As with every other life decision, getting married will expand your life in some ways and limit it in others. If you feel like the compromises consistently outweigh the benefits, you will likely become disillusioned about your marriage. There is no way around compromises in human relationships, at least not that I’ve discovered! But you accept them more easily, even gladly, when you know without a doubt that you have your partner’s support for the values, dreams, and goals that matter most to you.

Of course, in order to give each other this kind of support, you need to communicate to each other what your priorities are. Clarifying life goals is a part of every pre-marital counseling program, including my own, and that's a great place to start. It also needs to be an ongoing process, so that staying attuned to what's really important to each other is a habit, just a part of the fabric of your marriage.

2. Taking Responsibility for Your Own Life
It is very difficult to believe in your partner if you don’t believe in yourself. You simply won’t have the emotional generosity it takes to cheer your partner on, unless you are fairly self-reliant yourself. If you are depending on your partner to make you feel comfortable, secure, or fulfilled, then it's quite likely that a growth experience for him could be a thorn in your side.

I was talking over this article with my husband (speaking of support!) and he put it this way: "If you are not happy with your own life, you will get mad for the wrong reasons."

For example, Jack felt very threatened when Lindsay went out for lunch or drinks with her colleagues. She had an exciting new job and was very anxious to make connections at work quickly. If Jack was taking responsibility for his own life, he would do some soul-searching to figure out why this made him nervous. Instead, he communicated his disapproval loud and clear, so Lindsay felt guilty whenever a work event came up. Not exactly the kind of dynamic that will help her succeed on the job.

You can pretty much expect your partner's career to be a flashpoint, if you're not taking responsibility for your own life, and vice versa. Of course, true workaholics exist. And so do partners who stray. But honestly, nine times out of ten, when I find a person who resents their partner's job, I also find a person who is not happy with their own choices.

As you go about planning your wedding, be sure to make time to ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I clear about my most important goals and dreams?
  • If not, what am I willing do to get more clarity? Read? Take a class? Get some counseling?
  • Do I know what my fiancĂ©'s priorities are? Am I committed to finding out and supporting them?
  • Do I depend on my fiancĂ© to make me feel comfortable and fulfilled? Do I "get mad for the wrong reasons" when it doesn’t happen? Am I willing to grow in the direction of taking more responsibility for my own choices and my own fulfillment?

Marriage doesn't have to be a zero sum game, especially if you set your expectations early on. Now is the time to plan for a marriage that is healthy, wealthy, and brimming with potential.

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