Dr. Ray’s Prescription for Healthy and Happy Marriages
The psychologist and EWTN host discusses his latest book, ‘Simple Steps to a Stronger Marriage.’
Dr. Ray Guarendi, Catholic psychologist, marriage expert, husband, and father of 10 adopted children, author and host of Living Right on Eternal Word Television Network and The Doctor Is In on EWTN Radio weaves together his expertise, cheerful wit and easy-to-understand guidance in his new book, Simple Steps to a Stronger Marriage (EWTN Publishing).
Complete with relatable everyday examples, and humor at the right times to make the example vivid and memorable, Dr. Ray’s book presents commonsense wisdom in 10 simple steps, one per chapter, to promote healing for hurting or weak marriages and support already good marriages to grow even stronger. Dr. Ray spoke with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen about marriage and his new book this month.
Why did you see the need to write this book?
Believe it or not, I was working out one day, and a friend said, “Have you ever written a book on marriage?” I said, “No.” He said, “You should.” So I did.
One of the things that moved me was that the majority of marriages dissolve not because of pathology, but because the two people stop liking each other. They drift apart. They stopped doing the things that once solidified their relationship. In fact, there are small things they can do to return some of that. That’s my goal. I can’t necessarily deal with the pathology, like alcoholism, or abuse or pornography or adultery in a book, but I can give you a lot of ideas for being a better person in a marriage. And the quickest way to change your spouse is to change yourself first.
You write, “The secret of a good marriage, for the most part, is that there are no secrets — only commonsense, time-tested ideas practiced by countless others who have done it well.” Why don’t people realize that?
We are in an over-psychologized society. We talk about enlightened communication techniques; we can talk about proper sharing of feelings. In fact, getting along with people, anybody, even in very close relationships, can be distilled down to a few simple ideas. The problem is — and I’m asked this oftentimes in therapy, when people will say to me, “What’s the hardest part of therapy?” And I’ll say, “That’s very simple — convincing others to do what would be good for them and the people around them.” And that’s why, when I wrote this book, a large part is devoted to trying to convince you that these are, in fact, good things to do. Most people realize there are, but out of laziness or resistance, they don’t do it.
If these good things to do are simple, why do people resist them?
Because self-interest interferes. If I’m going to do these things, what do I risk as a person? Do I risk being rebuffed? Do I risk being put down? Do I risk being vulnerable? What happens? I better protect myself. So in doing these simple things, I find I have to overcome my own ego and my own self-defense.
Throughout the book you teach and describe ways to break bad habits and replace them with good ones in ways that often have humor that gets people to see vividly what you’re saying and explaining. Would you share an example or two?
Spouses will come in my office with a complaint about their spouse. I’ll ask the other spouse, “Do you know why your spouse feels this way?” Not really. “Why not?” Because I’ve never asked her. “How long have you been married?” Twenty-four years. “You haven’t asked in 24 years?”
So I tell spouses, you don’t have to agree with how your spouse thinks about something. But you better be able to understand it. People want to be understood almost more than they want to be agreed with.
Ask questions. It’s the easiest way to communicate. Just ask questions. “Why don’t you want to go to that party?” Because your brother-in-law’s there. “What is it about my brother-in-law?” Oh, he’s such a snarky individual and makes this comment about politics, and he makes this comment about religion. “Okay, so how do we avoid him?” In other words, what I tell spouses is: Can you get inside your spouse’s head? Do you know why they think the way they do? I’m shocked at how many don’t. So one of my small suggestions is: Just ask questions.
Such common sense. Does that happen in other areas too?
There’s something in the book that I call the “law of social entropy.” The law of social entropy says: Familiarity tends to breed atrophy. In other words, I don’t compliment you like I used to. I’m not hostile towards you; I just get lazy. I don’t use my manners towards you, like I used to. I don’t lift you up in ways like I used to. It’s not that the relationship has become ugly. It’s that we’ve just kind of drifted into a decay of the good things that we used to do. And so many marriages fall prey to that one. They truly do.
And when you say things like, “Use your manners,” well, we spend a ton of time teaching manners to a 5-year-old. We expect a 5-year-old to use manners. And I ask this: “How are your manners with your spouse? As good as a five-year-old’s? Why not?”
What’s a common example?
“Hey, give me a cup of coffee.” Now, wait a minute — “Can you please get me another cup of coffee? Thank you.” That’s very different. Manners convey dignity. And as they slip away, there becomes just this laxity in the relationship.
The cynic says familiarity breeds contempt because the cynic says as you get to know somebody, you know their faults and then you have a worse view of them. I think familiarity can bring laziness.
Here’s the question I ask spouses: “Who would your spouse say that you treat the best?” If your spouse says it’s the people at church, or it’s his buddies who he plays sports with, then you got something wrong.
You want your spouse to say, “My spouse treats me better than he treats anybody else.” Now, that’s an indicative sign of a solid marriage. Unfortunately, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I wish he was in the kind of mood that he’s in when he’s at work. And everybody loves him at work.”
Here’s another one; I call it the “personal apology percentage,” which says this: How wrong do you have to be — in your own eyes — before you apologize? Do you have to be at least 50% wrong? Only 2% wrong, in your eyes? Your spouse nagged you for 28 minutes and you erupted and yelled and screamed and said some curse words. Now, as you see it, you were 12% wrong. The other 88% was your spouse. That means you don’t apologize. Or if you do apologize for your 12%, are you worried that your spouse is going to think they’re seeing she’s admitting she’s all wrong? So I tell spouses that you apologize for your role in the friction, no matter what percentage it is. Unfortunately, we tend to say, “Well, I gotta be at least 50% wrong before I’ll apologize.”
Besides helping struggling marriages heal and get stronger, how does you book help marriages that are already on a good foundation?
There’s a finding in therapeutic research that says the people who get better in therapy are those who are least troubled. You could extrapolate that to marriages: The marriages that get better are those who are least troubled. They already start out as solid. And you can get satisfied with solid. These ideas will only make them better than solid. Make them good. Make them great. That’s the difference.
You can say, Yeah, my wife and I have a pretty good marriage. We get along. “Do you use your manners?” Not that much. “Do you ever say you’re sorry?” Every so often. “Do you compliment her?” Not as much as I used to. See what happens? These little things can actually dramatically improve a good marriage. Bottom line is: Most of the people who buy marriage books are the ones who want to improve their marriage that’s halfway decent anyway.
How will the book help people who don’t have problems in their marriage and also engaged couples?
Because these ideas are good for all relationships. With the exception of a couple of suggestions in the book — like “Dump the D word” or “Protect Your Wife” — the rest of these ideas are even applicable to friendships, because they will help you get along better with your mother, with your friends, with your co-worker, with your boyfriend. They’ll all work. You can’t just simply say, “Well, you have to be married to apply these now.”
Do you remember the series Colombo? How often he called somebody, “Sir.” One time I counted in one interchange. He said, “Sir” 21 times. Now, I’ve taken to doing that, because people like that. “Thank you, sir.” Or “I appreciate that, sir — or, ma’am.” Because if you do these little things, it just conveys, “I respect you.” And that’s the key to a lot of these small steps. They’re predicated upon respect. I respect you because I say, “Please.” I respect you because I apologize for what I did wrong, and I don’t expect you to apologize unless you’re of the inclination. My duty is to apologize: “I shouldn’t have yelled. Sorry.”
Anything else you would like to mention on what is different about this book?
Yes. I think that one of the differences in this book is that I spend at least 50% of the book trying to convince people why these are good things to do. They know instinctively they are. But we tend to resist doing them for all sorts of reasons. And in the book I talk about resistance rationale: “This is why I don’t use manners,” or “This is why I don’t apologize but once every two years,” or “This is why I don’t protect my wife with the kids giving her trouble.” I have to get people past the resistance of doing even the smallest things so that they become natural.
Indeed, as you write in your book, the overall message of the book and practicing these steps is: “The most minor improvements can reap major rewards.”
Dr. Ray Guarendi’s new book, Simple Steps to a Stronger Marriage, is available from EWTN Religious Catalogue,
Item 82675, $17.95, EWTNRC.com or (800) 854-6316.