5 Mistakes I Continue To Make in My Marriage.

A friend told me that of everything I’ve written on this blog, this post was his favorite. So I decided to re-post it today, updated and expanded.

One of the main themes of my happier-at-home project is marriage. For me, as with many people, my marriage is one of the most central elements in my life, my home, and my happiness.

When I reflected about the changes I wanted to make, I realized I had five particular problem areas in my marriage. Here they are, along with the strategies I try to use to address them, though they remain challenging:

1. Demanding gold stars.

Oh, how I crave appreciation and recognition! I always want that gold star stuck to my homework. But my husband just isn’t very good at handing out gold stars, and that makes me feel angry and unappreciated. “Words of affirmation” are definitely my love language.

In response, I now think more about doing things for myself. I used to tell myself I was doing nice things for him – “He’ll be so happy to see that I put all the books away,” “He’ll be so pleased that I finally got the schedule figure out” etc. – then I’d be mad when he wasn’t appreciative. Now I tell myself that I’m doing these things because I want to do them. “Wow, the kitchen cabinets look great!” “I’m so organized to have bought all the supplies in advance!” Because I do things for myself, I don’t expect him to respond in any particular way.

2. Using a snappish tone.

I have a very short fuse and become irritable extremely easily – but my husband really doesn’t like it when I snap at him. He’s funny that way.  Many of my resolutions are meant to help me keep my temper in check. I don’t let myself get too hungry or too cold (I fall into these states very easily); I try to keep our apartment in reasonable order, because a mess makes me crabby; I try to control my voice to keep it light and cheery instead of accusatory and impatient. Confession: I’ve worked on this issue relentlessly for years, and I flew into a ten-second rage just last night.

3. Not showing enough consideration. 

Studies show that married people treat each other with less civility than they show to other people — and I do this with my husband, I know. I’m working hard on basic consideration, such as not reading my emails while talking to him on the phone, emailing photos of our daughters etc. Very basic, I know.

4. Score-keeping.

I’m a score-keeper, always calculating who has done what. “I cleaned up the kitchen, so you have to run to the store” — that sort of thing. I’ve found two ways to try to deal with this tendency.

First, I remind myself of the phenomenon of unconscious over-claiming; i.e., we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. This makes sense, because of course we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. According to Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, “when husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent.” I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our our car.

Second, I remind myself of the words of my spiritual master, St. Therese of Lisieux: “When one loves, one does not calculate.”

5. Taking my husband for granted.

Just as I find it easily to overlook the chores done by my husband (see #4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws. For example, although I find it hard to resist using an irritable tone, my husband almost never speaks harshly, and that’s really a wonderful trait. I’m trying to stay alert to all the things I love about him, and let go of my petty annoyances. This is easier said than done.

Just as I find it easily to overlook the chores done by my husband (see #4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws. For example, although I find it hard to resist using an irritable tone, my husband almost never speaks harshly, and that’s really a wonderful trait. I’m trying to stay alert to all the things I love about him, and let go of my petty annoyances. This is easier said than done.

I have Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness, and the Sixth Truth is: “The only person I can change is myself.” I can’t assign resolutions for my husband to follow (as tempting as that sounds; it wouldn’t work). Nevertheless, I’ve found that when I change, a relationship changes, and the atmosphere of my home changes.

What are some mistakes you make in your marriage or long-term relationship? Have you found any useful strategies for addressing them?

  • “When one loves, one does not calculate.” Thx for this, Gretchen. Perfectly concise wisdom. Also, so easy to remember as a personal mantra.

  • My biggest problem is “noticing.” I want him to NOTICE that the trash needs to go out, so I don’t have to NAG him to do it. Even if I only ask once, he counts that as nagging. I try to get out of this by just taking out the darn trash myself, but then I come back in the house and he’s left trash on the kitchen counter because there wasn’t a bag in the can… seriously? He can’t put the freaking bag in the can?? Honestly, stuff like that makes me crazy and I can’t fix him, and it seems like I can’t fix me, either.

    • DianeLynn

      I am sad to say that this was probably one of the things that led to my divorce. My ex husband and I are still good friends and I know it was the right thing to do to divorce because there were many other factors contributing to our troubles but this is the one thing that I regret most. I have to say I can’t really come up with a solution to the issue either. Do you just do everything because you happen to notice that it needs to be done? Perhaps he doesn’t mind being asked to do things and doesn’t see it as nagging? I guess it comes down to communication. Always. Communication.

      • Lisa Y

        My husband and I found a very simple solution after YEARS of fighting. In our marriage, I am the one who doesn’t notice that things need to be done and my husband always felt that I just didn’t care, which raised his stress level. The solution–one of those weekly cleaning schedules that are all over Pinterest. I no longer need to “notice” because my chores are on the schedule and my husband doesn’t have to stress if he does notice one of my jobs needs to be done, because he knows I’ll get to it.

    • Anne

      I know this is radical, but my husband and I decided that our wishes with respect to our house were so very different that what made sense was to live in a duplex with a connecting door. It is expensive, and has a few other drawbacks, but it definitely takes all the roommate hassles out of the marriage. I’ve known other couples who do this as well, even couples with kids. I think it’s the only thing that could have worked for us.

      • Tampa

        Living apart is not a marriage in my eyes. Life should be about finding the person who completes your puzzle in every way possible; a partnership which you enjoy and want to spend time with that person. Marriage is about taking two halves and making a whole and living apart seems to contradict the very concept of the word marriage.

  • PillalooCringe5


  • lecriveur

    I try to ask myself each day, what can I do to make things easier for my wife?
    Many times that amounts to staying on top of the little things. In my head, laundry doesn’t need to be done until I’m out of clean clothes, she has a different perspective on the matter so I try to keep the hamper from ever being full. I try to stay on top of the kitchen garbage, but often I won’t notice when something has started to go bad as soon as she does. This used to bother her that I wouldn’t take it out. I finally explained that I don’t notice the smells like she does, so if she would just ask me, I’d be happy to take out the trash.

  • Karen Goode

    So glad you referenced Gary Chapman’s fine book about the 5 Love Languages. Reading, practicing, and understanding it has made a huge difference in our marriage for many years. Hope it does for you and your husband, too.
    Re: knowing what his love language is-Here is a link to Dr. Chapman’s site where you can each fill out a 15 minute questionnaire to find out your love languages: http://www.5lovelanguages.com/assessments/love/
    Blessings on your day, Karen

  • Gail

    I’m a widow but I do still interact with my adult children and remember what it was like to “lose it”. I found after much thought that I tended to lose my cool more when I had faced a number of annoying events. I guess the effect of those events added up to my “using up my good!”

  • Nice!

  • MomVee

    A friend’s husband once said, “You’re not allowed to get mad at me for things I didn’t actually say.” It’s all too easy to have a whole fight in your head before an issue even comes up, because you _think_ you know how your spouse is going to react. I try–but don’t always succeed– to give my husband the benefit of the doubt, and listen to what he actually says.

    • gretchenrubin

      I am VERY prone to do this, really have to stop my imagination from creating all sorts of reasons for me to be irate.

      • Cathy

        Wow I am so glad I found this forum. I do the same thing all the time. I have conversations in my head of what I think my husband will ( or won’t do). Or more likely “get done”. I am trying now to think of things I am grateful for and watch my thoughts from running away.so hard thou….

    • peninith1

      My long-time friend calls this ‘having a little blue funk’ and ‘thinking too much’ and ‘letting my imagination run wild’. I could a tale unfold . . . but I won’t. Fortunately for me he is sort of teflon-coated about my occasional nuttiness. I used to find this enraging, but I have come to be grateful for his ability to let me ‘bounce off’ and come to rest. I fly off the handle less now, and come to inner peace more quickly.

      • Louise Baker

        LOL, “teflon coated about my occasional nuttiness”!! So apt, and applies to my husband also (thank goodness).

    • UpbeatMom

      This reminds me of something strange that I’ve done. I sometimes have very vivid dreams, and in my dreams sometimes my husband has done something that makes me very, very angry. When I wake up, I’m still mad for a while, even though I know it wasn’t real, and that he didn’t really do what I dreamed about. In these cases, I try to give him fair warning, that I am mad, but I know its ridicules. I try my very best to laugh at myself before the feeling passes. Fessing up to my husband really helps.

      • XT

        My bf and I both have a tendency to do this. When it happens we tell
        each other how badly “dream bf/gf” behaved. I think it helps to create
        some distance from our dreams while at the same time acknowledging that
        the other my have some residual feelings from the dream. He’ll text me
        and say, “bad dream gf >:( ” and then we can laugh at whatever the
        dream was.

  • DT

    Gretchen! I see that you are on the NuSI Board of Advisors! As someone who has been following the work of Peter Attia and Gary Taubes, that is very exciting. I hope you enjoy the endeavor. It seems like such a worthwhile organization.

  • Jeanmarie DiTaranto

    Just read this list from your sidebar the other day, and it definitely deserves to be part of The Best Of. Great, helpful, advice for just about any type of relationship.

    P.S. — Just finished Happier at Home and loved it — so much in fact that I’m re-reading The Happiness Project and finally starting on my own list of resolutions. Thanks for all your fascinating research and for sharing your personal story.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed Happier at Home! Thanks!

  • Erin

    I think you and I could be best friends! You hit me right on. I’m just like you. I want those gold stars too!!!! I think it must be the red hair! 😉

  • Virginia

    I really appreciate your honesty about your temper.

  • Catherine

    ‘I can’t assign resolutions for my husband to follow’ – ouch, that hit home hard. I didn’t realise that was what I was doing but it is. Gee, I wonder why that isn’t working?? lol. This is a great, concise list. Thanks.

  • I am a snapper too,..or at least I was a snapper and now am a,…..wannabe not snapper? Yes, that sounds right. I have to say that you are the first person ever who has admitted to this challenge as well. You hearten me.

    • Louise Baker

      Same here. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one with this issue; reading about your challenges with it also strengthens my resolve to continue working on it.

  • “Studies show that married people treat each other with less civility than they show to other people.” Yikes! I have a sneering suspicion that this is true of many of our closest relationships – not just romantic ones. Many of us are so much more likely to take for granted (i.e. treat any ol’ way) people who we know will have our back no matter what (romantic partners, family members, etc.) This is definitely a reminder to get back to the basics and treat EVERY person the way you want to be treated and, as an addendum, treat every person (even those you have known forever) as if you are still trying to make a good impression!

  • Honest blog, love that!Your husband is lucky that you are thinking and acting in a positive and proactive manner.

  • stilllearning2b

    I am familiar with the “gold star” dilemma. I’ve realized that it’s important for me to feel recognized on a macro level but that life is just fine without a pat on the back for every accomplishment or action. Just realizing that there is a difference between those brought me peace. Good list:) http://lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com

  • mj

    gold stars and score keeping….oh, yes.
    bring me daily gold stars and i’ll continue the score keeping.
    brutal reminder: not good, not happiness inducing for my marriage.
    But, I love gold stars…

  • Samantha

    Seems to me like your husband COULD learn how to visibly appreciate the things you do. Mine did. I (like most people!) really like for my hard work to be recognized. It didn’t come naturally to my husband, but knowing it was something that made me happy and made me feel appreciated motivated him to work on it. Now it’s just second nature for him to say, “The house looks great,” or “Thanks for organizing the day,” or “I really appreciate the work you put into [fill in the blank].” I read your book and loved it, but this sopic always bothered me. It always sounded to me like you convinced yourself not to need something that, honestly, everyone deserves from their partner.

  • Nadya

    Simple and nice tip: I read somewhere that hugging for at least one minute improves immideatelly your feelling, and brings you much closer to the person you’re hugging.
    And I try to apply this on daily basis: to hug my husband for at least a minute, at least once a day – it’s just great.

    • Sandy

      I really need to employ this because my husband needs hugs and I am not a hugger so I don’t notice. How much different if I took a minute to hug him before he leaves in the morning and again when he gets home.

    • Tampa

      Human contact is a great way to show love and appreciation for another person. What a wonderful idea.

  • sumptousme

    this morning i was so RATTLED whilst discussing the merits of australian graduate licensing versus canadian! this is early in the morning whilst going to work…
    i really wish I would stop taking EVERYTHING personally…
    i mean licensing!!! so not worth it 🙁

  • Great post, and I think these things are applicable to any relationship — even those with friends or roomies. #4 reminded me of an article I read recently:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-a-pillemer-phd/marriage-counseling_b_1860595.html. Everybody has difficulty not “keeping score” in relationships, but it works out well if you succeed!

  • Hunky Spunk

    On the subject of short fuse. No one makes you angry it is an emotion of choice designed to intimidate and bully.

  • Amazed at the similarities in what I face in my role of wife and your experiences although we are almost diametrically opposite on the globe! 🙂 So it doesn’t really matter what your native language or culture is! In the end, we, really, are all the same! 🙂
    Keep up your good work. It does add a freshness to my days.
    God bless!

  • Songburst

    Snappish tone is a big one for me. My husband is a good man and doesn’t deserve 1) my stress fallout, 2) my condescension when it seems to me he is being dumb or not using common sense, 3) my annoyance that not everything is done as thoroughly as I prefer, when he works hard to please me most of the time. For me it comes down to patience and tolerance, two biblical “virtues” that are truly hard to live at the core level, especially over a period of years with someone so deeply familiar. I try to stay conscious and avoid the traps, but fail regularly! Hearing this dialog does inspire me to keep trying, even if it only means holding my tongue, and to be patient and tolerant with myself as well.

  • curlygirl

    This particular section made for sobering reading. My husband has accused me of some of these flaws, which I’ve admitted bregrudgingly… Thank you for having the courage to be so honest yourself: reading your straightforward descriptions made it so easy for me to identify with these issues that I’ll be more motivated from now on to work on them. I guess it’s the comfort of knowing I’m not the only one out there! And what hangs in the balance is so much more important than the immediate, so-called relief of venting, that it’s worth making an effort. Whenever I do so, the impact is an obvious domino effect. The change must begin in ourselves, as you so wisely wrote.

  • Purnima Saxena Chanana

    “The only person I can change is myself.” Thank you so much for reinforcing this belief in me.This is one thing I keep telling myself when someone is not working according to my instinct.

  • Fred

    Brilliant. Thanks

  • Carol V

    I so appreciate the candidness of this piece, and the wonderful reminder that attitude changes everything. lately, when I notice myself feeling irritated and thinking “Not again!” about something my husband or son has done, I remind myself of how much I would miss their foibles if they were gone. That puts love and appreciation front and center and allows me to make requests of them from that place.

  • Lilly

    I simply love how you said “I find that when I change, a relationship changes, and the atmosphere of my home changes”. I have to be the change that I want to see in my family. If i want us to be led into a path of love, productivity, and happiness, then I must take a step and change first.

  • s_ifat

    my ongoing marriage mistake is me being a drill sergeant in the mornings. our daily schedule demands that we will be up at 5:30 a.m (i’m up at 5 just to have a moment to myself) of course I wake everybody up, and from that moment till we all leave the house I keep telling them what to do and saying a lot of “let’s go lets go let’s go” I know my husband just wants to be left in peace drinking his coffee, I can’t help it, if i don’t hurry them up, we are late for our day. i’m never late, so… so it goes