Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Spring 2008

Marriage as a Transformational Experience - Part I

To anyone who knows them, Meghan and Todd seemed to have an ideal marriage. Why, then, were they seeking the help of a marriage counselor? "We have been married 20 years and have good health, economic success and two wonderful teenagers. We don't fight. We have a lot of routines to manage our house, our yard, and the kids' schedules, yet something isn't right. We talk about everything in routine ways. Even our sex life is routine. Every once in awhile we overhear each other at a party talking to other people about really interesting things we never talk about and we wonder how we could get to that level of interesting conversation with each other. We want to feel closer."

On the one hand, you shouldn't marry someone expecting to change them especially if you think that you can reform a drug addict. On the other hand, you and your partner should expect to change as a result of your marriage. Every Valentine's Day the newspapers run articles about couples giving each other credit for the inspiration to become the people they are today. How do these contradictory wisdoms mesh? We think the concept of transformational leadership is the key.

Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns defined transformational leadership as when we draw others to "greater involvement than expected by raising their awareness about what's important, by increasing their maturity and morality levels, and by developing their skills and confidence."

In this sense, marriage has the potential to be an experience of profound positive influence. To paraphrase family therapist Virginia Satir, marriage is a people growing experience. The choice of a mate and how you two design your life together will determine your family composition, your accumulated wealth, and your health and longevity.

When spouses act like transformational leaders, they bring out the best in each other. This process happens over time as we offer loving reciprocal influence and remain open to each others' influence. The cumulative effect may be that married people have a better chance at personal happiness than never-marrieds. While no one knows the exact way that marriage and happiness relate in a causal way, researchers Martin Seligman and his colleagues have found that 40% of marrieds rate themselves in the "very happy" category of personal happiness while only 23% of never-married do. We suspect that those 40% are also in the upper strata of marital satisfaction, perhaps because they are working on transformational relationships.

We propose six strategies for those seeking this kind of relationship. Three of these will be covered in this issue and three in the next.


In other newsletters we have written that in order for a marriage to function on an ordinary level, couples need to learn the skills of talking so their partners will listen and listening so their partners will talk. These skills include making "I" statements, paraphrasing what your partner says, asking for what you need, and managing conflict. In addition to these skills, a couple desiring an Extraordinary Marriage needs to add the skills of interviewing and deep listening.

Interviewing. Instead of brief, routine conversations about kids' activities and bill paying, Meghan and Todd learned how to ask interesting questions to get to the level of intimacy that some of their conversations with car pool buddies and social acquaintances attained. Interviewing requires your willingness to ask hard questions while being willing to be surprised by your partner's answers.

  1. What makes you the happiest right now?
  2. What would make you happier?
  3. What do you like best/least about your job?
  4. What do you like best/least about our marriage?
  5. What are some things that you want to do before you die that you haven't gotten to do yet?
  6. If money were no object where and how would you like to live?
  7. If I were to suddenly die, how would you reshape your life? Is there anything in that fantasy that you would like to be doing now that our relationship is keeping you from doing?

Listening. The kind of listening required in response to the above kind of questions is active listening plus. Plus what? The openness to not judge the answers. If your partner is talking about their unmet needs and you say, "Well, we don't have the money for that hair brained scheme," the conversation will sink. These intimate trans-formational conversations cannot happen on the fly but rather when you take a long walk, go out to dinner, or get away overnight.


There are several ways to deepen your connection:

  1. Shared interests. Do you still enjoy old hobbies or interests that you used to do? Or do you need to consider entirely new interests, especially ones spent learning new information or skills and taking risks. Examples might include accepting a foreign exchange student into your home, volunteering to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, or attending a lecture on local history. Taking risks might involve facing your fears of appearing stupid when you begin a dance or karate class.

  2. Intimate sex. Sex researchers Masters and Johnson said that "the worst place to make love is in a rut." Different techniques, settings and atmospheres help to increase a couple's intimate connection.

    If you are couple that has children in the home and worry about privacy, consider these suggestions. One, carve out some private times that the kids are not to interrupt. While it is easier for kids to grow up with the concept of parental privacy, even teens can learn this concept because they value their own privacy. Second, use opportunities during the day when the kids are occupied to have intimate moments such as taking a shower together after a Saturday morning of yard work.

  3. Talk intimately about tough topics. If you aim to "be strong for the other," you will miss some very intimate moments. Risk sharing and treasuring each others' fears and vulnerabilities. For example talking about how you feel about illnesses, deaths, money decisions, retirement, and career disappointments?

Creative Contentiousness

We have borrowed this term from Porras' "Success Built to Last." It refers to the ability to see conflict as a chance to transform your relationship from a "safe-at-a-distant" relationship to an "anything goes" partnership with no conflict too risky to explore. While troubled couples need to learn how to manage conflict, Extraordinary Marriages use those same skills to further their tolerance of areas of disagreement that seem irresolvable.

They deepen their relationship by asking questions such as:

Author Felix Adler summarizes the transformational relationship: "Love is the expansion of two natures in such fashion that each includes the other, each is enriched by the other."

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