Note: This post was contributed by Bill Dixon, former reporter and editor, PR comms consultant and stately grandfather.
She carried herself with dignity. That’s how I knew she was the one.
That and her patience, practicality, warmth, optimism, mental flexibility and sense of adventure.
Those things mattered to me when I met Pat in the early 1980s, and they have kept us close for more than three decades of marriage.
Nurturing a successful long-term relationship
I acknowledge that luck has played a role. I fell in love with a marriage counselor, after all. I acknowledge that the more alike two people are, the more likely they are to have a successful marriage. Pat and I grew up in middle income households, earned college degrees and had careers that involved lots of office work with other middle-income, college-educated people. Our work focused on facts and data, for Pat as a representative of the circuit court and for me as a reporter and editor.
Sure, luck and similarities count for a lot. But it’s still possible to have a compatible background and have a failed marriage. I think Pat and I have a successful marriage. And I think we did some things that may prove helpful to younger people considering a long-term relationship.
Here are three of those things:
We developed a baseline of data
We used a personality test called the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis. It measures nine opposing personality traits that play important roles in interpersonal relationships. Among them are “Self-disciplined or Impulsive” and “Subjective or Objective.”
I scored high for impulsivity and subjectivity. Pat didn’t. These opposing tendencies have generated quite a few spirited discussions in our marriage, almost on a daily basis. With that built-in potential for disagreement, we have evolved a decision-making style that often resembles in its speed the formation of metamorphic rock. At such times, I try to remind myself that my preferences may be guided more by my tendency to jump for the quick fix than by objective criteria.
The Taylor-Johnson instrument is only available through licensed counselors. To me, hiring an expert for a few sessions of pre-marital counseling could be money well spent. Especially when you consider the lifetime over which you can amortize the expense, and the steep cost in money and anguish if you get the relationship wrong.
Pro Tip: For a preliminary look at your personality mix as a couple, you might consider a free option. Our daughter Phoebe, a counselor-in-training, likes The Five Love Languages profile, which focuses on emotional communication preferences. Other free options are based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which groups people according to four “dichotomies:” introversion vs. extroversion, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. These options include Truity’s TypeFinder Personality Test or 16 Personalities or HumanMetrics.
We went to a relationship class
Actually, I went to class. Pat taught it. It was where I first saw Pat’s brains and sense of adventure assert themselves.
She would go to happy hour somewhere with a fellow counselor, put together the lesson plan and then lead a thought-provoking class, all in the same evening. It was the teaching equivalent of performing without a net, and she pulled it off every time.
As a relationship teacher, Pat emphasized the importance of self-knowledge as a prerequisite to successful relationship-building. As I remember the logic it was something like:
Know yourself, so you can trust yourself, so you can trust others.
One class session focused on knowing how to cope with – or as Pat put it, survive — change. We learned that we should expect to be stressed by change. Even good change, such as moving in with someone you love, will cause a stress reaction in most people. We also learned techniques for surviving change. The ones that have meant the most to me are:
Pay attention to your thoughts. Are they rational? If not, argue with yourself.
Keep change to one area at a time.
Make sure you have support.
In another lesson, we examined the supportive relationships we already have. We students made lists of our personal “boards of directors:” people who had made a positive impact on our lives. I recall that about a third of the people on my list were college professors or high school teachers, because they set high standards and were confident that I could achieve them.
Making the list helped me realize the high level of trust that was a part of my life. It also helped me see how this new person in my life, Pat, fit into my trust network. I put her at the top of my list.
We went white-water rafting
This was very early in the relationship, and it did two things that strengthened our relationship. First, we shared an adventure. Second, it challenged us to achieve a common goal – surviving! – in an unfamiliar environment. During that trip, each of us learned how the other dealt with stress and how it felt to work together.
Over three days, we rafted a 45-mile segment of the Deschutes River where it cuts through a dramatic gorge in the high desert of Central Oregon. Our crew consisted of three heavy duty inflatable rafts, with five people to a raft. We had a couple of experienced river runners along, but everyone else was a novice. We learned to paddle and negotiate the rapids very quickly.
Each of us took a turn steering our raft from the stern. This involved not only using our own paddle as a rudder but telling our fellow passengers how to use their paddles so our raft could make tight turns around the rocks that seem to be everywhere in the Deschutes. We all made mistakes in these situations, and it was invigorating to work through them together
But the real relationship builders were on shore. Like when Pat and I tried to cook spaghetti noodles to feed the crew, couldn’t get the water hot enough and wound up with dough lumps. Or when a freight train blasted its way through the gorge at 2 o’clock one morning (yes, there’s a rail line there) and we thought it was going to run right over us as we huddled in our sleeping bags.
Then there was the skunk. This was also at night. We slept without tents because you can get away with that in arid Central Oregon and because, without much ambient light, the sky is alive with stars. The night after the train attack, I woke up to a scratching sound. It was a skunk exploring our plastic ground cloth. Being the loving partner I was, I woke up Pat, urged her not to get excited and clued her in to the skunk. When she sat up for a better look, I got behind her.
If the skunk had sprayed at that moment, Pat would have taken the full blast. Instead, our guest just shuffled off.
We have relived this moment many times over the years, and there are two things I can’t explain. One is why I got behind Pat instead of in front of her. Two is why she didn’t abandon me right then. If you figure it out, please comment on the blog.
But she didn’t abandon me, not even when . . . A couple of years ago, I thrust Pat into the role of emergency caregiver when I blew out my tendons on both knees.
Did you know that when you walk down stairs holding large boxes in front of you, you are likely to miss a step because you (a) can’t see ahead of you very well and (b) can’t hold onto the handrail? Did you also know that when you fall from a height of about 2 feet and land on your knees you can screw them up so royally that you no longer can move your legs from the knee down? We learned all that the hard way.
THE FALL happened on Labor Day weekend 2016. A surgeon repaired the knees within 12 hours of the fall, and, legs tightly wrapped from hip to ankle, I was able to hobble around like Frankenstein within 12 hours of the surgery. But I faced at least six weeks of hobbled recovery before the casts would come off and I could bend my knees again.
There was no question of taking the trip to Hawaii that was scheduled to start in early September. All of the household chores suddenly fell to Pat. Plus she had to give me injections of an anticoagulant every night. She had to put up with my squirming through the night (I dare you to get comfortable in bed with your legs straight out) and my using the bedpan every couple of hours because I couldn’t get myself out of bed. She even had to drive everywhere, for God’s sake, after being chauffeured by me for more than 30 years.
It was a horror show.
The main factor that pulled us through was the trust we had built up. The personality data, the class, the raft trip – they put us on the right track to handle a big disruption. Throughout the busted-knee ordeal, I never doubted for one minute that Pat would help pull me through, and, as far as I can tell, she never doubted that I would make a full recovery.
THE FALL reminded me how relationship-building – focused, conscious effort -- is important. In the beginning, it brings richness to our shared lives. But at some point -- and if you're lucky this point won't come until much later in life -- it brings healing in times of crisis or loss. To paraphrase a popular phrase from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians a well-founded relationship “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
Four Takeways To Consider:
Use assessment tools to learn more about each other. It’s enlightening.
Take a relationship class. With real people, not online.
Share adventures as rookies. No fair if one of you is an expert.
Always hold the handrail.
For more from Bill, check out From Conflicted to Conscious Consumer: How To Build & Enjoy a Mindful Shopping Habit.