Over the course of time, whether it’s a month, a year or a decade, our relationship skills ebb and flow. If poor habits are left unattended, we tend to experience negative feelings and can begin to drift away from our partner.
The Mental Model
One way to prevent that from happening is to create a mental model for your marriage. This will make your relationship happy in the short run, but will also ensure enduring success, as you will love and feel loved by your partner over the long term.
I first heard the term “mental model” from billionaire Warren Buffet. Buffet is one of the world’s most successful investors, yet he lives conservatively in Omaha, Nebraska. Of course everyone wants to know his secret for success. According to Buffet, his “secret” is simple: he has spent decades developing a mental model of what elements make a company successful, and he seeks out that information by research, observation, and asking the right questions. When he finds a business that meets the criteria of his mental model, he invests. Using this process over and over has made him a billionaire.
I decided to apply Buffet’s ideas in therapy with my clients. I think that feeling good and building a strong long-term relationship is no different than making a successful investment. Why can’t you build a mental model for your marriage?
The first step in building a mental model is to focus your energy on yourself and your partner. Tell yourself a story about your life as it occurs. You can focus on problems and negative issues and tell yourself a story about an unhappy life. Or, you can concentrate on the positive aspects of your relationship, focusing on the good qualities, and you can tell a story about a strong union that stands the test of time.
Changing the Mental Model
Let’s look at an example. Kristen comes home every night exhausted from her long work day. She fixes dinner, tucks the kids in bed then tidies up the house. Once she has finished her household duties, she settles down to relax and drinks two glasses of wine. The story that Kristen tells herself is that she needs the wine to help her unwind, and it makes her feel good. That is her reward for making it through a hard day.
On the surface it seems reasonable. It’s only two glasses of wine, and she doesn’t drink them before she has handled all her responsibilities. But has she attended to everything? What about her husband? He is her primary relationship, and he doesn’t seem to figure in Kristen’s story at all.
The flaw in Kristen’s story is that she believes wine is the quickest way to get to the “reward” of feeling relaxed. In reality, the wine makes her too tired to interact with her partner, and she ends up falling asleep early. She wants to feel important and be heard by her spouse, but she tells herself that she really only has time for him on the weekend, when she is not so tired. Her mental model is that she needs wine to get through the work week and on the weekends she can connect with her husband. She puts her primary partner on the back burner then wonders why they aren’t as close as before. Kristen doesn’t have an awareness of her own story.
But what if Kristen changed her story? What if she said to herself, “When I get home tonight, I’m going to spend 20 minutes practicing yoga after I get the kids into bed. I know I’ll feel great.” Or what if she replaced yoga with a bubble bath, meditation, or intimate time with her husband? Making that one change in her story can bring her into a deeper level of presence, and ultimately create more gratification in the relationship.
Now what if both Kristen and her husband change their mental models? What if they decide to take the time to focus on one another for fifteen minutes every night? They can talk, take a walk, wash the dishes or even make love. Their relationship is going to flourish despite any problems they encounter during the day. The more specific the story they create, the more they focus on the positive aspects of their relationship, the stronger the marriage will become.
Key to Success
Over time, they will develop mental model stories about their children, parenting, their own love story – virtually every aspect of their lives. They will develop a unique blueprint that works for them.
The key is not to struggle with changing a habit. It is very hard to do that, and frequently causes more stress than positive outcomes. For instance, Kristen cannot change that she will be tired at the end of the work day, but she can change the story she tells herself about what will make her feel happy and relaxed. She can replace the idea of drinking wine with meditation, a bubble bath, or extra intimacy with her husband. She tells herself a specific story that includes positive personal action, and this enables her to change her behavior.
The mental models we create and the stories we tell ourselves enable us to change our behaviors. Falling in love and staying in love are behavioral activities. Creating specific stories that include positive personal action provide the best chance of encouraging behaviors that foster happiness.
Questions to Ponder
What is your current personal story? Are you focusing on the positive or negative aspects of your relationship?
What are three positive actions you could include in a new personal story?
If you have a habit you would like to change, like Kristen’s belief that wine was her best option, can you create a specific mental model that changes your current story? What new positive behavior will replace the current behavior?