Find Marriage Failures, and Do Something Different

I have a clear memory, perhaps my first, of sitting on the lap of a very ill but not so old man. Between laboured breaths, he warned me never to smoke. I don’t remember most of the words, but I know he was dying from his choice to smoke. I have never taken a single puff of a cigarette, and I suspect that’s because a dying man showed me smoking was a very bad plan. He showed me his failure, and my being willing to learn from him saved me from ever being in his situation.

Sinking Love © Stuart Miles |

I bring this up because it occurred to me as I read Survivorship Bias on David McRaney’s blog “You Are Not So Smart – A Celebration of Self Delusion”. McRaney makes my posts look short, but it’s a great read if you have the time. The bottom line is we tend to judge success based on the survivors, thus failing to learn from the mistakes of those who failed. At best, this gives us a skewed result; more often than not it keeps from us what we need to know to succeed. As McRaney puts it, “success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.” Understanding catastrophic failure allows us to avoid it. Often survivors have no idea what such failure they avoided, leaving them unable to warn others.

Does this apply to marriage? To a great degree, it does. I think you can have a better marriage by learning ten things to avoid than by learning ten things to do. If you do all the things on the “do list” and two of the things on the “don’t do list” I suspect your marriage will be far worse off than if you avoided all of the things on the “don’t do list” and only managed a couple of the things on the “do list”. Whatever great health choices the dying smoker had made, they were all wiped out by the single choice to smoke.

I’m not saying you should ignore all the good and loving acts I suggest, but doing those won’t make up for an affair or calling her stupid daily. Figure out what will kill your marriage, and avoid those things. Then add the good things.

Today is the First Annual Generous Wife Day. It’s also my wife’s birthday – funny how that worked out.

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One Comment on “Find Marriage Failures, and Do Something Different

  1. I think this is very sound advice. It’s one of the reasons that marriage researcher John Gottman spends so much time talking about what to avoid (like stonewalling and contempt).
    And God spends a lot of time with Don’ts. (Sorry, people, but it’s true.) 
    Well-stated, Paul. We have to know what to avoid, as well as what to foster, to have a successful, God-honoring marriage.

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