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COUPLES SHOULD FOCUS ON THE FUTURE TO IMPROVE THEIR MARRIAGES NOW

"Suppose that one night, while you were asleep, there was a miracle and your marriage became perfect - just the way you wanted. When you woke up in the morning, how would the marriage be different?"

When asked this question, most troubled couples describe a "new" miracle relationship as being one in which positive conditions such as peace, respect, appreciation and communicating effectively would exist.What stands between couples and their desire to have an condition such as "peace" residing in their relationship? One major obstacle is couples' habit of fussing and suffering over what they don't have rather than focusing on what they would like in a future relationship.

A key concept for couples in creating their own "miracle relationship" is that of opting for the future. For example:

- A discussion of any argument can lead quickly and usefully to consideration of what each person is willing to do to prevent a recurrence of that argument in the future.

- Any complaint or criticism can be translated by a disgruntled spouse into information about what changes in the other person might help in the future. And any recipient of a complaint or criticism can ask the spouse, "What changes would you like in the future?"

The recipient can also give information: "This is what you could do in the future that would aid me in giving you the changes you want."

- Any breakdown in communication can be analyzed from this vantage point: "What can we learn from what just happened that we can apply in the future?"

- Any problem that comes up can alert both spouses to the need to apply "win-win" problem-solving: "How can we solve this problem right now - and both feel good about it so it doesn't keep hanging over our heads?"

In a mode of opting for the future, discussing negative past events is only justifiable if the discussion is used to brainstorm ways of relating more effectively in the future.

"Opting for the future," adopted as a philosophy and decision-rule by spouses to guide them in how they do business together, takes the blame out of relating. It is the future, not the past, that is relevant and the future is fresh, hopeful and untainted by "past crimes."

Anything is possible if couples want to commit time and energy to achieve it.

Opting for the future, of course, requires that each spouse commit to paying attention only to what he or she is going to do in the future, rather than monitoring the activities of the other person in that respect. The question each spouse must answer moment-by-moment is, "How can I improve on my performance in the future?"

Opting for the future also requires that couples count their victories: "What did we do well that gave us the peace or the respect or the closeness we just enjoyed?" And, "How can we repeat that in the future?"

Couples essentially become the monitoring agents of their own successes, rather than of their failures. Each spouse acknowledges the positive changes he or she sees in the other. And each focuses on what is possible and changeable, rather than on what is impossible and intractable. Spouses are on the same team - advocates rather than adversaries - as they move in concert to create and savor the conditions they opt for in their relationship.

George S. Pransky, author of "Divorce Is Not The Answer," describes an experience of a couple that lends itself to a discussion of "opting for the future." As they lay in bed reading after a marital seminar that day, Lori had an idea. "Greg," she said, "what if we tried to be positive and nice to each other? We could experiment for one day and see what happened."

"One day?" her husband replied. "I don't know about that. It sounds a little contrived." Then he thought about how nice it was when Lori was sweet. "Let's do it," he said.

The couple agreed that for one day, neither could say anything negative. If one of them violated the rule, that person had to give the other a 20-minute massage. Observes Pransky: "The couple realized how torturous it would be to massage someone you're mad at. Twenty minutes would feel like six hours.

"The next day it took about 10 minutes for Greg to resent Lori. She woke him up early after he told her he wanted to sleep in. He kept still but was grimly determined to mention it the next morning when the experiment was over.

By noon, they had countless resentments on their minds. Greg regretted doing the experiment on a Sunday. On a weekday, they wouldn't have had so many hours together. Lori contemplated airing her list of accumulated resentments at 12:01 a.m."

However, "as the day wore on, each found it easier to endure resentments. They were surprised at how often they were annoyed at each other and how petty most of the annoyances were. Because they did not immediately express their resentment, there was a `cooling-off' period, and the problems seemed to lose their punch."

The next morning, "they reflected on the previous day's experiment. To their surprise, they agreed it was the nicest day they had had together in recent memory - more laughter, more intimacy, more relaxation. They noticed they felt safe around each other knowing they wouldn't be attacked. Another surprise: They got over their dissatisfaction sooner than they ever would have imagined possible."

As a result of their experiment, the couple adopted a course of being positive together. And it wasn't long, Pransky reports, that they didn't have to work at being positive. It became a way of life.

Like this couple, of course, becoming positive - and opting for the future - can become a way of life for you, too.

- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.