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MARRIAGE NEEDS CONSTANT FINE-TUNING

If you're married, at one time, for the price of $25 or less (depending on when you were born), you purchased a little piece of white paper that said you were wedded to each other, at the very least, until "death do you part." And, if you'll admit it, you would most likely say that you really had nothing more than a vague idea of what you were committing to. With no manuals, no instruction book, when you said, in a state of trembling euphoria, "I do," you might as well as added, "I do? And just what is it that I'm obligating myself to?" because you really didn't know.

From then on, without as much training as it takes to get a driver's license, you took your "forever white paper" and went about setting up a household and going about being "married." But most of what happened to you after that occurred at what might be called an "unconscious level" - that is, unrecognized patterned ways of behaving settled in - some of them functional, others dysfunctional - that became part of an implicit - but unknown contract - dictating the way you related to each other. The patterns, then, in many ways began to "rule" the marriage.There were no summit meetings, no bill of rights, no explicit rules or contracts spelled out as to how you and your partner were going to "run" the marriage. Thus, many patterns were settled by "hook or by crook," with no knowledge on the part of either of you that some of the formed dysfunctional patterns were or could become so toxic that they could very well lead to the demise of your marriage.

Then, if you are like most couples, you may have assumed that the $25 piece of paper you obtained on your wedding day, and the marriage it "bought," would serve you as is the rest of your life - implicitly assured that the marriage would be "all right," not recognizing the marriage to be a living, evolving organism that would need fine-tuning, upgrades, additional parts and sometimes major overhauling to stay abreast of evolving needs as you both matured and grew and your needs changed.

To think about it differently, if you were operating a business on an "unconscious level" - not charting the course of the business, not investing in or paying attention to whether the business was still in running order, or pitching its product accurately to the market place, the business would surely fail. The same is true of marriage.

The point of all this is that a marriage, like a business, needs to be responsive to its own market place - a condition that can only prevail if the two participants in the marriage bring the marriage to a "conscious" level, that is, begin to talk about what is happening in and to the marriage, assessing whether it is meeting the needs of those involved, and making investments of time and energy in the marriage. To do less in the '90s - a time of great stress that consistently pulls the energy and attention of partners in directions away from the marriage - is to invite a marriage to collapse under the weight of its own unresolved burdens.

So, how do you begin to put your marriage under a microscope? How do you bring it to a conscious level where you can begin talking about the way the marriage is constructed and whether it is fine-tuned to the needs of both partners or in need of adjustment or repair? Here are a few helps:

- Individually think of how your own behavior would change in a positive direction to meet the needs of the other partner if, every year, you conducted an annual review, with each of you going to his or her own separate island to review the marriage and then coming back together to decide whether to renew the marriage contract for another year. That's enough to bring any marriage to a conscious level.

- Take a periodic personal inventory of yourself as person and as a partner, perhaps using questions drawn from a book by Harry P. Dunne called "One Question That Can Save Your Marriage: What Is It Like To Be Married To Me?" For example, What's it like to talk with me? What's it like to bargain with me? What's it like having me as a sexual partner? Or companion? Then, take a deep breath and ask your partner questions such as the above. And, for a finale, finish with "What changes would you like to see me make that would make it easier for you to be in this marriage?" Gulp down the answers without becoming defensive.

- Keep a "Do Differently List." Write down the information you receive from your partner and put the list in a place you'll see it every day - in your underwear drawer, on the inside of your medicine cabinet or on the sun visor of your car, and choose particular items to focus on each week.

- Open up the communication channels. Most couples spend only a few minutes a week talking about themselves or the marriage. Decide, perhaps, to take walks and talk. Or be like one couple, the husband of whom reports that during the 17 years he and his wife have been married they have spent 800 hours talking. And how did this husband have any idea how much time he and his wife had spent? He explains: "Every Saturday morning for the 17 years of our marriage, we've gone out to breakfast, just the two of us together. When the children were small, that Saturday morning baby-sitter money had top priority. Even when we had company for the weekend, we still went out for our private breakfast."

- Consider doing spontaneous things every day you know your partner would appreciate, such as holding hands, giving a back rub, fixing dinner or leaving a love note under the pillow. Make your overall objective one of transforming your marriage into a partnership that's not only more "conscious," but also more supportive, fulfilling and fun.