How One Little Word Can Save a Marriage

I heard an idea recently that I think might be the key to a happy long-term relationship. And as with so many brilliant ideas, it’s tiny and simple. It has to do with changing one word: “should” to “prefer.”

In relationships, we get very caught up in what our partner should do, give, say and be. We carry into the union our childhood dreams of the perfect person. From fairy tales and romantic comedies we learned that this prince or princess would provide for us, care for us, and cherish us (with the occasional cutesy argument in between). These expectations are nearly impossible to live up to—and yet it’s hard to give up the fantasy. It can feel downright dangerous to accept what we see as “less than perfect.”

That’s when we get into the shoulds. He should know how I feel. She should work harder. He should help more. It’s easy to find fault and believe we’re being mistreated.

But try changing that one little word and see how it feels. It’s the difference between “My husband should do the dishes” and “I’d prefer it if he would do dishes.” Or between “My wife should have sex with me more” and “I’d prefer it if she had sex with me more.” This way we’re not saying that we deserve sex or that there’s some cosmic rule about it, we’re simply saying we wish it could be that way. And we know our wishes don't always come true in the exact way we envisioned them.

It’s softer, with more compassion for another point of view. It leaves room for negotiation and the other person’s preferences. And it recognizes that we can’t demand that our partner want what we want, or conform to our desires. If we have preferences rather than demands, or moral stances, then maybe it’s a little easier to accept that we won’t get everything we want. Or to find the middle ground between two different desires.

Because that’s the work of being in relationships: negotiation, compromise and compassion for the other person’s stance. We ask a lot of our partners, and want most of our needs to be met by one person. But this is not always realistic. How do we know when what we’re not getting is too important to give up? We can start by realizing that what we desire is a preference, not a birthright. That just might make it easier to both find common ground and re-evaluate what we really, really need.

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