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Drs. Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski on Improving Relationships
Who better to educate on the ins-and-outs of give-and-take than the husband-and-wife psychology team of Judith Sherven, Ph.D., and James Sniechowski, Ph.D., who have been married for 19 years? They are the authors of Be Loved for Who You Really Are, The New Intimacy, Opening to Love 365 Days a Year and, most recently, The Smart Couple's Guide to the Wedding of Your Dreams. In addition to be included in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, they have appeared on “Oprah,” “The O'Reilly Factor,” “The View,” “48 Hours” and “The Daily Buzz,” and on MSNBC and CNN networks. We spoke to Sherven and Sniechowski about the first 30 days of improving any relationship.
What is the secret to your successful relationship?
Sherven: I was a clinical psychologist and watched how people repeatedly destroyed their dating relationships or marriage relationships by not telling the truth. I had dated in that way for a long time. I was not authentic. I was a phony, seeking Prince Charming and trying to make a good impression. I dated like that for many years and it didn’t work. When I met Jim, it was apparent pretty quickly that we had something very special because we were telling the truth from the beginning.
Sniechowski: We have been forthright with each other from the absolute beginning of our relationship 20 years ago.
How do you move forward in relationships where there isn’t honesty?
Sniechowski: First of all, you’re going to have to be prepared to be frightened because you have been lying and you’re about to tell the truth. But there is no formula. The foundational decision is that the relationship is so valuable, it’s worth going through whatever we have to go through to salvage it. If you don’t have that foundation, it’s just too scary. The more important question is why were you lying? If we’re in a relationship and you’re not telling me the truth about something significant, what you have done is made a judgment about your value and you’ve determined that the truth of you is not valuable enough to speak it to me. So you are depreciating yourself before you even approach me. You have to be willing to assume the responsibility for all the self-undermining you have been doing in the relationship.
Sherven: Sometimes you behave in a certain way in your relationships because you learned it from family of origin. We learn how to be in relationships first when we’re little kids. Those lessons are carried to every relationship we have. For example, if your mother didn’t tell the truth, glossed things over or always made nice, you pick up that behavior because it’s the family atmosphere. To change that requires being conscious of where you learned it. You’re going to have to “move out” of that psychic home and learn something more and something different.
Has complete honesty caused any problems in your relationship?
Sniechowski: Sure, it’s caused conflicts and tension. But it all depends on what your objectives and your intentions are. We say that conflict in a relationship, when properly understood, is like an SOS. It shoots up out of the relationship, telling both people that something needs to change. The truth will lead you through some tough valleys. But don’t be afraid of the conflict. It will lead you into new emotional territory.
What advice would you give to people who have a fear of conflict?
Sniechowski: Here’s a rule of thumb, two people are co-creating their relationship right from the first moment they meet; no one is entirely at fault and no one is entirely innocent. So when a conflict arises, you cannot blame the other person entirely and you cannot assume full responsibility, either. If you understand that you’ve done this together and the objective is the wellbeing of the relationship, then conflict is just something you need to learn how to handle.
What are the biggest mistakes people make during the first 30 days of improving any relationship?
Sherven: Having the unreal expectation that things will change overnight. We want our relationships to get better quickly. It’s like asking a one-year-old to suddenly become three and get the potty training over with. It’s the same thing in relationships. Whether in work, marriage or friendship, it takes time for change to occur. If we’re really respectful of what it means to be human, we understand that. It takes time to learn to walk, to ski, to be more respectful, to be appreciative and even to be able to receive appreciation.
What are some practical things to do during the first 30 days of improving any relationship?
Sherven: Number one is to express your appreciation for the other person. Whatever you have not spoken about or taken for granted, it’s important to tell the other person. For example, at work, let the other person know you value their input at meetings or you value their particular approach to problems, or it’s so much fun to work with them on a project because they have a great sense of humor. These are things that you might think about, but you never say. It’s important to say them. If you’re on the receiving end, it’s important receive the acknowledgement that you are valuable and appreciated.
Sniechowski: There are two terms in business: strategy and tactics. Strategy is the big picture and tactics is how you carry out the big picture. Most people go into improving relationships purely from a tactical perspective. But if you don’t have a strategy behind that, it doesn’t work. For example, a major strategy is to acknowledge that the other person is not you. You must allow them to be who they are and not expect them to behave like you. Also, understand that you can’t change that person. Now that you have this strategy, you can implement some practical tactics. You can learn to ask for clarity, show compassion, handle conflict, etc... Practically, you must adopt a stance of curiosity. Ask what the other person feels, thinks and imagines. If you don’t, you may be wrong in your assumptions.
Sherven: Another thing that is really important is that both people be compassionate. You were doing the best you could until you received this new information. Understand that you didn’t receive any formal relationship training. Be compassionate and not critical.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
Sherven: Change always has a positive result. In the middle of the storm, it may be painful or unsettling, but it always ends positively.
Sniechowski: I believe in testing. I don’t take for granted or assume things will go well. I’m curious about how things will turn out. I can say change has always worked out to my advantage, but there were moments when I didn’t believe it would.
The best thing about change is...
Sherven: …you get to grow beyond the limitations you’ve been struggling with.
Sniechowski: …how the wonder of being alive comes to life. When you change, you are involved in newness and there’s always a sense of wonder in newness.
What’s the best change you have ever made?
Sniechowski: This is my third marriage. Meeting and marrying Judith has been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
Sherven: I would agree. Marrying Jim has been the best change in my life.
For more information on Drs. Judith Sherven and James Sniechowski, visit www.judithandjim.com.