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Marital woes? Take a look in the mirror

You and your spouse don't need to spend more time together. You don't need to chat incessantly about your day. You aren't "growing apart." Your marriage doesn't require "fixing."

Marital problems most often boil down to one person's unhappiness being aggravated by the other person's unhappiness, say Morrie and Arleah Shechtman, authors of a blunt new book about marriage.

"Our approach is that relationships don't have problems, people do," Morrie Shechtman said. "Each person has failed to grow individually. They have lost a sense of vision and purpose in their lives. They stopped setting goals. They stopped having interesting lives independent of the marriage.

"It's like two 5-year-olds dressed up in adult clothes trying to have a marriage."

The Shechtmans, authors of Love in the Present Tense (Bull Publishing, $16.95), say couples who feel dissatisfied with their marriages often come to spectacularly wrong conclusions about the problems.

The couple, who have counseled people for 30 years, wrote the book because they perpetually hear the same complaints about married relationships and are convinced a different approach is the answer. Growing apart is a term they often hear.

What's crucial in a marriage is that the two share common life values, said the authors, who are married and live in Montana. The good news is that people are remarkably good at choosing a mate with whom they share values. They do it almost subconsciously. And that means they have a strong foundation for a good marriage.

But strains are inevitable, and the Shechtmans say they know right away when people head down the wrong path in assessing what's wrong. The issue of time is a typical strain that drives couples apart.

One spouse, for example, will complain about not getting enough attention, as if he or she were a child vying for a parent's time. When couples first become romantically involved, they want to spend all their time together. That stage of the relationship naturally evolves.

"Marriages are not about spending time together, they're about intensity," Arleah Shechtman said. "It's that deep emotional connection."

The usual advice that couples carve out time for "dates" is fine, unless the time is spent staring blankly at each other or talking about a child's soccer game, the authors say. Instead of a date, couples should go learn something together, the authors said. Or take a vacation in which they confront a new culture together rather than sit on a beach.

Moreover, the authors said, spouses must confront and challenge each other. They should expect that _ require it _ from each other. "Relationships need to be vibrant," Arleah said. "There should be questioning and conflicts. If not, you see people daydreaming, glazing over, drifting and having affairs."

Communication is another issue that typically creates division. Spouses will grumble that their partners seem uninterested, for instance, in how their day went. While communication is essential to a marriage, the authors said, many people don't understand the essence of good communication.

"Most married couples do data dumps," Morrie said. "As in "Let me review the 18 things I did today.' At about item No. 9, their partner is ready to blow their brains out.

"Don't share details of the day with your partner. It's like a bad CNN broadcast." Explore instead one of the day's happenings that had a real emotional impact, the authors said. Talk critically about how you reacted and analyze why you reacted that way.

"We're talking about people taking emotional risk," Arleah said.

Good marriages

Here is Morrie and Arleah Shechtman's list of core values that they think make for a great marriage. If each partner agrees to these, they say, emotional intensity and intimacy will follow.

Personal growth: Commit to learning about yourself, expanding your point of view and extending yourself into the world.

Willingness to challenge each other: Demand the best from your partner. To do otherwise is to give up on him or her.

Pre-eminence of the adult relationship: Make the marriage a higher priority than any other relationship in your life, including with friends, family or children.

Dedication to your life's purpose: Commit and be actively involved in your own endeavor outside the marriage.

Inner renewal: Tap into your own source of inner renewal, such as religion and meditation or through other avenues, such as nature and art.

Personal responsibility: Assume full responsibility for your inner life; your spouse is not the cause of your unhappiness.

Accountability: Keep your word, follow through on commitments and accept the consequences of what you do and what you neglect.

Quality communication: Communicate with your partner about your inner life.