Continuing with my trend of reading books on reality therapy or control/choice theory by William Glasser, I picked up a used copy of Staying Together. This book is subtitled “A control theory guide to a lasting marriage,” and as you might expect, discusses the application of control theory to relationships, specifically marriage.
Dr. Glasser was married to his first wife for 46 years before she died of cancer in 1992. From my perspective, this is anecdotal evidence that control theory can improve the odds that your marriage will be a lasting one.
Having said that, I did not find Staying Together to be as useful as the more detailed and process-oriented Control Theory or the more thought-provoking Positive Addiction. This isn’t to say that there aren’t applicable ideas in Staying Together — there are; however, I’m not sure there is a lot here that can’t be found in Control Theory.
ST is a quick read at around 130 pages. One of the more illuminating quotes from the book is when Glasser discusses “sexual love” and criticism, the latter of which is one of the bigger “no nos” in control theory. First, here is Glasser describing sexual love:
If we can find someone we love who loves us, and if we are able to combine this love with sex, there is a good chance we will enjoy what many people believe is the ultimate intimate experience: sexual love. Finding this is a lot more difficult than just finding sex because it can be experienced only in relationships where the lovers are very good friends. . . .
Friendship is based on sharing common interests, being able to say what’s on your mind without fear of rejection or criticism, planning and building a life together, and most of all looking forward to being with each other when there is nothing pressing to do. And a good friend supports the interests of a partner even when they are not shared. Someone you can talk with anytime about anything is the ultimate in marital friendship. There are too many married strangers.
Glasser goes on to describe how criticism kills sexual love:
More than anything else, hoping yoru partner will change or actively trying to change him or her desroys sexual love. that your dissatisfaction is justified makes no difference. You can be “right” and still kill your relationship. In practice, what this all adds up to is criticism. The criticism may be silent—a look, an inattention, a failure to do something—or it may be open and outspoken. but whatever it is, if your partner perceives it as criticism, your relationship is in trouble.
There is no such thing as constructive criticism. All criticism is destructive, and when it occurs in a relationship, it quickly kills sexual love. . . .
What I try to teach is how to express dissatisfaction without criticizing.
Glasser suggests framing one’s own dissatisfaction in such a way as to put the onus of change on you, not your partner. He says:
This is not criticism because it is not demanding that the other do anything different. It is saying hekllp me to do something better than what I am doing now. . . .
It also says clearly that all problems are our problems; neither of us is perfect, but let’s try to help each other work things out. IT also says what is so basic to control theory: All each of us can do is control our own behavior; I can’t control you and you can’t control me, and I don’t want to continue to waste time trying.
Not surprisingly, the application of control theory is one of two pivotal points in ST. The other pivotal point is that individuals in successful relationships manage to share a commonality in their outlook on the world. This is evidenced in two ways. First, Glasser distills everything down to five fundamental needs that each vary in strength. These needs are survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. The strength of these needs dictates our personality. Without going into detail, he suggests figuring out on a scale of 1-5 where you and your partner fall in strength on these five needs. From this personality profile, you should be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses in your relationship. It’s an interesting exercise, but I feel like his five categories aren’t exactly right. They approximate our needs, but for example, the need for power and freedom seem to overlap in my mind.
Personality is too complex to be summed up in a five need system. Regardless, our personalities clearly dictate a lot of our compatibility with mates. To the extent we can recognize where we are incompatible and mitigate these differences rather than trying to change our partners, we can strengthen our relationships.
Second, Glasser discusses a concept on which he goes into considerably greater detail in Control Theory: this is the notion that we have certain “pictures in our head,” which combine to form our “Quality World.” Essentially, these “pictures” are things, experiences, activities that satisfy our ever-changing desires. To the extent that we share common pictures with our significant others, we increase our chance of marital success. Thus, successful marriages tend to have partners who actively share common pictures, compromise when one partner has a strong picture the other doesn’t, and creatively seek out new common pictures to share.
I’d also like to note that Glasser writes at length regarding the importance of fun and creativity in a marriage. No doubt the married couple that laughs and plays together will end up staying together.
Finally, I want to include one more quote from the book as it almost sums up the importance of not controlling your partner in your marriage:
Of all tasks we attempt in life, successfully managing another person or other people is the most difficult. In marriage, it should not be attempted at all—it is a marriage killer.
On a more general note, and this pervades Glasser’s school of thought, control theory is not about controlling others. It is about controlling yourself and how you behave in the world.
So in sum, I ask myself: how can I better act to improve my relationships by changing the only thing I have control over — my behavior.
- Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
- Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
- Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.