Real (Not Sugar-Coated) Secrets to a Happy Marriage
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Real (Not Sugar-Coated) Secrets to a Happy Marriage

In his new book, Dr. Phil advises wives to stop acting like their husband's mothers, be truer to their authentic selves, and face facts on not getting everything you want.

Dr. Phil, Relationship Guru

Not that he would admit it, but on the day we meet for an interview, the usually indefatigable Dr. Phil McGraw has finally run himself ragged. He's had a whirlwind of TV guest spots, including filling in as host on Larry King Live. That's come on top of the demands of his daytime talk show, which took him to flood-ravaged New Orleans, where he counseled traumatized rescue workers and literally provided a shoulder to cry on. Now he's treating himself to a little R & R by attending tennis matches at the U.S. Open, in New York City, but he just can't seem to unwind. What's a big, tough-talking self-help guru to do? He calls his wife, Robin.

"Phillip said he was feeling a little blue after seeing all the suffering in New Orleans," Robin tells me later. "He asked if I would fly out to be with him." Robin was on the first flight out of Los Angeles. When she shows up, Dr. Phil claims the visit was her idea.

He can be forgiven his little white lie. The private Dr. Phil is a man who feels comfortable asking for love and support when he's feeling needy -- and he knows that his wife will be able to give them. As he explains in his new book, Love Smart: Find the One You Want -- Fix the One You've Got, such trust is one of the essentials of a healthy union, both for dating couples as well as the long married. Returning in part to the subject matter of his 2000 best seller, Relationship Rescue, and to his roots as clinical psychologist Phillip C. McGraw, PhD, he has distilled two decades of counseling experience from his private practice in Texas into a no-nonsense guide to finding the right person, creating a true connection, and sustaining love and respect over the long, difficult road that is marriage. Given the country's perennially high divorce rate, which hovers around 50 percent, it's advice both singles and marrieds are presumably hungry for.

When he isn't busy with his talk show, now in its fourth season, Dr. Phil, 55, loves spending quiet time with Robin, 52, at their palatial Los Angeles home, as well as getting together for golf or tennis with sons Jay, 26, also an author (The Ultimate Weight Solution for Teens), and Jordan, 19, a freshman at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. Dr. Phil recently spoke about the importance of establishing a respectful relationship right off the bat, how early problems presage later conflicts, and how to mend a marriage that has gone astray.

"I'm Not Your Mother"

Q: What's the most common mistake women make, both before and after saying "I do"?

Dr. Phil: Many women try too hard to be a good sport. They tell their partner what he wants to hear and try to be who he wants, in a go-along, get-along sort of spirit. But by pretending you're one way when you're not, you betray yourself and your partner, and if you end up getting married he's going to feel deceived.

There's another reason why being overaccommodating is absolutely the wrong approach, and I'll tell you why in two words: his mother. She's the most significant woman for any man until he gets married, and even then she's the "other woman" in his life. Mom has nurtured and probably spoiled him, so women inherit a guy who's used to being taken care of and waited on hand and foot. As a result women have to stand up for themselves and redefine the relationship. They've got to tell their husbands, "Hey, I love you, care about you, and want to be with you, but I'm not your mother and this has to be more of a partnership."

The other fact is that a man loves and respects his mom because she has given him guidance and direction. Guys won't admit it, but they secretly like a lot of guidance and direction from the women in their lives. So to be truly effective with your man, you've got to decide who you are -- your strengths and your weaknesses mentally, physically, spiritually, and personality-wise -- and ride that horse all the way to the finish line. We all need to be flexible and to compromise in marriage, but you've got to be true to your core traits and characteristics, what I call your authentic self.

Putting His Money Where His Mouth Is

Q: What about you personally? Have you been able to follow your own advice?

Dr. Phil: When Robin and I were dating, she called me one time and said, "I want to go to my sister's house. Will you take me up there?" I said sure, 'cause I wanted to be the good guy, right? Now the truth is, I ain't big on family. I love my family and spend time with them, but I believe in having my own life and doing my own thing. And I sure wasn't big on her family. I mean, my idea of a good time wouldn't be to drive 100 miles to sit in her sister's house with their kids running around on a Saturday afternoon. I'd rather take a beating. It's nothing against them -- I hadn't even met them -- it's just not my thing.

So I thought about it for about 10 minutes, then called Robin back and said, "I ain't taking you." And she said, "Why not?" And I said, "'Cause there's no point in doing stuff now that I'm not willing to do later, and I won't be willing to do that later. If you want to see your sister, go ahead, and I'll see you when you get back. And I'll tell you what, I won't ask you to go hang out with my sisters, either." So Robin loaded up the car and off she went. Now I've been to her sister's house once in 30 years. I know them and like them and they're good, down-to-earth people. They're certainly welcome in my home, but I still don't want to go spend the weekend there. I just don't want to be around in-laws.

Q: Whoa, now that's frank. Has Robin been equally assertive?

Dr. Phil: Very much so. One of the things she's really had to do in our marriage is stake out her turf as a woman in a house full of men. When both our boys are home, she oftentimes just calls a time-out and says, "Hey! Girl in the room!" She has certain rules -- you don't leave tools or muddy shoes out or stereotypically boy stuff sitting on the kitchen table. She's been very tough about protecting her environment so we all behave like gentlemen.

Q: But despite our best intentions, we're often not honest with ourselves about our own needs, let alone with our significant others. What's the consequence of that?

Dr. Phil: The problem is that you create expectations you can't fulfill. And the research is very clear: What creates the biggest problem in marriage is not what happens once you're in it, it's whether it conforms to what you expected to happen. You want to go into it with your eyes wide open.

Q: Not an easy thing. What sorts of expectations do the most harm?

Dr. Phil: First off, I think there's a lack of real reverence for what's involved. They say that nine out of 10 businesses fail in the first year for two reasons -- underestimating the commitment it takes and the capital it requires. With marriage, it's the same thing. When you're merging two lives, there's going to be a pretty constant pain of adjustment no matter how well suited you are. You're sharing space, time, energy and money. You've got in-laws, kids, religion -- all of these real-world issues -- that you have to consult each other about. And you go, Wait a minute, this ain't what I thought it was going to be so it must be wrong. No, no, no, it's not wrong -- it's just different from what you expected.

Marriage is not a long date. It's a partnership. Partnerships involve give-and-take and sacrifice. Men are really bad about understanding this.

The Future of Marriage

Q: Do you think expectations for marriage today are more or less unrealistic?

Dr. Phil: I think people's ideas about marriage have been pretty static, but the times have changed. We've now got a double-income society where some 70 percent of husbands and wives are both working, and families have adjusted their lifestyles accordingly. So if one parent drops out and stops bringing home a paycheck, there's tremendous financial pressure. The number one complaint divorce attorneys hear about is money pressure. Unfortunately, couples get into dire straits and turn on each other. They're not working on the actual problem -- they're venting frustration and fear at each other.

Q: Many people say that when it comes to marriage, they're seeking nothing less than a soul mate. Is that asking too much?

Dr. Phil: What's a soul mate? It's just a term somebody made up, and with it comes some pretty mystical expectations. I've long believed that if you're looking for that perfect partner you're making a big mistake. If you can find an 80 percent fit and hope that you'll grow together on the other 20 percent, you'll find happiness a lot quicker. You wait for a 100 percent partner and you're going to be looking a long time, maybe forever. But if you're okay on the core issues -- children, careers, division of labor, religion, handling in-laws -- then you jump in and handle the other things as they come along.

Q: Your elder son, Jay, recently became engaged to Erica Dahm, an ex-Playboy playmate. Have they followed your advice?

Dr. Phil: I think Jay and Erica have been very authentic in what they value in their relationship thus far. They started as most people do by going on dates where they were all spruced up and putting their best foot forward. I've often said you should never marry anybody until you've seen each other miserable sick with the flu. They've been together long enough -- more than a year -- and they have.

Q: How significant a role does physical attraction play in finding and staying with a mate?

Dr. Phil: Well, it's an old truth that men fall in love with their eyes and women fall in love with their ears. Beauty does hook a guy at first, and I think this is genetic -- men, we're the hunters, watching for movement and color. I think that's why guys are so fast with the remote control. You know -- move, move, action, action -- I think we're hardwired that way. But physical attraction won't sustain a relationship. What will sustain a relationship is personality: the spirit, the compatibility, the complementary nature between a man and woman.

Q: What if the wife outearns the husband? It's increasingly common, but still a very touchy issue.

Dr. Phil: There are a lot of smart, capable, energetic, self-sufficient women out there -- and many men are hugely intimidated by that, especially if she makes more money, which makes him feel he has nothing to offer her. In a healthy marriage, the woman is able to say, "No, I don't need your money, I don't need your financial support, I don't need you to prop me up in life, but I do need your love and companionship." She can be competent in all those ways and yet convey to her husband that he has a lot to offer her because she feels good when she's around him -- she has a sense of belonging and feels emotionally nurtured. That's particularly important where one partner continues to grow career-wise in a marriage and the other doesn't. It's important to say I need you for things that money can't buy.

Q: Much of your advice is directed at wives, telling them how they can be proactive in their marriages. But many women resent always having to shoulder that burden. Why can't men step up to the plate?

Dr. Phil: It's not that it's the woman who needs to do it, they just happen to be my main audience. If you want to wait for your husband to get smart because you don't want to be proactive, it's okay with me. But if you want to fix your problems now, which is what women are telling me, then I'm going to tell you what you have to do. It doesn't mean that women should have to. It doesn't mean it's fair. But it's what will get results. And no matter who takes the initiative, it takes both husband and wife to work things out. But I'd say the exact same thing to men -- and I do when I talk to them.

Q: How hard should you fight to save a troubled marriage? When's the time to bail out?

Dr. Phil: That's different for every couple, but overall people in America quit too soon. It's tough enough to make a marriage work when both people are leaning way forward, so to speak. If one of them is leaning back, then you've really got a problem. And there are some drop-dead deal breakers: physical abuse, drug addiction, things of that nature. But aside from those, you've got to work on it. Too many people are divorcing these days around the two-year mark, saying marriage just wasn't what they expected and they're worn out. I'd like more of them to just hang in there and wait for that next peak down the road.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, January 2006.