A while back I attended a marital enrichment workshop presented by a family service agency. Participants were presented with many lists of how to foster the "perfect relationship." Top Ten Things to Do in a Marriage; Marital Don'ts (fourteen); Marital Do's (fourteen); Predictors of Healthy Marriages (sixteen measurements); Communicating to Be Helpful (eight points); Top Ten Strategies to Improve Communication; Men and Intimacy (ten pointers); and more. All totaled, participants received thirteen formulas for everything from "difficulties when listening" to "how to reveal one's innermost thoughts."

These recipes can be useful as springboards to discussions and self evaluation. However, these "lists," when viewed without proper context, can also create unrealistic expectations and can actually sometimes lead to more relationship problems, not fewer.

Every individual is unique. So, too, two people make for a one-of-a-kind relationship. Relationship success comes first and foremost from finding unique, tailored solutions and strategies to everyday relationship challenges.

Let me share with you an example of one such tailored solution:

I once worked with a couple that was constantly bickering. The wife was very critical of her husband. Whatever he did was not good enough. She felt that she could not accept him as he was. The husband, in turn, would respond by ignoring her and staying away by keeping long hours at work. This further aggravated and irritated his wife who already felt lonely and isolated. They had repeated this vicious cycle for years and it was wearing them both out with despair and making the kids anxious and insecure.

I advised the woman to lower her expectations of her husband and overlook many of the things he did that bothered her. "If they are small things just ignore them," I told her. As for those issues that were important to her, rather than voicing them as complaints, I urged her to express them as positive behavioral requests. For example, if she couldn't stand that he left his dirty clothes on the floor, instead of complaining, she should calmly and respectfully request that he put his dirty clothes in the hamper, and thank him when he did.

She tried this new approach and discovered that it worked. Her husband, not feeling attacked, since her requests were presented politely and with respect rather than as complaints, found it much more agreeable to accommodate her wishes, rather than resist as he did in the past. Like a miraculous medicine, this goodwill and acceptance spread out into many other areas of their relationship.

Even more important than his simply doing what she wanted, she now reached out to his potential and he grew and improved as a person. This new view of him created a home environment that was friendly and upbeat and healthy for the children. This in turn, further encouraged additional positive change and growth in many other areas of the marriage. In the end, both felt more accepted and their differences acknowledged rather than judged. Over time the old wounds healed and they became happy and confident in their marriage.

This was their particular creative and individualized solution to a long standing marital problem. It was a solution created by understanding the unique dynamics of this couple.

In marriage, success comes from working toward creative individualized solutions to relationship problems and challenges. We are not only different on the outside; our face, fingerprints etc., but we are also unique on the inside. If a marriage is to be truly satisfying, it must honor this distinctiveness.