Why Upgrading May Not Be Good for Your Marriage

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In my business life I constantly promote the concept that things can be made better, faster and more cost-effective via the use of process improvement tools. I teach a program known as Lean Six Sigma (LSS) that has been embraced by advocates of health care, manufacturing, retail and government.

I have always believed the tools in my program have a practical use in personal situations, especially when applied to marriage and the family.  I don’t, however, always embrace the concept of upgrading.  In fact, upgrading can be damaging to the marriage for a number of reasons.

For a moment, consider the notion of upgrading.  Generally, for a couple, this has a financial connotation. Upgrading may mean a more economical car, a bigger house, a faster computer or a more expensive vacation.  Is there anything wrong with wanting more physical possessions? The answer is sometimes.  Naturally, if the couple cannot afford the upgrade and become involved in impractical financing options, there could be serious ramifications. As a rule, however, simply desiring a material object is harmless. We are constantly approached by the media to upgrade.

Upgrading is often considered the output of opportunity.  This is a part of the American dream. Progression is encouraged in our school system.  Upgrading is often viewed as the marker of success.  In general, western culture embraces achieving higher goals; in other words, upgrading our personal story.

Unfortunately, our society is so conditioned to upgrading that it can hurt even the most committed relationships.  There is an underlying fear that “we should be doing better,” If we are not upgrading our lives we are not evolving.  If we aren’t evolving, something must be wrong.  This type of thinking can erode the marriage partnership and create unnecessary drama.

Still, this is not the worst of the implications we internalize.  Fear of the upgrade can paralyze women. Women begin to fear other women who may be sexually appealing to their husbands.  Women worry that these feminine beings are prettier, smarter, more dynamic or just basically nicer people.  Men are not exempt.  They may fear that their wives may want to upgrade to a more dominant or powerful male.  Everyone, male and female, have insecurities.

We are genetically hardwired to gravitate to, or at least respect, power.  It is not uncommon for men or women to take a job that offers prestige over salary.  This dispels the myth that upgrading is solely about money or having better things.  We upgrade, sometimes, for self-esteem.

When couples concentrate too heavily on the upgrade, there may be an underlying thought that things aren’t good enough now.  This can be dangerous.  It can cause unsavory behaviors and restlessness. We all have experiences where a parent or a teacher told us that they were disappointed in us or that we were not maximizing our potential.  Rarely does this type of revelation from another person create a desire within us to perform better.  If anything, we rebel.

Wanting more does not necessarily mean you are not grateful for what you have.  But, we all want to be appreciated for who we are and what we do.  Too much conversation about upgrading only makes us feel we have not lived up to our spouse’s expectations.  Concentrating, instead, on how to make our existing life as a married couple better, faster, and more cost-effective has a more positive impact.  It is also more doable and does not require as much energy.

Marital happiness, for healthy marriages, should be a steady state.  Upgrading a situation and realizing achievements should provide a blissful, albeit temporary, high.  A celebration may be in order.  But the state of happiness is more sustainable in a relationship when the couple examines the activities where they feel happy and connected. Can these special events be made better, faster, or more cost-effective?

The advantage of making these events better is that we inadvertently reduce our stress.  For example, think of your favorite activity with your spouse.  Whereas the activity is fun and meaningful, are the steps leading up to the activity frantic?  For example, pretend you are going away for a romantic weekend.  Do you start preparing the day before or do you start planning the week before?

As a couple, working faster may seem counter-intuitive. Don’t you want to slow down the event that brings you happiness? What we are really saying, when we use the word faster, is to be more efficient.  Consider, again, the romantic weekend scenario.  Are there activities leading up to the event that you can make more efficient?  Studying the area prior to your arrival might be a simple approach to being more efficient.  

Making the event better and faster (more efficient) can both be facilitated quickly by using a popular business tool known as Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWOT). 

In a SWOT analysis, using the romantic weekend as the topic, a couple can discern the good and bad things about taking the vacation.  More importantly, the couple can consider the opportunities.  We may feel more rested.  We may have time to discuss the children.  We may have time to express our feelings for each other.   There might be a dozen prospects that suggest you should not put off a mini-retreat together.

The SWOT analysis also considers the threats, or rather the risks, involved. What could go wrong?  What will we do if that happens?  Identifying the risks does not mean you forego the event, in this case the romantic weekend.  It means you are prepared for the things that could potentially go wrong.  You have a back-up plan.  

But doesn’t using something like SWOT analysis take away the spontaneity?  It can.  But only if you don’t appreciate that SWOT is meant to be a five minute brainstorming tool with your partner that is followed by a short discussion.  Spending less than 30 minutes to make your event better and more efficient is a good investment.

In the better, faster, more cost-effective archetype, why should you care about cost?  You are on vacation.  You work hard. Don’t you deserve not to think about money? You may even feel your spouse won’t appreciate the time away if you don’t go a little over your normal budget.

However, if you are like most of us, being cost-effective serves to enhance the experience–as long as you still get what you want out of the deal.  Besides, learning to be cost-effective may allow you to do the activity more often.  It is important to note here, that if your spouse equates money as a way to demonstrate your love, you have a different problem. This is covered in my article, “The Real Connection between Love and Money.”

A quick business tool to create the foundation for cost-effectiveness is called a Cost/Benefit Analysis.  In commerce, this tool can get complicated. There are many factors to consider such as staff issues, tax, and depreciation.   In personal life it is very simple.  A list is made of all the resources and activities needed to accomplish your event.  Next, each item is weighted as to the cost and the benefit of that cost. Basically, you are asking yourself if an expense can be eliminated or reduced.  How important is the expense?  Does it directly tie to enhancing the experience?

For example, still using our romantic weekend as the event, perhaps you have a specific destination you frequent.  On the way to this destination you always stop at a favorite café. In this hypothetical scenario, you would list the benefits.  Perhaps this place has a special significance, and in the words of MasterCard you rate it “priceless”.  Maybe it is just a fun place to stop or is a half-way mark.  Maybe you like the facilities, or the music or the manager. In this imaginary instance, envisage, with all the positive things about this place, that you never have cared much for the food.  You find it unhealthy or over- priced.

Reviewing your Cost/Benefit Analysis you may logically determine that you can pack sandwiches and still stop for coffee or ice cream. This one-time decision may not represent an extreme cost saving; however, several small things working together, that don’t influence the overall experience, can make a gigantic difference.

Upgrading your lifestyle, wardrobe, job or even a relationship can be a constructive action that leads to happiness and satisfaction. Wanting more than you have does not make you a bad person. In a marriage, however, it is important to evaluate what role upgrading might play.  Would it be better, for example, to concentrate on making more time to do the things you enjoy as a couple?  Will having more money, possessions or status be better for your relationship than focusing on ways you can be together in a happy or meaningful space?

There are tools, typically used in business settings, that can enable this effort.  The tools can be used to enhance a romantic weekend together. The example used in this article, as well as a myriad of different activities you may have identified that you value as a couple.