I came across this interesting post by Robert Dewberry at his blog, the Poker Monk. Robert is a fascinating young man on the threshold of becoming a professional poker player. As a Couples Therapist, I was struck by how accurate Robert’s advice is in the context of science-based couples therapy. Robert graciously granted permission for me to offer his thoughts on poker and marriage to our readers.
My younger self would gag at hearing this, but I love being married. My marriage is easily the most valuable thing in my life and brings me more happiness than I ever could have imagined. That doesn’t just happen, though my younger self would have thought so. He thought that a relationship was inherently either good or bad and that when things started to get difficult or felt like they were headed south, that was a clear sign to move on. My younger self was an idiot. As I matured (read: got old) I realized that relationships were things that had to be cultivated and cared for and when done right, could grow and completely change the dynamics of your life into something truly wonderful. It may sound sappy, but I’ve found it to be true.
Being a poker player married to a non-poker playing wife has added some extra challenges to our relationship. Playing poker as a career is outside the norm in our culture and brings unique challenges that can take a toll on a marriage, challenges that might not arise with more traditional careers.
Over the years I’ve noticed that I do certain things, some consciously, some not, that have strengthened our marriage and improved the quality of my family’s life and I’d like to share some of them here. Obviously, these apply to any long-term or serious relationship, whether you’re married or not.
1. Never miss an opportunity for a compliment
This is something I try to do with everyone, but I put in a special effort with my wife. This is the person I love more than anyone else in the world, so why would I ever miss a chance at making her feel happier or better about herself? This is something I had to make a conscious effort at in the beginning of our relationship but has now become second nature and I find myself doing it frequently without even realizing it.
2. Strong meditation practice
Meditating can often feel like a selfish act but I’ve found that when I practice consistently, it has a significant effect on our marriage. I’ve especially noticed it in how we argue and the frequency of our arguments. Before I started meditating regularly, I often felt a powerful need to defend my side aggressively. I would get extremely frustrated and defensive and inevitably resort to yelling, as I couldn’t seem to “win” the argument. Of course, this always ended with slamming doors, sleeping in separate rooms, feelings of regret, and the argument remaining unresolved. Pointless. But since I’ve been meditating, we argue much less frequently. More importantly, the dynamics of the arguments are different and more productive. I’m not saying that you have to meditate to have a successful marriage, but I do believe something must be done to relieve all that stress and tension that can build up during the day. Take a walk outside. Do some painting or knitting. Hit the gym. It doesn’t matter what the activity is. It can be washing dishes if you do it in a mindful, deliberate way. Try it. I think you’ll be surprised by how beneficial it can be.
3. Openness about poker finances – Bankroll Management
This is something that you don’t want to learn the hard way because it can lead to distrust that is difficult to overcome and can lead to suspicion in other areas of your married life. So try to be completely open about your bankroll and its management with your spouse. This doesn’t mean that you have to give daily reports on your bankroll fluctuations, but it does mean that you’re open about how much money your bankroll contains, how important it is to you that it not be used for non-poker expenses (that is important to you, right?), and how you are going about administering your bankroll. The big idea here is helping your spouse understand exactly what the bankroll is and why it’s so important to you as a professional (or as a recreational player who takes his game as seriously as a professional). I’ve found that talking about poker as a small business and your bankroll as the funding for that business to be a useful metaphor for helping your loved one better understand bankroll management. You wouldn’t dip into your business’s money for personal expenses and you shouldn’t do that with your poker bankroll either. For my wife, the sheer numbers have been challenging to understand. The idea of keeping $25,000 for a $2/$5 bankroll seemed crazy to her at first (and I think it still does to a lesser extent) because she struggled to get past the idea that the money could be used for so many other things, like paying down debt, instead of just sitting in a bank account waiting for an inevitable downswing. Describing this money as a tool, as well as the foundation of my business and future income, helped her in better understanding the importance of maintaining a sufficient bankroll.
Balancing your poker time with the time you spend with your wife and family is one of the most important tools in keeping a marriage strong. You must consistently find time to spend with your spouse that has nothing to do with poker (no, Vegas is not an appropriate anniversary destination, at least not if your plan is to play during the day and spend time with your wife at night… and I know that’s what you were thinking!) This may seem obvious, but sometimes we get so caught up with the things we’re passionate about that the other aspects of our lives can be neglected. I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this, but I can easily find myself entirely consumed by poker, playing, studying, running over hands in my head, watching poker on TV, reading forums. To counter this, I have set aside one day a week, Saturday, that is entirely dedicated to time with my wife. On Saturdays we try to do something fun or relaxing, take care of errands, catch up on TV, have a date night, whatever, as long as it’s something we’re doing together. On top of that, I also carve out an hour or so each night to have dinner together. I don’t think of either of these as a sacrifice. These times are important to me as well, a break from poker in which I can reset and come back feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work. It also goes a long way in reducing burn out.
5. Open Communication
Open communication is touted for its benefits to a relationship so often it’s become cliché. But there’s a reason it’s so often repeated; because it’s true. I would even say it’s mandatory for a strong relationship, especially one with a poker player. I touched on this in the finance section, but it’s not just money that you should be openly communicating about. It’s whatever is on your mind. We often think it’s better to keep the peace by keeping things to ourselves that we think might start an argument or possibly hurt our partner’s feelings. But in my experience, this almost never works out for the best and would have been better to just get it out right in the beginning. Things that remain unspoken don’t just go away, but grow and become more powerful, get sharper teeth. If something is bothering or concerns you, tell your partner about it, don’t let it just fester until it becomes a real problem. Not to mention, non-poker playing loved ones are much more open to listening to bad beat stories, so feel free to inundate them with those aces cracked stories you’ve kept bottled up.
6. Keep your priorities straight
This goes hand in hand with balance. Try to remember why you’re playing in the first place. We can get so consumed by hobbies, work, life, that we lose sight of the truly important things like family, friends, pursuing happiness, achieving our ultimate life goals. Remember why you’re earning money, how you can use it to improve your life and the lives of those around you.
7. Utilize the freedom poker provides
Poker provides the ability to work the hours and days you prefer. Use this freedom to take vacations and time off that’s convenient to your spouse’s schedule. But more importantly, make sure you actually do it. Taking a vacation, completely away from poker can not only be healthy for your marriage but helpful to your state of mind. For those of us who are passionate about the game, this can be harder than it sounds. Honestly, when I hear the words vacation, the first thought that always pops into my head is Vegas. But if I give it even a moment’s thought, I realize that’s not much of a vacation at all. Why would I want to do the same thing on vacation that I’m doing the rest of the year? The whole point is to take a break. And my wife needs that break too. She’s getting an earful of poker every night and I’m sure a little time off from all the whining about how unfair poker can be is very welcome. So go lay on a beach. Go for a hike. Just make sure you leave the laptop and the casinos at home.
8. Eliminate any sense of entitlement
We can get comfortable in our relationships. That’s a good thing for the most part. In fact, that comfortable feeling is one of the best parts of being married. It’s what makes you feel like you’re home. But you also don’t want to feel so comfortable that you take the relationship for granted and begin to feel entitled to it. Relationships must be nurtured and protected. If they’re taken for granted they will wither and eventually die. As poker players, we should have already learned to eliminate entitlement at the table. We know we are not entitled to win. We learned how quickly even the best hands can turn to shit. And if we take our relationships for granted, they can turn just as quickly. So eliminate the sense of entitlement or you just might find your relationship turning into another bad beat story.
9. Allow your spouse to be there for you during the good times and bad
This is another one of those things that sounds simple and obvious but can actually be quite difficult in practice. We all have egos and pride and many of us can find it difficult to be vulnerable enough to let our loved ones in and be there for us when we need them. Sometimes it’s not ego or pride that keeps us from opening up but a desire to protect our loved ones that lead us to keep things from them that might hurt their feelings. But this doesn’t usually make for a sound and fulfilling marriage. Embrace both the good and bad in your life and allow your spouse the opportunity to do the same. One of my favorite parts of being married is this sense of being on a team together and taking on the rest of the world. I always feel that I’ve got someone to lean on, someone who’s got my back when times are tough, and someone who truly cares about my success, is invested in it, and can’t wait to be there to celebrate my triumphs. And all that starts by being open with your loved ones and letting them share both the good times and the bad.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.