Rethinking Your Relationship
"What do you do for a living?" “I’m a mental health counselor,” I responded. The Uber driver immediately proceeded to tell me about his unhappy marriage and all the countless ways his spouse makes him feel miserable. “Do you see what I have to deal with?” “Well,” I replied. “You told me all the things your spouse has done wrong, and how have you hurt the relationship?”
An unhappy marriage can feel painful and hopeless. It can cause resentment and profound loneliness. You get caught up in the same vicious cycle with no end in sight. You wrongfully compare your marriage to pictures of seemingly blissful couples on social media and wish you had the same.
You know how to push the right buttons and use words that cut deep. It’s a battle of who can yell the loudest and who can slam the door the hardest. You engage in defensiveness, try to prove your point, as irrelevant as it may be. “No it was Tuesday, not Monday.” You keep score. “You haven't been cleaning up, either!” Then, you attack! “What’s your problem?” or “Why do you always/never do this?” or “You’re so thoughtless!”
Then there’s the tense, silent treatment. You avoid talking to each other for days or sometimes longer. Confrontation is too risky and it feels like you’re walking on eggshells. Your guard goes way up and you continue to coexist as roommates. You think: Why should I be the first to initiate communication?
When I ask couples about their goals for therapy, many say "we don't want to fight anymore." What tends to get misunderstood is that arguing is quite normal in relationships and productive when managed appropriately. Arguing can be a way for you to get to know your partner on a more intimate level--their preferences, pet peeves, triggers, emotional scars, etc. You forget that marriage is composed of two imperfect people, with two different mindsets, life experiences, personalities, temperaments, habits and quirks. And then you wonder: Why aren’t we always on the same page?
If, however, you are experiencing domestic violence, please contact Guardian Angel Community Services at 815-729-1228 or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.
Many spouses come into therapy convinced their partner is the problem, determined to prove one is right and the other wrong. You become entangled in frustration because neither of you is getting your way. You don’t realize your behavior toward your partner tends to invite the opposite reaction you’re looking for.
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Developing an awareness of how you contribute to the conflict, taking ownership and making adjustments can lead to mutual understanding and connection. Here are some ways to start restoring your relationship:
Show up for your partner.
When your spouse tells you about his day at work, are you on your cell phone or do you give him your undivided attention? Do you tend to say no to your partner when she makes a request, such as watch her favorite TV show or go for a walk together? When she’s consistently ignored and dismissed, it makes her feel unloved and lonely.
Nurture your friendship.
Do you remember what attracted you to your partner? What was your friendship like? What did you enjoy doing together? How well do you know your partner today? You may want to download John Gottman’s Card Decks app and have some fun testing your knowledge of each other and connect on a deeper level.
Check-in with your partner daily.
Many couples’ conversations tend to solely focus on work, the kids, chores, finances, etc.
How often do you talk about the state of your relationship? If you have hectic work schedules, a 20-minute check-in is better than none. Give each other 10 minutes to talk about your day. What grade would you give your marriage? What do you want to start, stop and continue doing as a couple?
Avoid making assumptions about your partner. Do you think your spouse knows you're unhappy or did you actually tell her? Your spouse is not a mind reader. Even if you’ve been together for 30 years, he does not know everything that is in your head. Try to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. When we explain our perspectives to each other and realize there is no malicious intent, we can feel more emotionally connected.
Acknowledge and take ownership of your part of the argument. Even if it’s a small part, own it. Did you interrupt her while she was talking? Did you raise your voice? Did you fail to follow through on something? Own it.
Be open to negotiation. Why is an issue so important to your partner? Find the underlying meaning. Psychologist Dan Wile says underneath a complaint lies a wish. Be curious about that wish.
Practice self-soothing. When things get heated, request a time-out and go for a walk, listen to music, or practice relaxation breathing. Nothing good comes out of anger. It’s easier to express anger than to admit you’re hurt, sad, ashamed or scared. Anger makes us feel powerful (momentarily) and takes the attention off of us. When you’re caught up in anger, your brain’s ability to think logically has shut down. This is the time when impulsive decisions are made. You know, like those times when you’ve said things you regret? You have the right to feel angry, but ultimately what you choose to do with that anger is your responsibility, not your partner’s.
Validate. Validate. Validate. When you feel seen and heard, you’re more willing to understand your partner. During a fight, you try to arm yourself with the perfect comeback and miss the entire message your partner is trying to convey. Saying a heartfelt “I can understand why you reacted that way” or “That must have been scary for you “ can help ease the tension. Even if it feels weird at first, learn to use your own words to validate your partner. You are developing new habits; it takes time and consistent practice!
Find ways to show appreciation every day. If your spouse can easily recall positive moments in your relationship or kind gestures you’ve made, you may be able to get through some rough patches a little easier.
If you have kids, find a private, designated space in your home to talk calmly with your partner. It can be damaging for kids to witness or hear your arguing. Even young children sense something is wrong, which may cause anxiety or acting out behavior.
Confide in someone who is a fan of your marriage. Not everyone can handle this on their own. Talk things through with a
therapist or with a trusted, nonjudgmental confidant. Ask this person to provide honest feedback, which may mean calling
you out on your behavior.