In the early years of our marriage, the threat of leaving became our default position in a distressing number of our fights. For me, the devastation of feeling totally misunderstood, my efforts unappreciated, and my actions unfairly judged left me thinking that there was only one way out, and that way was out the door.
Over the years, however, I have come to understand a few things: 1) There is hardly ever just one way out; 2) If you are truly committed to the marriage, leaving is not an option; and, 3) Control is at the root of most conflict. (Please understand that I am referring to your typical marriage, not the extremes where some type of abuse is at work.)
In my experience, most relationships, at home or at work, tend to revolve around power and control—who has it, who wants it, how to get it. Marriage is the place where much of the struggle plays out, because unlike your parental, sibling or work relationships, you may actually have the opportunity to make a shift. Sadly, the things we do to increase our power, either through aggressive or withholding behaviors, get in the way of achieving what we say we want: intimacy, connectedness, support, and love.
Somehow in our marriage, I have become the official ‘relationship guardian’. Partly it has evolved because I have a natural affinity for the topic and partly because he’d rather do anything other than talk about our relationship. (In a recent conversation about trigger words, I identified his as “whatever”, and he jokingly identified mine as “talk”!) Sound familiar? So in my ongoing quest to strengthen our marriage, and usually during periods of turmoil, I insist that we take a hard look at what’s happening; the idea is that I don’t want us to slip into bad habits and become victims of our own neglect. I want us to behave with intent, to decide how we want to proceed. This is always a struggle. While he agrees in principal that to do so is wise, he loathes it. I know this about him, which affects how I approach the subject—already afraid that he’ll resist. Hence, I am more aggressive than I would or should be. And how does he react? More defensively than he would or should be. In my effort to control the outcome, I push him away. In his effort to control the outcome, he pushes me away. And all that we get is more distance between us, the exact opposite of my intention.
So the first step to finding greater harmony in your marriage is to be very clear with yourself about what it is you really want. (Is it more important to be right, or to make your partner feel valued and loved?) In a perfect world, your partner would also take stock, and you would share your desires with one another. One would hope that your respective goals for your marriage would share some significant similarities, and it is upon these that your future should be built. If you find that you don’t want the same things, or that one or both partners are unwilling to put in the time to achieve them, then this might be a good time to reevaluate the relationship.
The next step is to identify what behaviors or circumstances routinely get in the way of achieving those goals in your marriage. I read recently that while there is no room for criticism in a marriage, there must be room for complaint. To criticize means to find fault with, to point out the faults of; it is very personal and involves judgment. A complaint, on the other hand, is an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; it refers to a situation or state of affairs, rather than to personal traits. Too often, I hear from clients that their spouse will not listen to anything negative about their marriage; it’s almost as if they feel that if one thing is wrong, then everything is wrong. Remember that nothing will shut down open communication faster than an environment where complaints go unspoken and unacknowledged (except one where criticism flows unchecked). While to the conflict-averse among us, it may feel like a relief to bury complaints, the associated feelings will come to the surface at some point, and not necessarily in a constructive or timely fashion. Instead, I recommend that you schedule a time to talk about and list these impediments to your goals; be respectful, sensitive, and honest about what you see as blocks to progress, and be open and accepting of your partner’s perceptions of those blocks. This is not the time to invalidate either party’s contribution.
Once you have identified what is getting in your way, the real work begins, as those impediments are often based on an incomplete understanding of one another’s motivations and intentions. As complex cerebral beings, once we believe something to be true, it is very difficult to get us to change our minds. Those beliefs, after all, are based on our collective experiences, knowledge, perceptions and intuition; we did not, contrary to our spouses’ way of thinking, pull them out of a hat. That said, it doesn’t mean that our beliefs represent the truth; on the contrary, they represent only our version of the truth. And that’s where things get tricky. Only with a truly open heart and mind can we come to understand that things we think we know to be true are not based on facts, but on our perceptions; in any given interaction then, there exist at least two truths. If we’re talking about science, there are facts; in the world of emotions, the only thing we really know is how we feel, and the only thing we can control, is how we choose to react. I suggest, then, that you analyze each identified block and try to ascertain what limiting belief underlies your respective perceptions surrounding that behavior or circumstance. Once you have, it is necessary to create new beliefs, ones that embrace a broader view of possibilities. We are not accustomed to this way of thinking; it requires discipline, creativity, and perseverance.
One of my husband’s chief complaints is that I presume to know what he is thinking and/or feeling, and that I often assume the worst. My defense is that in a vacuum (no indication of what he is indeed thinking or feeling), physics dictates that something rush in to fill the void; that something is generally my version of events, which is greatly influenced by my fears. Even when he corrects me, I will often hold tight to my own beliefs, in essence saying to him that I know better what he is thinking and feeling than he does. How arrogant is that?! When we reach that point, I need to put the brakes on and back up. I need to use the new information (his input) to reframe the situation, which expands the possible motivations, intentions, or desired goals beyond my limited viewpoint. When I am able to do that, two things happen: 1) He feels that his feelings are validated and valued; and 2) Whatever hurt I feel is diminished as I realize that there has been a misunderstanding, rather than an intentional hurtful act.
I’m not saying it’s easy, and what I am proposing is not new, but bears repeating. Marriage is work, and at times it’s the most challenging work of your life. Like work, success requires an inspiring vision, clear and achievable goals, evaluative benchmarks, and the willingness and flexibility to make strategic changes when the current plan isn’t getting the job done. Of course, it’s possible to stay married without doing any of these things, but I say we owe it to ourselves to make this journey the best that it can be. Done right, it will be the most fulfilling labor of your life.