2) Check-in. I don’t especially feel like thinking about how he’s feeling right now. He owes me. Check in anyway. One of the things my clients hear me say, over and over again, is that you don’t have to want to do something, to do it. You don’t have to understand something, in order to be a part of it. You don’t have to like something you are doing but you might still have to do it. Check in with your partner whether you feel like doing it or not. It’s the nice thing to do. It’s considerate. It’s loving. And it’s an important reminder to both of you that the lines of communication are opening up.
3) Quiet your critical voice. I suck. Try to replace negative self-talk with more realistic and balanced statements. It’s not easy, but it’s important. You don’t have to actually believe what you are saying at this point, but inserting realistic and balanced words will help your brain focus less on the negative claims that have been so all-encompassing. Remember that your self-esteem is a critical prerequisite for this work. Working on yourself, whether in therapy or by paying mindful attention to what you need to focus on, will greatly augment this process or reconnection.
4) Change pronouns. The use of the word we and us, instead of “I” and “you” is inclusive and can help your partner feel the mutual regard. It indicates closeness and promotes teamwork. Be aware of how often you use these words. Believe it or not, using words like “we” and “us” can actually indicate the presence of shared long-term goals or life vision.
5) Give back to your true love. Remember the first time you met each other? Remember how that felt? Remember when you looked forward to seeing each other for a night out? Maybe you still feel that way, maybe not. As marriages move beyond recovery and readjust to the transition into parenthood, couples can easily begin to take each other for granted. The spark may weakened. Couples can forget each other’s special qualities and what drew them to each other in the first place, focusing instead on the annoyances. Reclaiming some of these thoughts and memories can make it easier to give on behalf of the relationship. If, on any level, you understand and believe that you have to give in order to receive, then start giving now.
Token Tools for COLLABORATION
1) Work toward a solution. When working together on a topic or a project, or a marriage or a conversation, you might be amazed at how often or how easily your default response is cynical or critical in some way. Ask yourself how flexible you tend to be, particularly when it comes to decisions and discussions between the two of you. Sometimes, agreeing to move forward toward a solution together is better than swirling around the drain, even if the decision needs to be modified later.
2) Check ego at door. One thing that helps is if you can begin to view any alliance as in your self interest. The more you invest, you more you get back. Questions like, “How will this benefit ME?” are not productive. They break the momentum of teamwork.
3) Re-calibrate expectations. Dial down any perfectionistic tendencies. Small steps in the right direction are significant in the long run. Whatever it is at the moment, doesn’t have to be the way you want it. It doesn’t have to be the way you envision it. It doesn’t even have to look anything like the way you thought it would be. Having expectations is not bad. They just need to be realistic. If they are too low, you may not work hard enough. If they are too high, you may be disappointed.
4) Give up competitive edge. Competition in a marriage breeds aggressive interactions and potential contempt. The desire to beat out the other one is counterproductive and will ultimately backfire.
5) Open to change. Your willingness to work together should be apparent in your voice, your eyes, your body language, your words and your overall readiness to meet your partner halfway. By taking on this collaboration with an open heart, you are sending a message to your partner, to yourself and to the universe that things between the two of you can feel better and stronger. And that the time is now.
Token Tools for COMPROMISE
1) Calm down. Keep in mind that both of you are semi recuperating, no matter how much time has passed since the actual treatment of depression. Emotions remain raw for some time, particularly if one of you is harboring unresolved resentment. Bringing all those emotions into the discussion of the moment will be incredibly counterproductive. Stay present. Stay focused. Stay in line with the common goal.
2) Renounce your right to be right. You’ve heard it a million ways: it’s better to be kind than be right. It’s better to be happy than be right. Every time you cling to your ego-driven need to be right, you are declaring war. Sometimes, we criticize others so we can feel better about ourselves. That’s not a conscious decision, but in doing so it can inflate our ego or sense of self. When you insist on being right or argue for the sake of arguing, what you are really doing is disengaging from your partner, potentially weakening your relationship and inserting a wedge of arrogance or self righteousness. None of which encourages compromise. If you think about it, wouldn’t you rather choose to be strong enough to yield your position in order to pave the way toward reconciliation? Compromising is another way of saying you prefer to behave in ways that are more effective in the long run, than triumphant in the heat of the moment.
3) Suspend negativity. When dilemmas arise while the marriage recovers from the blow of depression, it is possible for suppressed resentment to bring a level of negativity to the situation that may be inconsistent the level of conflict. It’s possible, for example for partner to be totally blindsided by the extent to which the other is upset. So how do you suspend negativity when you might be holding on to so many hurtful emotions? You just do. For now. One incredibly influential spiritual leader and author, Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, responds to the question, “How can we drop negativity?” He writes:
By dropping it. How do you drop a piece of hot coal that you are holding in your hand? How do you drop some heavy and useless baggage that you are carrying? By recognizing that you don’t want to suffer the pain or carry the burden anymore and then letting go of it (Tolle, 2004).
Imagine the hot coal in the palm of your hand. What should you do to stop the pain of the burn? Open your hand, let it go. Drop it. It’s not easy to do that with negative emotions, but it certainly is your choice to try. Sometimes, old emotions are hot coals. Drop them. Your marriage will be better if you make a serious effort to stop fighting.
4) Stop keeping score. Do you find yourself keeping track of who’s right, who did what when, who compromised last time? If you do, chances are good that you are tallying up ammunition with which you can use against your partner. Friendly fighters do not count. You can imagine how dangerous keeping score can be for the integrity of a marriage. It implies a lack of trust and an unfounded perspective that the numbers really count. It’s an irrational way of establishing control which is meaningless at best, and possibly harmful to the well-being of the relationship.
5) Don’t presume. When we make assumptions without checking things out, we are taking a risk that we might waste mental energy on something that is not based in truth. True compromise cannot be based on presumptions. Good communication consists of the honest exchange of heartfelt positions, not conjecture or speculation. We may not want to hear what is being said, but we certainly owe it to ourselves and each other that we know exactly what we need to deal with.
Tokens Tools of SELFLESSNESS
1) When in doubt, give first. Always, always, be aware of how your partner is feeling. Both of you will benefit when you identify how the other is feeling prior to saying or doing something that may be perceived as “taking”, particularly if the other is depleted.
2) Tiny gestures are huge. Acts of generosity, sprinkled freely throughout your relationship, will enrich your connection. If this feels overwhelming or a bit too demonstrative, remember that even small signs of affection go a long way. We are social beings and even when we think contact with another is the last thing we want, it is often the first thing we need.
3) Accept acts of kindness. When you receive a compliment or a gesture of compassion, or an accolade of some sort, it can dishonor the giver if you are unable to appreciate or acknowledge it.
4) Do not over give. If you have identified yourself as one to tends to over give, take the time to examine what implications this might have for your marriage. If you are always cooking for your neighbors and volunteering when you don’t have time, or the first in line to help out when you would rather be home sleeping off your bad cold, you might be at risk to be an over giver, but none of these things are bad, they are, in fact, what makes you so wonderful. There are many legitimate reasons as well as cultural expectations as to why some people are prone to over give. However, at the end of the day, your relationship needs to entail mutual giving.
5) Don’t wait for thank you’s. True acts of selflessness rise from deep within our core with pure and unconditional motivation. Expecting a thank you spoils the intent and sets you up for disappointment. Offer it freely from your heart. You will know whether it makes a difference or not and how it is received. The only recognition you need is the recognition from yourself that you are doing the right thing.
Token Tools for SANCTUARY
1) Revere the sanctuary. Never ever fight unfairly within this space the two of you have designated as sacred. If things begin to unhinge, it’s time take a deep breath and recalibrate. Either modify your tactics or move out of the sanctuary. Be clear about your intentions or needs. No mixed messages. No mind-reading. Speak openly about what you want or need during this quality time. This is the time and spot for loving and productive interactions.
2) Safeguard the friendship. We hear this often because it’s true. Friendship is the foundation of any good marriage. Remember who you are and what you mean to each other. Remember how much you care.
3) Carve out time without guilt. Guilt spoils any party. It is by far the greatest enemy of this endeavor you are undertaking. The only way the notion of a sacred space will work is if you proceed with an open heart. This refers to both individual time in your respective caves, and time together in your sanctuary.
4) Honor alone time. Each of you should create, make use of and revisit your own private caves. Work, hobbies, outside interests, friends, etc, all contribute to the well being of your marriage. These are separate but equally important pathways to greater satisfaction all around.
5) Respect each other’s cave. Remember, if you are going to enter the cave of your partner, which is not the same thing as your shared sanctuary, you must always be mindful of their current emotional state, what they are doing in there and how best to advance without interfering. Joining that particular space requires grace and deference.
Token Tools for EXPRESSION
1) Say “Thank you.” It’s easy to take things for granted when you are both so busy. Of course it is. Although just because it is easy, doesn’t mean it is the best road to take to get to where you are going. It’s time to put appreciation on top of your list of things to remember to do. Saying thank you is a way of complimenting each other, it says what you are doing for me is not going unnoticed. You might be surprised by how good it can feel, to say it and to hear it from your partner.
2) Find a common language. This refers to the unique state of familiarity that exists between the two of you. Sounds silly, but it is true: No one knows the two of you as well you both do. Understanding how each other thinks and feels can actually help you intercept a surprise attack and get it back on track. Say things in a way you think your partner will be most responsive to. Try to dial the emotion down and enter the cave prepared to speak the same language.
3) Listen to what is not being said. In your quest to find a common language, be attentive and read the cues in front of you. This is one of the best ways for you to understand what is not being expressed. Watch the body language (yours and your partner’s). Pay attention to the facial expressions. Keep an eye out for emotions that may be difficult to access, or words that may hurt too much to articulate.
4) Be kind and stay curious. This cannot be overemphasized. If you approach your partner with affection, you will increase your bargaining power as well as your partner’s ability to participate in the dialogue. This is common sense, but it is often the first things people forget. Show your partner you care.
5) Laugh. Pick a moment. Pick a reason. Make one up. Find a reason to laugh. Or learn to fake a laugh until your belly hurts. When you find yourself really laughing, try to make it last longer. Reap the benefits that a physically intense, breathlessly wonderful cackle can do for you.
Tokens Tools of TOLERANCE
1) Disregard bad habits. Omg, he is so annoying. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him sometimes. Yes, well, that happens. In all marriages. The truth is we all have maddening habits or foolish inclinations, or routines that get on each other’s nerves. To be honest, most of these things go fairly unnoticed until a bad mood, sleepless night, or some other vulnerability settles in. Then, all bets are off and the slightest pick of the finger, or clearing of the throat or more infuriating irritations feel like the final straw. Once perspective is re-calibrated and things become more focused, you will realize that these annoyances mean little in the larger picture. Remember that just because something feels bad, doesn’t mean it is bad.
2) Accept mediocrity. Everything is not going to be the way you want it. Whether we are talking about the laundry or your marriage, for now, it’s okay that things are just what they are. You can work toward high aspirations, but in the meantime, lower your expectations just enough to settle into the current state. When you both can resist looking back to where you’ve been and forward to where you want to be, you will be able to focus on each other. Without a doubt, we live in a culture dominated by goals of perfection and supreme excellence in most things that we do. It’s exhausting just to think about the demands we place on ourselves! In your marriage, it will feel better if you release yourself from those impossible standards and cozy up to the way things are right now.
3) Be patient in the presence of big emotions. Shame and fear are two of the biggest emotions present in any marriage. There are many other emotions that might be central to your personal experience. Try not to let the intensity of the emotions take precedence over your intention to stay focused on what needs to be said or done. Use caution and compassion when attempting to diffuse these emotions.
4) Pause. Impulsivity is not always your friend. Unless you are stealing your partner from work to meet at a favorite park with a picnic lunch during the middle of a work day, being impetuous in your responses to a tense situation can rapidly escalate the emotional climate. Remember you are learning how to accept the presence of strong emotions. Try not to take it personally. Stop. Breathe. Wait. Proceed carefully.
5) Be forgiving if you cannot yet forgive. Painful emotions can impede the course you two are taking. While the concept of forgiveness can feel overwhelming in the face of powerful resistance, do not forget that you can still make the choice to act in a forgiving manner. Being sympathetic to each other’s discomfort or difficulty without judgment will help you solve the problems that are solvable. Do your best to release yourself and your partner from the strain of constant scrutiny.
Token Tools for LOYALTY
1) Find the you and me. It can be enormously difficult to unearth the two of you after the fallout of childbirth and depression. Still, Remember the “us”. You and me. Just us. Talk about some of the things that might be getting in the way. Is there anything that you can both do a better job of ignoring, or managing, or channeling in another direction? What do the two of you need to do now, to bring your focus back on the two of you? Make a plan and follow through with it.
2) Spend time together. It sounds simple and cliché but in the midst of so many distractions and obligations, couples spend less time together by default. You need to build this in. Time together becomes the bridge between all the other priorities and your relationship.
3) Practice mindfulness in your marriage. Although we often refer to mindfulness in terms of a solitary experience, you can also enjoy the benefits in tandem with your partner. Have fun with it. Sit outside. Listen to the sounds you hear. Try to see how many different sounds you pick up. The birds. The cars. The airplanes. The wind. The leaves falling. Remember to breathe. Slowly. In and out. In and out. Together.
4) Be intentional. Make your marriage a top priority. Some things will be out of your control, to be sure. Yet, your pledge to take care of each other and the marriage has the potential to trump everything else. Recall the earlier chapters of this book when we emphasized mutual respect. If your sole objective is to care about your partner, everything else will fall into place. It does not mean you will always agree or always feel good. It does mean that your heart is in the right place and that energy leads to better outcomes. An intentional marriage is one in which both of you are aware and deliberate about creating and maintaining a sense of connection over the years. Intentional couples think about their relationship on a regular basis. Intention goes beyond commitment. It needs to be acted upon.
5) Make it work. When I was anxious about getting pregnant for the first time, my mother asked me if I wanted to be pregnant. I said, unequivocally, yes! But I was nervous. Was this the right time? Should I wait? Was I ready? She responded, “You’ll be nervous whether you get pregnant tomorrow, or next year. So just get pregnant. You will learn to manage it and you’ll be fine.” She was right. We can make ourselves crazy with fretfulness when sometimes, we just have to act as if it’s exactly the way we want it to be. This is actually what you are doing by reading about tokens. You want your marriage to feel more connected, so you are going through the motions and learning tools to augment that connection. Choose to make it work. Trust your self. Trust your partner. Trust your marriage.
Teaser Image: iStock
Adapted from Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression Routledge, 2013 by Karen Kleiman