Resolution, Not Conflict

The guide to problem-solving.

Want Marriage Problems? Expect Your Spouse to Be Perfect

6 reasons why you may sometimes get too critical, and what you can do to change

marriage problems, marriage bumps...no fun....
Irritated when your spouse isn't perfect?
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Perfectionism can invite marriage problems, especially if it's your spouse whom you are expecting to be perfect.

Of course you know not to expect yourself to be perfect.  Yet do you ever find yourself getting impatient at the mistakes of others, and especially of the mistakes of your spouse?  Do you get irritated when your spouse does something that you don't want?  Criticizing or complaining when your spouse doesn't do something that you would like?

Perfection in a spouse means generally doing what you want in that situation.   That expectation though offers a sure recipe replacing love with marriage problems.  

Here’s six reasons why it’s so easy to make this love-wrecking mistake.  [By the way, parents can easily make the same mistake toward their kids, expecting their kids to be perfect in doing what the parent wants and getting mad when the kids are imperfectly responding.]

1.    Fatigue or hunger, illness or pain. 

Any time you let yourself get too tired or hungry, or if you’re struggling with physical pain or a budding illness, your coping energies diminish, making it hard to be patient.  There you go, at increased risk for issuing criticisms, complaints and irritation. 

The cure: Admit weakness.  Explain that you’re tired, hungry, etc.  Apologize for your slippage into a negative state.  Figure out how to prevent getting that way in the future.  Let your spouse’s foibles be foibles and move on. 

2.    Stress.

Trying to multitask as you cook dinner, talk on the phone and wipe the baby’s nose all at once?  That’s a sure setup for getting irritated when your poor spouse walks in the door without the milk he was supposed to pick up on the way home.

The cure: Monitor yourself.  Realize what's inner stress, what’s taking on too much.  You’ll be less likely then to spout off in irritation to your partner when the problem is that you’re overwhelmed.  Catch yourself before you get critical and zip up the impulse to strike out with a critical tongue-lashing.

Later you can ask your spouse what might in the future help him to remember to get the milk.  Find an alternative system instead of relying on him when he’s driving home, tired and distracted. Or just accept that forgetting happens and keep powdered milk on hand for emergencies.

3.    Ignoring the spouse’s perspective.

If you are mad about something your spouse did or didn't do, it’s probably because you are not thinking about the mistake from his perspective.  That’s because when you become angry you’ll tend to feel that what you want is holy, and what your spouse wants or feels is irrelevant.  Anger does that to everyone's perspective.

The cure: Realize that your spouse also has concerns.  In the milk situation, for instance, for your spouse to add a favor for you to what he is already is trying to accomplish in the way of his own tasks may be one thing to many.  

It may be helpful too to appreciate that once your spouse gets in his car, the car knows the way home.  Departures from accustomed routine take more focus than you or he may have realized.

In other words, avert marriage problems by realizing that there’s two of you in this situation.  Your spouse's concerns and foibles are every bit as valid as yours.

4.    The belief that I’m fine, so you must be the problem.

Spouses are at risk for the same misperception that therapists too often mistakenly succumb to. 

Psychology researcher Michael Lambert studies therapists to understand what causes them to succeed or fail in their work.  One of his findings has been the sad but understandable reality that most therapists believe that they are being successful, even when they are not. As Dr. Lambert put it in an online interview:

“It's true in all the professions, medical doctors, and it's true in trades, carpenters, electricians, engineers; all have very positive views of their own effects on patients or their subject matter and most see themselves as much better than the average. … . It's a universal phenomenon.” 

The cure: If something’s gone wrong, look for your part in the problem rather than focusing on your spouse’s mistakes.

5.    The impacts of anger on eyes

When you're angry your eyes point outward.  Insight disappears.  Instead you scan for the something or someone out there who is at fault.  That's a perceptual tendency that happens to anyone and pretty much everyone when they feel mad.  At the same time, it's a habit that can lead to marriage problems.

The cure: Decide that when you are irritated, that’s not the time to talk over what happened.  Calm down.  Later your insight ability will return.  “There’ll be plenty of time for talking, when the game is done.” 

6.    Underestimation of the costs of criticism.

No one likes being criticized.  It's doubtful that you like people who find fault with you, and probable that you feel hurt or unfairly chastised when irritated people aim their venom at you. 

Yet how easy it is to forget, when something your spouse does goes in a direction other than what is important to you at that moment, that your spouse too will suffer if you lash out. 

The cure: Keep your cool.  Decide that criticizing your spouse is not your job.  You can always give him or her feedback later, after you’ve cooled down, about what you experienced when ….  Feedback tends to be helpful because it’s about you, what you experienced, not about your spouse. 

The bottom line:

Your spouse is not perfect.  You aren’t either. Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone sometimes does things in a manner other than what their significant other would have preferred. That’s how we all are made.  That’s the deal about receiving the privelege of being alive.  And that's the deal when we accept the privilege and blessings of becoming a marriage partner.

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Denver clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Susan Heitler, PhD has authored a couples skills quiz and book, workbook and online program for couples that teach the skills for marriage success.

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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