It's important, when things go awry in your marriage or any couple relationship, to try to figure out what's happening and how to fix it. Self-diagnosis is potentially an upgrade over the following four clearly self-defeating alternative responses to marriage problems:
Response #1: Escape: Going to have a drink or other form of escape from your troubles.
Response #2: Depression: Agonizing over your problems in a hopeless and helpless way, and then giving up altogether on trying to make things better.
Response #3: Anxiety: Spinning your wheels in anxious agitation. "What if ......?"
Response #4: Anger: Falling into the trap of pointing your eyes and your finger in the wrong direction, e.g., "You shouldn't ...!" Getting mad just gets your partner mad at you.
When you feel angry, it's natural to focus on what your partner seems to be doing wrong. It's natural too to gloss over or ignore all together your own contributions to the difficulties. That's because the angrier we feel, the more our eyes focus our vision outward, on the other person, not inward on our own concerns and actions.
There is something right in observing and assessing what your partner is doing. That's especially important if your partner is doing one of the three big A's that have potential to wreck marriages, Addiction, Affairs, and Abusive anger. These behaviors are totally out of bounds and need to come to a halt.
At the same time, the only person you have the power to change is yourself. That's why looking at how you are handling the situation is preferable to focusing on your partner. If you really want the situation to improve, switch your primary focus to figuring out the contributions you are making to the problem.
Response #5: The Winner! Look at what you have been doing that may be contributing to the problems. Figure out what you could do differently to make the situation better.
In addition, instead of assuming you know what your partner is thinking and feeling, ask.
Here's an example.
Mary, an artist, was increasingly annoyed at her husband Joel for his steadfast refusal to go with her to her art show opening. She kept trying to convince him to go. "You really should because ...." Yet the more persuasive Mary tried to be, the more Joel disagreed with everything she said.
"How can he ignore my art accomplishments like this! He's just selfish, not supportive of what I do! And oppositional! He's not listening to me at all! What a jerk!" she concluded angrily.
At least Mary had the good judgment to keep these thoughts to herself. Leveling them at Joel would have made the situation even worse. Then she'd be fighting with Joel as well as quietly mad at him.
As she could feel herself feeling increasingly angry, rather than escalate into arguments, Mary took a break from talking with Joel. She went to her room, picked up the clutter there, showered, and eventually felt better.
Now that she was feeling calmer, Mary realized that perhaps she could take a fresh approach to her marriage problem. Maybe she had been battering Joel with her overly insistent attempts to persuade him to go to the show. Maybe she could change what she herself was doing instead of doing more of the same and then being angry at Joel for responding with more of the same.
Mary then began to remember what she had learned in her marriage skills course. Now that she was feeling calmer it felt easier to remember her collaborative strategies and techniques for fixing marriage problems.
Looking back she could see she had been focused on telling Joel what he should do and why he should do it. Instead, staying friendly in her tone, she could follow the core rule she had learned for sensitive couple's dialogues: "Talk about myself, about my concerns and preferences, or ask about his."
Mary reminded herself also of another guildeline she'd learned: "Good questions are opened, not inviting yes no answers. To ask open-ended questions, begin the question with What or How."
Lastly, she reminded herself to be she that she was digesting aloud what her spouse had said in response to her questions. That way she would be sure she was understanding him correctly and at the same time he would know that she was taking his concerns seriously.
Mary was ready now for a fresh try.
"I'm feeling sad about your not being there for my art show. I would love to know that you are by my side when I'm meeting people.
And at the same time, I do hear how agitated you become when I press you to go.
What do you think your agitation is about?"
Right away she saw Joel soften. For the first time in their discussions about her art opening, he seemed to be listening to her!
After thinking for a significant pause, Joel replied.
"I feel terrible about abandoning you. I like your artwork a lot, and I'd like to be there to share your moment of glory. At the same time, I can't do it. I haven't wanted to admit to you the reason. I haven't wanted to admit it to myself. But now that you are asking so sympathetically, here goes.
" Jeremiah will be there, since he's showing in the other half of the gallery. He'll want to be there to sell his work since your opening will be attracting a crowd. And I'm totally allergic to him. It's an allergy that leads to my getting agitated, and then depressed.
"I've succeeded for the past several years in staying away from him. I'm afraid that if I go to your show and see him there, all the old wounds about how he took advantage of me in that crazy business deal we did together will open up again. I can't face going back into a depression. And punching him in the nose, which is what I'd really like to do, is not exactly going to help our life. As I think about it, I'm not afraid of him, I'm afraid of me, of what I might do."
Mary felt the dark cloud lift from above her.
"Oh my goodness. I never dreamed that was the problem. You've been so generous about my taking the gallery space with Jeremiah, it never even crossed my mind that he was a problem for you. You were so generous about that, so flexible. For sure now I'm not going to think for a moment more about your going to the show. I had no idea how much you still resent Jeremiah. I feel so appreciative to you now that I understand. Oh, my Joel-man, what a gem of a husband I married!"
The moral of the story? Be careful where you direct your vision when you attempt to self-diagnosis your marriage difficulties. Beware of escaping, agitating, giving up depressively, and especially of hyperfocusing on your spouse's mistakes. Instead, diagnose your own mistakes to figure out what you can change for the better.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical psychologist, is the author of From Conflict to Resolution on psychotherapy and The Power of Two on the secrets to marriage success. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's latest project is the online marriage-skills program PowerOfTwoMarriage.