Do you sense that marriage problems may lie ahead or worry that you are heading for a bad marriage? Are you seeing sides of your spouse that you don't like? He's so self-righteous. She talks constantly. He never pitches in to help. She always thinks her way is the best and only way.
Marriage therapist Chana Levitan aptly writes about this challenge in her excellent book THAT'S Why I Married You! As in every marriage, you and your spouse at some point are likely to end your honeymoon. Instead of experiencing loving feelings when you look at each other you are likely to feel annoyed.
That's because new love focuses on what you love about each other. Over time, differences attract your attention and you become at risk for hyper-focusing on what you dislike.
As this focus intensifies, negative feelings can begin to predominate over positive ones. Gradually, everything the spouse does can feel annoying. Even worse, with complaining, criticizing and demands that your partner change, both partners can become increasingly entrenched in negative feelings toward each other. That kind of downward spiral creates a "bad marriage."
As you focus on your spouse's challenges rather than the traits you treasured when you chose to marry, the differences may loom large. No need to panic. That's normal. The question is just, "and now what?"
As Levitan, an outstanding marriage educator and marriage therapist, writes, "Accept and Allow"
"The words accept and allow mean to internally agree to . . . let go of wishing or trying to make the other different and to allow your spouse to be."
With a stance of taking your loved one's faults, inadequacies, and mistakes as givens, you can look at what your options are. How could you respond in a new, more relaxed, and more effective way when you see a behavior that you dislike? If the behavior is so egregious as to be dangerous, you can, and probably should, leave. If you are going to stay, how can you respond in new ways?
A client of mine for instance, let's call him Carl, complained that his wife Polly always showed what was wrong with what he had done when he tried to express his love to her via actions. When he gave Polly diamond earrings as a birthday gift, Polly complained that she had been hoping for a bracelet. When Carl cleaned her car, which she had requested for Mother's Day, Polly responded by pointing to the places where the cleaning needed more detailing. When Carl voluntarily ran to the grocery store to buy several last-minute items his wife wanted for cooking, Polly complained that he had bought the wrong brand of yogurt. No appreciation. No smiles. Just how he had done it wrong yet again.
In each of these instances, Carl reacted with shock and emotional pain. He tried not to show his hurt, anger and depression. Inevitably, though, Polly could sense his disappointment and irritation. She would then complain of his negative voice tones.
For starters, Carl realized he could stop reacting with shock and a sense of personal injury. After all, Polly had been reacting the same way for 12 years. Maybe he could expect her to do the same now and in the future instead of reacting each time as if the negative responses had come totally out of nowhere, as bolts from the blue.
If Carl could learn to anticipate Polly's negative responses, "I was right!" he could say to himself, feeling bemused instead of emotionally crushed. Ideally, he might even react with compassion. "It's sad that Polly has such a hard time accepting love."
Besides reacting internally in a new way, Carl decided to create a new action response . Polly's negative comments always tempted him to point out to her that she was giving him a critical response to his gestures of affection. That strategy had not worked for the past 12 years. Maybe he could try something new.
Instead, Carl decided, he would teach himself to say "Thanks for this information," and then change the subject. He would remind himself that as capable and lovable as Polly was in so many ways, she was emotionally handicapped when it came to either giving or to receiving loving messages. While that reality was sad, better to accept and allow it than to continue to regret, feel hurt, and get mad each time.
So does the strategy that spunky author Laura Doyle suggests in her playful yet sensible book First, Kill All the Marriage Counselors.
Doyle's strategy is to mention your concerns once, and then lay on lots of affection, appreciation, and good humor. As your spouse feels well-nourished by this positive energy, s/he is likely to want to please you. If no change results, you at least are keeping a focus on the do-likes, on what you cherish about your partner. That in itself will keep your relationship spiraling upward instead of sinking into bad-marriage-ville.
A third book tracks a similar theme. Ken Keis writes in a somewhat more academic style in Why Aren't You More LIke Me?. He too advises accepting that your partner is not you but rather a separate person with some similar and some quite different personality styles. The more clearly you accept this premise, the happier that you, your spouse, and your marriage will be.
All three have influenced how I handle my own marriage and most definitely my therapy methods. And they are fun reading as well.
Even my treasured husband of 45 years occasionally does things I would prefer that he do otherwise. Speak and desist is my wording for my current strategy. Mention once my concern, then go back to enjoying his many virtues. Of course, how you mention it makes a huge difference.
As to my couples therapy methods, I've known for a long time that one of a therapist's first tasks is to help both partners to focus their intelligence, insights and change impulses on themselves. Most spouses who are unhappy enough to seek a couples therapist need to learn to discover what they themselves can do differently instead of dwelling on changing their partner.
When you mention a problematic area, a way your spouse does something different from how you would do it, critical comments just invite resistance. By contrast, "I-statements" that include a "when you..." clarify that you are offering feedback about your emotional reaction and it's trigger, not personal criticism.
For example, "I get a queasy feeling when I see gobs of leftover green toothpaste in the sink." The I feel part of the sentence is about you. The when... part just specifies the trigger. The focus this way is a) about you and b) about the situation. It's not about the person of your partner.
Tone of voice matters as well. Any irritation or anger will invite defensiveness. A good humored comment by contrast is most likely to slide gracefully into your partner's data base. My Power of Two book, workbook, and interactive website explain a full curriculum of "fix-it" talk techniques for sustaining safe information flow.
Each of the three books described above, as well as my own Power of Two series, all expand on the basic theme of how to prevent a bad marriage by dealing effectively with differences in a marriage. Successfully negotiating differences enables you to deepen and broaden your marriage bond, creating an ever-more lovingly braided life together.
Chana Levitan, MSc, marriage therapist and author of THAT'S Why I Married You: How to Dance with Personality Differences and also of I Only Want to Get Married Once: The 10 Essential Questions For Getting It Right the First Time has counseled literally thousands of men and women across the globe. Her books have been featured on WCBS, WLS and other major media stations.
New York Times Bestselling Author Laura Doyle is the founder of Laura Doyle Connect, an international relationship coaching company that has helped over 15,000 women in 17 languages and 28 countries revitalize the connection in their relationships by using The Six Intimacy SkillsTM.
Ken Keis, Ph.D., President and CEO of Consulting Resource Group International, Inc., is a leading authority on using assessment strategies to increase your success rate. An internationally-known author, speaker and consultant, Keis has written over 3.5 million words of content for 40 business training programs and 400+ articles. Ken assists individuals, families, teams, and organizations to realize their full potential. More about Ken Keis
Dr. Heitler has recently published a new book: Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More. Check out prescriptionswithoutpills.com for more information including free companion videos.