Do you sense that marriage problems may lie ahead? Are you seeing sides of your spouse that you fear may head you for a bad marriage? Habits that annoy you? 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 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.
Levitan explains that new love focuses on what you love about each other. Over time, differences attract your attention. That's when you become at risk for hyper-focusing on what you dislike.
As a focus on what you do not like in your partner intensifies, negative feelings can begin to predominate over positive ones. If so, everything your spouse does will begin to feel annoying.
Even worse, with complaints, criticism and demands that your partner change, both of you may become increasingly entrenched in negative feelings toward each other. That's the downward spiral that creates a "bad marriage."
No need to panic. Deficits are normal. As Levitan writes, "Accept and Allow."
The right question then becomes, "What can I do differently so that I again can enjoy my partner's positive attributes, and enjoy my partner's companionship?
The answer is about focus:
Levitan writes, "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, however, how can you respond in new ways?
A client of mine, 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 than to continue to regret, feel hurt, get mad, keep trying to change her, and spiral downward.
When you mention something your spouse is doing that you dislike, your critical comment invites resistance. By contrast, "when ..." and then "I feel..." offers feedback instead of criticism.
For example, "When I see gobs of leftover green toothpaste in the sink.I feel queasy" The I feel part of the sentence is about you. The when... part 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. Irritation and anger invite defensiveness. Sarcasm is especially risky because it usually conveys contempt. A good-humored comment by contrast is most likely to slide gracefully into your partner's data base.
Most importantly, stop trying to change your partner. In almost any on-going relationship, trying to change the other person is a losing strategy.
Instead, find new ways to handle your differences. Decide that if you don't like the toothpaste in the sink, you will swipe it out yourself. If surprises for gift-giving predictably misfire, arrange to go birthday shopping together.
In sum, if something your partner does repeatedly bothers you, find a new way to respond. Find new solutions, jointly and on your own.
Focus then on what your partner does that you do appreciate. As psychotherapist wisdom often says, "You'll get more of what you focus on." Hmm... you are likely to find you are developing then a far more loving connection!
(c) Susan Heitler, PhD. ________________
Chana Levitan, MSc, marriage therapist and author of THAT'S Why I Married You: How to Dance with Personality Differences has counseled thousands of men and women across the globe. Her books have been featured on WCBS, WLS and other major media stations.
Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD, is author of the marriage skills books The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, plus the fun interactive online program for bettering your marriage, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.
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