As Australia celebrates the centenary of the ANZAC landing in Gallipoli, think about your marriage – is it more of a battlefield than the safe harbour it is intended to be?
Through our marriage education work we often speak to couples who are in ‘relationship gridlock’. They’ve become trapped in a fractious pattern where every interaction seems to be plagued with misunderstanding and hostility. Sometimes, we get to talk with them together and other times it’s just one spouse. Typically each think that they can’t do anything to improve their situation without the full cooperation of the other. While that’s always preferable, it is simply not true.
Marriage is like a dance. If one person changes their steps, that redirects the dance. The trick is to learn some ‘dance steps’ that positively change the relationship dynamic. Here are our three favourites that help stop that negative spiral of action and reaction.
- Foster curiosity. So often, we assume that we know the other’s intentions. We jump to conclusions about what they intended by a certain comment or a particular action. When we are hurt with each other, these assumptions are almost always negative towards the other. So make the mental shift from condemnation to curiosity. Consciously train yourself not to presume that you know the other’s intentions. And when something is said or done that you are inclined to interpret negatively, pause…think about if there might be an alternative explanation: perhaps she didn’t mean to brush you off, she’s just exhausted; maybe he didn’t’ intend to ignore you, he’s just stressed and distracted. It may not be right, but the mere practice of suspending judgement can go a long way to diffusing a relationship ready to explode.
- The ‘Ouch’ rule. When something is said or done that hurts or offends, rather than reacting with your own return serve, simply say “Ouch. What I heard you say was….” Or “what I think about when you do that is….”. This gives the other to the opportunity to correct your interpretation if you misunderstood – which in our case is actually most of the time! This prevents the argument escalating and even more hurt accumulating. The ‘ouch rule’ helps us when we are in a spell of relationship gridlock and feel like we are both walking on egg shells. We don’t mean to, but we are subconsciously looking for the other to ‘do it again’, and so we hear what we want to hear rather than what was said or intended. It’s amazing how effective something so simple can be. Usually we realised after calling out the first three or four ‘ouches’ that we really have been jumping to conclusions.
- Gratitude. When we’re in relationship gridlock, it’s so tempting to be looking for evidence to sustain our indignation. Before we know it, we’re constantly on the lookout for fault in the other. If all we ever look for is fault, chances are we’ll find plenty of it; after all, none of us are perfect! On the other hand, if we turn it around and look for virtue, we’ll also find plenty of that in the other. And, we’ll also feel a lot better – it really is soul destroying to be in a constant state of defensiveness and negativity. So make the decision to look on the bright side of the other’s character and if nothing else, it will help you feel better about your relationship.
If you don’t think you can singlehandedly shift a marriage, just try a few of these simple tools for a couple of months and then look back and see if you can detect a shift. Marriages don’t typically repair overnight, but nor do they collapse in a day… it’s the daily trending that sets its course and these are three simple ways to get the some positive trending into the marriage.