I was talking to a dear friend earlier this morning. She was complaining about the frequent fights she and her husband had been having over the past six months. We commiserated together, as I had fought with my husband two nights ago (yes marriage therapists fight with their spouses also). We talked about the emotional hangover after a fight or a series of them. The feelings of irritability towards the kids, the countless thoughts of how to get back at your partner or if you even wanted to be with them. The bad night of sleep or lack of it altogether. The inability to eat or the emotional overeating you promised yourself you wouldn’t do. When she and I got off the phone I wanted to write something that might be preventive of those non-constructive, hurtful interactions.
The topics people can fight about are infinite. In close relationships the topics get narrowed down most often to sex, money, the children and in-laws. As a marital therapist for 25 plus years, as well as someone who has been married that long, conflict in a close relationship is normal, natural and expectable. What allows some couples to grow as a result of conflict and others to have their relationships deteriorate? I have often contemplated this question. I have attempted to identify some of the factors that help some couples protect their love, trust and understanding during times of conflict. I wanted to share them with you to help you build a better relationship.
I believe the core of so many negative relationship perceptions and interactions is feeling unappreciated by one’s partner. When each person in the couple feels valued, the disappointments and frustrations can be put into a more balanced perspective. When people feel criticized, ignored and invisible the hurtful interaction can feel like an attack of the soul and core of who they are.
Susan can’t believe that her husband doesn’t see what she needs from him. Although, they both work full-time, once they come home, she can never sit down or stop tending to the children. He helps a little and then leaves the rest to her.
Allen, has been working long hours, at home and abroad, supporting his family so his wife can be the full-time mother she longed to be. All Allen reports his wife communicates to him is how he isn’t there for her and let’s her down.
Both Susan and Allen feel lousy much too often in their marriages. They can each give a laundry list of the ways their partners fail them, but after you get past the complaints the heart of the matter is that they don’t feel appreciated or seen for who they are.
Some destructive strategies for dealing with disregard are counterattacks and withdrawal or more serious relationship breakers like substance abuse, gambling, violence, infidelity and abandonment. If you’re involved with any of these behaviors, I encourage getting support and intervention quickly so you can turn your life and relationship in a positive direction.
If you are utilizing more benign coping mechanisms like giving the repeated cold shoulder, not being affectionate or not having sex, not listening or being unsupportive, or constantly criticizing, here are some ways to become positively reconnected.
Make yourself vulnerable. Let your partner know they matter to you and you want things between you to get better. I know this can be difficult. We all wish the other person would take the first step, but waiting often leads to more anxiety and frustration. Think like the Nike ad…”just do it.”
Ask the question, “I wonder what makes you feel special and appreciated. I feel like I haven’t been doing a very good job in that area and want to get better at. If you feel like you can tell me, great. If that’s too uncomfortable, can you make me a list of five things?”
After we talk or I review the list, I would like to discuss what is possible and what might be too difficult for me, due to external realities or my own fears and inadequacies. I will commit to trying at least two new behaviors over the next couple of weeks.
It would really mean a lot to me if you were also willing to do the same thing, but if not that’s ok. Let’s see what happens if one of us changes.
Debrief with one another and get feedback.
Perhaps, this sounds like a lot of psychobabble. The truth is if this was an article about doing exercise reps or trying out a new diet, you would be more willing to jump in.
I don’t know why we are programmed to believe relationships are always supposed to work and be easy. The divorce statistics over many years have contradicted that and then some.
If you give these new behaviors a try, I hope you get some results. Closeness and regard can never be anything but a win for relationships.
If you would like to learn more about Marital Therapy, please contact me at 201‑445‑0550.