ever opened an exchange with your husband by using phrases like these?
take the trash out!”
you to join us finally!”
talk about why you were being such a jerk to our friends?”
fault she was late to school this morning. Why are you so irresponsible?”
to tell me when you’re going to get your act together.”
The ensuing conversation didn’t go well, did it? Pioneering marriage researcher John Gottman calls statements like the ones above “harsh startups.” You can also think of them as “emotional bombs.” When you lob one, you’re going to provoke your spouse to either retreat or return fire. Either way, you’re not going to resolve your conflict.
You’ll reach a more constructive solution if
you can avoid initiating a discussion with a surprise attack of criticism and
sarcasm. But, as you know, sometimes those words slip out of your mouth before
you know what has happened. And even though you might be speaking
thoughtlessly, emotional bombs can still do lasting damage.
Busy and Harsh
It was probably very obvious to you even before
you read this article that harsh startups aren’t an effective way to initiate a
conversation. So why do we keep engaging in them?
You’ll be more prone to throwing emotional bombs at your husband when you’re under a lot of stress. And with the busy schedules of today’s families, that seems like most of the time, right? Unfortunately, when stress goes up, self-awareness goes down. We become more easily provoked and worse at tuning into what’s going on with other people. When we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we get so wrapped up in our own stuff that we can dehumanize others and say harsh things.
Bombs Destroy Safety
Maybe you’re wondering what the big deal is
about harsh startups. We all get crabby when we’re stressed, right? And he
knows you don’t mean it, doesn’t he?
Well hopefully he didn’t take your comments personally, but it’s also possible you inflicted real emotional pain. And our brains process emotional and physical pain in very similar ways. So, in a very real sense, your husband feels attacked when you unleash emotional bombs. Whether he reacts by retaliating or withdrawing, the atmosphere of safety that your relationship needs begins to erode, and the two of you grow farther apart.
How to Hold
Banishing harsh startups from your marriage is one of the best things you can do for the health of your relationship. That may all sound well and good right now, but the important thing is remembering this advice the next time you’re stressed and feel like lashing out as your husband.
To give yourself a better chance of holding your fire, see if there are ways to remove some pressure and stress from your life. Are there things you feel like you’re “supposed to” do or have that you could let go of so that you aren’t so overwhelmed? Easing up your expectations can also give you more time to care for yourself. When you rest more, practice healthier habits and nurture yourself, you’ll be less reactive to stress.
Finally, I know this isn’t easy, but remind yourself to pause when you’re in a situation that triggers you to drop emotional bombs and try to choose a different response. Not coincidentally, research shows that people in healthy relationships have brains that are good at controlling emotions.
Even if harsh startups are a longtime habit for you, you can start practicing a new approach today. My book Strong Women, Strong Love has more ideas for maintaining a happy marriage even amid our stressful lives.
What messages did you get about anger when you were growing up? I bet you heard statements like these:
Girls shouldn’t get so mad.
Don’t curse. It isn’t very ladylike.
Guys don’t like angry, bitter women.
Calm down. You’re being so dramatic..
The people who instilled this kind of thinking in us weren’t doing us any favors. Misconceptions about anger and a lack of healthy strategies for dealing with anger can damage your relationship. So, let’s get a fresh perspective on this intense emotion that you might fear and avoid.
When Anger Goes Wrong
Far too many women think anger is telling them something negative about themselves. Thanks to what they learned from their families of origin and our culture, they fear deep down that anger means they’re a bad, aggressive person. They believe that if they could just be “better” somehow that they wouldn’t get angry.
These beliefs lead to …
Tolerating behavior that makes you feel disrespected (for example, your husband habitually runs late) or even behavior that harms your family (like overspending).
Avoiding conflict at all costs. Never having an argument doesn’t improve your marriage. In fact, the opposite can happen if you are sweeping issues under the rug.
Withdrawing and becoming depressed. This happens when you lose any hope of getting your needs met.
Complaining. Complaints do give voice to your anger, but in a way that’s unlikely to get your husband to change what’s making you angry.
Mean-spirited venting with friends. Again, this might feel like you’re doing something with your anger. But you’re actually just cultivating contempt for your husband while avoiding the real issues.
We all have a breaking point. If you suppress anger long enough, you’re likely to lash out. When that happens, your words will be a lot more hurtful than the ones you would have chosen if you’d addressed your anger earlier.
How Anger Can Help You
You may not realize that anger doesn’t have to result in screaming and wounded feelings. It can actually help you improve your relationship. Anger also isn’t some indication of your character, or lack thereof.
The very wise psychologist and author Harriet Lerner recommends viewing anger as a warning signal. It reliably tells you when something is wrong and you need to take action to protect yourself.
To use anger in a positive way, first notice how you react when you notice angry feelings surfacing. If you tend to judge yourself (“Ugh, I shouldn’t be such a bitch”) or push your anger down (“No time to feel that now!), see if you can just let yourself feel the emotion without trying to judge it or squash it.
Instead of recoiling from your own anger, tune in and ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate to you. Some common messages behind anger include:
When you have a handle on what’s causing your anger, you can act on it in a more effective way and use your anger as catalyst for positive change. For example, you can establish or affirm healthy boundaries around what you will do, how much you will give and what you will tolerate. You can lovingly but firmly stand up for what you need and what you expect.
Read More About Women and Anger
I won’t lie to you: While embracing your anger is liberating, it can also be an uncomfortable journey. All of those early messages are deeply ingrained in our minds, and our society still has some deeply messed-up attitudes about women and anger. To aid you in this work, I recommend Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger, as well as my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love.
The personal development classic The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz might not be your idea of romantic reading before Valentine’s Day. But I’ve been revisiting this book lately and thinking about what each of the agreements can tell us about how to show up in marriage.
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Words matter, so choose them carefully. Words can tear down your relationship when you use them to criticize, complain and belittle. And they can build your bond when you express love and appreciation.
Be especially careful about contempt. Speaking in a mean and disrespectful way with your spouse is the behavior most linked to eventual divorce. Remember that being truthful when you speak is important, but don’t be brutally honest because your words can still hurt.
So as Ruiz says, “Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Ruiz writes: “Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. Their own dream.” And that includes your husband. Like you, he is a separate person with his own perspective on life, shaped by his own experience. The more you believe that being married means you must see everything the same way, you more you will find yourself having conflict with your husband. Take time to consider the different ways the two of you approach life. The more you understand how your husband views the world and why, the less you will feel that what he does is directed at you.
Don’t Make Assumptions
“Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama,” Ruiz writes in The Four Agreements. This is a huge deal in marriage. Don’t assume that your husband knows what you need and want. He came into marriage with his own set of expectations and assumptions, and they may be very different from the ones you grew up with.
Likewise, don’t assume that you know what’s going on with him or why he engages in a certain behavior. It’s more courageous and effective to get curious about him and ask questions that can bring you closer together.
Always Do Your Best
“Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick,” Ruiz says “Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.”
These are wise words for the different seasons of marriage. To expand on Ruiz’s words, doing your best will look different for newlyweds than it will for new parents. Sometimes it means being there for your partner in a crisis; sometimes it means celebrating him when things are going well. And sometimes it means allowing him to give more when you can’t. It all comes down to staying in tune with each other and showing up to the best of your ability.
If it’s been a few years since you’ve thought about “The Four Agreements,” Valentine’s Day is a great time to reread your copy and consider its wisdom in the context of your marriage. And if you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend it. When you’re picking up a copy, consider adding my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love, to your purchase. In it, you’ll find many more insights on marriage like the ones in this article.
Have you been feeling like life is just the “same old, same old” even though we’re in a new year? Getting stuck in a rut can happen all too easily, especially for busy wives and moms.
Why does this happen? Well, we can blame some people who are very important to us: our kids. Or, more accurately, we can blame a culture that’s obsessed with kids and parenting. When you see other parents laser-focused on providing the “best” for the kids (education, extracurriculars, birthday parties … you name it) no matter what it takes, it’s only natural to try to fall in line. We all want to feel a sense of belonging with our peers.
In this case, however, fitting in comes at a high cost. Losing yourself in kid-centered routines isn’t good for you, your marriage or even your children.
To restore balance to your life, it’s time to devote some energy to you. Consider these questions:
When is the last time you did something for yourself?
I’m betting it’s been too long. You don’t have to escape for a spa day to practice self-care. (Although I encourage you to do so if you can!) Even taking 10 minutes a day to be alone with your thoughts can be hugely beneficial.
When is the last time you did something you enjoyed?
Do you always do what your husband or kids want to do? Do you even remember what you like doing? Staying connected with your favorite hobbies, interests and other activities fills your well so that you can give to others. It can also help affair-proof your marriage.
When is the last time you tried something new?
Routines and structure are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you need them to keep your family life running smoothly. But, on the other hand, if you never deviate from your routines, the days can turn into one big, boring blur. Sharing a new experience with your husband — even something as simple as taking a cooking class together — can help rekindle the passion you felt earlier in your relationship.
When is the last time you took a risk?
I’m not talking about anything dangerous. I’m talking about being bold enough to step outside of your comfort zone in the way you relate to others. For example, it might feel risky to clearly ask for what you need from your husband instead of dropping hints, but the potential rewards are rich.
When is the last time you were just present?
Life moves fast, and our minds often fixate on a single question: What’s the next thing I need to get done? But when you live this way, you miss a lot. Spending more time out of your whirling thoughts and in the present moment can be enough to transform your life.
I hope that these ideas will help you break out of your rut and more fully savor 2019 with your husband and your family. For more practical strategies like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love
Back before Thanksgiving, you gave yourself an ultimatum: I’m just going to get through the holidays, and then I’m telling him it’s over. Now here we are in the new year, and it’s your moment of truth. You have to make the final call: Should you leave your husband?
This is one of the most wrenching decisions a woman can face. As you consider ending your marriage, know that you’re far from alone. Women are thought to initiate between 70 percent and 80 percent of divorces.
Some of those marriages, of course, are irretrievably broken. Others, though, could be saved. Without counseling you in person, I can’t know which category your own marriage falls into. But what can I do is give you some final questions to consider before you leave so that you can be at peace with your decision, whatever it turns out to be.
Did You Ask For What You Need?
I’m not talking about complaining. That’s all too common among women in unhappy relationships. And at some point, husbands just check out and stop hearing them. What works instead is speaking up clearly and kindly for what you need. Maybe that means negotiating a shift in the domestic workload. Or it could mean learning to be more clear about what you expect from your husband.
Did You Address the Serious Issues?
If you are leaving your husband because his addiction, abuse or mental impairment, have the two of you sought help for these specific issues? If you haven’t, is he willing to? (Please, please keep your own safety front and center as you consider this question.)
What Have You Learned?
Whether you decide to leave your husband or stay and work on your marriage, it’s important to understand what went wrong in your relationship, and the role that both of you have played in creating the current situation. It may seem like everything is all his fault, but most relationships are more complex than that. Working to better understand yourself, your husband and how you relate to each other could save your marriage. But even if go through with leaving your husband, you still need to do this difficult inner work. If you don’t, you could be setting yourself up for another failed relationship.
Your answers to these questions might affirm that divorce is right choice for you, or they could encourage you to give your marriage another shot. If you opt to stay for now, I encourage you to seek relationship counseling. You and your husband can also use the practical strategies in my book Strong Women, Strong Loveto start to repair your relationship.