Is this the marriage you wanted? I know that’s a blunt question. But take a moment to be really honest with yourself.
If your relationship isn’t what you want it to be, what are you doing about it?
Because there are things you can do.
It’s easy to buy into the common idea that if your partner were your true soul mate, he would instinctively fill all of your needs. That simple expectation can set your relationship up for trouble by putting you into a passive role in your marriage.
The reality is that you have some ability to shape your marriage. As I’ve said before, there is no neutral in a relationship. You’re either building up your marriage or tearing it down. Take an active role in your relationship to help it grow into one that meets your needs.
Even if your marriage does feel perfect right now, don’t assume it doesn’t need daily maintenance. Marriages can change for the better or for the worse depending on your everyday actions.
Here are just a few ideas for actively getting — or keeping — your marriage on track. You can find many more in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
- Take care of yourself first. If you’re trying to work on your relationship while you feel personally depleted, you’re not going to get too far. When you’re perpetually tired and stressed, you lose some key relationship skills, like patience and being a good listener. Take a few extra self-care steps this week, whether that means catching some extra sleep or making time for things that bring you joy. You’ll feel better and your relationship will benefit.
- Make marriage maintenance a daily habit. You don’t need a whole different life (you know, one with more time, money or distance from your in-laws) to have a better marriage. Instead, remember that you can improve your relationship just by being a little more mindful in moments you share every day. Put away your phones when you talk. Remember to say thank-you. Add more affectionate touch. And make sure conflict always stays in the respectful zone.
- Create a marriage-friendly lifestyle. You’re probably juggling lots of different priorities — and all of them feel urgent. Your relationship can get lost in the shuffle. Take a look at how you spend your time. Are there activities or obligations you can let go of in order to devote more time to you marriage and other things that really matter?
Your marriage is always a work in progress. What small steps can you take this week to move it closer to where you want it to be?
Are you looking for a New Year’s resolution? I have a powerful one for you.
All it involves is saying a single two-letter word. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. At least not at first. Here it is:
Say NO. A lot.
The very idea of making “no” a bigger part of your vocabulary might unsettle you. I’ve seen that many women tend to feel very uncomfortable around this one little word. For some of us, saying no feels almost like an act of aggression.
Here’s the thing, though. None of us — no matter how capable and generous we are — can say yes all the time. Every time you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else at the same time. Yes and no are like flip sides of the same coin.
So you have to get very deliberate. What are the important things in your life that you always want to say yes to? Maybe it’s having weekends free for your family, or enough time for the yoga classes that make your body and spirit strong. When you know what your yeses are, it gets easier to say no to other things.
It’s wise to start small when you’re learning to say no. You don’t have to leap right into a face-to-face announcement to your mom that you’re not spending Christmas Day at her house like you usually do. Pick a request that’s a little less emotionally loaded first — like turning down a telemarketer that wants just a few minutes of your time to make a pitch (“Thank you so much, but I’m not interested. Goodbye.”) And give yourself permission to take the easy way out. Say no by text. Or just don’t speak up first at a meeting when volunteers are being recruited.
Even then, you might feel guilty about saying no.This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Sometimes guilt is helpful, but sometimes it’s just a sign that part of you is uncomfortable and resisting change.If you can, just keep taking small steps, and you will find this kind of guilt tends to dissolve over time.
Saying no more frequently eventually opens up a sense of freedom. You can free yourself from time-wasting, meaningless activities, and use your time to do what you love with the people you love. You can free up space to take better care of yourself, whether that means sleeping and exercising more or delving back into a long-neglected hobby.
“No” might not feel natural for you at first. But it’s an essential word to master. So what will you say no to in 2017?
I’ll be upfront with you: One of the best gifts you can give yourself and your husband this time of year is being direct.
Kind directness keeps the lines of communication open in your marriage. It keeps resentments from taking root. It helps make sure you’re both operating from the same set of expectations.
Yet being direct is hard for many women. Why is that? Why are we so uncomfortable asking for what we need or telling others what’s going on with us?
A lot of it has to do with how women have been raised in our culture. You may have been taught to anticipate everyone else’s needs — your husband’s, your kids’, your boss’s. And I bet you’re very good at it. You probably know the subtle signs that your husband is ready to leave a party, or that your daughter could use some extra encouragement before her semester exams.
Because we’re so adept at reading others and knowing what they need, I think we feel a little disappointed when we have to come out and say the things that we think others, especially our husbands, should have figured out on their own. I’ve heard a version of this sentiment from women many times: “I don’t want to have to tell him. He should just know.” It’s as if getting what they want has less value if their husbands don’t intuit it.
Some of us have also been taught that it’s somehow rude to communicate directly. Maybe, for example, you’ve gone on at length about how busy you are at work in hopes that your husband will offer to take on more gift shopping or holiday travel prep. Dropping hints might work with other people who are fluent in indirect communication. But it may just go right over your husband’s head.
Wouldn’t it be easier just to ask? Most husbands relish the chance to make their wives happy. And they’d appreciate more information on how to do that. He doesn’t care about you any less just because you have to come right out and tell him the gifts you’d like or that you’d rather stay home more this holiday season instead of traveling. In fact, he’d be thrilled to know.
This holiday season, look for opportunities to be more direct. See how it feels and how others react. If you’re still a little uncomfortable, that’s OK. You’re learning something new. Keep practicing. It really does get easier.
This time of year, you’ll see plenty of articles about how to have the happiest holiday season ever. You’ll find no shortage of advice on how to deck your halls, craft handmade gifts, start beloved traditions and dazzle at parties.
That’s all well and good, but I want to make things much simpler for you. Today I’m going to share with you one tip that could make this the least stressful holiday season you’ve ever had. It’s free. It doesn’t require crafting or cooking skills. It works no matter which holidays you observe. And it doesn’t have an expiration date. In fact, I hope you use it well after the last New Year’s celebrations have wrapped up.
What’s my magical tip?
When people get on your nerves, assume that they’re not doing it on purpose.
Trust me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try out this mental shift in the coming weeks. What if you stopped assuming things like this?
- Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you because he doesn’t value your time.
- Your friend posts pictures of her perfect decorations and gift-wrapping to make others feel inferior.
- Your brother is always late to gatherings because he’s trying to tick you off.
- Your mom only picks at the holiday meals you prepare because your cooking isn’t fancy enough for her.
The truth is, we’re all pretty self-involved. We don’t think very much about the ramifications our actions have on others. Unless a person has shown you before that he’s malicious (in which case you’ve got a whole other issue going on), it’s more likely that he just doesn’t know how he’s affecting you.
When you assume someone is being clueless instead of downright nasty, the whole situation suddenly feels a great deal lighter. You let go of resentments and start seeing constructive solutions.
Getting Past Assumptions
Since this blog focuses on how to strengthen your marriage, I would especially encourage you to stop assuming your husband has bad intentions when he does something that disappoints or irritates you.
The holiday season can be a time of high expectations, so it’s prime time for assuming the worst!
Let’s go back to an example from above:
Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you.
You’ve been assuming you know the reason for this behavior. You’re absolutely certain that it’s because he doesn’t value your time, so he’s intentionally passing the gift shopping off to you.
But what else could be behind his behavior?
- Maybe he thinks you love gift shopping.
- Maybe he believes you think he’s terrible at choosing gifts.
- Maybe his own mom did the shopping for their family and he just assumes that’s how all families do it.
- Maybe he doesn’t realize how long it takes and that it affects your schedule that much.
It’s also possible he really doesn’t value your time, but it’s important to be sure that’s the case before you work off that negative assumption.
Sometimes it’s easier to start by assuming your husband isn’t doing anything to you on purpose and just letting him know how his actions affect you. That could sound like:
With both our families growing, we’re gift shopping for more people now. Taking care of it all is leaving me pretty stressed. You’d be helping me a lot if we could start dividing up the gift list.
As an experiment this week, pay attention when your husband or anyone else pushes your buttons. Notice whether you automatically assume the worst about their behavior. If you do, try replacing that assumption with the belief that the other person isn’t trying to hurt you. How does that make you feel? Let me know how this mental shift works for you during the holiday season and beyond.
I’m a big fan of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. You may remember a past blog post where I shared some of Siegel’s advice about what to do when you “flip your lid.”
Today, I want to talk about another strategy from Siegel. You may have heard of his Connect and Redirect method in the context of parenting. But the ideas behind it can strengthen your marriage (or any other relationship, for that matter).
The key thing to remember about Connect and Redirect is that any interaction will be more fruitful and satisfying if you take a moment to establish emotional connection before launching into what you need.
In our marriages, though, we often forget this step. Because we’re all so busy, it seems easier just to “cut to the chase.” We also tend to take those we’re closest to for granted and be much more abrupt and less tactful with them than we are with other people.
But taking that extra moment to build connection pays off. It helps your spouse get into the mental space where he can truly hear what you’re saying and engage with you.
Make Connection a Habit
Establishing connection doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated. Loving touch and positive eye contact go a long way. So does acknowledging what’s going on with your husband before you bring up the topic you want to discuss. You don’t have to reserve this communication technique for big, important discussions. It’s just as handy when you’re dealing with the routine concerns of family life.
Compare these two interactions:
- Your husband arrives home clearly still stressed from work or his commute. You shout from the kitchen, “The cable’s out again – what are we going to do about this?”
- Your husband arrives home looking stressed. You greet him with a quick hug and kiss and ask what’s up. He says traffic was much heavier than usual during his drive home. “Ugh! Frustrating!” you commiserate. “When you’ve had a chance to unwind a little, I want to talk to you about maybe changing cable providers.”
In the second interaction, you’re letting your husband know that he’s cared for and that he doesn’t have to put his defenses up. You’re making it easier for the two of you to work together for a solution to the cable issue.
As I said earlier, sometimes we have to be deliberate in giving our spouses the same consideration we automatically show our friends. If you know this area is a trouble spot for you, you may want to remind yourself to frame things with your husband the same way you would if you were talking with a friend. If, for example, you needed to reschedule your weekend trip with a friend, you’d probably take a minute to check in on her life and see if it’s a good time to talk before you told her about the change in plans. But you might be tempted to skip those “niceties” with your husband.
Remember, though, that we all need reminders that the people we care about care about us in return. When we get them, we show up more fully and give more generously. The time you invest in nurturing that feeling of connection is well worth it.
How do you and your spouse reconnect at the end of the day? Are you eager to see each other, or are you tense and afraid, not sure what kind of reception you’ll get?
Some people steel themselves for a daily litany of complaints from their spouse. Maybe they’re the target themselves, or they just have to listen to a lot of vitriol about their spouse’s job. Others might dread discovering the latest thing their spouse has messed up: He probably won’t bring in the trash can from outside. And, I bet he forgot to pay that bill I reminded him about AGAIN this morning!
Those first few minutes when you see each other again at the end of the workday set the tone for your whole evening. If you’re feeling trepidation, instead of anticipation, it’s worthwhile to put some energy into making this time of day more positive.
What Goes Wrong after Work
The circumstances of our busy lives set us up to be snippy and even confrontational as we end our workday and start our evening at home. As I write in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, it’s not your imagination: Our lives really are getting more stressful and demanding.
And we have less of a buffer between our family life and our life outside the home. Commuting has never been fun, but at least it used to serve as kind of a decompression zone between home and work, where we were free of the demands of both. Today, if you use mass transit or carpool, you’re probably trying to squeeze in a few work tasks during your commute. If you drive yourself, chances are you’re answering calls from the office or checking emails and texts at traffic lights.
That all sets you up to still be caught up in the day’s dramas and demands when you get home each night. And it makes harder to really “see” your spouse and show up for each other.
Set the Tone for the Evening
Here’s some advice for getting the evening off to a good start. Concentrate on making the first moment that you see your husband after work a really positive one. Just for that moment, put aside any resentment and stress that are lingering from the day and focus on initiating a connection with him. This can make a real difference in how the two of you interact the rest of the evening. It might feel like extra effort at first, but it will quickly become a habit.
Making this shift is a lot easier if you practice some self-care before you get home. Stress makes us defensive and zaps our communication skills, so think about how you can use your own commute to calm and replenish yourself after your day. You could practice breathing exercises or swap out talk radio for music that makes you happy. You may be able to set your phone so that it automatically disables calling or texting while you’re driving.
Coming home and reconnecting with your husband can be something to look forward to instead of dreading. How can you be more intentional about your post-work time this week?
A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
- What you need from your husband and
- How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
If you and your husband are interested in learning more about gender and communication, check out Deborah Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Communication or That’s Not What I Meant, You’ll also find many more ideas about understanding and connecting with your husband in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Money problems are a common source of stress for American families. Consider just a few statistics:
Unfortunately, couples with ongoing financial difficulties tend to take their anxiety out on each other. As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, research shows that couples under high stress for extended periods magnify the negatives in their relationship and have trouble remembering the positives. They get defensive and anger more quickly at each other’s faults. No matter how well they usually communicate with each other, they have trouble drawing on those relationship skills because they’re overwhelmed.
Whether you’re dealing with credit card debt, lost income after a layoff, a large emergency expense or ongoing difficulties making ends meet, it’s important to protect your relationship from the stress caused by financial problems. Here are a few steps you can start implementing right now.
- Realize it’s normal to feel fearful during a money crisis, and be aware that fear changes how you think and behave. For example, if you fear what might happen if your husband doesn’t find another job soon, you might start micromanaging his job search, even if that’s not how you usually act in your relationship.
- When you’re stressed about money, it’s more important than ever to maintain habits that help you stay calm. This supports your own health and wellbeing, and it helps you stay connected with your partner when the going gets tough. A couple of things that help many people get to a calmer place when they’re stressed are deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to stay in the moment instead of spiraling into worries about the future.
- Remind yourself that this is a temporary situation. When you’re very stressed about money, you might feel overwhelmed and hopeless and have trouble seeing possibilities for change.
- Collaborate with your partner to find solutions. Work as a team to plot how you’ll get a new job, start tackling your debt or pay off that surprise bill. You’ll maintain, and maybe even deepen, the sense of trust and respect in your relationship.
If you aren’t going through money troubles right now, talk with each other about how you can prepare for a rainy day. What would you do if one of you lost your job? Can you change your saving or spending habits now so that you’ll be in better shape if a crisis does hit? These conversations might not be the most fun way to spend your time, but they’ll protect your financial health and the health of your marriage in the long run.
Sometimes, I hear from angry readers who don’t believe I’m supporting women being strong. Their words have a common theme:
Why should I do my part to make the marriage better when my husband isn’t doing his? Why are you telling me to be respectful and patient when he doesn’t deserve it? Why should I appreciate him when he doesn’t appreciate me?
I get the feeling these readers think I am urging them to be a doormat. But that’s not the case. After all, the name of this blog, and my book, is Strong Women, Strong Love.
The kind of strength I am talking about is broader than the type most revered in our culture.
In the U.S., we tend to celebrate those who are fiercely independent, firm and unstoppable — who take a stand and won’t ever back down. That’s what we usually think of as real strength.
But there’s another kind of strength, too. One that’s more valued in the East. Think about the willow tree and how it stands strong in the storm because of its tremendous flexibility. Or, the power of water, even as it follows every bend and curve of the river bank.
Both kinds of strength, being determined and being flexible, have value. We do face circumstances that require us to stand firm. But we also face times when we’d be better served by calling on our openness and adaptability.
Keep being a strong woman, but consider expanding your definition of what it means to be strong.
If you can call on both kinds of strength — being firm and being flexible — you’ll be better able to cope with the ups and downs of both your relationship and life as a whole.
You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”
But that not may be the case.
First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.
It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.
So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?
First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:
They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.
Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:
- Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
- Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
- Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
- Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.