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.
I recently had the opportunity to hear author and marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis speak.
Weiner-Davis is the author of Divorce Busting, among other books. As you can tell from that book title, the heart of her approach is about helping couples avoid divorce if at all possible.
I think her work is interesting and useful. One of Weiner-Davis’ resources that I’ve been sharing with my clients is The Last Resort Technique. It’s something you should read immediately if you feel that your marriage is in serious jeopardy. Weiner-Davis defines this as your husband filing for or definitively asking for divorce, being separated from each other, or still living together, but with little to do with each other.
The steps in the Last Resort checklist align with advice and strategies I’ve written about here in this blog and in my book, Strong Women, Strong Love.
Call off the Chase
As a first step to saving your marriage, Weiner-Davis advises “stop the chase.” That means no calls, buying gifts, etc.
In a past blog post on handling a separation, I wrote about why this strategy works:
If your husband does actually leave the house, don’t pressure him to come back. Allow him to experience the reality of what divorce from you would mean. … Give him space to understand your importance in his life. It’s possible he’s not interested in reconciliation and will eventually want a divorce. It’s also possible that if he truly experiences a separation, he’ll eventually start missing you and the life you have built together.
I’ve also written about how research has shown that a pattern of chasing isn’t good for marriages:
In technical terms, the pattern in which one spouse wants to confront the issue and the other withdraws from such a discussion is the pursuer/distancer pattern. E. Mavis Hetherington’s landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals found that couples who routinely related this way had the highest risk of ending up divorced.
The second step of the Last Resort Technique is “Get a life.” Feeling depressed and desperate when your marriage is on the brink is natural, Weiner-Davis writes. But, she says, it’s important to “remember who you really are.” In other words, you’re much more than your response to the current crisis in your life. You’re a whole person, not the “jilted wife” or whatever demeaning label you might be applying to yourself.
Weiner-Davis recommends doing things to get back in touch with yourself, such as deepening your faith, reconnecting with old friends or pursuing a new interest or hobby.
Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of maintaining a strong sense of self no matter what’s going on in your marriage:
It’s about engaging in what truly makes you feel alive, showing up as yourself, and drawing a line when others don’t respect you. It’s being playful, confident, and engaged in your own life. As therapist Esther Perel has so eloquently noted, distance, space, and mystery stoke the fires of attraction. Be yourself, enjoy doing your own thing, and you’ll amp up the attraction in your relationship. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself how attracted you would be to your husband if he was really needy and had no life outside you! Not much, I bet.
Weiner-Davis makes no guarantees that the Last Resort Technique will save your marriage, but she writes that “it works often enough for you to be eager to give it a shot.” And, she adds, “even if your marriage doesn’t improve … your mental health will.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Michele Weiner-Davis’ Last Resort Technique, consider her new online course, The Last Resort Technique.
Do you know much about your husband’s past? What challenges did he overcome before he met you? What’s going on at his job that he hasn’t told you about?
Finding out the answers to questions like these is hardly a trivial pursuit.
Getting curious about each other is one of the most powerful things you can do in a relationship.
You may remember one of my earlier blog articles about questions that can make people fall in love. That post was focused on building intimacy. This week, I want to look instead at how curiosity can be a tool for cultivating compassion and understanding to work through trouble spots in a relationship.
We’re pretty good at realizing the stories behind our own behaviors. You may be aware, for example, that you’re hesitant to speak your mind because your mother never supported you when you did, or that you’re working more lately because your boss hinted about cutbacks, and you want to make sure your job is safe.
But we’re not as good at realizing there are stories behind other people’s behaviors, too. When your husband gets defensive at your asking him to take care of the dishes while you deal with the kids, your first reaction might be to assume he’s just lazy or that he doesn’t care about the imbalance of housework in your relationship. That’s what we’d guess based on the fundamental attribution error, a natural bias we all have to assume someone else’s actions are because of their personality, not circumstances.
You might be right, but it’s also possible there’s something from his past, or something happening in his life right now, that’s driving this behavior. Getting curious about that story is much more effective than slapping a label like “slob” on him.
Let’s be clear: Finding out the real story isn’t a free pass to get out of doing the dishes. Instead, it gives you a better sense of what’s truly going on with him so that the two of you can work out this dispute in a kinder, more effective way. And it’s a reminder that your husband is a whole, complex person, not just the behavior that’s pushing your buttons in this moment.
This week, look for times when you make assumptions about why your husband does something, and then push yourself to get inquisitive about what’s really behind his actions. Also notice when he reads you inaccurately and see if you can help him come to a better understand of your life stories too.
If you were a mirror reflecting back to your husband who he is, what would he see?
Would he be bathed in a flattering glow — or would his reflection look more like a Photoshopped image distorting his worst features?
It’s not something we think about much, but spouses are mirrors to each other — we look to each other for feedback about ourselves. Psychologist Dr. David Wexler notes many men fear looking in the mirror and seeing a highly flawed reflection.
For your husband, you are the most potent mirror, so feedback from you has the emotional capacity to build him up or injure him deeply. He may fear looking in the mirror and seeing that you are unhappy with him or view him as weak and incapable. Your importance in his life is why he might seem quick to bristle at anything he thinks might be criticism from you.
Keeping your power as a mirror in mind will help your marriage. Do you mainly reflect back to your husband the ways that he is falling short? Or do you balance criticism by also reflecting back to your husband everything that you love and appreciate?
None of this means you have to butter your husband up with fake or exaggerated praise. But it does mean that it’s important to notice his good qualities, and all he does right, and sincerely express admiration. (If you’re having trouble with this, think about the qualities that attracted you to him when you were dating. They’re probably still there!)
As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love:
Most people are starving to be noticed and appreciated. Look for chances to express admiration, appreciation and fondness to your spouse with comments such as the following:
- You make me happy!
- Thank you.
- You are amazing.
- I really love spending time with you.
- I appreciate your taking care of me like you do.
- I’m so lucky to be with you.
- I trust you completely.
- You’re perfect for me.
- I admire how you handled that situation.
This week, pay attention to what you reflect back to your husband about himself, and seize opportunities to reflect good things.
As women, we’re constantly bombarded with messages about the importance of being attractive. Constantly.
Usually, those messages center on our appearance. How many times have you seen advice about how to get a “bikini body,” dress to seduce or “turn back time,” so you can look younger?
The hope is that if you do these things, you won’t have any trouble stoking the fires of attraction and keeping them burning, right?
Right, if you want a short-term, purely physical attraction. Wrong, if you’re trying to create the kind of attraction that lasts a lifetime.
So what can make you attractive to your husband decade after decade? Hint: Getting a new haircut or wearing sexy lingerie might be nice, but probably won’t turn his head forever.
Let me give you a formula to try (and it doesn’t require starving yourself, getting a personal stylist or undergoing cosmetic procedures).
(SELF-WORTH + RELAXED AUTHENTICITY) + LOVING ACTION = IRRESISTIBLE ATTRACTION
Here’s why that formula works — and why it doesn’t mention a bikini body.
The truth is that if you’re feeling desire wane in your marriage, it’s probably not because your husband’s physical attraction to you has decreased dramatically.
What’s going on instead is likely a decline in the emotional connection between the two of you. Because we often rely heavily on our partners to get our emotional needs met (that’s especially true of men), the nature of that emotional bond is critical.The deep attraction that sustains a marriage isn’t about what catches your eye in the club or on a dating app. It depends on two very important things: having a strong sense of self AND creating a loving connection with your husband.
- STRONG SELF: It’s important to have a sense of self separate from your partner. That’s why the first part of the formula is about you — valuing yourself, being comfortable in your own skin, treating yourself as if you matter, and letting your husband know what you need. It’s about engaging what truly makes you feel alive, showing up as yourself, and drawing a line when others don’t respect you. It’s being playful, confident, and engaged in your own life. As therapist Esther Perel has so eloquently noted, distance, space, and mystery stoke the fires of attraction. Be yourself, enjoy doing your own thing, and you’ll amp up the attraction in your relationship. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself how attracted you would be to your husband if he was really needy and had no life outside you! Not much, I bet.Remember the wise words of Dr. Harriet Lerner:
Being your strongest and best self will give your relationship the best chances of succeeding. Having a clear and courageous voice is NOT a recipe for divorce, unless your partner truly has no commitment to you, or can only tolerate an overly-accommodating partner.
- LOVING ACTION: How you interact with your husband is also a huge part of whether he feels attracted to you. Most of us love to be around someone who makes us feel good about ourselves — someone who likes us and is good to us. When you treat your partner in ways that let him know you want him, that he matters to you, and that you’re glad he’s in your life, he’s going to be a whole lot more interested in you! For real intimacy to develop in a marriage, we have to cultivate emotional safety, deep understanding, and presence on a regular basis. No one is going to open up if you’re distracted or if they’re worried you might criticize them. Let your actions show that you revere your spouse, and watch him become more vulnerable, trusting, and irresistibly drawn to you.
Try out my attraction formula, and let me know what happens. You can also learn about keeping a strong connection with your husband even during with a busy, overscheduled lives in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
One single word can be the source of many different troubles in marriage: Expectations.
We all have them. There’s no way to avoid them. But it’s how we handle them that can make or break our marriages.
What kind of expectations do you have of your husband? Is he meeting them, or are you constantly disappointed? if you’re often feeling let down or resentful, it’s important to take a closer look at your expectations.
“Shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” provide clues that expectations are present. Do any of these “shoulds” sound familiar?
- He should want to make me happy.
- I shouldn’t have to tell him what I need. He should be able to see it.
- He should want to be a better man.
- He should take care of me when I’m tired or sick.
- He should tell me that he thinks I’m beautiful.
- He should thank me for all the work I do.
- He should want to spend his spare time with me.
- We should share the household tasks 50/50.
- We shouldn’t have to work so hard at being in love.
- He should tell me what he’s thinking and feeling without my constantly having to ask him.
Expectations can cause problems if you’re not careful. When expectations are not clearly communicated or they are unrealistic, the marriage can suffer.
It’s easy to cling to the idea that our spouses should “just know” what we expect of them. You might think your husband should automatically understand how you want your birthday celebrated, tune into your emotions when you give a hint of distress, or jump in with extra help when you’re busy with the kids. When he doesn’t, it’s easy to feel very hurt and assume he doesn’t care.
Instead of complaining, being sarcastic, dropping clues, or shutting your husband out, be sure to use these strategies:
- Ask for what you need. Therapist and relationships expert Terrence Real says, “You have no right to complain about not getting what you never asked for.” If you don’t communicate your expectations, there’s a chance your husband doesn’t know how important they are to you — which makes him less likely to act in the way you want him to. Don’t resort to ineffective ways of communicating to make it known how dissatisfied you are. Instead, own your needs and your responsibility to communicate them. Be direct, be respectful, and be ready to negotiate for what you need.
- Be realistic. A recent study found that high expectations can actually lead to a more satisfying marriage, but only when those expectations can actually be met. Are your expectations based on the husband you actually married or the one you wish you’d married? Is he capable of doing what you’re expecting of him? For example, if he grew up in a family where no one talks about feelings, how likely is it that he will effusively and automatically tell you about what’s going on with him emotionally? Or, if he’s always been someone who lives in the moment, what are the odds that he will be planning the details of your future together? Set your expectations in line with what’s most likely to happen, not what you wish would happen.
- Ease up. Remember to cut each other some slack on your expectations, especially when you’re stressed. Sometimes temporary barriers such as a work deadline, an illness, or too little time together can make it unlikely that expectation can be met at that time.
Keeping your marriage healthy amid the demands of everyday life takes constant maintenance, communication and compassion. Most of all, it requires being realistic. Make sure your expectations fit the person you’re married to and the reality of your lives together so you can set your marriage up for success, not failure.