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.
Relationships are never in neutral mode.
Everything that each one of you does in your marriage is either building it up or tearing it down. Every action, every day counts. It’s not just what you do on anniversaries or other special occasions that affects the quality of your relationship. It’s what happens when you’re rushing around in the morning, unwinding at the end of the day or in any of those easy-to-overlook moments that have more meaning than we realize.
You can use those moments for some on-the-spot nurturing of your relationship. These ideas don’t take much time, but they have a big impact.
- Greet your husband warmly when you see each other after work.
- Don’t forget a quick peck when you say goodbye.
- Make a big deal out of it when he tells you about some good news from his job.
- Put down your phone when the two of you are talking.
- Notice how he contributes to your relationship or to your family and compliment him on it.
Behaviors like these strengthen your bond. But when you don’t practice them, it’s hardly a “no harm, no foul situation” — you’re undermining your relationship through neglect.
And then there are the active behaviors that damage your relationship. Even if they happen in passing, they set dangerous patterns.
- Rolling your eyes or showing contempt in other ways.
- Failing to show the same courtesies you’d practice with a friend.
- Saying something shaming about him (even if you’re “teasing”), especially while the two of you are around friends or family.
- Micro-managing the household tasks he does.
- Ignoring him when he seeks your attention because you’re busy with work or the kids.
This week, pay attention to how you and your husband interact every day and how your behaviors might affect the long-term health of your relationship. Any positive changes you can make, no matter how small, can make a real difference as they start to add up. You can also find more practical strategies for keeping your marriage thriving even when you’re both stressed and busy in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
What’s the most romantic thing you can do for your husband this Valentine’s Day? Planning a special dinner? Choosing the perfect gift?
Those gestures are wonderful, of course, but the most powerful thing for your marriage might actually be showing your excitement when he tells you he aced a presentation at work or that he hit his exercise goal for the month.
Recent research highlights the value of celebration, positivity and enthusiasm in creating a happy relationship. That might seem intuitive, but it’s something we often overlook. We tend to talk about the strength of a relationship in terms of how a couple weathers challenges or hard times together. But the way we handle the “for better” part of “for better or for worse” is just as important.
A UCLA study found that the way dating couples discussed positive events was more closely related to the health of their relationships than how they talked about negative events. Another study discovered that sharing good news with someone else and getting an enthusiastic response enhances the value of the good news to the sharer and strengthens the relationship with the responder.
And just last year, a brain-imaging study added more evidence for the power of positivity. New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog describes the study as showing that “the relationship satisfaction of longtime married elderly women is particularly related to the neural activity they show in response to their husbands’ displays of positive emotion, rather than negative emotion” and notes the possibility “that marital happiness goes hand in hand with sensitivity to our partners’ positive emotion.”
How can you use these findings to strengthen your own relationship? Christine Carter of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center recommends remembering to share your own good news with your partner and reacting with enthusiasm when he shares good news with you. The key word here is “enthusiasm.” A distracted “that’s nice, Honey” just doesn’t have the impact of genuine interest and excitement. We all have an innate need to be “seen” and cherished by the people who are important to us. When that happens in a relationship, the bond between partners strengthens. Also remember that all the seemingly little positive and negative things you do in a relationship add up over time. Responding enthusiastically when your partner has good news is a great way to make a “deposit” in the emotional bank account of your relationship — and ensure that you’re ready for any “withdrawals” in difficult times.
To learn more about infusing your relationship with positivity, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. And don’t forget to throw in a few high fives (figurative or literal!) for your husband amid all the hearts and flowers of Valentine’s Day.