All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.
That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.
Choose the Right Tools
You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).
Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:
- Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
- Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
- Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
- Using humor or trying to lighten things up.
The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.
Maintenance Is Important Too
Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.
It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.
To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.
- Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
- Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
- Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
- And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.
In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, are you looking for a romantic gift for your husband? I’ve got an unconventional idea for you.
Pick up a Chinese Finger Trap. Remember this tricky little toy from when you were a kid? If you do, chances are you also remember that the way out of the trap is counterintuitive. Once you have your fingers in the trap, pulling hard in opposite directions to get them out won’t work. The trap loosens only when you relax and gently slide your fingers out.
That’s actually a great metaphor for the relationship patterns we can find ourselves stuck in. You know how it goes: One partner habitually does something and the other always has the same knee-jerk reaction. The same old back-and-forth leads to the same old fights.
Just as with the finger trap, the only way to escape relationship traps is to pause before you engage in your familiar, instinctive reactions. Relax and ease into doing something different. Breaking the automatic pattern, gives you the power to make a deliberate choice about what you want to do next.
The Chinese Finger Trap may not seem like the most romantic gift, but it can be a gentle visual reminder of the power of being thoughtful and calm in your relationship, rather than fighting furiously when your buttons are pushed.
Want to learn more about breaking out of relationship traps? You may enjoy my past blog articles on chasing and complaining, two common destructive patterns that can also keep you trapped.
If you haven’t experienced Esther Perel’s work yourself yet, you’ve probably heard someone you know talk about it — and likely express some very strong feelings.
Perel is a psychotherapist and a bestselling author. Her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, touched off a flurry of discussions and debates about eroticism and desire in long-term relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is perhaps even more provocative. In it, she offers insights and advice about infidelity that challenge many of the assumptions of our culture.
So what’s all the fuss about? Here are a few of the key ideas that Perel promotes.
1. Affairs aren’t about What We Think
We tend to assume that extramarital affairs are all about lust — that the straying partner is driven by desire for another person. But Perel believes there’s often something deeper going on: An unfaithful spouse is actually sometimes seeking a lost part of herself or himself. As she said in a recent interview on NPR:
When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible person.
And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. … What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of something that had gotten lost.
When the desire for lost or forgotten parts of ourselves collides with social media, infidelity can be the result, Perel says. Facebook and other social networks mean we can stay in touch with people from different eras of our lives — people who remember those “lost selves” we yearn to rediscover.
2. Affairs are More Painful Than Ever
Infidelity has been around as long as marriage has, but it feels even more devastating today because of our contemporary views on relationships, Perel says.
In the past, we had different expectations about marriage, Perel believes. It was more of a pragmatic alliance. But Western couples today want more from their unions. She writes:
We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that our spouses should be our primary source of validation, community and companionship. We expect one person to provide everything we once got from our extended families, our communities, our houses of worship. As our worlds get smaller, infidelity feels like a larger betrayal.
3. Marriages Can Survive Infidelity
While she doesn’t downplay the pain of infidelity, Perel doesn’t believe that an affair should automatically lead to the end of a marriage. The crisis of infidelity can drive couples to talk more honestly about who they are and what they need from the relationship. Of course, though, it’s much easier and less painful to have these conversations before cheating happens in a relationship!
Whether you agree with Perel’s ideas or not, consider what you can learn from them. One valuable takeaway is to remember to cultivate yourself and your own interests, both for your own wellbeing and the health of your marriage.
I invite you to explore Perel’s work further through the videos and links I’ve shared in this article. You can also enjoy her TED talk: “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved”:
Here’s a common dynamic I see in marriages: The husband is in the habit of telling fibs – about whether he completed a task his wife asked him to, about what time he’ll be home, stuff like that. He doesn’t see this as a big deal in his marriage.
The wife feels differently. She believes that any kind of lie undermines trust in the relationship.
So what’s going on here? And how can you address this pattern before it becomes a real sticking point in your marriage?
(First, though, my usual disclaimer: This article is not about major betrayals in marriage, like hiding an addiction or another romantic relationship. If you’re going through a situation like this, please seek the help of a qualified professional in your area.)
If you’ve been wondering why your husband lies about seemingly minor things, a good starting point is considering the beliefs and patterns he may have picked up from his family. As we’ve talked about before, in some households, little white lies are simply a routine way to keep the peace. The highest priority in such homes is avoiding conflict. If that’s true of your husband’s family, he may think this is just how relationships operate.
No matter what the patterns were in his family, and in yours, it’s important to talk openly about where you both are coming from. If you were shaped by a family that communicated more directly, even if it created conflict, you may be just as baffling to him as he is to you! When you understand each other’s backgrounds more, both of you will also better understand that you aren’t trying to be malicious to each other when your communication styles differ. And you can more calmly and compassionately work together on a style that fits both of your needs.
Your husband may also be in the habit of little lies because he’s learned that telling the truth gets him “in trouble” or upsets you. If you’re extremely critical when he tells you truth, he may decide that a little white lie is a preferable alternative to feeling shamed. The same may be true if he’s seen that speaking his truth usually provokes a strong emotional reaction from you.
Little lies don’t have to be a deal-breaker, but neither are they something you should tolerate if they leave you feeling hurt and betrayed. You can’t control your husband’s behavior, but you can work to create a space where both of you feel safe telling the truth. Talk about the difficult things, even if that leads to some short-term conflict. When these discussions are handled with respect and compassion, greater openness should naturally follow.
We all bring positive and negative qualities to our marriages. But sometimes it might seem easier to make a list of your husband’s faults and mistakes instead of all the good things about him.
So what’s going on here? The answer has to do with a bias in your brain that you’ll have to work around in order to keep your marriage thriving.
Our Brains Like to ‘Go Negative’
Your brain isn’t exactly an unbiased observer and recorder of your husband’s behavior — or, for that matter, of anything else. Instead, it has a negativity bias, according to psychologist and author Rick Hanson. Hanson says our brains are Velcro for negative things and Teflon for positive ones. We tend to overestimate threats and underestimate resources and opportunities.
There’s a good reason we’re wired this way. Being able to learn quickly from threats helped us survive as a species. But now that most of us aren’t fighting for our lives everyday, our brains’ negativity bias can cause problems. In your marriage, it can make you vividly remember the times your husband messed up or did something hurtful, even if the general pattern of your marriage is more positive.
How to Fight Your Brain Bias
So how can you maintain positive feelings in your marriage, even though your brain is conspiring against you?
- First, simply being aware of the negativity bias can help you bring a new attitude to your relationship. Now that you know your brain is better at noticing negative things, make an extra effort to savor all the positives in your marriage. “Talk back” to your negativity bias. One idea: Set a reminder for yourself to note the best moment in your relationship each day.
- Take time to regularly reflect on all the things your husband brings to your life that you’re grateful for. If you’re having trouble thinking of any right now, look back on all the reasons you first fell in love with him. Chances are those good qualities are still there.
- Make a collection of items that inspire positive feelings about your marriage — wedding photos, love notes, souvenirs of happy times. Use these to help remind you why you’re still with him.
- Beyond noticing the positives that are already present in your marriage, you can also create some new positives. For example, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, try some new, fun activities together.
- Understand “relationship math.” One positive interaction doesn’t cancel out a negative interaction. That’s according to researcher John Gottman, who studies the differences between the Masters of Marriage (long-married couples who still like each other) vs. the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce). The Masters of Marriage have 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Twenty! Even when they’re in conflict, their ratio is still five positives for every negative. What about the Disasters group? Their typical ratio is 0.8 positives for every negative.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I hope that you’ll try some of these ideas to cultivate gratitude and positivity in your relationship. My book Strong Women, Strong Love has additional strategies that you can explore.
What happened to your relationship?
You and your husband rarely focus on each other anymore. Instead, you’re at work, on your phones or wrapped up in the kids’ activities. You aren’t really sure what’s going on in each other’s lives – and you’re not interested enough to ask.
It’s all so different from when you first fell in love and couldn’t get enough of each other.
If one or both of you are emotionally checked out from your marriage, it doesn’t mean that passion and deep connection are gone forever. But it does mean that it’s time to give your relationship some TLC.
What Happened to the Spark?
There are some good reasons you and your husband were so irresistible to each other when your relationship was new. You gave each other your undivided attention, made each other feel important, and did interesting things together. It probably didn’t hurt that you were also at the mercy of powerful hormones that filled you with desire and made you emotionally open.
But in every lasting relationship, those intense feelings eventually subside. Because novelty eventually wears off, all the things that attracted you to each other at first seem routine now.
On top of that natural evolution, unrelenting work and family commitments can pull you away from each other: it’s hard to connect with anyone when you’re distracted, tired, and just need to decompress.
How to Check Back In
But here’s the good news: Even though passion and connection aren’t automatic anymore in your relationship, they can still flower again with some cultivation. Here’s how to do it.
- Prioritize you marriage. I get it: You have lots of other priorities. It’s hard to find time for your relationship. But it’s imperative that you do. Otherwise, you’re at risk of slipping from distraction into complete disconnection. Investing in your marriage pays off. When your marriage is strong and you feel connected to your partner, it’s easier to face life’s other challenges.
- Change things up. As I mentioned above, one of the reasons people emotionally check out of their marriages is that everything feels routine. Even a small change — like vacationing somewhere new — can reignite a sense of novelty and intrigue. If your husband isn’t game to explore something different right now, do it yourself. The energy you’ll get from taking a class or pursuing a new hobby should rub off on him and get him onboard.
- Get curious. False assumptions about each other might be behind your disengagement in the marriage. For example, maybe it seems like your husband works constantly to avoid time with you. You might be right, but it’s also possible there’s something else going on. Maybe he’s putting in extra time because he’s nervous about his job security. Take some time to plug back in and find out the real stories behind each other’s behaviors. My blog post about curiosity can help you get started.
- Tame your phone addiction. Those little devices can be a huge distraction in a relationship. Your phones make it easy to keep each other at arm’s length. Try some gradual shifts to change your phone habits. For example, make it a point not to glance at your phone when you’re talking with your husband.
- Seize every moment. You probably checked out of your marriage gradually over time. In the same way, rebuilding your connection is also a process. Even if you have just a few minutes each day to focus on your relationship, they can be powerful if you are truly present for each other.
If you’d like to further explore the ideas from this blog post, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It has many more strategies for maintaining a connection with your partner amid our busy, stressful lives.