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.
We all know couples who seem to bicker and spar all the time. Maybe you’re even part of a couple like that yourself.
Does constant conflict mean that a marriage is in trouble? My answer here might surprise you.
Through my work with many, many couples, I’ve seen that the frequency of your arguments with your spouse is much less important than the way you fight.
In fact, Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers on marital happiness, says that how you manage conflict in your relationship is the most important factor in determining whether you stay married.
Gottman isn’t saying that your goal should be a conflict-free marriage. And neither am I. All couples disagree from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When you sweep issues under the rug in hopes of avoiding an argument, that just breeds resentment and hurts your relationship in the long run. Venting complaints in a constructive way clears the air and strengthens your bond.
So how do you do that?
Avoid the ‘Four Horsemen’
First, you have to steer clear of a few behaviors that can make conflicts devastating to your marriage. Gottman refers to these as the “Four Horsemen” because their constant presence in a relationship accurately identifies couples most likely to end up divorced. We all slip into these behaviors sometimes, but beware of letting them become a pattern when you argue with your spouse.
- Defensiveness. Conflict becomes toxic when partners deny responsibility, make excuses or counterattack.
- Criticism. Don’t attack your spouse’s personality or character; instead, stay focused on the specific problem.
- Stonewalling. Some people shut down in a conflict because they are trying not to “make things worse.” Ironically, stonewalling often has the opposite effect.
- Contempt. Showing contempt is the absolute worst thing you can do during an argument with your spouse. Insulting your husband in front of others, rolling your eyes and mocking can all quickly damage your relationship.
Follow the Rules for Fighting Fair
Now that you know the “danger zones” to avoid during your next argument, here are a few tips to strengthen your bond, even when you’re in conflict:
- Time it right. Don’t bring up issues when you are tired, irritated or feel like you can’t control yourself — or when you can tell that your husband is experiencing one of those states.
- Get close. Pause, hold hands and make eye contact when you’re disagreeing. When you are in touch with the humanity of your partner, you’ll be less likely to hurt each other.
- Choose your words wisely. The first few moments of your interaction set the tone for what comes next. You know your husband better than anyone else does — which means you probably know exactly what to say to wound him deeply. No matter how angry you are, exercise restraint and remember that your words have power. A few mean-spirited words in the heat of the moment can haunt your relationship for a long time.
- Pause. Ask for time to calm down if you need it, but keep in mind that you do still need to come back and address the issue.
If you’re too upset during your next argument to recall anything else from this article, just remember that the key word is “respect.” When you maintain respect with each other during a conflict, you keep your relationship on solid ground. If you’d like more advice on fighting fair in your relationship, you will find an entire chapter devoted to the topic 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.
I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet that both you and your husband have an extramarital involvement that’s affecting your relationship.
I’m not talking about other people (or at least I hope that’s not happening!). I’m talking about your phones.
There’s even a name now for ignoring your partner so you can pay attention to your phone: Pphubbing (partner phone snubbing).
And researchers are starting to look at the effect of pphubbing on relationships. Two marketing professors from Baylor University published a study on the phenomenon last fall.
“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” James A. Roberts, one of the researchers, explained in a news release about the study. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”
As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together put it in a 2012 TED Talk, we’re prone to using technology to hide from each other or keep each other at arm’s length.
So how can you keep your phone from coming between you and your spouse?
First, pay attention to whether you’re engaging in any of the behaviors that participants in the Baylor study identified as pphubbing:
- Placing your cell phone where you can see it or keeping it in your hand when you’re with your partner.
- Glancing at your cell phone when you’re talking with your partner.
- Checking your cell phone during lulls in conversation with your partner.
See what happens when you commit to avoiding those behaviors and being more present with your partner.
To keep your phone use from affecting your relationship, you may also have to look beyond your personal habits. It’s not your imagination that demands on our time are greater than ever before — and our employers’ constant access to us via our phones is part of the reason why. If it’s possible in your work situation, try to set some stronger boundaries. For example, let colleagues know that they should call you instead of texting or emailing if something urgent comes up so that you won’t feel compelled to keep checking your messages. You could even work together with your colleagues to try to change your office’s communication culture so that all of you can get more restorative time away from work.
Finally, remember that your phone isn’t inherently good or bad for your relationship. It all comes down to how you use it. So as you look for ways to curb your pphubbing behaviors, also look for ways to use technology to enhance communication with your partner. In our busy lives, it’s easy for couples to put deeper communication on the back burner as your conversations become limited to what needs to get done that day (“I have a late meeting, so you’ll need to pick up the kids after soccer — oh, and did you call the bank like we talked about?”). Using technology to add some moments of connection — for example, sending a sweet (or sexy!) text message or sharing an article you know your husband will like with him on Facebook — doesn’t take much time but has big payoffs on the overall health of your relationship.
We get the most from our relationships we give our full attention to each other. Don’t let the siren’s call of your phone imperil that. You’ll find more ideas on staying connected in our busy lives in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. You can even read it on your phone — just not while your partner is talking with you
Uh-oh. It’s happened. Your husband has crossed one of the non-negotiable lines with you. He’s shown disrespect in a way you just won’t tolerate, whether that’s cursing at you, raising his voice in public, or another boundary-pushing behavior.
What do you do now?
Your first instinct when your husband crosses the line might be to strike back or run off. If you can, don’t do either one of these things. Try a more measured approach that is actually more effective in the moment and better for your relationship in the long term:
- Express your boundary calmly and clearly.
- Let him know you expect him to do better.
- Move on.
Before you do anything, take a deep breath and see if you can get calm and clear headed. Otherwise, your message won’t be as powerful.
When you’re ready, look your husband in the eye and let him know that the behavior he’s engaging in is one you absolutely will not tolerate: “Cursing at me under any circumstances is completely unacceptable. I would never do that to you.” Things will probably be a little intense during this initial confrontation because you are drawing a crystal clear boundary. Be calm, firm, and clear.
Next, set a positive expectation. Tell your husband that you expect better from him. You may want to say something like “I know you are better than that” or “That wasn’t the guy I married.” Choose words that work for your situation and your relationship, but hold open the possibility that he can be more respectful.
Then, move on, and give him some space. You want to be short, sweet, and to the point. Lengthy explanations usually just confuse the issue.
With a little time and space to reflect, most men will eventually feel sorry for crossing the line. If your husband sincerely apologizes, forgive him, but keep a watchful eye until you’re convinced he will not cross the boundary again.
If your husband shows no remorse about crossing the line, or worse, acts self-righteous about it, you may have a bigger problem on your hands. Although we are talking here about actions that go beyond everyday slip-ups, more dire and complex behaviors like addiction and physical or emotional abuse are good reasons for seeking professional assistance.
If you tend to fear conflict, all of this can be a little scary to undertake — even though you know in your gut that it’s the right thing to do. It may help to remember that taking a stand is ultimately the best thing for your relationship and for establishing the baseline for respect. Disrespect is something that simply cannot take root in your relationship if you want it to remain healthy. Research clearly shows that contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce.
A firm, clear and quick response can help keep problems from escalating when your husband crosses a line. You can learn more about constructive ways to argue or deal with trouble spots in your relationship in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
If you’ve made the resolution to strengthen your relationship this year, I have some good news. There’s a way to improve your marriage that’s confirmed by research.
And it’s extremely simple.
And it takes only a few minutes per year.
Researcher Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University and his colleagues discovered “The Marriage Hack” when they were studying marital satisfaction. Finkel talked about the magic of the Marriage Hack at TEDxUChicago. (You can watch his talk in the video above.)
Couples in the study conducted by Finkel and his colleagues filled out questionnaires about their marriages every four months for two years. In the second year of the study, half of the couples did The Marriage Hack. Their questionnaires included these additional writing exercises:
- Participants wrote about the most recent conflict in their marriage from the viewpoint of an objective third party who wants the best for everyone.
- They were then asked to write about any obstacles they might face in trying to take on this outside perspective.
- Finally, they wrote about ways they could overcome those obstacles.
The exercise took just seven minutes, and couples did the exercise three times over the course of the year.
Those 21 minutes had a pretty amazing payoff.
Normally, Finkel says in his TEDx Talk, marital satisfaction declines over time. That’s what happened to all the couples in the study during the first year.And, sadly, it’s what continued to happen to the couples who didn’t do the seven-minute writing exercise in the second year, But for the couples who did the writing exercise, the decline in marital satisfaction stopped.
That’s not because they reduced the number of conflicts in their marriage. What made the difference is that the Marriage Hack writing exercise helped them handle those conflicts more constructively. The payoff happened in every aspect of their marriages —trust, intimacy, even sexual passion. And study participants who practiced the Marriage Hack writing exercise reported feeling less stressed and depressed, and happier overall.
So why is this?
When we fight with our spouses, we get caught up in our own perspective, Finkel says. We focus on all the things we are doing right and even start to feel self-righteous. Chances are, if you’re feeling totally correct and vindicated, and your spouse is feeling the same way about his viewpoint, that’s the recipe for a destructive conflict.
The Marriage Hack writing exercise reminds us of the bigger picture. When we make it a habit to get off our high horse and look at conflict through a different lens, we can defuse anger and build understanding and empathy.
So do you have 21 minutes to strengthen your marriage this year? Happy 2016 and happy Marriage Hacking!