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.
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