I’m going to give you some marriage advice that seems counterintuitive, but I promise it’s not an April Fool’s Day prank.
Here it is: If there’s something you want or want more of in your marriage, don’t chase after it intensely. The things that we tend to do instinctively when we’re trying to get something from our partners are often what keep us from getting what we want. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
- Love me like you used to. Let’s say you feel like intimacy in your marriage is going downhill. You decide to deal with this head on and have numerous discussions with your husband about how you feel like he doesn’t love you as much anymore. You disclose how lonely you feel in the relationship and give him numerous examples of ways he’s becoming more distant. You push him to change and hope that having this detailed conversation will motivate him to come emotionally closer. Instead, he gets defensive and shuts down.
- Do your fair share. Or, perhaps you’re overwhelmed and exhausted managing all the responsibilities at home. You repeatedly let your husband know that he really needs to help more around the house. It’s unfair that he doesn’t do his part. He never unloads the dishwasher. He won’t pick up after himself. He rarely takes the baby to daycare and doesn’t stay up with her if she wakes up at night. You really need him to start pulling his own weight, so you give him feedback about the changes that need to take place. Instead of jumping in to do his fair share, your husband storms off, mad that you think he’s such a “loser.”
- Do it this way. One final example. Let’s assume you’re very responsible and always pay the bills as soon as they arrive. Your husband just makes sure they are in by the due date. You always end up paying the bills because you think it’s important to take care of them before you forget. After a while, you start to feel resentful and tell your husband it’s not fair that you’re stuck handling the bills every month. You insist he take over this job and try to show him a foolproof system you’ve developed to track all bills. You even offer to work together the first month so he can understand how you do things. He tells you to stop controlling him and refuses to even look at the bills.
In each of these scenarios, there is a legitimate problem that needs to be addressed. The woman’s approach is to be open, direct, and persistent with her husband, making sure he clearly knows her feelings. You should let your husband know when something is bothering you, even if he doesn’t want to hear it, right?
Yes, but not necessarily in the way you think.
Dealing with problems that cause resentment is absolutely critical to the long-term health of your marriage, but your approach matters tremendously too. If you’re trying to motivate your husband with an intense, “you’re not going to ignore this anymore” approach, it may backfire, especially if there’s a tone of blame. Make sure you’re not unintentionally communicating that he’s not good enough, otherwise he’ll feel attacked. If you don’t anticipate how your message will be received, communication may shut down rather than open up. Instead of getting closer, the two of you may drift further apart. Don’t sweep real problems under the rug, but be aware of how your husband may react to what you say.
Rather than chasing your husband down with complaints and demands, increase the odds of getting what you need by using these strategies instead:
- Change yourself. Relationships are a dance and it does take two to tango. If you change your steps, your partner will have to change his as well. So, take a look at how you may be contributing to the problems that exist. Are you taking on too much responsibility? Maybe you should back off and give your husband a real chance to step up more than he currently does. Do you insist on things being done your way? Perhaps you need to practice letting things go. What can you do to get things moving in a healthier direction?
- Be constructive. Rather than criticizing or blaming him, tell your husband how you’re feeling and what you need from him. Try something like: “I’m so overwhelmed by work and all the things that have to get done around the house. I feel on edge all the time and I hate feeling this way. Could we please work together to get the level of stress down? For example, I’m thinking it would be helpful if we could take turns being responsible for dinner.”
- Value him. If your husband does not feel valued while being given feedback, he will resist any efforts at change. All of us are much more likely to be cooperative when we feel respected and affirmed.
Backing off on chasing is of greater importance than you may realize. 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. For the sake of your marriage, it’s really important to change this pattern if it’s showing up in your marriage repeatedly.
Any time it feels like you are intensely chasing something in your relationship, it’s a sign that something is out of whack — and that you’re not on the right path to fix it. Try doing the opposite of what comes naturally, and you’ll often find yourself closer to where you need to be. When you feel like telling him off, calm down and approach him gently. If you’re frustrated that he can’t see what you need, ask him for help. If you find yourself wanting to convince him that your way is best, back off and leave room for his way. Although stopping your knee-jerk response can feel unnatural, it is how you make real changes in a relationship.
If you think you fall into the pursuer/distancer pattern and want to learn more, I recommend the book The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Lerner. You can also learn more effective strategies for getting what you want in your relationship in my own book Strong Women, Strong Love. Just remember that chasing is always a fool’s game.